The Best BMW of Every Decade

BMW M1 Art Car by Andy Warhol
Courtesy of BMW
Courtesy of BMW

BMW turns 100 this year, having come into this world on March 7th, 1916 as BFW (Bayerische Flugzeugwerke, before the name changed to Bayerische Motoren Werke the next year). Over the century that followed, BMW consistently produced some of the finest means of conveyance on Earth. To celebrate, I took a look back at the very best from every decade of the company's 100 years. This is only my opinion, of course, and for every selection there's at least one pick that's almost equally deserving... almost. Feel free to hit up the comments section; I'll go find a fire suit that can withstand the open flame of the Internet.

The BMW IIIa engine
Courtesy of BMW

1916-1920: IIIa aircraft engine

Hey, we've all gotta start somewhere. When BFW/BMW first formed it included Rapp Motorenwerke, which made aircraft engines. Notably it developed what was known as the IIIa engine to improve upon the Fokker D.VII fighter. Even if you've never heard of Fokker or the D.VII, you know its most famous pilot, the Red Baron. He never flew the IIIa-enhanced Fokker, though, having died shortly before the BMW engine's arrival.

The BMW R23 Motorcycle
Courtesy of BMW

1921-1930: R32 motorcycle

The first motorcycle from BMW set the template the company would use for decades to follow. Not only did it feature an air-cooled boxer engine (boxer = pistons directly opposed to one another, so it looks like they're boxing), but the rear wheel wasn't chain-driven like most bikes. Look carefully and you'll see a drive shaft -- it's a rugged differentiator that would later feature prominently during World War II.

BMW 328 roadster
Courtesy of BMW

1931-1940: 328 Roadster

The 328 wasn't BMW's first sports car, but from the outset it was highly, highly successful in motorsport. Class wins everywhere from the Nurburgring, to Le Mans, to the Mille Miglia established BMW as a manufacturer capable of truly brilliant automobiles. Some of the company's best motorcycles may have been from the same era, but the 328's overall impact cannot be denied.

BMW's R24 was its first bike after WWII
Courtesy of BMW

1941-1950: R24 motorcycle

The R75 is undoubtedly the more rugged bike, but the military machine only reached its prime when used with a combination of parts from another manufacturer. The R24, on the other hand, was BMW's first foray back into manufacturing anything after the war.

The eternally quirky BMW Isetta
Courtesy of BMW

1951-1960: The Isetta

The holy trinity of sexy, glamorous, and fast gives way to quirky, efficient, and, um, did I mention quirky? Originally the Isetta wasn't even a BMW -- it was designed by Italy's Iso. But after buying the rights in the mid-'50s, engineers went to work fitting a motorcycle engine and revising virtually every mechanical part on the car. Sales were just as great as that front door is weird. Ultimately, the fact that a good-condition Isetta can go for about the same price as a new BMW is reason enough to give it the nod over Elvis' car of choice.

BMW Neue Klasse Cars

1961-1970: The Neue Klasse cars

The so-called New Class cars, starting with the 1600, and eventually headlined by the legendary 2002, were relatively small and light, and can rightly be listed among the cars that truly gave rise to the term "sport sedan." Every bit as important to BMW's history, this was the family of cars that introduced the brand to consumers stateside. 

BMW's original Supercar, the M1
Courtesy of BMW

1971-1980: M1

For all the great and important cars that BMW produced in the 1970s, the M1 really is the only answer here. Designed by the great Giugiaro (Lotus Esprit, DeLorean DMC-12, et al), and originally conceived as a joint BMW-Lamborghini project, BMW had its first bona-fide supercar once Lamborghini pulled out. Coachmaker Baur worked closely with BMW to build the chassis, and the end result was full of all the spectacular-ness you'd expect from the patriarch of BMW's entire M division.

The E30 M3
Courtesy of BMW

1981-1990: E30 M3

The concept behind the first M3 is the epitome of elegance in simplicity: take an already good second-generation 3 Series (the E30), slightly tweak just about everything, and dominate the motorsport scene. The incredible balance and light weight of the original M3 translated into what is often considered the perfect driver's car. With more victories in international competition than any other single car, its legacy is pretty safe.

The BMW 850 CSi
Courtesy of BMW

1991-2000: 850 CSi

Let's make it interesting here. The 850 CSi isn't just any 8 Series BMW, which even in its most ho-hum trim is Bruce Wayne's Bavarian chariot. Simply put, the CSi variant is the ultimate autobahn-mobile. Tweaked aerodynamics and suspension make an already good car even better, but the party piece is under the hood. A specially tweaked version of the "normal" 850's V-12 ultimately had so much potential, BMW tweaked it just a little bit further and dropped it straight into the McLaren F1, thereby creating the world's fastest car for years.

E46 M3 CSL
Courtesy of BMW

2001-2010: E46 M3 CSL

The one-year-only (2004) Coupe Sport Lightweight variant of the third-generation M3 exudes a special sort of crazy. The untrained eye might not notice the revised bodywork, but anyone not struggling with advanced hearing loss can note the lightweight aspects: aside from some carbon-fiber components, much of the lightweighting comes via removing sound-deadening insulation... and the radio, and the air conditioning, etc. With only 1,400 originals built and none sold new in America, the chances of this car being remotely affordable by the time it's legal to import (2029!) are, give or take, zero.

The 1 Series M Coupe
Courtesy of BMW

2011-Today: 1 Series M Coupe

The new M2 garners its share of attention as BMW's preeminent enthusiast-mobile, while the i8 represents the brand's first foray into the electrified future of high performance. They both lose out here, because the 1 Series M Coupe (BMW wouldn't dare touch the M1 moniker; just call it a 1M and we'll be good) is more like the driveway project every enthusiast would build, given infinite funds, time, and skill. Essentially it was a side project, put together in a timeframe that would cause most engineers to take a seat on a therapist's couch. BMW's M division reached deep into the parts bin, and came out with something much more than a souped-up 135i: it's already a modern classic.

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Aaron Miller is the Cars editor for Thrillist, and can be found on Twitter. He's confident that the insulation he's wearing will hold up to the firestorm. Hopefully.