BMW 507: the cursed roadster

Published on Wednesday, August 7, 2019.
Updated on Tuesday, September 3, 2019.

You win some and you lose some, and the BMW 507 roadster is testimony to that aphorism. In the mid-50s the brand from Munich was searching for its path to profitability and decided to pursue the development of a sports-luxury roadster to seduce an American clientele. Despite a superb design, the 507 never broke through, driving instead BMW to the brink of bankruptcy – a bankruptcy that it very narrowly almost didn’t avoid. This is the story of that car, cursed car at that time, only to become worshipped by collectors today.

In the early 1950s, the US market was the only mass market on the planet for sports and luxury vehicles. Europe had the skills to build them but the traces of the war were still present and its market was still too small for these types of automobiles. To succeed – and by this meaning bring back much needed hard currency – it was necessary to seduce American buyers. The « Pope » of the American market for European built cars in the late 1940s and early 1950s was Max Hoffman, the brilliant importer who pushed many European manufacturers to build sporty models specifically for his American clientele seeking performance, luxury and an open top roadster or convertible. 

A roadster for America

It is largely thanks to Hoffman that we owe the Mercedes 300 SL and the Porsche 356 Speedster America, two examples of his doing that were commercial as well as iconic successes. Between the Speedster at under 3,000 dollars and the 300 SL at 7,500 dollars, there was room, believed Hoffman, for an elegant roadster at around 5,000 dollars, more luxurious than the first and less sporty than the second. Convincing BMW precisely that they could fill this gap, he brought the brand into his stable of European imports to embark on this adventure for the 507 roadster for US market.

In 1954, the brand with the blue and white propeller was not yet the thriving business that we know today: the war had left its mark, and the company had lost all its industrial facilities. The 501 and 502 sedans were not selling in sufficient volumes to keep the company afloat. So dire were the times for BMW that a plan was made to try to make up the big necessary commercial difference by producing under license the small Isetta. In the shadows as well, Mercedes seemed more and more interested in buying out its German competitor. BMW, in order to escape the clutches of Mercedes, therefore decided to launch two new models – the 503, a 2 + 2 luxury coupe, and the 507 roadster – in order to conquer the New World.

A breathtaking design

A first drawing by Ernst Loof was refused by Hoffman who eventually imposed a student of Raymond Loewy’s, Albrecht von Goertz. It is Goertz who is responsible for the design of exceptional finesse and masterful balance that makes the 507 so popular today among wealthy collectors. The all aluminium body is entirely made by hand. The chassis is a shortened version of the 502. Under the hood, the engineer Fritz Fiedler placed a brand new 3.2 litres V8, also all aluminium, developing 150 horsepower.

The car was first presented to the public at the Waldorf Astoria in New York in 1955. The beautiful car was well received. The press appreciated the design to the point of seeing in the BMW 507 roadster a car that could give its Italian competition a run for the money. It was then presented at the Frankfurt Motor Show in autumn of same year although the production did not begin until the spring of 1956. From the time of its launch nothing went according to plan. Originally, Hoffman had convinced BMW that such a model had a potential so sell at least 5000 units per annum in America. In fact, the 507 never even reached 5% of this objective between 1956 and 1959.

A commercial failure

Very modern, pleasant to drive and particularly elegant, the 507 had it all. But that’s not to mention a decisive aspect: its price. BMW’s ambition to produce such a prestigious automobile was without control of its costs. The use of aluminium for its bodywork required hand built production, which substantially increased costs. The new V8 has also too expensive to develop. Result, even by raising the retail price to 9,500 dollars (vs. the original target of 7,500 dollars) and then to more than 10,000 dollars, BMW still couldn’t turn a profit on the 507!

Despite an upscale clientele seduced by its lines (such as Alain Delon and even Elvis Presley), the selling price was too high to reach their ambitious sales goals. Especially since, unlike Mercedes which campaigned the 300 SL in many sports racing events in the USA and Europe enjoyed great success in competition, BMW refused any sports racing involvement what so ever. At the same time, the launch of the Isetta blurred the image of the Munich brand. Worse, the 503 gaining a reputation as an oven, too uncomfortable to be driven, sold only barely more than the 507.

An exclusive classic

In total, only 252 examples of the 507 found takers (42 of which from the first series with a larger petrol tank). In 1959, BMW, exhausted by these investments and the loss created, unable to compensate them with the low margins of the Isetta, was on the verge of bankruptcy. Mercedes was trying to buy out the company but one of its shareholders, Herbert Quandt, brought in enough capital to save the brand. It must be said that in the wings was the so-called Neue Klasse, or the BMW 1500, that finally produced the image and identity that the brand was lacking.

Today, the BMW 507 benefits from this failure: rare and therefore exclusive, balanced, pleasant to drive, it is particularly sought after. As a result, buying a 507 requires a strong bank account, especially if the coveted model was the property of a celebrity.

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