Rewind to the early 1960s and BMW was in the midst of its successful fightback from the brink – spearheaded by a range of new models. The 02 range launched in 1966 to boost the ranks of volume-produced models was built in unprecedented numbers and BMW was soon bursting at the seams. Step forward Hans Glas GmbH. The debt-ridden company had a production facility in the relatively nearby Bavarian town of Dingolfing and could provide urgently needed capacity to ease the burden on BMW’s Munich plant. Glas was duly taken over by BMW in 1966.
The Glas 1700 was presented in 1964 to widespread industry acclaim. Praise centred on its body, designed by Pietro Frua in Turin, which – in its compact and sporting character – fitted the same profile and targeted the same audience as BMW’s “New Class” revealed two years earlier. It even featured the same eye-catching kink in the C-pillar. The two cars also shared similar displacement and output, the Glas developing 80 hp in 1700 guise and a princely 100 hp in TS dual-carburettor form.
Bad debts and a dire need for investment.
However, Glas was crippled by debt and struggling to find a way out of the mire. Profits had to be ploughed back into new models to avoid losing touch with the company’s competitors. The Glas production facilities were outdated, in some cases somewhat improvised, affairs, and fresh capital was conspicuous by its absence. By 1966 it was clear a takeover was the only way to avoid liquidation. For BMW this was a chance to get its hands on a perfect new facility at close enough proximity to its main plant in Munich and ready-stocked with a well trained workforce who could hit the ground running. BMW halted production of the Glas 1700 in 1967, unable to find a business case for the model alongside its own, strong-selling 1800 and 2000.
That wasn’t quite the end of the story, though. The Glas had been a fundamentally successful car and soon found someone who wanted to start building it again: Johannes Hermanus Pretorius in South Africa. The decision was made to ship the Glas production machinery to South Africa, and in the meantime the car was assembled there from CKD kits. This also enabled the company to sidestep the protectionist tariffs levied on imported cars in completed form. Only the engines and gearboxes were not produced in-house (they were brought over from Munich), the 1800’s four-cylinder 90 hp unit representing a perfect fit. The South African Glas BMWs could be identified immediately, of course, by their obligatory right-hand drive, but otherwise the only distinguishing features were the BMW badges and boot lid lettering. A small number of the cars were also built in neighbouring Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and known as the “Cheetah”.
Grow and prosper.
Not long after production got underway, the BMW 1800 SA was joined by the more powerful BMW 2000 SA. In 1973 its body design was updated to include a front end which reflected the BMWs of the time. These facelifted models were named BMW 1804 SA / BMW 2004 SA. BMW took complete control of the South African plant in 1974 and also began production of the 5 Series there.
The final examples of the four-door Glas that became a BMW rolled off the assembly line in 1974. It’s thought almost 10,000 units were built, and with a little luck you might still spot one gracing the roads around the Cape today. It has long enjoyed classic car status in South Africa, but remains largely under the radar at home – a veritable exotic. The Glas BMW sowed the seeds for the glowing reputation the BMW brand enjoys in South Africa today. And it has a fascinating story to tell about the fluctuating fates of cars in times of rapid change.