Small on the outside but astonishingly roomy on the inside, the BMW 600 was a miracle of space. The body was shorn of all superfluous overhangs. And on its launch in 1957 it represented a solid new alternative to its rivals in the now hotly contested 4,000-mark small car class. This was a time when many people were looking to buy their first car as an expression of their newly won prosperity.
Families were growing and space mattered. Everywhere you looked, people were seizing the day and rebuilding their fortunes; West Germany’s post-war “economic miracle“ was less a miracle than the fruit of hard work. And if you didn’t already have kids, you were planning their arrival. Children, after all, were part of the bigger picture. To quote the country’s Chancellor of the day, Konrad Adenauer: “People will always have children.” Pills were available to guard against most things by then, but not (yet) children. The baby-boomer generation were gaining in number and their parents had begun looking for an appropriate wagon in which to whisk their broods away for weekends and holiday.
Something for everyone – unless you were in the middle.
BMW’s 1957 model range had a hollow middle. At one end of the line-up were motorcycles for every taste and the cutesy Isetta microcar, at the other end large sedans with six- and eight-cylinder engines. Dreamy sports cars and coupes for the world of international luxury added the icing to the cake. What there wasn’t was something for the inbetweeners of the post-war Federal Republic, something mid-sized.
The BMW 600 was designed to help fill the gap. Its front door immediately brought to mind the Isetta – no surprise there. And like the Isetta, it was powered by a boxer engine with fan cooling plucked from one of the company’s motorcycles. However, its suspension was new, there was nothing “small car” about its road presence, and roadholding and comfort were both of a high order. The impressively space-efficient, 2.90-metre-long body provided an amply-sized interior. It also had a feature never seen before: just the one side door (on the right). Yes, the 600 was a two-seater which went about things a bit differently.
The engine in the BMW R 67 was the technical bedrock of the car, but developed a modest, derated 19.5 hp. The cutting-edge all-steel body was beautifully made and weighed just 565 kg. That ensured the 600 could reach 100 km/h (62 mph), enough to avoid becoming a road-block for the more imposing machines on the road.
Passing the test.
The 19/1957 issue of German motoring magazine auto motor und sport included a detailed report on the BMW 600 by Dr Paul Simsa, who praised the generous equipment levels, ride comfort and excellent soundproofing inside. The all-synchromesh gearbox was a particular hit with the author. Unlike in the Isetta, it was operated using a standard-issue lever in the centre of the car and had an extremely light and precise action.
The BMW 600 was built for a little over two years, when it was forced to stand aside for a new model which had already generated widespread anticipation. A much more conservative design, the 700 adopted the style of celebrated Italian designer Michelotti – unmistakeably so – and was smart in a sporting kind of way. The new car ventured even deeper into the middle of the company’s line-up, which had been such an exercise in extremes not so long ago. The much heralded arrival of the new model, could not disguise the fact that 34,318 units of the BMW 600 had been sold. If you “got” what it was all about, the 600 was an easy car to love.
You might find a BMW 600 at a car show or get-together nowadays – although it could be difficult to spot in among the throngs of smiling faces. These are admiring smiles, the small car attracting crowds of onlookers with an originality which retains its power to this day. It has a particularly strong following among children, but is now valued with the big boys. All these years on, it has long since been regarded as something special. Only the Isetta – the 600’s so beloved sister – inspires greater devotion, its cult status evidenced by an even more extraordinarily-dimensioned smile.