Kansas City has a really nice Concours d’Elegance in early summer known as the Art of the Car which supports the Kansas City Art Institute. And BMWs are well represented at this event each year. Amongst a number of cars, including an original M1, and motorcycles sporting the roundel, the local BMW dealer, Baron, had an i8 on display – in a place of prominence. But just around the corner from the i8 was a real treat. An Ihle Brothers micro-car from the 1950s.
This little gem was Robert Bean’s beautiful barn find. Underneath years of dust was a perfectly preserved finished that required nothing more than a wash and wax to bring it back to perfection. A ‘one-lunger’ with a single speed hydrostatic transmission (think riding lawn mower), the little car is street legal given its working lighting system. Versions of this car were intended for amusement park rides, ‘Schottenring’, and came with wraparound bumpers and no lighting systems.
The hood ornament is in keeping with the times. West Germany was in the midst of its Wirtschaftswunder, economic miracle, and that ornament highlights the time’s optimism. If you look at the back end of this car you unmistakably see prewar BMW 328. This thing is such a visual delight and one of the ‘hidden in plain sight’ gems of the Art of Car Concours.
But what’s the connection from the Ihle Brothers to BMW? Well, here’s where it gets fun. When BMW bought Dixi, located in Eisenach Germany, in the late 1920s, Dixi was making a licensed copy of the Austin 7. That Dixi model was the first production BMW automobile, sold as the BMW 3/15. Sales had been decent initially but it soon became apparent that a better car was needed.
BMW debated on what should power a new vehicle and one of the options was an all new, aluminum block 4 cylinder. That represented a clean break from the licensed Austin7, but had significant capital requirements that BMW would have difficulty making. Another option, and the one adapted, was to take the existing 4 cylinder iron block and stretch it by two cylinders. The beauty of this solution was that it could move down the existing manufacturing line without major retooling.
Along with a new engine a superior chassis was developed for the new BMW. Utilizing a transverse leaf spring and independent lower arms the front suspension was ‘state of the art’ at the time. The tubular frame and front suspension, pushed out to the very forward edge, gave this new BMW the look of BMW’s to come, long hood short front overhang.
And this new BMW, the 303, would sport the first use of the now famous ‘kidney’ grille. While bifurcated grilles have been around before the BMW 303 and grilles whose center protrudes further forward than the sides have also – the unique feature of the BMW kidney grille are the upper and lower horizontal edges of the grille, the curves that make them look like ‘kidneys’. Jan Norbye believed that the new kidney grille was the work of Peter Schimanowski from BMW’s staff in Eisenach.
But, there are those that believe that the first appearance of the kidney grille was on re-bodied BMW 3/15s from the Ihle Brothers. Labeled as the ‘Ihle Sport Typ 600’, the 3/15 was transformed with a sleek roadster body that aped the appearance of a Bugatti 35. We know that the 3/15 preceded the 303, and that seems to be the problem with the belief that the Ihle Brothers created the kidney grille. Dig a little deeper and you discover that a prototype 303 with kidney grille was displayed at the Berlin autoshow in February 1933 and the ‘Ihle Sport Typ 600’ didn’t appear until 1934.
So here is another opaque chapter of BMW history made translucent (not necessarily transparent). The Ihle brothers kidney grille and other myths – apocryphal tales – like the messy multi-company origins of the firm and meaning of the roundel, requires a bit of detective work to resolve. And those myths are part and parcel of the BMW experience.
Many thanks to Robert Bean for taking time on a busy day to answer questions about his wonderful Ihle Brothers micro-car.