The BMW Museum and World

All Things BMW: Past and Present

Munich’s middle ring-road includes a recently completed tunnel, long enough that your eyes have to readjust to daylight on emerging. There’s another visual adjustment, too – the sight of Olympia Park on the left and, on the right, the towering BMW corporate headquarters – the "Vier Zylinder," with the blue-white roundel at the top.

At the base of the tower is the bowl-shaped BMW museum, both constructed around the same time as the 1972 Olympics. The tower and museum are so significant and familiar that they have earned monument status. What’s new in recent years is a five-fold expansion of the museum and, just across the street, a gigantic swooping structure called BMW Welt or The World of BMW.

Originally intended as an upscale place where foreigners could take delivery of their BMWs, it now includes shops, restaurants, a conference center and displays the new models in surroundings that extol the BMW brand. It’s all about brand, of course, and with the new BMW Welt and expanded museum the company has spared no expense in promoting it.

The entire complex consisting of the Museum, BMW Welt, adjacent manufacturing plant and Vier Zylinder rates a visit as much or more than any other tourist attraction in Munich. If you’re a BMW fan, lover of vintage motorcycle and cars, or architecture buff, you’ve got to see it.

The original museum – the bowl – housed several permanent collections (including autos and motorcycles) over the years but now is used only for special exhibits. Its ascending spiral walkway and platforms currently (and fittingly) contain an exhibition of modern museum architecture from around the world.

Besides photographs and text there are walk-around scale models that show the architect’s art at its best. Seeing this exhibition, even if not directly about BMW, was a good warm-up exercise for the main event, a tour of the permanent collection in the adjoining new area of the museum.

Like a photograph, a museum is all about lighting. At one extreme, paintings hang on bare walls, illuminated by overhead incandescent lights. At another extreme, the walls themselves are the light source. Large frosted-glass panels form the walls of the new museum. Behind each panel is an array of computer-controlled light-emitting diodes, 1.2 million of them in all.

Just think about it for a minute. Here’s a wall that not only glows in the dark but can be programmed to change its illumination in both time and space. The LEDs are so numerous and so closely spaced that the walls display moving images without the use of projectors.

Entering the new museum from the old, the LED light is eerie at first, but you get used to it and then are fascinated by it. There’s another striking contrast – everything in the old museum is round, in the new it’s rectangular. In place of a conical spiral, motorcycles are now displayed on a single large wall three stories high, each bike suspended in space behind clear glass with model names in translucent letters.

From the early 1920’s to the present, the historical development of BMW production motorcycles is there to behold. With the possible exceptions of the boxer-cruiser and the enclosed scooter nearly all of these models have been successful and profitable, not to mention technically innovative and, to our eyes, beautiful.

Other themes featuring motorcycles are lightweight design and competition. A turbocharged 1938 RS 255 is suspended on four calibrated springs to illustrate the weight-saving design. Several of the modified BMW GS motorcycles that won Paris Dakar rallies are displayed together with cafe racers, a sidecar rig and a streamliner piloted by Ernst Jacob Henne to record-setting speeds in the 1930’s. These bikes are not behind glass but on the floor where you can walk up and touch them.

The highlight of the permanent collection has to be BMW’s first motorcycle, the R32, produced from 1923 – 1926. The essence of BMW is all there: flat boxer twin, shaft drive, exquisite design and craftsmanship – attributes that carry through to the present.

The R32 is displayed against a large photograph taken in the factory building. This look-back in time evokes admiration for the courageous steps that company undertook then, and continues to take in the present era.

The museum is about BMW the company, not just BMW Motorrad. Airplane and automobile racing engines, Formula 1 cars, roadsters, the M-series and more are represented.

A visitor with limited time will have to make choices and focus on a part of the collection while taking in the rest with quick glances and photographs as reminders of a stunning presentation.

A day spent at the Museum and at BMW Welt will show what good taste and deep pockets can do in displaying a brand and its history, and leave you wishing you had another day to spend there.