The Neue Klasse: Trailblazing a bright future

6 min reading time
The BMW Neue Klasse line can be quite succinctly described: a great choice. From the first car produced in 1962, this line was a game changer, both for the company and the entire midsize sports sedan segment. What made the forerunner of today’s BMW 5 Series so successful?

21 October 2021

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A benchmark for the company’s future: BMW has set itself the goal of achieving full carbon neutrality across its entire supply chain by no later than 2050, BMW CEO Oliver Zipse explains – and as a highly symbolic choice, the new Neue Klasse is an important part of that. Because this is not the first time that a Neue Klasse has represented a new vision and direction for BMW. We delve into the when, the why, and all the details.

You may be wondering, why it’s called the Neue Klasse? The answer is quite simple: BMW launched a range of small cars at the start of the 1960s – the BMW Isetta (➜ See also: The epic story of the little Isetta), BMW 600, BMW 700 – as well as several large sedans including the 501/502/503 line, nicknamed ‘Baroque Angels’ in Germany. This left a gap in the middle of the BMW portfolio – which turned out to be room for the Neue Klasse.

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The Neue Klasse (1500 model) was unveiled to the public at the 1961 International Motor Show in Frankfurt, Germany.
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In 1964 the 1600 was added to the range, with the only changes made being in the engine. A photo of the Neue Klasse production plant: The BMW plant in Munich-Milbertshofen.
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Special versions of the 1800 model were made as homologation vehicles for motor sport.
When it was launched in 1962, BMW was often already referring to the ‘Neue Klasse’, though the description wasn’t actually the model name yet.
Marc Thiesbürger

Press Spokesman for BMW Group Classic

The model series was not officially called the Neue Klasse (“new class”) to start with, but following the 1963 launch of the BMW 1800 the company began to deliberately use the term in publicity, from 1964 onwards. “Ultimately the view was that we had created a quite unique and peerless ‘new class’ with this midsize sedan,” explains Marc Thiesbürger, Press Spokesman for BMW Group Classic.

The kidney grille

The front of the earliest Neue Klasse had round headlights (models with square lights came along later), a side profile resembling a shark’s nose and, most distinctively, a pair of vertical kidney grilles standing together at the center (➜ See also: The changing BMW kidney grille over the years).

It was clear from the start that this Neue Klasse should be – indeed had to be – a success, because the company was in the midst of financial pressure. After Herbert Quandt joined BMW in 1959 the focus of development work shifted to a new model series which had already been considered internally in previous years. With the unveiling of the series at the 1961 International Motor Show in Frankfurt, it was evident that the Munich firm had scored a great success in developing this completely new midsize sedan. Both public and press were enthusiastic, and orders flooded in.

Worth the risk

BMW then went all-out preparing for production of the Neue Klasse, investing vast amounts in creating and expanding high-tech production capacity. This investment included construction of a new production hall for the plant in Munich and the hiring of around 3,000 skilled workers. BMW also introduced a multi-stage in-process quality inspection system which made it possible to quickly address problems arising during production.

Taking a risk by doing things differently paid off. The new model series was a tremendous commercial success, leading to rapid growth at BMW during the 1960s and resulting in pioneering business decisions. Significantly closer collaboration between development and sales also emerged from the Neue Klasse project, resulting in improved planning of vehicle characteristics and features.

Above all however, the Neue Klasse helped BMW to stake out a much clearer market position as a manufacturer of both sporty and everyday vehicles. This was reflected in turn by the sales numbers: In the ten years between 1960 and 1970 alone, sales of BMW cars tripled, with revenue from vehicles increasing more than sevenfold in the same period. In total, an impressive 339,814 units of the 1800 sedans and other models in the series were produced between February 1962 and January 1972.

The Hofmeister kink

The greatest accolade bestowed upon any designer is surely the naming of a specific design element after them – Wilhelm Hofmeister is one who has received that honor. Together with his team, he was responsible for the distinctive transition of the C-pillar on the Neue Klasse: For stability reasons, this feature was not designed as a smooth curve, but instead included an angle. Today, every self-respecting car enthusiast knows this shape as a Hofmeister kink.

The restrained and functional design of the four-door body was a deliberate departure from the classic and luxurious lines of the BMW 501/502/503. The lack of stylistic idiosyncrasies and the presence of flowing shapes left a sporty, elegant impression. BMW perfectly captured the essence of the times. The Neue Klasse was designed by the young head designer at BMW, Wilhelm Hofmeister, together with renowned Italian designer Giovanni Michelotti.

Old values revived

Even before the tag line “Sheer Driving Pleasure” (➜ See also: The BMW slogan) was conceived, the notion was synonymous with BMW. According to BMW expert Thiesbürger, in its time the original Neue Klasse represented the “renaissance of the sporty midsize vehicle”, as it carried the essential characteristics of the BMW 326, BMW 327/28, and BMW 328 models forward into the 1960s. Those models had given the BMW brand its unmistakable look back in the 1930s. BMW had not only filled a niche in its own model range, but carved out a whole new segment. Sportiness coupled with exclusivity; in other words, an entirely new class.

The line is today considered to be the father of the BMW 5 Series, the definitive sporty midsize/luxury sedan. It also introduced a clear and unambiguous structure for the BMW model range which is still in use today, with the exception of the X and 1 model lines which were introduced much later, into the BMW 3 Series (2 Series at the time; ➜ See also: A treasure hunting vintage car enthusiast), the BMW 5 Series (Neue Klasse) and the BMW 7 Series.

The four-cylinder engine

Under the no-frills hood was a completely newly designed four-cylinder engine. With a 1.5-liter base model (which gives the model variant its name, as 1500 is the capacity in cubic centimeters), it delivered 80 hp on launch. This helped the model to achieve ambitious driving performance for the time. Far more powerful engine variants would follow. This is also one reason why BMW has been closely associated with the term ‘dynamic’ since the launch of the Neue Klasse. Over the years, the four-cylinder engine formed the basis for further development of all variants (➜ See also: BMW engine milestones).

The Neue Klasse always remained current throughout its lifespan thanks to subtle but considered optimization. In 1964, for example, the BMW 1500 was replaced by the BMW 1600. It didn’t stop there – in fact a whole series of variants followed: BMW 1800 and 1800 TI, BMW 1800 TI/SA, BMW 2000, 2000 TI, 2000 tilux, 2000 tii (➜ See also: Everything you need to know about model names). The car also helped BMW become a driving force behind greater motorization in the sports car segment, with the 2000 chi launched in 1969, for example, delivering 130 hp with its rear wheel drive. This constituted a driving performance which went far beyond the standard for an upmarket midsize vehicle of the time.

The best seller among the Neue Klasse models was the BMW 1800. Back then the cars were built to specific requirements by varying the engine capacity and power, as well as customizing the range of features and creating sporty versions. This level of variation was made possible by the modular assembly system, which is now standard in automotive assembly. Good examples of this are the Coupe variants, BMW 2000 C, CA, and CS, which were launched in 1965. Altogether, around 14,000 customers signed a contract to purchase a Coupe.

The Neue Klasse offered customers the ultimate package, combining the best technologies with a timeless yet contemporary design.
Marc Thiesbürger

Press Spokesman for BMW Group Classic

Dawn of a new era for BMW

The Neue Klasse was an enormous success for BMW. New owners received the “ultimate package, combining the best technologies with a timeless yet contemporary design”, which is precisely what BMW customers expected. From the car’s design through to its production, the expansion and updating of the model series, and its market positioning, the Neue Klasse paved the way for the future of the brand.

At the same time, the model series was and remains a milestone in the history of the company; an exciting new chapter in the company story and brand story, which guides BMW’s development even today. As such the Neue Klasse was certainly a pacesetter, and the first move towards a future-focused automotive portfolio across all segments. In summary: It provided the entire company with an impetus that can still be felt today – with its arc stretching through the years to the new Neue Klasse. This will be a drivable symbol of the BMW Group’s realignment towards sustainability, harnessing a comprehensive approach through the use of secondary materials and the principles of a circular economy. A mini-revolution, like the one experienced in 1961.

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The most powerful version of the 2000 range, the tii, delivered 130 hp – incredible for its time.
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From 1965 the Neue Klasse was also available as a Coupe, again in a number of variants.
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BMW and motor sport enjoy an inseparable bond: A BMW 1800 at the 1966 Spa 24 Hours race in Belgium.

What is the BMW Neue Klasse?

The BMW Neue Klasse is a sedan launched in 1961. BMW enjoyed great success with the model series, not least thanks to a high-tech production process. It is considered the father of dynamic sporty midsize sedans. Powered by four-cylinder engines at various performance levels, it was succeeded by the BMW 5 Series in 1972.

Author: Nils Arnold; Photos: BMW/BMW Group Archives; Video: BMW

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