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Private show: A peek at BMW's history tucked away in Munich

Rafay Ansar

Close to BMW's headquarters in Munich, on a quiet side street, sits BMW Klassik. Located in an ordinary office building, there sits the most staggering collection of BMWs on the planet.

Unlike the spectacular and high-tech new museum, this is where the cars are restored, maintained and stored. The collection comprises more than 700 cars and bikes, and also manages the rotation of cars displayed in the new museum nearby.

Shortly after entering the building, which is closed to the public, there is a modest display of three unrestored vehicles, including a 327 convertible. But this is not a building intended for display. Here, cars are kept and maintained for the collection and sent to many parts of the world for events such as the Mille Miglia and the Goodwood Festival of Speed. Soon, we will enter the best parking lot I have ever seen personally.

Karl Baumer, who runs the collection, is no dry historian. His career includes being in charge of overall strategy for BMW and responsibility for the engineering development of the Rolls-Royce Phantom. A large Silver Lady emblem sits in his office.

Baumer sees the collection as being an essential part of BMW today, a place current designers can visit the heritage of the company and understand the brand's essential attribute. He recently was a driving force behind the idea to present the much-talked-about M concept car to celebrate the anniversary of the M1.

The collection typically gets the first and last car of every major model run, the Formula One cars from the team, any significant competition cars and the concept and Art cars. Plus, it acquires interesting historical cars that used BMW power.

Baumer says cars should be restored to as new condition and not left in their original state, though a few are retained untouched when there are multiple examples in the collection. The vast majority of cars are in driving condition.

From the '30s to the later '50s, BMW was not a major manufacturer of cars. The most famous prewar car, the 328, had a production run of about 400 cars, and a lot of the revenue was earned from building cars under license--the Austin 7 before the war and the Isetta bubble car after.

BMW was in a fight for survival in the postwar era. Only about 250 of the iconic 507s were built, (compared with 1,400 of the 300SL Gullwings, for example), so the performance BMWs of the era are relatively rare. Only when the 1500 and 2002 arrived did the company start to expand to its present scale.

I asked Baumer what was missing from the collection. Pausing briefly, he says, "The 1939 Kamm car."

BMW has painstakingly reassembled the Mille Miglia factory cars, but one is missing without a trace. There still are a few cars in private hands, such as the first concept car from 1951, which is on loan to the museum.

Baumer's personal favorite in the 328, as a perfect example of what the brand stands for, and he drives one frequently. When you see one compared with a contemporary car from the late '30s, it is a triumph of modernism.

The moment comes to visit just a small portion of the collection. Packed tightly in the brightly lit and immaculate room, I see a Michelotti-bodied 507, two of the magnificent 1940 Mille Miglia team cars, a unique 503 convertible built specially for one of the Quandt family members (major shareholders of the company), a McLaren F1 and an unrestored AC Aceca with BMW power that has just arrived. Ralf Schumacher's F1 car sits close to Hans Joachim Stuck's M1 and a batwing CSL. They are all here--the exotic and the ordinary, concept cars and production cars side-by-side.

The famous Art cars are stored elsewhere. At current prices, it is unimaginable what a BMW painted by Andy Warhol would fetch, but the car is in the collection. They are rotated through the main museum, which displayed the Alexander Calder car for its opening.

There are three large warehouses scattered around Munich where the vehicles are stored, and collectively they comprise the entire BMW automotive history.

Perhaps the most beautiful car of all, the 1940 Mille Miglia roadster, is not here today, but on a previous visit to Munich, I had a chance to look at it. In profile, it is strikingly similar to the Jaguar XK120, and I wonder whether it was the inspiration for the much-later car.

Each of the cars could be the subject of a profile, but it is time to go. Manfred Grunert, who knows every car in the collection, smiled and good humouredly deflected my suggestion that it might be a good time to exercise the BMW V12-powered McLaren F1.

Many of these cars will appear at public events, but for now, all is quiet in the empty room. The lights go out and the cars return to the peace and quiet of the building.

Ronan McGrath is a contributor to AutoWeek.
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