For a long time at the turn of the 20th century, Cars and carriages shared a great deal. Indeed, the first cars were truly horseless carriages, with a motor (or motors) stuck somewhere to drive the wheels. Similarly, at that time, the first motorcycles were simply bicycles with motors. Ever since then, entrepreneurs have tried out an interesting variety of conversions and transplants between different forms of conveyance. The Amphicar, the trike, the new Can-Am 3 wheelers, turbine cars, Jet bikes, and many more. The basic idea is that you can take the benefits of one type of transportation and graft them onto another to create something ideal for a purpose. Sounds logical, yes ?
It sounded good to BMW in the 1950s as well. They began by producing the Isetta under license. This bubble car intially had a 250cc (Single) 2-stroke motorcycle engine from the BMW R25/3. It is an icon in its own right, but that is a discussion for another time. Following the Isetta, BMW wanted an economical family sedan that was more conventional in nature, which was less spartan than the Isetta, and which would not cost a ton of money to design or produce. The answer was the BMW 700. Credit for the car seems to belong to Austrian importer Wolfgang Denzel who commissioned a design by Michelotti. BMW then did a lot of work in-house to make the design more affordable to produce. They also produced two designs, a saloon (sedan), and a coupe. I have always thought that this car bears a striking resemblance to the VW Notchback from the early 1960s, but have yet to find any link between the two.
The 700 was revolutionary in that it was the first BMW with a monocoque design. The drivers for this were again, weight savings, and efficient production. It had the added benefit of improving stiffness and handling. The motor gave the car its name. It is the 697cc twin cylinder engine from the R67 motorcycle. Motorcycle sales were lagging, so the marriage of this engine with the monocoque was economical. The engine produced just over 30hp, and got 47mpg. They also carried over several suspension ideas from the Isetta like the swingarm axles. The finished item had a wheelbase of 83.5″ and a weight of about 1350lbs.
The car was introduced to the press in June, 1959 ahead of the Frankfurt auto show. It was very well received, and built some buzz going into the Frankfurt show where it was clearly a highlight. Sales were backordered due to demand, and the Board of Directors breathed a sigh of relief. Showroom success followed, and BMW introduced a cabriolet, and slightly stretched more upscale versions of the 700 dubbed the LS, and the LS Deluxe. Over 190,000 BMW 700s were produced from 1959 – 1965.
Consistent with the history of the company, the BMW 700 found its way into competition not long after production was well underway. The 700GT, and the 700RS were introduced to satisfy racing aspirations, and other variants emerged over time from privateers. It won the German Circuit championship in 1961 in the hands of Walter Schneider, and was successfully campaigned by Hans Stuck and Jacky Ickx. It set the stage for more competitive coupes to come, and proved that attention to power to weight ratio could create a giant killer. The marriage of a motorcycle engine, a monocoque chassis, and some leftover Isetta 600 bits turned out to be a potent parts bin special. Perhaps most importantly however, it is a significant reason, and perhaps the reason that BMW survived and began its celebrated ascent to dominance.