11 February 2019

War birds and racing cars. Fascinating F1 Facts: 74

BMW was a aero-engine company, started in the middle of World War I. It built engines for Fokker fight planes. When Germany was defeated, the company was banned from building further aero-engines because of its wartime activities. In the immediate post-war era, a time of new ideas and much excitement, the Italian-born Viennese financier, Camillo Castiglioni, put together a series of corporate manoeuvres that resulted in the name and assets of BMW being acquired and merged with Bayerische Flugzeugwerke (BFw), which had built Albatros fighter planes during the war. The result was given the name BMW, but was unconnected with the old firm and so could return to aero-engine manufacturing, while BFW would be reformed (with BMW holding some of the shares) in a new business, which soon began building Messerschmitt planes (hence the Bf used in the Messerschmitt numbering system).

The new BMW took over the BFw offices in Munich and went back to business, although it also decided to diversify into automobiles, buying the Dixi company, which was manufacturing Austin Sevens under license for the German market. BMW wanted to do its own thing and so created a small experimental department in Munich, within the aero-engine factory, while the resulting cars were manufactured at the old Dixi works in Eisenach.
BMW decided that to aid development and to enhance the firm's reputation in the automobile world, it would enter racing in the 1930s and the experimental department under Rudolf Schleicher started work on a high performance sports car that would also be raced. Schleicher was a Swiss-born German who served on the Western Front in World War I at the age of 18. When the war ended he went back to school, studying engineering at the Technische Universität München and then joining Süddeutsche Bremsen AG, which was folded into the new BMW soon afterwards. In addition to being a talented engineer Schleicher was also a very good motorcycle racer and he scored BMW's first sporting success, riding a BMW R32 motorcycle to victory on the ADAC Winter Rally in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in 1924. He would later move to Horch in Zwickau for few years working on road car engine development before he returned to BMW when it began working on automobiles.

He produced the first BMW six-cylinder engine in 1933 and this was developed in the years that followed into the 328, an engine that was years ahead of its time, using aluminium-alloy for the cylinder heads, ingenious valve gear and new inlet port designs, all fitted to a standard production cast-iron engine block. The engine was then fitted into a new chassis, developed by another former Horch engineer, Fritz Fiedler, which had to be a production car and a racing machine, as the BMW board was opposed to building racing specials. The first 328 made its debut in the 2-litre sports car at the Eifelrennen meeting in 1936 and duly won, in the hands of motorcyclist Ernst Henne.

Much of BMW's reputation came as a result of AFN Limited, the BMW concessionaire in Britain, which helped to spread the word, using BMW 328s and then putting the engines into their Frazer Nash automobiles. 

Schleicher continued to develop the cars until World War II began, at which point he switched to motorcycle development. He left BMW after the war but some of his BMW designs remained in production into the 1960s. As for the BMW 328, it became an important engine for racers in the years after the war, being used in a whole string of so-called Eigenbau racing machines in various different countries, and as the basis for the Bristol racing engine. These were all eligible for Formula 1 when the World Championship was switched to Formula 2 regulations in 1952.

Ironically, AFN partner Alfred Fane, who was a talented racer, joined the RAF in World War II and flew with Spitfires with the photo-reconnaissance squadrons, finding fame when he spotted the German battleship Tirpitz in a Norwegian fjord in 1942. A few months later, having completed 25 reconnaissance missions over enemy territory he crashed while returning from Flensburg, while following a railway line in thick fog, trying to get home to his base at RAF Benson.

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