x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

1955's 507 was the soul-stirring flop that helped save BMW

Rearview Mirror The roadster so beautiful that you have to remind yourself it isn't Italian ultimately failed as a model, but distinguished a brand.

The 507 had all the looks but, ultimately, failed on performance. Newspress
The 507 had all the looks but, ultimately, failed on performance. Newspress

In the 1990s BMW brushed aside the competition in the executive saloon market with refined ease and a sense of confidence and purpose that left other marques in the shade. No self-respecting middle manager or aspiring salesman would be seen in anything else. The peerless engineering and rattle-resistant build quality created an aura of class and respectability that competitors such as Citroen, Rover and Honda simply could not match, even when they began to imitate BMW designs. It therefore came as a surprise to some when the company introduced the sporty Z3, as it seemed a deviation from the blueprint that had brought the company success.

But BMW is a marque with more of a sense of adventure than its average pinstripe suit-wearing driver may imagine. In the early 1950s the German manufacturer unveiled roadster models with the 501 and 502. These were intended to bridge the gap in the market between relatively cheap and cheerful British models from MG and Triumph and the exclusive convertibles of fellow German maker Mercedes. But the original designs were a little bulbous for this market and so American designer-cum-importer Max Hoffman insisted on a smoother, more shapely design that would capture the hearts of the American public. The result was the 503, a sleeker model than its predecessors, with the flowing lines reminiscent of a Lancia, but with the now-trademark BMW double grille.

But although evolution had made the 503 more alluring, it was still not the jaw-dropping model the company craved. That would come in 1955 with the 507.

The 507 was no modified saloon. This was a roadster so beautiful and elegant that even when you see the badge you have to remind yourself it isn't Italian. Like with a beautiful woman, men would turn their heads as they passed to admire her from every angle. That it came from Germany, where function had generally enjoyed bragging rights over form, is testament to the company's desire to create a soul-stirring car, and BMW's pragmatism in heeding the advice of an American who knew the tastes of the American market. It is no accident that its looks are reminiscent of a Ferrari, a continental brand that had successfully captured the imagination over the Atlantic.

But although looking very much the thoroughbred, standing apart from BMWs other models, the 507 shared much of the technology and many of the components. The 3.2L V8 had been used in both of its predecessors and its sister saloons, and while a sturdy, reliable powerplant, it failed to deliver the stirring performance customers demanded. Producing a modest 150hp, it took 11 seconds to reach 100kph, reasonable for the time but a snail's pace compared with rivals from Mercedes and Ferrari.

Nevertheless, it was undoubtedly a breathlessly beautiful car and appeared to be the perfect union of elegance and engineering; a model that would make BMW respected and revered across the world. But sometimes, promise doesn't materialise into success, and the 507 brought the company close to bankruptcy.

It was intended to retail at about US$5,000 (Dh18,366), making it expensive but within the reach of many of the professional classes. But production problems saw the cost escalate to $10,000 by the time it hit showrooms, elevating it into the realms of the much-admired but the seldom bought.

Despite having the ultimate celebrity endorsement in Elvis Presley, who later gave his model to the James Bond actress Ursula Andress, few were willing to meet the vastly inflated price. Having hoped to make 5,000 cars a year, the final production was a mere 252. BMW made a substantial loss on every car sold and, in 1959, its final year of production, the company registered a loss of $15 million. Unsurprisingly, production ceased and BMW returned to its stock and trade of sturdy saloons.

But the 507 lingered long in the memory. More than 200 of the models still survive and are some of the most desirable and blushingly expensive classic cars on the market. Recent examples have been sold at auction for more than $900,000 (Dh3.3 million).

Once BMW had licked its wounds and brought order back to the balance books, it dreamt of producing a sports car once more. The Z3 and Z4 have styling cues taken from their predecessor and have sold in their millions. And though the 507 was a financial flop in the short term, in the longer term it helped provide the pedigree that has seen BMW become one of the world's most successful brands.