As BMW celebrates its 100th birthday, we look back at the technological achievements that elevated the Munich carmaker to an automotive leader.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel
As BMW celebrates its 100th birthday, we look back at the technological achievements that elevated the Munich carmaker to an automotive leader.
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Its limousines are the epitome of luxury. Its electric cars are at the forefront of technology. But, if it were not for a fortuitous twist of fate, BMW would have made neither of these things. And that happened when BMW, purely an aircraft engine maker at that time, had to cease making its sole product under the treaty terms after World War I. But BMW quickly bounced back, switching to making wheeled vehicles – and the rest, as they say, is history. 

This tiny tale illustrates the inventive spirit ingrained in the company culture that renders BMW one of the most innovative and nimble carmakers in the industry today. Of its contemporaries in the German premium car sector, BMW is the only player that has a separate model line – BMW i – made up of cars built from ground up to be electric vehicles, thus paving the way for a sustainable fossil fuel-free future.

Comprising the all-electric BMW i3 city car and BMW i8 plug-in hybrid sports car, BMW i isn’t just a simple response to an environmental trend. It is the result of tremendous foresight – four decades of research into electric mobility at the BMW Group. 

It began humbly enough with a pair of nondescript BMW 1602 cars, converted to run on electricity for duty in the 1972 Olympic Games in BMW’s hometown. Although the cars’ range of 30km in city traffic and the eight seconds it took to accelerate to 50kmh are both laughable figures today, BMW was way ahead of its time – it was just that the technology of the era couldn’t keep up with its vision. 

Compare that car with today’s BMW i3. Manufactured at a purpose-built factory that runs on renewable wind energy, it is designed around an unprecedented carbon-fibre passenger cell that’s strong yet light. Capable of zero tailpipe emissions, it makes no compromises against its combustion-engine competitors, whether in terms of performance or in range, yet it has sustainability firmly as its focus from end to end. Or the BMW i8 with a hybrid drivetrain that offers the best of both worlds: the performance of a petrol-driven hyper car but with the eco-consciousness of an electric car. 

But, while BMW remains a pioneer in electric mobility, it remains aware that economics still dictate that people will buy fossil fuel-based cars in large numbers for the near future. It is committed to that market through its cutting- edge EfficientDynamics technology, an umbrella term that involves various techniques coming together beautifully to improve mileage and reduce emissions, without sacrificing driving enjoyment. 

For example, Brake Energy Regeneration takes excess kinetic power and feeds it back to the battery. Auto Start Stop turns off the engine at the red lights and seamlessly switches it back on again when it’s time to go. Eco Pro mode optimises gear changes and even climate control strategy to eke out the best possible consumption figures. 

And these are not expensive options either: EfficientDynamics comes standard throughout the BMW model range. 

BMW’s innovations extend beyond the realm of economy and into the luxury domain. Being the flagship of the BMW range, the 7-series limousine has been the trendsetter in technological advancement since the initial car rolled off the assembly line in 1977. It was the first in the world to receive an on-board computer that, among other things, indicates the outside temperature so that drivers can watch out for hazards such as black ice. And the first in the company to benefit from a petrol- electric drivetrain, in the ActiveHybrid 7. 

It also led the industry in providing an easier way to park through Park Distance Control; an easier way to find your way through the Navigation System; and an easier way to control the various functions of the car through the iDrive centralised user interface. 

In the current generation launched last year, the 7-series even has a touchscreen monitor and Gesture Control to augment iDrive, the latter allowing drivers to change the volume of the stereo or accept a phone call without taking their eyes off the road. 

And the list goes on, from the xDrive four-wheel-drive for the most tractable mobility on all terrains, to ConnectedDrive services and apps that deliver the convenience of the Internet and a personal concierge to your cabin. As BMW reigns supreme at the cusp of its centenary, it is certainly poised for greater leaps to come. 

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