By DAVID THOME
Special to ADAMM
BMW celebrates its 100th birthday this year, and you might assume that the German automaker’s longevity stems mostly from its reputation for luxury and performance. People who sell BMWs locally say there’s something to that, but insist that the aura of owning a BMW is important, too.
“BMW owners want a modern sports-luxury experience,” said Rob Hoffman, sales manager for BMW at INTERNATIONAL AUTOS in West Allis.
“They want performance and reliability and safety, but they’re also looking to reward themselves with vehicles that they know are among the best in the world.”
Added Ahmad Aref, general sales manager for Umansky’s MILWAUKEE BMW North, “There’s prestige in owning a BMW, but it’s more than that. It’s the idea that no matter how high we set the bar for ourselves, we always strive to do better, not only with the products, but also when it comes to the customer experience.”
Forbes.com named BMW “the most reputable company in the world” a few years ago, but things haven’t always been easy for the manufacturer of airplane engines, motorcycles and automobiles. The Munich-based firm has even teetered on the brink of extinction a few times.
For example, after World War II, with the capacity of its bombed-out factories limited, BMW focused exclusively on high-end luxury cars. But according to “BMW – Bavaria’s Driving Machines” by Jan P. Norbye, the company struggled until securing the rights to manufacture the Italian Iso Isetta microcar – the very definition of an economy compact – in 1959. Forty years later, BMW was riding high when it added legendary luxury brand Rolls-Royce to the corporate fold, but also scored big by acquiring MINI, a company that specialized in small “economy” cars, and transforming it into a luxury brand.
Bayerische Motoren Werke traces its roots to Rapp Motoren Werke, an airplane engine manufacturer founded in 1913. Rapp changed its name to BMW three years later and then, in 1923, started building motorcycles.
Norbye says the first automobile BMW built, the 1928 Dixi, was “a licensed copy of the four-cylinder British Austin 7.” BMW started producing its own line of vehicles in 1933, including some six-cylinder models and the 303, which introduced the “double kidney” grille, a design element common to all BMWs to this day.
The grille isn’t the oldest tradition associated with BMW. The iconic “roundel” logo featuring the letters B-M-W inscribed on a black circle surrounding panels inspired by Bavaria’s flag dates to 1917.
Theories abound as to the origin of the marque. The website LogoDesignLove.com says that while Rapp Motorwerke’s logo was similar and the reorganized company replaced the silhouette of a knight-in-armor with the blue-and-white checks, the idea that the logo was intended to represent a propeller emerged years later.
Aref said that many buyers today cherish BMW’s longstanding traditions and often show an intense interest in the company’s history, but it is the company’s present and future that keep loyal buyers coming back.
“People who appreciate great cars come in here and their faces light up,” he said. “They’re elated about being behind the wheel of a BMW, whether the one they’re buying is their first or their eighth.”
Staying one step ahead in technology has always drawn buyers into the showroom, Aref said. The company’s Encore Program introduces buyers to myriad cutting-edge features when they take delivery, but also encourages them to return to the store a few months later for a refresher course.
“They’re highly user-friendly cars,” he said. “We offer cool things that can save their owners time and trouble, and we want to make sure they can use those things.”
While the centennial looks back over BMW’s illustrious history, Aref and Hoffmann see greater things to come in the not-so-distant future. Hoffmann noted that the company has introduced several smaller, yet more powerful and fuel-efficient gas engines in recent years. Furthermore, BMW’s electric “i” cars have already created a stir, especially among Millennials interested in zero-emissions vehicles.
The i3, Aref said, is a “nice small car,” while the sporty i8 is “exotic and looks and drives great.” Hoffmann pointed out that the i3’s motor produces as much torque as the six-cylinder, 425 hp mill in the two-door M4, a car so eagerly anticipated ed that’s on backorder for “a couple of years.”
“The wide diversity of models has always been a strong suit,” he said. Unlike 1933, BMW today offers progressively larger 1, 3, 5, 6 and 7 Series hatchbacks, coupes, sedans, wagons and convertibles, X Series SUVs and crossovers, plus M Models, which are high-performance variations of other models.
MINI, Hoffmann said, has been and will continue to be “a great success story. It’s a niche brand, meant to be fun – but its many models have the finish and quality equivalent to any luxury vehicle. The Cooper is an entry-level car, but it has leather, all-wheel drive, and all the amenities you expect to see on other BMW models.”
Hoffmann and Aref are also certain that BMW will always emphasize customer satisfaction.
“When someone buys a BMW, we want to make sure it meets all their expectations not just when they take delivery, but the whole time they own the vehicle,” Aref said. “The idea is to hit the peak, and then stay there.”