From BMW press: Waiting times averaged around half an hour. That‟s how long you had to queue up at the 1961 Frankfurt International Motor Show (IAA) to get a close-up look at the star turn of the show – or indeed to sit inside it, if for no more than a hurried minute. “Anyone who was in the vast exhibition area, for whatever reason, felt drawn to the stand of the Bayerische Motoren Werke,” noted reporters from a leading German magazine, “or to be precise, to the new BMW mid-range car which until then had been a closely guarded internal secret but was now on public view for the first time at the BMW stand.”
BMW 1500 celebrates its world premiere. Resplendent in virginal white, one of the two prototypes of the mid-range car from Munich slowly rotated on a closed-off turntable. A few metres away stood its twin, inviting visitors to touch it and even sit behind the wheel. Anyone who managed to secure a spot in front of the adjacent knee-high barrier had an unhampered view of the impressive four-door model performing its slow-motion pirouettes. A flat panel under the front bumper gave a brief summary of its salient cutting-edge specifications: 4 cylinders in-line, 75 hp at 5,500 rpm, 5-bearing crankshaft, OHC, front strut suspension, rear semi-trailing arm, front disc brakes, top speed 150 km/h, weight (fully fuelled) approx. 950 kg. Not even the strikingly elegant eight-cylinder 3200 CS Coupé alongside it, revealed to the public for the first time, could detract from the sheer magnetic pull of this new model.
In no time at all the new BMW had emerged as the ultimate “mid-range dream car” for the 950,000 or so visitors to the 40th IAA – marking a record attendance and furnishing impressive proof of the burgeoning interest in cars among the population at large. More than that, the motoring world likewise credited this BMW debutant with excellent future prospects. “The BMW 1500 really has a great deal to offer that makes it stand out from the crowd of 1.5-litre cars and lends it that aura of technical exclusivity which for so many people is summed up by the three letters BMW,” wrote Germany‟s leading motoring magazine. The four-door model was equally compelling for its clean, uncluttered, modern lines: “It is a visual feast in the gallery of saloons. But we would hope that this most beautiful of production saloons will one day also be on sale at the stated price.” BMW had quoted 8,500 deutschmarks as the anticipated cost of the 1500 – good value, but far from cheap.
The new car couldn’t have timed its arrival better. Average incomes in Germany – initially the main target market for the BMW 1500 – were rising by some ten per cent annually in the early 1960s and stood at DM 6,723 in 1961. In that year the number of new car registrations in Germany crossed the one million threshold for the first time. Along with climbing incomes, there was also a rise in the demands made on cars – which BMW was unable to meet with its existing model range. Between the conservative eight-cylinder saloon – popularly dubbed the “Baroque Angel” – and the agile 700 series small car, there was nothing to offer the aspiring middle classes. At the same time, an ongoing restructuring process was taking place within the individual automotive classes. Up to 1958 the microcar category, for example, which included BMW with its Isetta, was steadily expanding. At the same rate as this vehicle class subsequently diminished in significance, registrations in the lower mid-range – which included the BMW 700 – were on the rise. Added to this, the Borgward Isabella premium model had left a gap in the medium range when the Bremen- based car factory announced it was filing for bankruptcy just a few weeks before the IAA. It was BMW‟s clear intention that the 1500 should largely plug the gap which Borgward was leaving after posting sales figures of more than 4,000 units in 1961.
Production of the 1500 began on schedule in September 1962, after the pre- production series of test and demonstration cars had rolled off the assembly line late that spring. Exports to Japan and the USA were also quickly up and running. However, the growing production numbers were accompanied by an increase in the fault count, due in part to the large number of unskilled personnel and “guest workers” employed by the company in the manufacturing halls to aid the rapid growth in production. Given considerable time pressure, there was no option but to train these employees “on the job” once production had already begun. It was not long before the public got wind of these shortcomings, which threatened to cause lasting damage to the reputation of the 1500 and of BMW as a whole. This led production management to introduce a multi-layered system of quality control mid-way through the production run. By the middle of 1963 this had led to rapid improvements in the production quality of the cars.
The 1500 saw BMW finally identify the missing link between the small and large cars in its model range. Where BMW had previously been goaded with taunts that it only made “cars for bank managers and day-labourers,” the new mid-size fulfilled its brief of appealing to a new customer base. While only 14 per cent of all BMW 700 and BMW LS customers were self-employed, 76 per cent of early orders for the BMW 1500 came from buyers with their own business.