Why didn’t BMW build a serious off-roader?

Why didn’t BMW build a serious off-roader?

The other day in the office, discussion turned to proper off-roaders. And, more specifically, why BMW never had a serious tilt at producing something hard-core. We’re not talking about your garden-variety X3s and X5s here, as good as they are.

We mean serious military grade hardware – trucks with body-on-chassis construction, diff locks, and ride quality to make even the most ardent enthusiast wince.

It’s not as if BMW doesn’t have a heritage of getting dirty - far from it.

The most famous is the GS line of bikes from BMW Motorrad, which since 1980 have been the go-to bikes for any serious overlanding adventure. There aren’t many parts of the world that can’t be, and haven’t been, reached on the horizontally opposed Gelände/Straße.

Even just seeing one in central London traffic forces an immediate adventure-travel daydream, and one cannot watch Ewan McGreggor and Charlie Boorman ride their GS’ in Long Way Down and Long Way Round without a burning desire to acquire one and hit the road. 

The GS has been repeatedly tested in what is unquestionably the world’s toughest motorsport event, the Paris to Dakar Rally. Hubert Auriol was the first person to win the Paris-Dakar on both two and four wheels, and his motorcycle victories, in 1981 and again in 1983, were astride an R80GS. Still riding a GS, he finished second in 1984, and was leading in 1987 when he crashed and broke both ankles. That accident, unsurprisingly, prompted his switch to cars and away from the BMW brand.

BMW celebrated his wins by naming their most seriously equipped bikes ‘Paris-Dakar’ from 1984, examples of which are now highly collectable. The Dakar name continued as a model within the GS family until 2008.

Prowess off-piste was a cornerstone of BMW Motorrad’s brand identify for decades, so why did they never attempt to replicate this on four wheels? The closest they came was a paint shade called ‘Dakar Yellow’, applied mostly to the BMW Motorsport cars of the nineties. E36 M3s and Z3Ms wearing Dakar Yellow are undoubtedly cool, but are hardly suited to the dunes.

BMW are still represented in the dunes of South America today by the various iterations of the Mini Dakar, but these rally raid cars are so far removed from anything you can buy that they don’t bear consideration. A handful of private competitors have also converted X3s, but these also share very little in common with the road cars.

Interestingly, BMW did once experiment with a hard-core off roader, but we need to look all the way back to 1937. And it was hardly a company decision – the Nazi party could see yet more war on the horizon, and in readiness, instructed all German car manufacturers to develop such a vehicle.

The BMW 325 was a basic, box shaped, open topped all-terrain vehicle, not too dissimilar to the Volkswagen Kübelwagen. With full-time four-wheel drive, three diff locks and four-wheel steering (which halved the turning circle,) it was remarkably advanced for 1937. Its 1971cc inline six was derived from the sublime 326 but produced just 50hp, and it really struggled to shift the heft of that complex driveline and steering system with any real urgency. Throw in four passengers and their military equipment, and the 325 struggled to get anywhere, to be honest. That’s less than desirable on the battlefield which is why just 3,200 were made; most of which were destroyed by the Soviets anyway.

(325 photos courtesy of bmwblog.com)

Since peace returned in 1945, BMW have instead focussed their efforts toward building the Ultimate Driving Machine. They wouldn’t again market an all-wheel drive car until the E30 325iX of 1988, and the E34 525iX of 1991. These cars were the forerunners of today’s xDrive fitted cars, but the system is more geared towards ensuring that white-collar workers can still reach their offices in the depths of an icy winter.

‘But what about the X5!’ The original E53 in 1999 did benefit from BMW’s ownership of Range Rover, and it pinched the P38’s advanced Hill Descent Control and off-road engine management technology, but the X5 is more famous for being the first off-roader designed primarily for on-road comfort. At the time, BMW had a clear and accurate vision of how the future would pan out, and that future was a long way from the ruggedness of a G-Wagon or Defender.

So, what would an equivalent car from BMW have looked like?

It would have first been styled in the late seventies or early eighties, which means it would benefit from the considered and cautious lines that gift the E23 generation 7 series, but adapted, of course, into a utilitarian three-box shape. It would have begun with a diesel engine for commercial and military use, while civilian cars would have sported one of BMW’s trademark straight-sixes, with only a manual transmission available. It would have had serious capability at its core, which means a proper two-speed transfer case, locking hubs and locking differentials.

It would have become an underground cult hero, the Ultimate Driving Machine for muddy tracks. Later, an M60 V8 would have been fitted as part of a major update in the early nineties, and BMW Motorsport would have shoehorned an M73 V12 as a strictly limited run. Naturally, bespoke armour-plated and extended wheelbase versions would still be available today.

It’s an interesting concept to think about, and one that BMW almost certainty discussed in period but decided to pass on.

What would your ultimate BMW off-roader look like?

 

Andrew Coles