So the breathless click-bait title of this piece should be, “How I tried to find the true origins of BMW. You won’t believe what happened next!!”. In reality the origins of BMW require a bit of a mental juggling act. There are three ‘balls’ to keep track of – two balls are companies that change names often during the tale – and the third is an investor with a stack of cash.
Continue Reading Below
Keeping a bit of historical context in mind is beneficial and to do that we’ll interrupt this story with a few trips to the local beer garden (and let’s make that the Augustiner Keller). So, to begin . . .
It is 1909 and you find yourself in the company of Gustav Otto, the son of Nikolas Otto. At the end of the table sits an older gentleman, in his sixties. He’s hard to miss, being a bit of a blow-hard, he’s regaling his companions with tales of his daring-do during the Franco-Prussian war. That war occurred less than forty years ago. You think it’s a bit difficult to believe that what is Germany has only been united since the end of the Franco-Prussian war, but at least this is still Bavaria (and to hell with those protestant Prussians).
The first ball is tossed.
Gustav Otto caught the flying bug, and in 1910, a mere seven years after the Wright brothers first flew at Kitty Hawk, he sets up the ‘Aeroplanbau Otto-Alberti’ company in Puchheim, near Munich. Odd that there’s an Alberti in the name, and you better believe that some wag in Berlin has described Bavarians as German speaking Italians – in fact Milan is closer to Munich than Berlin is.
In 1911, Otto’s company becomes ‘Gustav Otto Flugmachinenfabrik’, and he undertakes a series of moves, eventually settling at Schleissheimer Strasse 135. Then in 1914, to be closer to where the military contracts are being let, he starts the construction of a new factory on Neulerchenfeld Strasse (the street name later becomes Lerchenauer Strasse 76) at the edge of an old cavalry field, which is home to the budding Bavarian aeronautical scene.
You run into Otto again in late 1914, at the beer garden, he’s hopeful but concerned. The demand for flying machines has bloomed due to the war, but at this late date in 1914 it would appear that hopes of a repeat of the 1870 Franco-Prussian victory have vanished. While there is certainly a confidence in the air – an uneasiness is also descending on those prescient enough to catch it.
Things haven’t been going well for Otto’s company – the company is not cost effective in its manufacture and requires an intervention to make it work. In 1916, the government intervenes in Gustav Otto’s company and reorganizes it as Bayerische Flugzeugwerke.
It continues to manufacture aircraft for use by the German military for what has become an increasingly dizzying descent into the hell of war. Less than two years later, the war has come to a halt with the armistice on 11/11/1918. The contracts for flying machines dry up but worse is to come with the signing of the Versailles treaty in 1919. The treaty forbids the manufacture of military aircraft and engines which forces the destruction of a great deal of industrial infrastructure in Germany.
The end of 1918 has been harrowing in Munich. The Novemberrevolution has left the streets of Munich in turmoil, the chance to duck into a beer hall a dicey proposition. Germany has collapsed internally – even though the shell of the Wehrmacht is still in the field – but increasingly it seems that a Bismarckian notion of Imperial Germany may be at an end (Bavarian independence?).
When the terms of the Versailles treaty are imposed, the Bayerische Flugzeugwerke looks for anything to stay in business and eventually produces a motorized bicycle, called the ‘Flink’ (‘swift’ in English) and a motorcycle called the Helios. The company has staggered into 1921 and is on the ropes – and here is where we’ll leave the first ball – suspended in air.
The second ball ascends.
Let’s go back a few years to 1913. Not far from the current address of Otto’s aircraft works on Schliessheimer Strasse, a gentleman by the name of Karl Rapp establishes a business, Rapp Motorenwerke to build four cylinder aero engines for Otto. Rapp had been employed by Daimler and lately by Flugwerke Deutschland. The Imperial German military is concerned that France is far ahead of Germany in the production of aircraft and pilots and they hurry to catch up. There is money being thrown around.
As the war evolves Rapp finds himself building engines for both German and Austro-Hungarian forces. An inspector from the Austro-Daimler firm, Franz Joseph Popp, sets up in Rapp’s firm and eventually induces Rapp to employ another designer/engineer from Daimler, Max Friz.
The conversation at the table in 1917 has turned to the misfortunes of the Rapp concern, a number of employees lamenting the probability that it will turn into a repair depot rather than a manufacturing facility. And, as you drink from your masskrug, you are aware of missing comrades. It is a bitter turn of events and doesn’t promise to get any better.
Rapp had reached for one rung too far on the ladder, he created a six cylinder aero engine that was badly designed – it placed two additional cylinders beyond the nose of an existing four cylinder design. It vibrated badly – an extremely difficult thing to do in an inline six. Rapp, in 1917, was about to be shut down as a manufacturer – but Max Friz’ design of a new six cylinder aero engine with a radical solution to fuel flow – allowing for the engine to be lighter and yet still produce full power at altitude – saved the concern.
Rapp’s company would live, but it would be reorganized as Bayerische Motoren Werke, and Rapp would soon resign. The new company, established in 1917, attracted the usual banks as investors but also an extremely wealthy Viennese patron of the arts and aviation, Camillo Castiglioni. The third ball is now in the air.
Three balls in motion.
In 1919 the prospects for continued employment are poor. The beer hall is a momentary respite from your worries. The BMW high altitude engine has performed marvelously, but the terms of the Versailles treaty cloud its, and your, future. You’ve heard rumors that a north German railroad brake supplier is looking to secure contracts in Bavaria – which may require setting up shop in Bavaria – and there is some hope.
The railroad brake manufacturing firm, Knorr-Bremse, is looking for contracts in Bavaria, and to help the process along they’re willing to license manufacturing to BMW. What was Rapp’s firm, that became BMW, now concentrates on manufacturing braking systems for train sets in 1919. It is profitable, but the aero engine patents, aluminum foundry, and all the bits and pieces of aero engine manufacture remain underutilized. Castiglioni decides to sell his shares in BMW to the chairman of Knorr-Bremse in 1920. BMW is now effectively a subsidiary of Knorr-Bremse. They still build some small engines, however, including a little two cylinder boxer motor that they sell to Bayerische Flugzeugwerke for use in their Helios motorcycle.
Towards the end of 1921 Castiglioni emerges to tender a purchase for Bayerische Flugzeugwerke. One of the owners hesitates to sell, but Franz Popp is enlisted by Castiglioni to convince the owner that Bayerische Flugzeugwerke is a dead concern. The owner, MAN, decides to sell sometime early in 1922.
So Castiglioni owns the facilities and the Bayerische Flugzeugwerke name. He approaches Knorr-Bremse with an offer to buy the name, intellectual property, aluminum foundry from their wholly owned operation in Munich, BMW. They agree and what was BMW is now renamed Süddeutsche Bremsen-AG.
Castiglioni, and some hand selected staff from the former BMW, now move to the Bayerische Flugzeugwerke facilities in Lerchenauer Strasse. Since he owns the rights to the BMW name, he renames Bayerishce Flugzeugwerke, Bayerische Motoren Werke. The original BMW continues as Süddeutsche Bremsen-AG, later to be renamed Knorr-Bremse.
Finally; things are looking a bit better in 1922, the war memories are fading but the social turmoil is still there. To add to your anxiety though, the cost of a beer in the hall is rising at an alarming rate, but it hasn’t gotten out of hand – yet.
So at long last the juggling comes to an end. What was Rapp became BMW became Süddeutsche Bremsen-AG and finally just Knorr-Bremse. And what was Bayerische Flugzeugwerke became, in 1922, Bayerische Motoren Werke – the BMW we know today. And that is how BMW, created from the foundation of the Rapp Motoren Werke in 1917 has the birthdate of March, 1916, when Bayerische Flugzeugwerke was incorporated.
For grins, plug-in Lerchenauer Strasse 76, Munich into Google maps satellite view – the site Bayerische Flugzeugwerke was headquartered in 1916 – and you’ll get a pleasant surprise.
PS – Castiglioni abandoned the Bayerische Flugzeugwerke name when he merged the Bayerische Flugzeugwerke facilities with the intellectual capital of BMW. In 1926 the Udet-Flugzeugbau GmbH went public under the available name of Bayerische Flugzeugwerke. In 1938, Bayerische Flugzeugwerke changed names again, after having produced an extremely successful military airplane, the Bf 109. Their new name – Messerschmitt. But that’s a story for another day.