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BMW to Buick and over to Rover

2013-08-26 04:10

CAPTIVATING: BMW made some marvellous cars in the 1950s, even back then. The 507 Vignale Sports was one such. Image: Coys


The suburb of Kensington near London’s West End is no place to be during rush hour – unless you have nerves of steel, that is. I was over there recently and had time to spare before meeting one of my sons for lunch.

I decided to try and achieve the impossible to escape the impending gridlock – find a vacant parking meter!

I found one for a pound (R15.95) for just 20 minutes’ peace of mind – just a few hundred metres from the Albert Hall – an area I know quite well - and decided to search out Coys Auctioneers, a company that specialises in upmarket cars and motorcycles. As such they are also one of the biggest classic-car dealers in the world, so I intended to kill some quality time perusing the sort of vehicles that only potentates or equally wealthy enthusiasts can afford to buy.


Sure enough, rounding a quiet mews corner languished a brilliant collection of Astons, and supercharged pre-war Alfas and Bentleys. But the car that captured my attention on the spot was a rather special BMW 507 two-door sports.

Boasting immaculate red coachwork, it had so much black leather inside you could almost hear the car “mooing”. An historic car in its own right, designed by Italian Giovanni Michelotti* in 1959, but recognisably based on the original 507 BMW, penned by one Count Albrecht Graf Goertz.

But this particular car had real pedigree – it was the only one ever made! Back in the mid-1950s the “regular” 507 would have set you back just over £4000 (R8000 in those days) – even more expensive than a Gullwing Mercedes. BMW managed, nevertheless, to sell about 180 507s when an Italian coachbuilder, Scaglietti, produced some special body panels for Michelotti to bolt on to a Beemer, chassis number 184, in time to show off his “sports 507” at the 1959 Turin Motor Show.


Amazingly, “number-crunchers” of the day car worked out a price of around 20% cheaper than the then current 507 for the Vignale version. But any aspirations Michelotti had of persuading BMW back in Germany to produce the car in numbers faded fast – they just weren’t interested!

I haven’t talked too much about the engine fitted to the car, but in discussion with one of the staff at Coys who ventured an interesting opinion that bears repeating: “The light, all-alloy, 3.2 V8 used in the 507 could well have been a prototype for Buick’s well-known V8 the American car company discarded and eventually passed on to Rover (British Leyland) in the Swinging Sixties.

It was subsequently bored out to 3.5 litres and used in an assortment of expensive, high-powered cars – including Range Rovers and Morgans – with little installation mods needed in the engine bays.”

After wandering back to my car and feeding another four one pound coins into the meter I decided it was time to make my way to lunch to consider that to which I had just been made privy What that erudite BMW aficionado at Coys was trying to tell me was that BMW had initially designed what became the celebrated and very adaptable Rover V8 engine – and this wouldn’t have surprised me in the least – knowing the business acumen and ingenuity of the Munich company.


Incidentally, driving across London later, my memory drifted back to the days as a youngster some 50 years ago when afternoon tea was often taken at one of the many Lyons Corner Houses scattered across the city. One of their eloquent trademarks was the black-and-white marbled décor and the sale of square fruit pies available in a great assortment of fillings.

Does anybody else remember these tea rooms?

*Giovanni Michelotti had a hand in designing more than 1000 cars. His 44-year career included the Triumph 2000, Maserati Sebring, Reliant Scimitar and the Triumph Herald range including the TR4 and the Stag. Then there was a bunch of Ferraris and other Italian exotica.

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