After selling motorcycles, bubble cars, and high-end sedans, BMW made a name for itself by becoming the self-appointed purveyor of the ultimate driving machine. It built cars designed around the driver, and enthusiasts all around the world fell in love with models like the 2002, the 3 Series, and the 5 Series.
Here are the 10 greatest BMWs of all time. They’re cars that helped establish the reputation the company enjoys in 2020.
BMW 507 (1956)
Max Hoffman, the market-savvy businessman who imported BMWs to the U.S. in the 1950s, convinced executives to develop the 507 to rival the Mercedes-Benz 300SL. It was powered by a 3.2-liter V8 engine that shifted through a four-speed manual transmission. Elvis Presley owned two 507s, including a 1957 example that he drove while he was stationed in Germany. BMW found the car in 2014 and treated it to a full restoration.
BMW introduced the 02 line in 1966 in a bid to reach a wider audience, especially in the U.S. Globally, the range included 1502, 1602, 1802, and 2002 models, plus two-door sedans, two-door hatchbacks, and convertibles, though not every version was sold on our shores. BMW hit the nail right on the head, and the 02 (more specifically, the 2002) is the car that helped the firm become a household name in America. It was replaced by the first-generation 3 Series (E21) in 1975, so its spirit lives on in the current-gen model.
BMW unveiled a big, powerful coupe called E9 internally in 1968. It perfectly embodied the definition of a grand tourer with a sporty design, a big-displacement engine, and a comfortable interior. It was known as the 2800 CS until 1971 when BMW updated the coupe and renamed it 3.0 CS when its engine was carbureted (and 3.0 CSi when it gained fuel injection). Later coupes (like the 6 and the 8 Series) trace their roots to the E9.
BMW M1 (E26, 1978)
BMW’s first mid-engined production car was the M1, which it began developing with Lamborghini during the 1970s but ended up completing on its own. Built to race, the M1 was powered by a straight-six engine mounted directly behind the two-seater passenger compartment. Since only 453 units were built, it’s a rare sight in 2020. The plug-in hybrid i8 (which retired in the spring of 2020) was loosely marketed as the M1’s 21st-century successor.
M535i (E12, 1980)
Called E12 internally, the first-gen 5 Series was transformed into a sports car for the entire family by BMW’s M division. It catered to speedsters with a detuned version of the straight-six engine that powered the M1 and a sportier chassis. Visually, a full body kit set it apart from less powerful and more humble versions of the 5. Although BMW never sold the M535i in the U.S., the sedan laid the foundations the M5 was later built on.
M3 (E30, 1985)
Arguably one of BMW’s greatest hits, if not the greatest, the M3 represents everything the company stands for. The original model made its debut in 1985 as a homologation special, meaning it was released to the public so BMW could take it racing. Approximately 16,202 examples of the first M3 were built, and all of them came with a naturally-aspirated four-cylinder engine, with displacement that varied from 2.3 to 2.5 liters. It’s highly sought-after in 2020.
BMW is about to release the sixth-gen M3, which is expected to use a turbocharged straight-six engine. Spy shots taken in Germany confirm the hot-rodded sedan will not be as subtle-looking as its predecessor.
8 Series (E31, 1989)
BMW unveiled the original 8 Series in 1989 to replace the first-gen 6 Series. Still with us? It was bigger, more comfortable, more powerful, and correspondingly more expensive than its predecessor, and it was jam-packed with innovative technology, like a computing network for in-car functions. It was well ahead of its time.
BMW brought back the 8 Series nameplate in 2018, again to replace the 6 Series. It’s offered as a coupe, like the original, but it’s also available as a convertible and as a Gran Coupe-badged sedan.
M3 (E36, 1992)
The E36-generation M3, introduced in 1992, was bigger, heavier, and more luxurious inside than its predecessor. Purists complained BMW diluted the original car’s formula, causing a bit of a controversy, but this model was still hugely significant. Looking back, it marked the nameplate’s transition from a track rat to a daily driver that was as quick as it was comfortable. Fast-forward to 2020, and enthusiasts still peg the M3 at the intersection of performance and luxury fashion.
BMW Z3 M Coupe (E36/8, 1997)
Introduced in 1997, the Z3 M Coupe still stands out as one of BMW’s greatest oddities. Nicknamed Clown Shoe because of its proportions, it was designed with a strong emphasis on performance (as indicated by the M designation) and based on the standard Z3. Among other upgrades, it gained a more powerful engine and a sportier suspension. Collectors prize clean, unmodified examples in 2020.
M5 (E39, 1998)
BMW released the third-gen M5 in 1998, which cemented BMW’s reputation for making sedans that could humiliate supercars on the race track. This car, built with a V8 engine, had two more cylinders than its predecessor, and its handling was surprisingly balanced considering its dimensions and weight.
Although the earliest examples are old enough to order a pint, the E39-generation M5 is still considered one of the best-handling sedans ever built.