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    Bob Harper

    Celebrating BMW 700's 60th birthday

    Posted in Cars on Friday, 21 June 2019

    The forgotten hero Celebrating BMW 700's 60th birthday The Neue Klasse saloon is oft credited with being the car that saved BMW but, as Bob Harper explains, without the 700 the company would have folded before the Neue Klasse left the drawing board. We celebrate the 700’s 60th birthday. Photos: BMW Archive and Matt Richardson.

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    BMW 700 Coupé remembered. What’s in your Garage? The 700 kept the company afloat in the early ‘60s and we meet one man and his Coupé. / #BMW-700-Coupe-Sport / #BMW-700-Coupe / #BMW-700 / #BMW /

    BMW’s Isetta kept the company afloat during the 1950s but by the end of the decade it needed something more, and the result was the 700. Mike Taylor talks to David Ridley about his 700 Coupé Sport. Photography: Mike Taylor.

    Significantly, the 700 was BMW’s first model range to move away from the curvaceous US-influenced styling of the 500 ‘Baroque’ saloons, pre-war look sports cars and the egg-like Isetta utility vehicle of the mid-1950s. And, despite the 700’s small dimensions its contemporary look and feel doubtless helped elevate BMW’s image, signalling a marked step up for the company.

    BMW had launched the diminutive Isetta vehicle in 1955. With the advent of the Suez Crisis, which heralded spiralling fuel costs, the concept of providing a car that returned cheap travel at least cost was quickly vindicated. However, within a short time its attraction began to decline with BMW’s loyal client base demanding more maturity, size and performance from the Munich manufacturer. BMW’s solution was to increase the Isetta into a lengthened four-seater powered by a larger engine, yet retaining the baby Isetta’s front opening door. Called the 600, sadly, the buying public did not fall for its charms and sales fell short of expectations.

    The story behind the 700 begins with Austrian Wolfgang Denzel, a Viennese importer of BMWs and a friend of BMW chairman Dr Richter Brohm. With BMW sales at a low ebb Denzel began considering possible alternatives. With experience of car manufacture to call on, Denzel started by considering a small sporty model, which would attract a slice of the car-buying public. Critical to his plans was to utilise the chassis and drivetrain from the 600, thereby maintaining strict control over expenditure.

    In 1957 Denzel tasked Italian stylist Giovanni Michelotti with producing some design proposals for his new BMW. In January the following year Denzel received financial approval for the project and a prototype was built in Denzel’s Vienna workshops. By the middle of the year the car was complete and in late July it was presented to the BMW board in Munich for their consideration. It featured twin headlamps, a protruding sharp horizontal edge halfway up the front panel, a fluted recess to the bonnet that ran to a vertical grille set below the windscreen, gracefully curved body sides, pronounced intakes behind the rear window to channel essential air into the engine compartment and vestidual rear fins, also seen on Pininfarina and other Michelotti models of the period.

    Reaction from the board was positive with the exception that there was concern that, in its current format, the little car would prove to be expensive to manufacture. Moreover, there was a call to make a saloon version to attract family buyers. While maintaining much of Michelotti’s basic features, BMW’s head of design, Wilhelm Hofmeister was given the job of creating a version which was more economic to manufacture, while director of product planning and marketing, Helmut-Werner Bönsch, recommended that a saloon version be considered.

    In late November 1958, Hofmeister presented the adapted Coupé for appraisal. Gone was the hardedged frontal treatment, the fluted bonnet and the aggressive rear air intakes while the curvy side flanks had been softened, the overall effect being of a sharper, less fussy, appearance.

    The engineer responsible for the chassis and suspension technology for the 700 was Willy Black, who had designed and engineered the 600. The new car featured a steel monocoque body structure, the first BMW to do so, with twin leading arm suspension at the front with coil springs, and semi trailing arms at the rear, again with coil springs, a configuration selected to give sporty yet safe driving qualities with good ride characteristics. The brakes were uprated 600 type drums all-round with a similar rack and pinion steering to the 600, but uprated to 1:1.2 to give quick directional control.

    Meanwhile, BMW’s drivetrain department under Alex von Falkenhausen had responded to the need for more power by increasing the cubic capacity of the 19hp horizontally opposed two cylinder engine of the BMW 600 to 697cc, which produced a healthy 30hp using a single Solex carburettor.

    Considerable attention had been given to cooling and vital air to control engine temperature came from beneath the car, while baffles around the engine helped to prevent the engine compartment from becoming pressurised. Vital engine cooling was derived from oil in the generously sized sump, which was connected to an oil cooler located behind the rear numberplate.

    With these amendments agreed, BMW gave its approval for the car to move into full project development stage in readiness for manufacture. By mid-February 1959 an experimental 700 mule had been completed and was ready for road evaluation. The sporty new BMW 700 was launched to the public at the Frankfurt Motor Show in late September that year where several Coupés finished in pastel hues were on display. Also, on the stand was a natty saloon version, which featured a taller, longer roof line. To encourage customer interest, 700s were also available to test drive by members of the public. Initial reaction suggested that here was a BMW that would appeal to a number of the car-buying public for the first time since the end of the war.

    After the initial furore of the Frankfurt Show had dwindled, it was clear that for BMW the exhibition had been a marked success with orders taken for some 25,000 units. Production of the Coupé had already started in August 1959, assembly of the saloon coming on stream in December.

    Behind the scenes, confidence in the little car brought its own reward as the company was in grave financial crisis and the full order book was sufficient for shareholders to block a proposal to sell BMW to Mercedes-Benz. Additionally, 700 sales would provide the financial platform for the development of an allnew mid-range 1500 four-door saloon, which would be launched in 1962, propelling the company forward on its path to grandeur and success. In 1960, production of the 700 rose to 155 units per da and a Coupé Sport version was launched. The engine was fitted with twin Solex carbs and together with a compression ratio hike power increased to 40hp. To improve handling an anti-roll bar was fitted at the rear and to reduce oil temperature at high revs the sump was given a ribbed pan. In 1963 the Sport was renamed the 700 CS.


    A delightful cabriolet version was also introduced in 1960. Powered by the 40hp engine of the Sport Coupé the soft-top body was made by specialist car body maker, Baur of Stuttgart and 2592 units were built. For those who demanded effortless motoring a semi-automatic 700 was available with ‘Saxomat’ transmission from September 1960. The original saloon was replaced by the ‘Luxus’ in 1962. It featured a wheelbase lengthened by 6.3 inches to improve cabin accommodation and a simplified version of the Luxus called the 700 LS was released in 1963 with a lower price tag. The following year the specification of the 700’s base engine was given a slight power increase of 2hp through the introduction of larger inlet valves. As for the Coupé the LS version appeared in 1964 based on the lengthened saloon body tub. In total, some 188,211 700s had been built when production ceased in November 1965.

    Despite its diminutive size and twin-cylinder engine the 700 Coupé seemed ideally suited to competition and Hans Stuck won the German Hillclimb Championship driving one in 1960 while Stuck partnered Sepp Grieger to a class win at Hockenheim in the 12-Hour Race, and Leo Levine and Walter Schneider won their class in the 6-Hour Touring Car event at the Nürburgring, again in 1960. The following year a 700 won its class at Monza. Other 700 exponents included Hubert Hahne, Burkard Bovensiepen and Jack Ickx.

    A racing version of the 700 was introduced, called the RS. It featured a tubular spaceframe chassis and a sleek aerodynamic aluminium body weighing 600kg. The engine had double overhead camshafts and was tuned to 69hp. Dependent on final drive ratio it could reach 124mph. Interestingly, RS cars always raced with the numberplate removed to allow cooling air to reach the engine. The RS made its debut at the Rossfeld Hillclimb in June 1961 and often competed against the Porsche RSK and the Porsche Spyder. RSs were driven by Hans Stuck and Walter Schneider, who won the German Circuit Championship.


    So how did David Ridley, the owner of this delightful 700 become involved with BMWs? “During my latter days in the army I lived in a tent and as I had nothing to spend my money on when I was demobbed in 1959 I bought a single-seater 1937 Frazer Nash racing car called the Semmence Special for £175. Among the many people who owned the Frazer Nash racer was Lesley Hawthorn, father of racing driver Mike Hawthorn,” explains David. “I knew a few people who worked for AFN, importer of BMWs, including John Aldington, AFN’s sales manager Michael Burn and Dickie Stoop, who raced for AFN.

    “Sadly, I began to realise that professional drivers like Dickie all had a judgement far superior to mine and I decided that racing was not for me. After spending quite a lot of money on restoring it to its original specification, I sold the Frazer Nash in 1962. In the VSCC I am best known as being the owner of GNs, but I had a number of other interesting road cars including a C-type Jaguar, which was something of a distraction and I kept it for many years.


    “In 2006 I bought a Frazer Nash BMW,” David tells us. “I was always more interested in the engineering aspect of cars as I’d already taught myself workshop engineering practice. There were a few things wrong with the car and I spent some time putting them right.

    However, around that time I was given the unpalatable news that I was suffering from an incurable eye disability. Then, about 18 months ago I sold it to the son of a friend of mine, which netted me the wherewithal to buy the BMW 700.

    “I came across the advertisement for my BMW 700 Coupé Sport by chance,” continues David. “The owner was a member of the Historic BMW Motor Club and was about to lose his licence through ill health. I thought it was small and all the mechanical components would be light and easy for me to lift when I’m working on the car and spares costs in Germany are very cheap.”

    View the 700 Coupé Sport today from the side or rear and there are still clear indications of Italian styling reminiscent of the late 1950s and early ‘60s. Two characteristics in particular are the wraparound rear windscreen and the vestidual tail fins, the overall impression being of a pleasantly presented package.

    The proportions of widow to bodywork, and bonnet to boot size make for an extremely satisfying composition, only the foreshortened rear window of the Coupé version, the effect of raking the rear screen, seems a little out of keeping with the remainder of the car.

    “I’m not that attracted to the Italian styling, I am much more interested in the engineering design,” reveals David as we stand admiring his white Coupé. “When I bought this car I had never driven a 700 before so I had no preconceived expectations.

    However, I did recall reading the Autocar road test and the best recorded speed it achieved was 82mph, which wasn’t bad for a 695cc car. In contrast, the interior is very 1960s and not very well executed. The rest of the car is pretty well made.”

    As David remarks, inside, the trim and fittings do let the car down, something even Autocar found itself feeling disappointed over when it tested an example of the 700 Coupé Sport in January 1962. First, the dashboard is a simple and plain affair providing only a speedometer, which also houses a fuel gauge, and a matching clock. There is no oil temperature gauge, perhaps a stark omission on an air-cooled engine, only a vague orange warning light, which is connected to a sensor in the output pipe connected to the oil cooler. The overall impression is one of functionality and practicality, and does not align itself well with BMW’s luxury car maker image of the past.

    Another shortcoming is the front seats. Despite being a sporting model with touring aspirations the seats are set low in the cabin, the squabs feeling as though they could become uncomfortable on a longish journey. In contrast, the concave back rests give a degree of sideways support, especially if the car is driven with any degree of verve. Finally, the wheel arches protrude noticeably into the footwells with the result that the pedals are offset noticeably to the centre of the car, the seats being angled slightly inwards so the driver’s legs line up with the foot controls.

    The ignition switch, which includes a novel anti-theft gear selector device, is located on the transmission tunnel ahead of the gearstick. Turn the key and the starter emits a characteristic wurring sound as the crankshaft speed builds up and the unit fires, settling down to an obvious rhythmic beat from the horizontally opposed cylinders. It is a sound that became familiar, though not too intrusive, throughout our short driving impression.

    The clutch and gear changes are smooth in operation, the short gearstick giving direct positive changes. Into first and take up is jerk-free. In Sport tune with twin-Solex carburettors the tiny 697cc power produces a healthy 40hp at 5800rpm, sufficient to give satisfactory acceleration with a 0-60 time of 23.4 seconds as recorded by Autocar.

    Like the Isetta we tested in the January 2016 issue of BMW Car the 700 is geared to give it long legs in top for relaxed cruising. The shortfall of this ratio is the engine’s inability to deliver any real power to climb even the most mediocre of inclines resulting in the driver being forced to drop down one or even two gears to maintain momentum. In truth, however, this is no hardship, so delightful is the gear change and clutch action.

    With its rack and pinion setup, steering is precise, almost too precise perhaps, a minute twitch of the wheel has the car bounding off in a new direction and progress along straight uneven country roads is a continuum of very slight corrections with the wheel.

    The brakes, too, appear well up to their task, the unassisted drums all-round making light work of dragging the 648kg car down from speed giving the driver added confidence in the controls.

    The suspension on the 700 gives a very ‘grown up’ ride quality, an indication perhaps of BMW’s experience with suspension models designed for luxury cars. However, on undulating road surfaces the car tends to wallow, the sensation being accentuated by the concentration of weight over the back wheels, a characteristic of many rear engined vehicles.

    In dry conditions handling is well within the performance available from the power unit, with limited lean the car can be hustled through bends smartly. In contrast, with its weighty rear end, in the wet, there would always be the chance of the tail letting go, only to be caught by the ultra quick steering.

    Given a free hand to explore the engine’s characteristics and a longer test the car’s true sporting attributes would clearly reveal themselves indicating just how it was that the 700 was so successful in competition. Even so, our short time around the lanes of Hampshire proved hugely satisfying, the car’s shortcomings becoming less obvious as the miles increased. Indeed, at least one classic car enthusiast was so enamoured with the little Munich Coupé that he stopped to admire the 700 at close quarters.

    “I am rather mechanically critical and when I drove the 700 for the first time I noticed that the exhaust was made from stainless steel resulting in the car being very noisy,” explains David. “I quickly built a replacement system from mild steel. In addition, the car easily steamed up so the heat exchanger was replaced by an Eberspächer heater, which runs on diesel oil and fitted in the engine compartment. It has one drawback and that is the fan is very noisy. Also, I was unhappy about the clutch. The problem is that it does not seem to free off properly and I’ve had the engine out twice in an effort to resolve it.”

    Sadly, David’s eyes have now deteriorated to the point that he cannot drive and the 700 is up for sale through the website of the Historic BMW Motor Club. “One of the things that I will miss when the car is sold is working on it for relaxation at weekends,” he sighs with resignation as we say our goodbyes.

    THANKS TO David Ridley and Kate Clark-Kennedy, Chairman of the Historic BMW Motor Club Contact: www.bmwhistoricmotorclub.co.uk
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