Today, the words failure and BMW are an anathema: the Munich company is a model of success. But, it wasn’t always this way and, unusual as it may seem, this is the story of a beautiful German sports car that was by any standards a corporate catastrophe. Following the horrors of the 1940s and the subsequent austerity as nations and trust were rebuilt, a premium was placed on elegance, style and beauty to wash away the bleak memories of war. By the mid-1950s social change and attitudes were under way: think Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, Grace Kelly and Cary Grant, Christian Dior and Chanel. In short, it was a period of élan, flair and panache, even excitement. Carmakers caught this wave—the Jaguar XK120, like the E-Type to come, wowed a whole generation of car buffs. Cars of the immediate post-war period derived from the post-vintage 1930s were being replaced by more modern conveyances—gone were the cycle fenders, and in their place came curvy panels and racy looks. Joining the Jaguar on the sales lots came the Aston Martin DB2/4, Ferrari 250GT, Fiat 8V and the Mercedes 300 SL. While in the USA an icon was born in Detroit—the Chevrolet Corvette. Any self-respecting automobile manufacturer needed to get in on this gold rush.
Over on the American East Coast, Maximilian Hoffman was building up a healthy business selling imported cars, including the VW Beetle and Jaguars. In 1953, he built a monument to car sales in New York with an elaborate showroom on Park Avenue designed by Frank Lloyd Wright to showcase his desirable automobiles, then including Alfa Romeo, Mercedes, Porsche and later BMW. While Europe was mired in reconstructive austerity, America was booming. Every boom meant bucks and that meant a demand for stylish cars. Austin-Healey, MG and Triumph sold UK-made “small” sports cars by the bucket-load, but Hoffman wanted more luxurious, stylish and faster sports cars for the entrepreneur classes. It was Hoffman who persuaded BMW to join Mercedes and Porsche and produce a car to appeal to the New York set.