BMW was on the verge of going broke in late 1959, with the board proposing a merger with Daimler-Benz. But shareholders vetoed the merger, leaving BMW – then still a maker of economy cars and motorcycles for the masses and not the premium brand we associate those three letters with today – to hang on by the skin of its teeth.
Luckily for the German maker – and subsequently for us car enthusiasts in the decades that followed – the charming, cute and altogether inoffensive BMW 700 Coupe made its debut. And proved an immediate success. It is, in every sense, the car that saved BMW.
The 700 Coupe was actually the brainchild of Wolfgang Denzel, BMW’s Austrian distributor. Denzel commission renowned Italian designer Giovanni Michelotti – whose CV would go on to include designs for Ferrari, Maserati and Triumph amongst a host of others – to come up with a concept based on BMW’s existing 600 chassis.
The resulting concept, a two-door coupe with a sharply sloping roofline, was presented to BMW management in 1958, and while it was favourably received, concerns were raised about the lack of space for passengers. Undeterred, BMW pressed on with the concept, but now with plans for a two-door sedan featuring a more conventional roofline sitting alongside the sportier-looking coupe.
BMW engineer Willy Black, who had overseen the BMW 600, was charged with designing the chassis and suspension. Unsurprisingly, he borrowed heavily from the 600, utilising a similar drivetrain and suspension setup.
The engine, a flat-twin unit pilfered from the BMW R67 motorcycle and bored out to 697cc from the donor’s 594cc, was mounted at the rear, and when mated to a four-speed manual transmission, powered the rear wheels. Power was rated at a whopping 22kW. The dash to 96km/h (60mph) was completed in a glacial 23.4 seconds (no, not a typo) while top speed was a meagre 126km/h. And in a first for BMW, the 700 featured a steel monocoque structure.
Both the coupe and two-door sedan concepts made their public debut at the 1959 Frankfurt motor show. Such was the impact, BMW had received orders for 25,000 cars by the end of the show. Production of the Coupe commenced in August 1959 while the sedan version started rolling off the line in December that year. Its success attracted the attention of German industrialist, Herbert Quandt, who invested heavily in BMW as a result, fending off the advances of rapacious creditors and foiling the proposed merger with Daimler-Benz.
By the end of its run in 1965, over 188,000 BMW 700s had rolled off the production line, including a cabriolet variant and a more powerful 700 Sport which featured a 29kW (oh, the power!) engine.
The 700 spelled the end of BMW’s foray into the economy car segment, following the success of its Neu Klasse range, introduced in 1962. Those larger, more luxurious cars heralded a turn in strategy for the German car maker as it turned its attention to the lucrative premium car market. BMW would not enter the economy classes again until 2002 with the new Mini. And none of this would have been possible without the success of the 700.
Today, the BMW 700 is sought after by collectors. Prime examples can cost around A$90,000-$100,000 while even those in average condition can command around A$50,000. For that coin, you can get yourself a little slice of history, a throwback to when BMW was just another car manufacturer making affordable, yet stylish cars, for the masses.
And if your modern tastes run to the prestige or M Division offerings of the Bayerische Motoren Werke, then this is the car that made it all possible.