In 1916 you will not find a company known as BMW, hard as you might look. The first mention of BMW is in 1917, as the company that succeeded Rapp Motorenwerke, so how is it that BMW celebrates its 100 year anniversary in 2016? To untangle this knot you have to know about the people, the place and the times – and it is the turmoil of the times that directly impact the birth, and re-birth, of BMW.

There are numerous companies involved, some of whose names changed almost annually, and whose addresses changed almost as frequently. The people, who gave life breath to the companies involved in the founding story of BMW, moved from firm to firm and, without a doubt, were familiar with each other regardless of their employer.

But the story must begin somewhere and therefore it will begin in the Oberwiesenfeld, an open field on the northern boundary of Munich, which had been used by the Bavarian military since the 18th century. It became the anchor to a number of aviation firms that were to have a significant impact on the story of BMW’s birth.

In 1903 the Wright brothers began a series of demonstrations with the intent to prove that controlled flight of a powered, heavier than air craft was possible. They succeeded and spurred the world’s industrial powers to replicate that success. In Bavaria, it was the Oberwiesenfeld where the nascent aviation industry congealed. Here workshops sprang up to supply the budding aviation enthusiasm with aircraft and engines.

In 1910 Gustav Otto, the son of Nikolas Otto – who defined the principle of the four stroke internal combustion engine – founded the Aeroplanbau Otto-Alberti workshop near Munich. The company, which undertook the manufacture of aircraft, was renamed Gustav Otto Flugmaschinenfabrik in 1911.

It moved to quarters in Karlstrasse and eventually to Schleissheimerstrasse, anchoring his operations to the Oberwiesenfeld. Otto specialized in building ‘pusher’ propelled aircraft used by the Royal Bavarian Flying Corps. There was one more move of note, from Schleissheimerstrasse to Neulerchenfeldstrasse 76 (the street name was later changed to Lerchenauerstrasse).

But why mention addresses? Almost every history of BMW’s origin contains addresses of firms situated around the Oberwiesenfeld – the reason becomes apparent when the shifting corporate sands need to be sorted to establish BMW’s birth date.

Another company, Flugwerk Deutschland, was founded in 1912 to manufacture aircraft and aero engines. It was headquartered near Aachen with a branch in Munich at Schleissheimerstrasse 288, again, anchored on the Oberwiesenfeld. The Munich branch was managed by Joseph Wirth and Karl Rapp.

Flugwerk Deutschland, unable to make a go at building aircraft or engines, ceased operations in 1913 and Karl Rapp, along with a Viennese investor, Julius Auspitzer, purchased the remnants and founded a new company, Rapp Motorenwerke to continue operation using the personnel, machine tools, and building at the existing site.


Karl Rapp had designed engines for Flugwerk Deutschland and now had his sights set on winning the second Kaiser Prize for aircraft engines, having failed to make the cut for the first Kaiser Prize. But there was something about Rapp’s designs that missed the mark – and it was Rapp’s attempt to build a six cylinder engine for the Kaiser Prize that sealed his fate.

At the end of July in 1914 Europe found itself at war, as the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia and a tangled web of alliances came into play to expand the conflict. Germany found itself aligned with the Austro-Hungarian Empire and dusted off plans to fight Serbia’s allies one at a time.

Germany believed that striking west and neutralizing France could be done in short order, in the fashion of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 (of which veterans still could still be found in the beer halls of Munich in 1914). This would allow them then to focus east against Russia. As fate would have it a quick victory was not to be had, and soon Germany found itself sucked into a quagmire.

Military aviation, though still in its infancy, was vital to the prosecution of the war. All of the belligerents were hard at work making aviation a major emphasis, including the Bavarian aviation pioneers at the Oberwiesenfeld. And as the war inexorably ground on, the demands for new and improved aircraft and aero engines increased.

Karl Rapp was building four cylinder Type II four cylinder engines, six cylinder engines, and V8s along with Austro-Daimler licensed 12 cylinder engines. It was Franz Joseph Popp, a Viennese working for the Austro-Hungarian Imperial and Royal Aviation Troops, that brought the Austro-Daimler manufacturing work to Rapp; he had recognized Rapp’s facility and talented work force even while acknowledging Rapp’s design deficiencies. In 1916 Popp was moved to Munich and assigned to supervise production of that engine at Rapp Motorenwerke for the Austrian Navy.

And it was in March 1916 that the Gustav Otto’s corporation foundered and was purchased by a consortium of banks at the behest of the government and then incorporated as Bayerische Flugzeugwerke. The new company went to work building licensed copies of Albatros Flugzeugwerke machines. We should bookmark the new Bayerische Flugzeugwerke incorporation date as its significance will become apparent later.

The Prussian war ministry had established a performance classification for aircraft engines by type. Each step up the type classification scale indicated increased performance. It is this type classification system that gave name to an Argus III engine which was fundamentally different than a BMW III.

Rapp had earlier decided to build a six cylinder engine to enter in the second Kaiser Prize competition. The competition was canceled when the war intervened. The Rapp six cylinder would have been powerful enough for a Type III classification and there are existing pictures, taken in late 1916, of a group of Austro-Hungarian Marines standing in what appears to be Rapp’s assembly hall with a number of motors. And there, plain as day, is one odd looking six cylinder in the foreground with a Rapp logo clearly visible.

The six appeared to have been built of four plus two cylinders – the drive for the overhead camshaft is sandwiched between the second and third cylinders of the engine, as it was on the Type II four cylinders Rapp built. The two additional cylinders had been grafted onto the four as if they were an afterthought.

Horst Mönnich’s book, “BMW: Ein deutsche Geschichte in Bildern” has a better view of Rapp’s Type III six on page 35 – showing that the spacing between the cylinder pairs is different. The caption reads, “Rapps Motor, nicht unumstritten, wird vom preussischen kriegsministerium abgelehnt.”, which translates roughly to, “Rapp’s engine, not without controversy, is rejected by the Prussian War Ministry.”

There was something fundamentally wrong with this Rapp’s Type III engine which accounted for the awful vibration it produced. A picture exists of an open Rapp Type III crankcase and it hints at the cause of the vibration which was, most likely, the product of its asymmetrical crankshaft.

It was in this time-frame, late 1916 early 1917, that Franz Joesph Popp asserted managerial influence over Rapp’s operations. And a job applicant came to Popp’s attention, one with an engineering background at Daimler, that Popp hired – presumably without hesitation. The applicant was Max Friz and he came armed with an idea for a high latitude engine, something the Prussian war ministry dearly coveted.

It was, however, Rapp’s disappointing six cylinder engine that led the war ministry to inspect Rapp’s operations with a view to turning Rapp into a repair depot for engines, effectively ending new engine production. But during a lunch break with the inspectors, according to some tellings of the tale, Popp managed to have the plans of the new high altitude six cylinder engine revealed. The inspectors were won over – Rapp Motorenwerke was rescued. Or was it . . .

The new Type III motor, given a Type IIIa classification, was good enough to win a contract, but the board removed Rapp from control of his eponymous company and decided, towards the end of July 1917, to reform the company as Bayerisches Motoren Werke G.m.b.H. And here then, the first incarnation of BMW is born.


Friz’s Type IIIa six cylinder was superficially similar to the Daimler Type III, not surprising since Friz had worked for Daimler. They both were single overhead cam engines with exposed valve springs, individual cylinders on a common crankcase. But the BMW Type IIIa was a high compression engine (high compression being a relative thing given the 60 or so octane rating of the available aviation fuel).

The new BMW Type IIIa was eventually equipped with an altitude compensating carburettor. This carburettor allowed air to be choked at ground level, reducing the available HP, while admitting more air at altitude allowing the engine to perform within the desired power band. It allowed the engine to be lighter than an equivalent engine without the altitude compensating carburettor.

The BMW six cylinder was approved for production and the war ministry wasted no time in installing them in the Fokker D.VII(F) – ‘F’ for Friz. The Fokker D.VII was one of the best fighter aircraft built during the Great War and with the addition of the BMW Type IIIa engine it became even better. Pilots clamored to get into the D.VII(F) thanks to the enhanced performance offered by fitting Friz’s high altitude engine.

And with the success of the BMW Type IIIa, BMW production took off – soon they had outgrown the space at Schleissheimerstrasse and outgrown the G.m.b.H. designation. The new BMW moved to Moosacherstrasse and became an Aktiengesellschaft (AG), a public company. The shadowy Viennese financier and aviation enthusiast Camillo Castiglioni was involved in Rapp through Popp and then fully involved in BMW. There is some thought that he had a hand in ensuring the Austro-Daimler contract went to Rapp, on Popp’s recommendation. And it was Castiglioni that would see to BMW AG’s financial future, however uncertain that was in late 1917.

The Great War appeared interminable and the stress on the German folk was growing. The revolution that led to Russia’s exit from the war was primed to move westward to Germany, and it found fertile ground in the socialist opposition the Kaiser’s policies. As BMW continued to build its Type IIIa high altitude engine, and variants, things were going badly for the Germany.

Sailors revolted in October 1918 in several German naval ports including Wilhelmshaven and Kiel. This action led to a proclamation of a German Republic on 9 November 1918 followed shortly by the abdication of the Kaiser and the cessation of hostilities (the armistice of 11 November 1918). The country was thrown into turmoil as veterans battled workers’ councils for control of cities and the country. Munich was not spared this strife, a series of governments that formed and collapsed between November 1918 and May 1919 added to the chaos.

Unresolved, at the time, was the fate of the aviation industry in Germany. The contracts for flying machines had dried up but worse was to come with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in June, 1919. That treaty forbids the manufacture of military aircraft and engines which forces the destruction of a great deal of industrial infrastructure in Germany and sends BMW scrambling for work.

The apogee of BMW’s short history of building aviation engines came when Franz Zeno Diemer achieved an altitude record in June 1919, unrecognized due to Germany’s exclusion from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI). The BMW supplied engine was an improvement from the original high altitude Type IIIa and was classified as a Type IV. Diemer reached an altitude of 32,000 (without oxygen). This attempt became the swan song of the German aviation industry for the foreseeable future.

BMW was organized to build aircraft engines, and now building aircraft engines was forbidden. BMW tried marine engines, truck engines, and motorcycle engines – anything to keep the firm in business. But it was a railroad brake manufacturing firm, Knorr-Bremse, looking for contracts in Bavaria that kept BMW afloat. They need a local firm involved in manufacture to help assure a contract in Bavaria.

BMW now concentrates on manufacturing braking systems for the railroad. 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 and they also build a little two cylinder boxer motor for Bayerische Flugzeugwerke to use in their Helios motorcycle.

As BMW became more and more subsumed into Knorr-Bremse, Bayerische Flugzeugwerke shuffled on, near death, making furniture and motorcycles. Then, towards the end of 1921, Castiglioni emerges to tender a purchase for Bayerische Flugzeugwerke, which is on its last legs. 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.

With Bayerische Flugzeugwerke in his pocket, along with its facility on Lerchenauerstrasse, Castiglioni works a deal with Knorr-Bremse to recover the BMW name, logo, and engine manufacturing capabilities. Bayerische Flugzeugwerke is renamed BMW and continues operation at the Lerchenauerstrasse 76 address. The new BMW retains the March 1916 incorporation date of Bayerische Flugzeugwerke, while what was the ‘prior’ BMW, on Moosacherstrasse, becomes Süddeutsche Bremse.

So what is at Lerchenauerstrasse 76 now? Why nothing but this . . .