The 1955 International Motor Show in Frankfurt was the occasion for an unveiling of headline-stealing proportions. The new arrival in question could be found at the BMW stand, which was promptly besieged by crowds. Everyone wanted to catch a glance of the 503 and 507, and a lucky few even got to climb inside. If the cars’ nameplates were fairly prosaic, their design was anything but. These were looks to take the breath away, the once-in-a-century creations of a hitherto largely unknown designer with a name that oozed nobility and an office in New York: Albrecht Graf Goertz.
The mighty BMW 503, which packed the assured presence of a large GT, and the comparatively low-slung and extremely athletic-looking 507 showcased what BMW was capable of, having clawed its way back from the ravages of the Second World War. The frame, axles and powertrain were largely identical to those in the BMW 502 3.2 Super, now known fondly as the “Baroque Angel”.
Germany’s only eight-cylinder.
The BMW 503 and BMW 507 were powered by a state-of-the-art alloy V8 with 3.2-litre displacement. Nothing of its ilk could be found in Germany at the time. In the 503, the engine produced 140 horsepower, rising to a hearty 150 hp in the 507. That was enough to deliver a top speed of at least 190 km/h (118 mph) – or as much as 220 km/h (137 mph) with the final drive set accordingly in the 507. In the 1950s, this was a whole new league of performance.
Big miles or sporty miles?
The BMW 503 was a Grand Turismo in the classic mould – lavishly comfortable, with an insatiable appetite for long distances and available in coupe or convertible form. In the interests of weight distribution, the gearbox was set back under the front seats. And customers in Germany could also look forward to an electrically operated roof for the soft-top version. This was a sumptuous level of luxury for those who had already clambered back from rags to riches in the post-war era.
The 507 was a different thing altogether. Low and slender, its muscular body devoid of gimmickry – and still one of the most beautiful cars of all time. Here was a feast for the senses, the 507’s soundtrack, performance and visual magnetism laying on the ultimate show. Throngs of admirers would gather whenever it paused for breath. Both cars were penned by a German designer of little public profile who worked out of a studio in New York.
The opportunity of a lifetime.
Albrecht Graf von Goertz was born into aristocracy in 1914. Having dropped out of high school and turned his back on a banking traineeship, he moved to the USA in 1936. Here, amid the hot rod scene of the West Coast, he discovered a passion for car design. After the war he worked, among others, for Raymond Loewy – arguably the most renowned industrial designer of his era – before striking out on his own in 1953. He already had good relationships at BMW and duly took these to the next level; his designs for the BMW 503 and, above all, the 507 turned him into a household name almost overnight.
However, large-scale success remained elusive for Albrecht Graf von Goertz’s dream cars. Not even Elvis Presley, who caused quite the stir by purchasing a BMW 507 while on military service in Germany, could do much to change that. The problem was that the people who had the money to buy one were still far too few in number and customers in the key export market of the USA were already spoiled for choice when it came to power and displacement; even sober old family cars had an eight-cylinder engine under the hood stateside.
And so the curtain came down somewhat prematurely in 1959 / 1960, with just 251 examples of the BMW 507 and 412 of the BMW 503 (273 Coupes and 139 Convertibles) built. Back then, they just seemed too good to be true – and that sentiment still applies today.