Germany and Switzerland: Not that far apart, right? While we were over the pond for the Geneva Motor Show earlier this month, we couldn't pass up a chance to visit BMW's still fairly new Museum and its customer education center, the BMW Welt (BMW World) in Munich.
Located about a 10 minute U-Bahn (subway) ride from central Munich (or about six hours by car from Geneva!), the BMW Campus is adjacent to the famous - and unfortunately infamous - 1972 Olympiapark. Although BMW offers tours of its historic, adjacent assembly plant, the biggest attractions for most tourists are the Museum and Welt.
BMW has occupied the area northwest of Munich since the automaker was formed initially as an aircraft builder, although the company's assembly plant was destroyed by the Allies in World War II. The Campus' most notable building is unquestionably the automaker's four-cylinder headquarters tower, which was completed just prior to the '72 Olympic Games, although an equally unique bowl-shaped museum detailing the history of the brand was opened at the same time.
In 2004, BMW temporarily closed down its museum and tucked away much of its vintage car collection in order to thoroughly renovate the facility. Less than two years ago, BMW finally took the wraps off of its revised and expanded heritage showpiece and introduced the Welt, an architecturally significant center used to showcase the brand and to serve as a delivery point for some customer cars.
Thanks in part to its free admission, the Welt is constantly filled with a cacophony of visitors, most of whom are passing through the area and simply wanted a peak at BMW's latest technology.
Looking more like a massive interactive showroom than anything else, the Welt houses most of BMW's current two and four-wheeled products, as well as a surprisingly good and inexpensive cafe and a massive gift shop. From the outside, this remarkably austere yet engaging facility blends well with its industrial surroundings.
All of the Olimpiapark is beginning to look a little shabby, and Munich doesn't get that much sun, so the silver-finished Welt fits in well with the industrial section of Munich. That's not to say it's a dreary place; rather, its sleek nature fits with the Bangle-era's somewhat emotionally detached BMW products.
With BMW's Adrian van Hooydonk adding a little more visceral emotion to the automakers designs - a simple elegance we haven't seen out of Munich in 10 years - the Welt seems almost too cold, however. Nonetheless, its appearance is remarkable and its purpose as a showcase of the automaker's numerous technologies is well utilized.
During our visit, we watched a lucky new owner take delivery of his 6-Series convertible and BMW's Motorrad department showed off a few stunts in the main atrium - nice perks. An above ground walkway connects the Welt to the massively rehabbed and enlarged BMW Museum, which occupies much more than the bowl-shaped building that served as the company's historical headquarters from 1972 to 2004.
Despite its age, storied history and acclaim among enthusiasts, BMW doesn't quite have the historical portfolio of fellow Germans Mercedes-Benz and Porsche. Despite this fact, the automaker has found a way to spotlight the best of its products in a way that makes even the most novice driver emerge from the Museum as a new BMW enthusiast of some sort.
The layout of the Museum forces visitors to follow the marque's history in a mostly chronological manner, although exhibits focusing on design, engineering, powertrains and safety serve as distractions to keep everything from feeling like a history textbook. The modern addition to the Museum is in what BMW calls the "Low Building," which actually exists below ground level, although a deep atrium and numerous sky-high displays keep it from feeling like typical basement fare.
BMW uses the existing bowl-shaped building for temporary exhibits, even if its complex wrap-around design reminiscent of Manhattan's famed MoMA limits its display areas. In the main Low Building, a ramp connecting 22 small and medium-sized exhibition rooms hovers over the central atrium, which filled with BMW roadsters at the time of our visit.
We channeled our inner James Bond at the sight of the actual Z3 and Z8 roadsters driven by actor Pierce Brosnan during the filming of two Bond films. The photos speak best, although as enthusiasts we were perhaps most engaged by the displays of BMW's less-famous products. A timeline of BMW's flagship luxury sedans was housed in an opulent room; but unlike most museums, visitors are encouraged to climb onto the display to peer into these classics, like the bulbous 1950s 502 sedan. A lonely 700 two-door sedan (don't call it a coupe) was parked off in a corner to remind us of the model that kept BMW alive in struggling postwar Europe until the company was saved by the New Class two-doors, like the 2002.
Other highlights included vertically-mounted walls of BMW motorcycles and an early example of each BMW representing the automaker's current-style nomenclature. A 1975 323i gave way to a 1972 520i, a 1976 633i and a 1977 745i on a series of shelves that gave the BMWs a Matchbox-esque feel from a distance. These '70s models are far from sexy, but they are important to BMW's history. The unique display captured our eyes as much as the cars themselves.
An entire room devoted to BMW's Motorsport division - or M Power, as a banner proclaimed - was never empty during our visit. These are BMW's best-known recent products and they always gather crowds. Modern BMW fans poured over the all-original E30 M3 and the M1, although we enjoyed the E28 M5 for its comparative rarity.
Of course, a 2002ti and an Isetta shared their own room. Both cars helped define BMW as a producer of iconic cult cars, and to illustrate this point, BMW displayed period home photos and quick stories from owners. Curiously, BMW displayed a 1968 2002ti rather than either its original two-door, a 1600-02, or the international flagship, the 2002tii. As Americans, we felt a little sting with the limited mention of the '02's impact on solidifying BMW's presence in the incredibly lucrative North American market.
Oh well. Finally, a gift shop chock full of BMW books (in German!) and BMW models (that exchange rate is killer!) awaited us on our way out. The Leftlane corporate card didn't see as much action as it probably could have... BMW's pair of attractions, combined with the optional (weekdays only) tour of the Munich assembly plant, are worth a trip to Germany on their own for anyone who considers themselves a car enthusiast.
Words and photos by Andrew Ganz.