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Retro

The sometimes-strange places BMW engines have ended up

Beemer styling is hit and miss, but the engines are solid gold. Well, figuratively

  • Time for an inconvenient truth. No, not that one, with impossibly large global consequences – just a smaller, regularly inconvenient one: BMWs aren’t good-looking anymore. Sure, there’s a few exceptions in the muscular M2, reserved 5 Series and brutish M8 Competition, but that’s three cars out of an entire range with snouts that’d shame an elephant seal.

    Clearly, BMW’s much more adroit at machinery than scenery these days – as evidenced by the powerplant nestled inside the M8 Comp that featured on Top Gear telly recently: 625bhp and 550lb ft from a 4.4-litre V8, with a full warranty. Sheer brilliance.

    It’s little wonder, then, that so many car manufacturers have called on Munich to power their new models. And, if we’ve done our job right, there’ll be at least one here that you’ve never heard of.

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  • McLaren F1

    We thought we’d start off simple and get more esoteric as we go along. Call it the M Night Shyamalan method.   

    So here it is: the very best-known (and arguably best, full-stop) BMW engine in a car without the roundel badge on the bootlid. Gordon Murray’s seminal road-car design and BMW’s custom-made V12, coming together to make a 240mph masterpiece.

    Murray tapped Paul Rosche, who he knew from their Brabham days, to build him the engine he envisioned for the ultimate road car. We’d say job done, Herr Rosche.

  • Toyota Supra

    Ah yes, perhaps just as famous as the McLaren F1, and exactly four and a half thousand times more maligned. Why is it such a problem for Toyota’s GT car to use a proven straight-six petrol engine? Beats the hell out of us, but there you go.

    If we had to nitpick – and believe us when we say it is never a hardship to do exactly that – we’d say that it’s just a case of using the wrong BMW engine. Straight six? Absolutely. Three litres? Bang on. Turbo? You bet your life. Just not the B58, regular-Beemer engine. The Supra is supposed to be super! Surely it deserves a proper M Sport engine, with the correct S appellation? If BMW is willing to stick it down the gaping maw of utter dross like the X4 M, there’s a compelling argument for the S58 making its way into the Supra. Manual gearbox too, please!

    Oh, and Beemer also provides the four-cylinder engine that’ll power the upcoming entry-level Supra. Let the hatred fill your veins, et cetera.

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  • Rolls-Royce Sliver Seraph, Ghost, Wraith, Dawn, Phantom, Cullinan...

    Now, does it count if BMW owns the company? We’re going to go ahead and say yes; otherwise, this’d be a really short article and then you’d have to go back to doing actual work, rather than hanging out here with us, reading about cool cars.

    So, as car history buffs will already know, Vickers’ sale of Rolls-Royce back in 1998 was a complete clusterfornication of rights agreements and trademarks. But that’s a whole other story; the upshot was that the first V12-powered Rolls-Royce since 1939 would use one from... ze Chermans! And it was no better over at Bentley – they were using a twin-turbo version of the M62 4.4-litre V8... running through the 4L80E gearbox... the same as a Chevrolet van. The Nineties really were an interesting time for British car manufacturers.

    With ownership rights sorted out between Vee Dub and Beemer (i.e. BMW got Rolls-Royce and VW got Bentley), Rolls was then able to make merry with BMW bits: turbocharged N74 V12s for the Ghost, Wraith and Dawn, and a naturally aspirated N73 for the Phantom – bored and stroked to exactly 6.75 litres, of course.

  • Rover 75 and MG ZT

    Continuing with BMW’s 1990s shopping spree, we find the Rover Group, which was broken down at the dead end of Struggle Street by 1994.

    BMW’s efforts to get it running again proved about as fruitless as an American’s dinner, which is either terribly sad, or entirely uninteresting, depending on how much of a British-industry apologist you are.

    In any case, there was actually a pretty decent car among the insults, inquests and insolvency – the 75 / ZT with BMW’s M47R diesel. Road testers of the time noted the engine’s refinement and torque, how the iPod would be a passing fad and why frosted tips would be cool forever.

  • Range Rover L322

    But wait! BMW’s efforts to prop up Rover may have failed, but cleaving the grandfather-spec Rovers from the dead-in-an-Essex-lane Land Rovers was a stroke of genius. Without that, we’d never have anything to ferry Portia to cello recital and Rupert to chukkas practice.

    The L322 Range Rover (i.e. the one that actually worked sometimes) debuted with BMW’s dependable 4.4-litre V8 petrol or M57 straight-six diesel. But, as Ford bought Jag and Range Rover, the Yanks were also having a crack at the whole ‘make British brands profitable’ thing that had eluded the Germans. So the L322 segued to Jaguar and Ford V8 petrols and diesels.

    Pedants will note that the P38A also had a BMW straight-six diesel engine. And yes, it did. Well done. The P38A also had the running costs of Buckingham Palace and an electrical system that could only have been more temperamental if it were submerged in seawater. The engine was decent enough, though, and made it into the Vauxhall Omega as well. But... y’know, it’s a Vauxhall Omega. A car as dull as the senior managers who used to drive them.

  • More Land Rovers! Freelander, Land Rover Defender (and one very special Discovery)

    More BMW-engined Land Rovers! Unfortunately, it’s a first-gen Freelander. The engine’s the same as in the Rover 75 and MG ZT (must have ordered them in bulk) and we’re sure there’s at least one L314 Freelander owner who’s very cross with us for being so rude about their terrible, uninteresting car.

    Of much more interest is South Africa’s effort. For a kick-off, they started with a Defender, which, while being about as comfortable as a punji pit, is still such a machine that feels so inherently right. The fact that it was designed as a tool for a specific job, without sops to ‘active lifestyle’ this or ‘aspirational’ that only helps matters. But when the Saffers hit upon the groot idea of wedging in the M52 straight-six petrol from the undeniably excellent 328i Sport, the right tool for one job became a top-tier Leatherman. One that could do zero to 60 in 9.3 seconds and sail past 100mph. Where. Do. We. Sign.

    It might have been this beautifully, yet tragically short run of BMW-engined excellence that inspired our next candidate. OK, sure, it’s a one-off, but the M3-powered Land Rover Discovery rally car really is the next logical step. Well, logical might be a bit of a stretch, but we love it all the same.

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  • Other 4x4s are available...

    Including something called a Bertone Freeclimber, which was offered a choice of BMW engines, in the body of a Daihatsu Rocky, with styling by the same company that did the Alfa Romeo BAT cars, Lamborghini Miura and Lancia Stratos HF. So you’re looking at a very Euro-spec four-headlight arrangement up front, the boxiest wheel arches this side of an Audi IMSA racer and alloy wheels by the king of them – OZ, who manufactures wheels for WRC, F1, DTM, F2, GP3, IndyCar...

    OK, so the Freeclimber might not have the same deliriously desirable lines as Italian supercars, but look at it this way – you can say you have something with Italian styling, German engines and Japanese build quality. Y’know, if you actually manage to track one down.

  • Wiesmanns!

    It’s great to see that it’s not just England with a penchant for hand-built sports cars of questionable sanity. But, true to form, some Brits did try to buy Wiesmann lock, stock and two smoking tyres back in 2014. But we, as ever, digress.

    Wiesmann’s use of BMW engines is as consistent as BMW, really – we don’t know of a single Wiesmann ever sold to a customer that didn’t have a Beemer-badged engine. The MF 30 used the same 3.0-litre M54 straight six as the BMW 330Ci, which then stepped up a notch (and a half) with the S54-engined MF 3, which was every bit as good as an E46 M3-engined, custom-built roadster sounds. From there, things just got faster, with a turbocharged 4.4-litre V8 in the MF 4. Finally, the MF 5 somehow shoehorned the insane V10 from the E60 M5 under its fibreglass bonnet.

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  • Brabham BT52

    The BT52 is one of our favourite F1 cars of all time, and not just because Nelson Piquet drove it to victory in 1983. The season-end banning of ground-effect aero meant a wholesale rethink of cars in next to no time – Gordon Murray famously had just six weeks to come up with a whole new design. And he could not have nailed it more, in our minds.

    Oh, and then there’s the small matter of BMW’s 1.5-litre, four-cylinder M12/13 engine making a reliable 640bhp, and up to 800bhp for qualifying. Apparently, it was capable of 1500bhp “on occasion”, but we’d assume it’d only be good as a paperweight after a few laps, considering it was putting out A THOUSAND HORSEPOWER PER LITRE.

  • Ascari

    Yes, it’s Ascari, the least British-sounding British carmaker we can think of. Well, it was started by a Dutchman and named after an Italian racing driver, so let’s call it an international affair.

    You could also call it ‘what BMW engines can achieve if you’re mad enough’ – getting 625bhp from the 5.0-litre V8 from the E39 M5 and wedging it the midship position in a flyweight fibreglass sports car is a truly excellent way of getting our undivided attention.

    Like Wiesmann, Ascari depended on BMW’s engine plants, starting off with a Chevy V8 in the FGT concept car, but quickly pivoting to 4.4, 4.7 and 5.0-litre versions of the M62 V8 engine, before moving on to the S62 from the M5 and nailing a 1:17.3 around the Top Gear test track at the hands of Señor Stig.

  • Lincoln Continental

    You’d never think that the most quintessentially American luxury land barge would ever stoop to something so lowly as a diesel engine. This is the car that, in its heyday, had a kerb weight of two and a half tonnes, a 7.6-litre V8 engine and suspension that travelled more than a gap year student.

    But, after the oil crises of the 1970s, Americans were less than enthused about getting 10 miles per gallon when it was entirely possible that fuel could either spike in price for the umpteenth time or supplies could dry up completely, as per 1973.  

    The answer? Well, General Motors tried to make a diesel engine out of a petrol one, with easily surmisable results. Ford, on the other hand, went to Germany in search of a diesel that’d fit the bill for its smaller, more efficient Lincoln. And BMW came through again, with the M21 2.4-litre turbodiesel. Which also found a home in the next car on this list...

  • UMM Alter II

    Image: Spanish Coches

    Told you we’d start getting esoteric! Well, unless you’re already up on Uniāo Metalo-Mecânica’s attempt at a Portuguese Land Rover. Which, we have to admit, was pretty successful with paramilitary organisations in the Iberian peninsula, as well as France, Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. As many as 10,000 were sold, including a comparative handful to private customers. One even ferried some Catholic bloke called Pope John Paul II around Portugal in a bulletproof box.

    So, how does BMW fit in? In the engine bay, of course! While the Catholic Chariot had a naturally aspirated diesel from Pope knows where, the 1992 customer models were blessed with the choice of two BMW turbodiesels or the straight six from an E34 525i.

  • Vixen 21D Motor home

    Image: Mr.TinDC

    Americans love a motorhome. Well, none of the ones we’ve met do, but some of them have to, right? The place is lousy with them.

    But perhaps one of the least lousy (especially if they’ve recently sprayed for bugs) is the Vixen 21. With a low-slung aerodynamic body that was genuinely honed in a wind tunnel, styling that made it look like Chevy Chase was about to jump out of it and the promise of a full double bed and 600-watt microwave, we’re already on the hunt for one of our own.

    Add in a BMW straight-six diesel (as used in the Lincoln Continental!), air suspension by Cadillac and a manual transaxle gearbox by Renault and you have the United Nations of automobiles. By which we mean lumbering and slow to react.

  • De Tomaso Guarà

    What you’re looking at here is the very last De Tomaso car that Alejandro de Tomaso ever brought to market. Based on the Maserati Barchetta race car, which was built at the De Tomaso factory in Modena, the Guara was the road-going version that Alejandro envisioned would wear a Maserati badge. But after he sold his controlling stake in Maserati to Fiat, he didn’t have quite so much a say in all things trident-badged.

    The answer? The first De Tomaso sports car since the Pantera’s introduction in 1971: the Guarà. The Pantera, if you can believe it, was still on sale in 1993, so it was finally retired in favour of the aluminium-backboned, carbon-fibre-bodied, mid-engined, BMW-powered Guarà. Well, at least to begin with – from 1993 to 1998, the M60 V8 from the 840Ci did the job of lugging around all 1,200kg of De Tomaso, until it was swapped out for a heavier 4.6-litre supercharged Ford engine. Because of course it was.

  • Talbot-Lago America

    It’s not just modern(ish) oddballs that rely on BMW engines – even as far back as 1957, when on-its-way-out Talbot-Lago bought the 2.5-litre overhead-valve V8 from BMW. Two years later, Talbot-Lago’s whole kit and caboodle was sold to Simca, who dropped the BMW V8 in favour of a V8 of Simca’s own making. Only problem? It only had about two-thirds the power...

  • Bristol 400 to 406, and more

    With all this talk of oddball, super-low volume manufacturers, it was only a matter of time before Bristol said ‘hold my real ale’.

    While Bristol aficionados will dust off their slacks, neatly fold today’s Financial Times and point at you with the stem of their pipe that Bristols used Bristol engines, the fact is that these paragons of English finery had their roots in Germany. Kind of like that mob in Buckingham Palace, now that we think of it.

    And Bristol's proposed comeback car? Well, they bit the bullet and went back to BMW, scoring its 4.8-litre V8. And then they called their creation... the Bullet.

  • Rayton-Fissore Magnum 3.5

    Image: Maseratilaforza

    Never heard of it? Well, let’s do the cliff note version so you can bore your mates later on. Design by Tom Tjaarda – a firm TG favourite, responsible for the lines of the original 124 Spider, De Tomaso Pantera and the Ferrari 365 California. Inspiration by none other than the Range Rover. Power by... well. Some of the absolute greats – Alfa’s Busso V6, for one variant. A supercharged Lancia 2.0-litre in another. And BMW’s venerable M30 straight six – in this case, the 3.5-litre from the 635CSi.

    Later on, they slapped American V8s under the bonnet and called it the Laforza. Even though the Magnum and Laforza sold in the thousands, it wasn’t enough to sustain the La-Magnum. And the world would never see a luxury SUV again... er. Wait. The other thing.

  • Siemens DuoCombino

    Image: Wassen

    It might just be us, but we think trams are cool – a) because they’re not a bus, the unholy spawn of boredom and motion sickness, and b) because even though they're not buses, you still get to tool around on city streets, looking at all the very pretty buildings, instead of being underground, deafened and fed a lungful of dust.

    Or it could be because desperately cool and/or wonderfully beautiful cities like Copenhagen, New Orleans, Helsinki, Prague, Bordeaux, Budapest, Amsterdam, Oslo and Lisbon have them. In Lisbon, the old 1930s trams are tourist attraction in and of themselves.

    By now, you’re probably thinking, ‘Hm. Don’t trams use electricity?’ And you’d be spot on. But, in some cases – such as where trams go beyond the electrical grid of the city centre and push out to further-flung locations – they use engines. Specifically, in the case of the DuoCombino, a BMW M67 3.9-litre twin-turbocharged V8 diesel. Should have called it the Combino M Sport.

  • Brutus

    When they say ‘go out with a bang’, we’re pretty sure they never meant a literal one. Well, a series of exceptionally loud going-out bangs is what you can expect to hear from the exhausts of the 46-litre BMW aviation-engined Brutus, perhaps the best case of ‘I see the how, but not the why’ we’ve ever encountered.

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