Unbeatable BMW

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“Unbeatable’ BMW” by Jeremy Walton. 247 pages. 10″ x 8″. (Osprey Publishing Ltd., 12-14 Long Acre, London WC2E 9LP. £9.95).

The history of Bayerische Motoren Werke AG has been very thinly documented, a strange gap considering the number of more obscure one-marque histories which publishers are churning out. Now Osprey have jumped in to fill the void with not one but two BMW books, Halwart Schrader’s “BMW — A History”, which W.B. reviewed last month, and “Unbeatable’ BMW” by Motor Sport contributor Jeremy Walton. While Schrader’s book is a full-length general history from the great Bavarian company’s origins, Walton’s contribution is sub-titled “A racing revival 1959-79” and concentrates on that twenty-year period in which BMW came back from the brink of financial disaster to being one of the world’s major prestige manufacturers, largely by virtue of the new image created by a highly successful motor sporting policy. Walton shows us that racing not only improved the breed, it saved it from extinction.

The choice of 1959 as a starting point shows a little bit of journalistic licence. It refers not to the year in which a factory racing policy commenced but to a date (December 9th) on which a band of small shareholders gathered at an extraordinary meeting successfully fought to deflect a proposed merger (reputedly with Mercedes-Benz) and keep the company independent. A new management team and new model policy revitalised the company. We hear that a factory 700 appeared for its first race meeting on March 5th/6th 1960, but no mention is made as to whether a conscious decision had been made to embark on an official factory racing policy after that fortuitous meeting.

Whatever, the racing programme, under the legendary Alex von Falkenhausen, went from strength to strength, launched on its way by that remarkable, giant-killing, twin-cylinder 700.

The real turning point came with the development of in-line, four-cylinder, s.o.h.c. 1,500 engine, designed by von Falkenhausen’s engine development team, with a cast-iron block to stiff that the same basic design is the heart of today’s Formula Two engines, 500 b.h.p. turbocharged touring engines and, indeed, though the author couldn’t know it at the time, will be the basis of the new turbocharged Talbot Grand Prix car. Involved with von Falkenhausen on the design was the young Paul Rosche, the engine genius who, after his mentor’s retirement, was to be so fundamental to the racing success of BMW right up to the present day.

Walton traces the subsequent history of the in-line “four” in racing saloon application through its 1800 and 2000 model development, to the 2002 and finally into the 3-series, ultimately turbocharged. He looks too at its use in sports racing cars and in single-seaters, with reference to the fascinating and complex Apfelbeck and Diametral engines. BMW’s factory single-seater involvement is less well known or remembered than the saloon car activities and Walton’s excellent and interesting description is a valuable addition to historical accounts.

Of course the greatest contribution to BMWs racing fortunes came from the big coupe, which originated as a four-cylinder CS and matured into the six-cylinder, lightweight CSL, dominant in European saloon car racing until its homologation expired at the end of last year. With Walton I was able to relive that fantastic 1973 season, which I saw as a race reporter, when Ford engaged BMW in a battle of the giants in the European Touring Car Championship, BMW CSL against Ford Capri RS2600. Walton devotes separate chapters to development of the big BMWs and their racing memories, all good stuff about the main instrument of BMW’s success.

Outside tuning firms made substantial contributions to that success, especially Alpina, Schnitzer, GS Tuning, Luigi and Tom Walkinshaw Racing and Walton incorporates their activities, with special attention to Burkard Bovensiepen of Alpina and the Schnitzer brothers. There are worthwhile comments too from some of the most notable names to sit behind the wheels of racing BMWs, like Niki Lauda, Jackie Ickx, Chris Amon and the late Ronnie Peterson, to whom the book is dedicated.

This racey and informative story, packed with splendid photographs, including 16 in colour, concludes with the arrival of the M1 on the scene and the wranglings behind Procar racing. Appendices give the specifications of BMW competition cars down the years, the secrets of the competition engine code numbers, results of BMW factory touring cars from 1960 to 1978 and formula cars from 1967 to 1979.

One of the central characters in the book is, of course, Jochen Neerpasch who has
masterminded the success of BMW Motorsport GMBH since 1972. It will be interesting to watch how the BMW racing story develops after he leaves to run the Talbot Formula One project at the end of March. — C.R.