The story of how BMW began is as confusing as any story about a major company’s initial development (see Cadillac’s early history), made even more so by the language and business practices of another country. BMW’s emergence involved a great number of people who were either involved in the beginnings (or endings) of other auto companies or went on afterwards to start important companies of their own. The web of engineers, investors, and inventors who came together in 1916 helped form one of the best-selling carmakers in the world, BMW.

BMW began with aircraft. (Courtesy BMW)

By the 1780s, the Bavarian army had been using Oberswiesenfeld outside of Munich as a military training ground for many years. One hundred years later it was the landing site for military and civilian hot air balloons. In 1912, the field served as the founding spot for the Royal Bavarian Flying Corps, and many airplane shops sprang up around the field to support the burgeoning aircraft industry.

Gustav Ottto and Karl Rapp. (Courtesy BMW)

Companies like Aeroplanbau Otto-Alberti (started in 1910 by Gustav Otto, son of Nikolas Otto who theorized the four-stroke engine) and Flugwerk Deutschland, centered their operations around Oberswiesenfeld. On the payroll at Flugwerk Deutschland was Joseph Wirth and Karl Rapp, and when the company went bankrupt in 1913 (only a year after it was started), Rapp purchased the remnants and started a new company, Rapp Motorenwerk.

Bayerische Flugzeugwerke

Gustav Otto with an Argus aircraft engine, 1908 (Courtesy BMW)

After his initial failure, Gustav Otto changed the name of his company to Gustav Otto Flugmaschienfabrik in 1911 and began building airplanes, eventually for the military (Ernst Udet, second in score to the Red Baron trained on a Gustav). The company was eventually reformed in 1926 as Bayerische Flugzeugwerke (aka BFw, Bavarian Aircraft Works, of which Josef Popp was on the board of directors). Another version of BFw eventually became the Messerschmitt company and produced fighters during World War II.

Fahrzeugfabrik Eisenach

1928 Dixi. (Courtesy BMW)

Heinrich Ehrhardt founded Fahrzeugfabrik Eisenach (FFE) in 1896 to produce bicycles and other items, but two years later, he switched to motorcars, building the Wartburg (a copy of a French Decauville). In 1903, Ehrhardt left the company and it was renamed Dixi, producing trucks during World War I. After the war, they merged with Gothaer Waggonfabrik. Soon, they returned to building cars, this time the DA-1, a copy of the Austin 7.

Rapp Motorenwerke

Meanwhile, Rapp had designed engines for Flugwerk Deutschland and was now interested in winning the Kaiser Prize for an aircraft engine, but the start of the First World War changed his plans. For the German war effort, Rapp began building multiple-cylinder engines for a variety of airplanes. He was subcontracted by Austro-Daimler to produce its V12 engines because it had difficulty meeting war demands. Franz Joesph Popp worked for Austro-Daimler and was transferred to Munich to oversee the V12 production at Rapp Motorenwerke.

Rapp’s design for a six-cylinder engine vibrated so badly that it was rejected by the Prussian War Ministry, and it forced them to inspect his workshops, threatening to turn them into a repair depot. This would effectively end his new engine production (and probably any future he would have in the industry).

Portrait of Franz Josef Popp

Soon after Popp arrived, he took over most of Rapp’s operation and he hired Max Friz, who had designed a high-altitude engine the army was very interested in. Because of this design, Rapp Motorenwerke was allow to continue building new engines. However, Rapp was removed from his own company and the whole thing was restructured with Popp as general director. In March 7, 1916, it was reformed as Bayerisches Motoren Werke G.m.b.H., also known as BMW.

Bayerisches Motoren Werke

BMW R32 500cc R32 motorcycle engine. (Courtesy BMW)

The success of Friz’s high-altitude engine, called the BMW IIIa, became a great boon for BMW, and its production took off (no pun intended). When Germany lost the war in 1919, everything changed. No longer was BMW able to product aircraft engines, so they built whatever motorized vehicle they could to stay in business—marine engines, truck engines, motorcycle engines (the 500cc R32 is an important milestone), even furniture and railway brake systems.

In 1923 BMW purchased Fabrzeugfabik Eisenach (FFE) in central Germany. FFE still produced cars, and because of the purchase, BMW was able to begin its car production. The first car manufactured by BMW was a design borrowed from the Austin Motor Company. It was not until 1932 that BMW utilized its own designs and built its first car.

During its transformation from a company owning only one small production facility near Munich to a global organization owning 30 production facilities in 14 countries on 4 continents, BMW has grown in the last 100 years to become one of the best-selling luxury brands in the world.

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Not only is Ryan Lee Price a freelance writer specializing in automotive journalism and a former long-time magazine editor, he is part of the technical editorial team that provides content for most all of the ChiltonPRO and ChiltonDIY products. He currently resides in Corona, California, with his wife Kara and their two children.