What’s in your Garage? We find out what it’s like to own a rare 502 #V8
. / #1955
Rare on British roads, as Mike Taylor reveals, this early post-war 502F V8 Cabriolet draws admiring glances wherever it goes Photography: Mike Taylor.
The Baroque period is said to have run from the early 17th century to the mid-18th century and refers to the exaggerated style conspicuous in art, music and sculpture to produce drama, tension and grandeur. The BMW-500-series of the early 1950s was nicknamed by owners and observers as ‘Baroque Angels’, the moniker being an acknowledgement of the car’s flowing exaggerated lines shared by heavenly figures shaped during the baroque period.
For BMW, restarting production after hostilities was to prove an uphill struggle involving the possibility of building cars under licence to finance the purchase of machine tools; it was a consideration which wisely never saw the light of day. Another notion was to design a new baby car called the 331. In the event this too was vetoed by BMW board member, Hanns Grewenig, who believed the company’s future lay in the manufacture of low volume luxury cars. With this in mind he tasked BMW’s chief engineer, Alfred Böning to begin with a clean sheet, producing the basis for a luxury limousine. The outcome was the 500 Series. The job of styling the new car was given to Peter Schimanowski while BMW tasked Pininfarina to shape an alternative for comparison. Discussion at board level declared the Italian solution emulated too closely the Alfa Romeo 1900 of the day and it was discarded in favour of the in-house proposal.
The result was a car that eschewed angular edges for flowing lines; even the grille boasted a double curvature while the headlamps were recessed into the front wings and the front screen was a single panel giving the car a contemporary appearance. At the rear the bootlid flowed gracefully down to meet the bumper line. The most obvious feature was the lack of embellishment, the result being one of subtle elegance. Critically, the 501’s flowing design was very reminiscent of the models emanating from Detroit during the 1930s.
Beneath was a perimeter frame chassis with double wishbone front suspension and torsion bartype springing front and rear. Steering was a kind of rack and pinion with the rack following the curvature of the toothed pinion. Brakes were large drums allround. Power was supplied by the M337 engine, which was a development of the M78 engine first used in the pre-war BMW 326. A straight-six OHV unit, the engine had been given a reinforced crankshaft running in larger, more modern, main bearings. The cylinder head was reworked to produce better combustion efficiency fed by a new inlet manifold. Initially of 1971cc this engine produced an adequate 64hp.
Interestingly, the gearbox was mounted remotely between the second and third chassis crossmember rails operated by an ingenious, if complex, mechanism linked to a column mounted gear change, giving a somewhat vague shift pattern. Drive was taken from the clutch to the gearbox via an open shaft with rubber couplings fore and aft to soften drive take up.
Unfortunately, Schimanowski’s calculations on body weight had been inaccurate; the welded chassis/body shell structure tipped the scales at a hefty 3150lb. The limited power available from the M337 engine produced a lack-lustre 84mph performance with a 0-60 gallop a dull 24 seconds.
“My first car was my sister’s hand-me-down 1960 Mini, which I had almost free access to, taking my driving test in it in 1964,” explains Benjamin Hargreaves, owner of the enchanting Cherry red 502F V8 we are reviewing. “I then took the Mini to Munich in Germany during my nine months before university where the intention was for me to learn the language. It was here that I really noticed German engineering. I was especially struck by the ubiquity of the saloon version of the 502. Production had only stopped just a few years before so they were quite common on Bavarian roads.”
The BMW 501 was launched to a receptive audience at the Frankfurt Motor Show in April 1951 where its DM15,000 made it a markedly expensive machine; significantly more costly than its closest rival, the Mercedes Benz 220.
For BMW, putting the 501 saloon into production proved a tardy and involved procedure. With no sheet steel pressing equipment on hand at Munich to manufacture the bodies, the initial 2045 bodyshell chassis units were assembled by Karosserie Baur in Stuttgart and shipped to BMW’s factory where the drivetrain and suspension components were added. Significantly, customers could also order a two-door coupé or convertible version from Baur or Autenrieth (or a four-door convertible from Baur) as alternatives. Even before 501 production had properly begun, Böning proposed the development of a larger engine to power future versions of the car to BMW’s board.
His suggestion found favour. Rather than simply expand the capacity of the straight-six engine his approach was to create an all new compact, lightweight V8 similar to the type of engine being made by General Motors for the Oldsmobile Rocket. It would feature a single camshaft located centrally in the cylinder block acting on pushrods operating overhead valves in wedge-shaped combustion chambers. However, the BMW engine would differ markedly from the US engine, its cylinder block being manufactured from aluminium alloy fitted with castiron cylinder liners. Capacity would be 2580cc and, fitted with a single twin choke Solex carburettor, the engine produced 100hp. At this time in BMW’s history the proposed V8 programme would be a costly exercise. Nevertheless, the green light was given, the project being completed by Fritz Fiedler, who replaced Alfred Böning as BMW’s chief engineer in 1952.
The engine was introduced in 1954 at the Geneva Motor Show in the 502 saloon. Based on the 501, this car featured a much more luxuriously appointed interior and proved a major threat to Mercedes in quality, luxury and performance; at the time of its launch the 502 was hailed as Germany’s fastest saloon in regular production.
When The Motor road-tested a right-hand drive 501 powered by the new smooth V8 engine it was impressed by its apparent ease at covering long distances without stress to the driver or passengers. The car was capable of just 100mph with a 0-60 acceleration timed at 15.2 seconds. Autocar commented on the almost austere interior with its painted metal facia, cloth-covered seats and rubber floor matting. Significantly, as a right-hand drive model, the column gear change had been changed to a floor shift as part of the conversion.
Sadly, like the 501, the 502’s elegance and speed came at a price and at DM17,000 restricted sales to a mere 190 units in the first year of manufacture. In 1955 the 502 was given a mild restyle, which included a wraparound rear window.
“During the 1970s I ran three different two-door BMWs starting with a 1600 and followed by two 2002Tiis,” continues Benjamin. “In those days BMWs were still quite unusual on the roads of the UK. I gave up the brand when people began to recognise what they were! Then I began to drive a company car, a Chrysler Alpine five-door hatchback, which is definitely the worst car I’ve ever had. However, having a car on the business did provide the opportunity to calculate the savings that I was making and I realised I could afford an Aston Martin; in those days the price of a second-hand example matched the cost of a new Ford Cortina. In 1973 I had already bought an Aston Martin DB2 drophead. I then bought a DB5.”
Like the 501, the 502 could also be ordered in two-door cabriolet and coupé form from Baur. Interestingly, records reveal that a few 501s and 502s were also converted into ambulances and hearses. At the Frankfurt Motor Show in 1955, capacity of the V8 was increased to 3168cc and fitted to four new cars; the 507 two-seat convertible, the 503 coupé, the BMW 502 and the 505 limousine prototype. Compression ratio was increased to 7.2:1 and power was now up to 120hp. To provide even greater performance, the 3.2 Super was launched in 1957 which boasted 140hp.
In 1958 the 501 and 502 model designation was dropped when the 501 V8 was renamed the BMW 2.6 and the 502 was given the title of 2.6 Luxus.
Power steering became an option in 1959 with front disc brakes being added the following year The model names ‘3.2’ and ‘3.2 Super’ were replaced by the ‘3200L’ and ‘3200S’ in 1961, the L model being fitted with a single carburettor and producing 140hp while the S version was fitted with twin Solex or Zenith carburettors, the unit producing a healthy 160hp.
In 1961 the company’s new model range was launched at the Frankfurt Show: the contemporary styled four-door Neue Klasse saloon with a fourcylinder 1500cc engine and the 3200CS coupé, the last model to be fitted with the Böning-inspired V8. Two years later manufacture of the 500-based models ceased. However, without doubt these cars had taken the Munich-based business from a little known limited production company to worldwide acclaim.
“My decision to look for a pre-war car began when a friend of mine had a 1930s Aston Martin,” continues Benjamin as we stand admiring his red cabriolet. “I’d completed several runs in it and I’d given him moral support when he began racing the Aston Martin in club events. It encouraged me to begin thinking clearly about the kind of pre-war car I wanted for myself. Above all, it had to be capable of being driven from one side of Europe to the other. I started by looking at the Derby Bentleys, Lagondas and pre-war 2.0-litre BMWs. In the event I bought a Lagonda. On one occasion I was driving out to Munich on a Historic BMW Club Rally following behind two pre-war BMW 319s and wondering whether I was going to be happy with one of these funny little cars. Later, I was in the BMW museum and saw a Baroque Angel, again. Then, I noticed an article about a similar cabriolet in a magazine. I telephoned a club member and received quite favourable reports about it. This car was up for sale and was twice as suitable and a third of the price of a 319, so I bought it in autumn 2008.”
If appearances can be deceptive then this is certainly the case with the 502F cabriolet, its large curvaceous body and tall stance seeming to suggest a wallowy ride tinged with a relaxed gait. In reality this is far from the case. Moreover, the casual observer can be forgiven for thinking that the car originated in Detroit, until closer inspection reveals the iconic BMW propeller insignias back and front.
The doors open wide to give easy access, even for those travelling in the rear, while the seats are set high enough to ensure good visibility all-round for driver and passengers. Fit and finish is well up to BMW’s luxury trademark, though there is a tinge of durability attached to the plain leather-covered dashboard and workmanlike rubber matting on the floor. Designed as a true five-seater, legroom and seat sizes ensure a degree of luxury when touring, the front seats proving especially comfortable, only the lack of shape to the backrests preclude any sideways support when cornering.
Ahead of the driver is the large steering wheel with its period ring-type horn push, a characteristic so prevalent of Fifties cars. In the dashboard there is a semi-circular speedo with rectangular ancillary instruments for petrol, temperature and so on. The handbrake projects from underneath on the left-hand side of the column. Originally the 502 would have had a column gear change but on this car a previous owner has replaced it with a floor change, with the original chrome support for the column lever still being in evidence.
Starting the 3.2-litre engine presents no dramas, the V8 rumbling into life with ease. On this car clutch travel is pronounced, demanding that the pedal be pushed to the floor to ensure graunch-free gear selection. The movement is long yet precise. Twist and release the handbrake and we’re off.
Without making demands on the engine acceleration is satisfyingly brisk. Changing up to second involves the long movement of the pedal and gear change, though drive take up is delightfully smooth in harmony with a responsive throttle. Up to third is more of the same, the gate of the ‘H’ being similarly pronounced.
Top gear provides relaxed reaction from the engine and with probably 115mph maximum speed available cruising in unison with other traffic gives no sign of strain on the powertrain. For a tall car the handling is surprisingly roll-free perhaps indicating that even in the ‘50s BMWs were drivers’ cars. Under way, the tall screen and large side windows satisfactorily mask those inside from irritating wind roar giving a pleasant sensation. The brakes – disc up front, drums behind – are fitted with a reassuring servo to take the pain away from slowing down, despite the car’s 28cwt of unladen weight.
Clearly a rare car indeed on British roads today, this 1955 BMW 502F V8 Cabriolet makes an impressive sight, especially with the hood down, drawing many admiring, if slightly bemused glances as it glides by.
“The first owner kept it for four years,” continues Benjamin. “The next owner was a newly qualified engineer in his late 20s and he kept it for 50 years. Other cars including a Gullwing Mercedes came and went but the 502 was the one that stayed in his garage. Today it has covered over 600,000 kilometres and is on its fourth engine. He upgraded it to the highest specification with a 3200 S V8 engine (which produces 160hp), added a disc brake conversion and had the gear change moved to the floor – modifications that the factory offered at the end of the car’s production life. He used it as his daily driver until the mid 1970s.”
So what has been Benjamin’s furthest trip in his Continent-covering cabriolet? “My furthest excursion was when I used it on a Delage rally, which took us down to Provence in Southern France,” he grins at the memory. “When I take it to Germany, the car receives a lot of attention and there are often people who remember them when the 500 Series was still in production. I even came across someone who worked on these cars in the factory.”
Clearly, Benjamin derives huge pleasure for his #BAUR
BMW . “I do tend to drive it a great deal with the top down – I enjoy open air motoring,” he asserts. “In fact, I might not have been so encouraged to buy it had it not been a soft-top. Once I was driving in East Sussex when a young girl looked at it and said, ‘oh, that’s cool’. It draws that kind of reaction”.
Clearly a rare car on British roads today, this 1955 #BMW-502F
V8 Cabriolet makes an impressive sight.