What’s in your Garage? / #BMW-Dixi
The Dixi was BMW’s first road car and we look into its history and meet a lucky owner. Mike Taylor talks to David Mawby about his #1929
– BMW’s very first road car – and takes it for a spin around the Nottinghamshire countryside. Photography: Mike Taylor.
Not surprisingly, the famous stylized spinning propeller #BMW
logo was first seen not on a motor car but on aircraft engines occasioned by the rapid growth in the German aircraft industry at the beginning of the 20th century. Aero engineer Karl Freidrich Rapp set up in business building high performance marine and aero engines, switching to building power units for military aircraft in 1914. However, this change in direction found a grave weakness in Rapp’s engine designs and they quickly gained a poor reputation.
The saviour for the Munich based business was Camillo Castiglioni, a board member of Austro-Daimler. In return for taking over control of the company Castiglioni arranged a deal for Rapp’s company to build 200 350hp V12 engines and in 1917 the company changed its name to Bayerische Motoren Werke, or BMW. Engineering direction then fell to Josef Popp and Max Fritz, who designed an inline six-cylinder aero engine that proved to have excellent high altitude performance.
In 1919, the Treaty of Versailles outlawed Germany from rearming and the company looked elsewhere, first to railway components, then commercial vehicle engines, before moving into the design and manufacture of motorcycles, with BMW’s R32-type ‘bikes proving very successful in competition.
The Fahzeugfabrik Eisenach company was established in 1896 by Heinrich Ehrhardt, the factory building all kinds of vehicles starting in 1898. In 1903, Ehrhardt left and Eisenach began developing a new range of cars under the name ‘Dixi’, Latin for ‘I have spoken’ suggesting they were the last word in motor cars. However, the war of 1914-18 demanded the company move into military production. Car manufacture restarted at Eisenach in 1919, though it was another two years before a new, and expensive, range was launched, the price tag hindering sales in the early post-war period. The answer was a small car that could be built in volume under licence similar to the Longbridge Austin Seven.
On his return to the UK from Australia entrepreneur Herbert Austin set up a sheep shearing equipment business before becoming interested in the emergent car industry, establishing the Austin Motor Company based at Longbridge near Birmingham in 1905. By 1908 Austin was selling 17 different models. With the coming of hostilities he moved into military manufacture. However, the transition back to peacetime production took its toll and in 1921 Austin’s business was threatened with bankruptcy. His answer was the design of a baby car with an equally small price tag. To draw out his ideas Austin chose a talented 18-year-old draughtsman, Stanley Edge from the Longbridge team, setting him to work with drawing board and T-square on the billiard table at Lickey Grange, Herbert’s family home.
What emerged was a car of just nine feet, two-inches long and three feet, ten-inches wide based on an ‘A’ frame chassis made from top hat section extruded steel. Quarter elliptic leaf springs were cantilevered from the rear of the chassis to support the rear axle with trailing arms connected to friction dampers. A short torque tube ran forward from the back axle to a bearing located on a transverse chassis rail intended to reduce axle twist under acceleration. At the front a transverse leaf spring acted as the top locating arms for the hubs held in place by a beam axle with radius arms with a single centrally-mounted friction damper. Never having designed a car engine before Edge copied the drawing for the four-cylinder Indian Motorcycle, the unit having two main bearings supporting the crankshaft with splash-fed lubrication from the sump.
The dimensions were later increased to 54x76.2mm and the tiny 747cc engine produced 10.5hp at 2500rpm, driving through a single plate clutch to a three-speed non-synchromesh gearbox. First fitted with six-inch diameter drum brakes they were quickly enlarged to seven-inches operated by cables, the floor-mounted brake pedal activating on the rear wheels and the handbrake actuating the front shoes. Later, the brakes were adapted to work entirely from the foot pedal. The steering was abnormally high geared at 1.25 turns lock-to-lock linked to narrow 19x350-inch tyres via a worm and gear steering box.
Top speed was recorded as being 51mph. The first cars were based on a bathtub-like bodywork with Rexine type hood/side screens from the waist upward. However, with the development in pressed tools and metal stamping techniques it wasn’t long before the car boasted a fully-enclosed steel bodyshell. During manufacture the shell, with the side and rear windows already stamped out, was mated with the chassis frame and scuttle complete with running gear, the doors then being added before the tiny car was driven off the assembly line. With a price tag of just £225 the Austin Seven was launched in 1922. Initially, sales were sluggish as the post-war economy struggled and it took a while for customers to come to terms with its diminutive dimensions. Yet, the Seven went on to become one of the most successful cars ever on the British automotive market.
In addition to being aimed at a public wholly new to car ownership in the UK, the Seven was also licensed for manufacture in France (as the Rosengart), the USA (as the Bantam) and Japan (under the name of Datsun).
The deal done between Eisenach and Austin was for 100 kits to be sent to Germany for assembly starting in late #1927
and called the Dixi 3/15PS DA-1. The 3/15 notation denoted the three-speed gearbox and German horsepower rating while DA-1 referred to the car as being the ‘German version one’.
Despite the Dixi 3/15 having an immediate sales impact Eisenach’s financial status remained dire. Enter Jacob Schapiro, who had a seat on both the BMW and the Eisenach boards, and it was he who helped to seal the deal with Dixi-Werke (the new name for the company) being bought by BMW. In March 1929 a revised version was launched called the DA-2 and would be notable as being the first car to wear the BMW badge.
The bodyshells for the DA-2 were made by Ambi- Budd and the opportunity was taken to make significant changes to the Seven’s design; the length of the doors was increased to finish over the rear wheel arch, thereby improving access while the tumble home of the roof was changed. The rear panel was also made flat with a larger window, the overall effect giving the BMW Dixi a crisper line. Also, an all enclosed boot was fitted to keep luggage dry in inclement weather. The engine’s electrics and dampers were changed to Bosch fittings while the entire engine layout was reversed, the carburettor and exhaust manifold being relocated to the right-hand side of the power unit. The new car was launched at BMW’s new stylish showrooms in Berlin in July 1929. An open version of the BMW DA-2 then followed using a wood frame bodyshell covered in fabric. In 1930 the DA-3 Wartburg Sport was introduced with an uprated 18hp engine, a fold-flat windscreen and racy cut-away doors.
The last of the Seven-based BMW models was the DA-4, which featured a swing axle front suspension designed to iron out the characteristically poor directional control of the Austin’s steering design. It wasn’t a success. After nearly 16,000 Seven-based BMW Dixis had been built in #1932
BMW severed its links with Longbridge with a new range of in-house designed models beginning with the 3/20PS AM-1, powered by a 785cc engine with overhead valves. The car featured a more ‘grown up’ appearance yet was still clearly based on the original four-light Austin Seven design. It marked the start of the company’s move to more upmarket models.
“Dad was always passionate about cars and had several interesting models including an Austin Mulliner coupé,” recalls David Mawby, owner of the rare and exquisite BMW Dixi we have featured here. “In the early 1980s he saw an advertisement for a Jaguar, went to buy it and came away with an Austin Big Seven. Even though I was only around seven years old I could understand the process of buying it, restoring and repairing it to running condition. I then went with him when he used it on several rallies.
“My life has been full of Austin Sevens. When I was a youngster I was given a copy of the book The Original Austin Seven by Rinsey Mills and that got me started. Then, when I was 21, dad gave me the ‘Big Seven’ for my birthday. By then it had been off-the-road for many years and needed work. I have no mechanical qualifications, all my skills are self-taught from backward engineering, taking things apart to learn how they are made and then putting them back together. When I drove the Big Seven for the first time after repairing it I was concerned that I would damage it. I felt it was quite a responsibility.”
Placing David’s BMW Dixi side-by-side with his Austin Seven Box saloon we can see immediately the subtle differences between the two cars: the sharper tumble home to the roof and rear panel curvature, for example. There’s also the design of the centre section of the wire wheels, the addition of ‘trafficator’ signals mounted on the A-posts, all suggesting that BMW’s engineers gave considerable thought to the manufacture of their first ever motor vehicle, rather than slavishly copying the baby car from Longbridge.
“My overall attraction for the Austin Seven, and the Dixi in particular, is the smell, the noise and the size,” remarks David as we walk around it.
David Mawby’s Dixi is distinctly original and climbing into the car through the wide opening doors there is a surprising amount of space for those in the front, the well-padded seat squabs and backrests giving a reasonable degree of support and comfort. David’s research has revealed that his Dixi was used by the military during World War Two, at which point the coachwork was given a coating of dark green cellulose and the rear seats were removed to provide an area for carrying weaponry and munitions. Later, a pair of jump seats were fitted and these provide some comfort for his three sons when riding in the rear.
“In addition to the fact that the Dixi has not been restored I would not have bought it unless there was documentation to prove its originality,” explains David. “We have a letter from BMW Historic listing its provenance and we’ve spoken to Kate Clark-Kennedy, Chairman of the BMW Historic Car Club and her partner David, who brought it over from Germany.”
Ahead of the driver is a 16-inch wood-rimmed slightly dished steering wheel with nickel controls mounted on the boss for ignition advance and retard, and manual throttle control, a kind of 1920s equivalent of modern-day cruise control. The dashboard panel, finished in cream to match the coachwork, is a remarkably ornate affair for a car of this pedigree, with a semi-circular section below a fluted recess carrying the trafficator control, the ignition switch and warning light, and lighting switch on a Bosch-made plate. Next, is a barrel type speedometer (annotated in km/h, naturally) and odometer. To the right is an oil pressure gauge with a BMW insignia in the dial. Finally, there’s a large circular panel, which covers what David thinks was originally the outlet for a heater vent that was fed from the exhaust manifold.
The six-volt battery is located beneath the passenger’s seat with a power cable that links direct to the starter motor, operated by a lever. Turn the ignition key, move the lever upwards and the tiny engine bursts into life resonating happily throughout the bodywork. The clutch movement is light in operation with minimal travel. To select first gear, press the pedal down and move the gearstick to the left and down. Foot on the throttle, release the clutch and handbrake, and drive take-up is instant and surprisingly smooth. The Dixi then begins to gather speed.
First gear ratio is purposely low and at around 15kph the engine revs call for a change up to second, selected by moving the gearstick upwards, across the wide gate and up again. The Dixi’s gearbox has no synchromesh, of course, so rather than use my rusty double-de-clutch technique the trick is to hesitate momentarily across the gate allowing the revs to fall, thus ensuring a graunch-free change. Soon, a quick look at the quadrant type speedo shows 25km/h and it’s time to move up to top gear, again hesitating midway before dropping the stick into third.
“I first saw the Dixi when it was taking part in the Oily Rag Run organised by The Automobile magazine,” continues David. “The car was owned by someone in Dorset and after making an offer to buy it we drove down to Wimborne to see it. My wife and I and the boys then took it out for a test-drive. The owner was totally bemused. It was a day of sunshine and heavy showers and we found ourselves dodging the puddles.”
To sample Dixi motoring David purposely selected a course that would take us around the lanes of Nottinghamshire and it is here where the diminutive little car comes into its own, with little traffic and much to enjoy about the scenery as we motor along at a subtle and subdued 30-35km/h. Dixi driving is all about patience; a slight incline approaches and David advises to select second rather than let her slog up in top gear, the accompanying rise in engine revs being a characteristic you soon get used to.
“After our trip around Dorset we loaded the Dixi on to my trailer and drove round to Sandbanks, the UK’s most expensive property area, before making tracks for home,” David relates. “However, while we were parked at the water’s edge the number of people who came over to look at the Dixi was unbelievable. Certainly, the day we went to buy it will always stick in my mind.”
To the uninitiated, vibration is a factor to become familiar with. Like all Dixi/Austin Sevens of the genre there are no rubber engine mountings, the cast aluminium cylinder block being bolted directly to the chassis frame. This causes the bodyshell to act like a sounding box for all the engine’s quirky noises and exhaust rasps. As the engine revs build so there is a corresponding increase in volume.
One pleasant surprise is the performance of the cable brakes, operating on all four wheels on this model. Only reasonable pressure on the pedal has the car slowing down appreciably, all square, when approaching a bend or junction.
Naturally, speed is relative and another factor quickly to consider is the car’s limited road-holding and handling abilities. Shock absorber technology was very much in its infancy in the 1920s (the first Austin Sevens had none fitted) and relied on friction type damper design. The overall effect is an unnerving degree of body lean on corners even when tackled at mediocre speeds, again something to be learnt and accepted when driving a Dixi.
“The Dixi talks to you when you are motoring along,“ smiles David. “It has its own character, like a person. Also, it’s the knowledge that the whole car is original and the driver’s seat has been sat on by people since it was new in 1929. Then there’s the smell of the headlining, the leather and the engine. They are all different if the car has not been restored. Dad taught me from an early age what to look for if a car has been resprayed or retrimmed. Things like whether or not masking tape has been used round the windows and door handles.”
Like most vehicles of this age the car is fitted with worm and cog steering, which is by today’s standards notoriously vague and indecisive while the ultra-slim tyres are easily affected by the slightest pothole. Bump steer, caused by changes in length of the rear springs affecting the axle line and toe-in to toe-out movement as the front wheels move vertically from compression to extension is a well-known characteristic. Ruts and road undulations have the car darting off in a new direction without any movement from the steering. The experienced Dixi navigator allows the car to find it own course rather than continuously overcorrect with the wheel for every movement of the car. The novice quickly learns just how much freedom to allow before correcting the car’s course with the wheel. In fact, around the Nottinghamshire byways, steering and changing gear (remembering to hesitate mid-movement) was a new science that I had to learn quickly.
Very soon, however, the noise, vibration and steering foibles all fade pleasantly into the background as the fun of Dixi driving quickly wins you over. This is a delightful little car and it’s easy to imagine how it would be used for family outings at a time in motoring history when this was a whole new experience, while other road users were cruising at an equally relaxed rate.
“The BMW is a bit delicate and we don’t drive it for miles,” concludes David. “Our normal distance is around 20 miles around the local villages. Being lefthand drive my eldest son sits in the passenger’s seat and pretends he is driving it. Dad would let me go and sit in his cars in the garage and today I let my children play in the Dixi.”
At 87 years young this BMW represents the company’s launch into automobile manufacture, providing a wonderful insight into car design in the late 1920s. Much was to happen to the Munichbased business before it arrived at its current worldacclaimed status in the 21st century.
THANKS TO David Mawby and Kate Clerk-Kennedy, Chairman of the Historic BMW Motor Club: www.bmwhistoricmotorclub.co.uk
“The Dixi talks to you when you are motoring along. It has its own character, like a person”
“In addition to the fact that the Dixi has not been restored I would not have bought it unless there was documentation to prove its originality”