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The 1957 BMW that rewrote the rulebook – adored by Elvis, but it nearly bankrupted the company

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 09/05/2017 By Richard Holt
The 1957 BMW that rewrote the rulebook – adored by Elvis, but it nearly bankrupted the company

In optimistic, booming, post-war America, BMW did not have much of a reputation to shout about. A few people remembered the 328 sports car from the 1930s, but the world had changed in many ways, and cars did not look like that any more. German industry was getting going again, but BMW was not capturing many hearts with staid saloons and microcars. 

One New York-based, Austrian-born man set about trying to change things. Max Hoffman was a car dealer with a difference, a man of such influence that he could get car manufacturers to make new models based on what he told them his customers wanted. 

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The best-known Hoffman commission is the Gullwing and Roadster-bodied Mercedes 300SL - a machine that combined racetrack performance and gorgeous design to become a very strong contender for car of the century. 

When Hoffman approached BMW his plan was to do something similar, conceive a car that would satisfy a growing US market for European sports cars and at the same time make BMW - and of course himself - a good bit of money. 

Such was Hoffman’s sway that he was even able to choose the designer himself, a German-born American called Albrecht Graf Goertz. Graf Goertz’s design, paired with a lightly breathed-on V8 engine from an existing BMW saloon, was laid before the public at the world’s motor shows in 1955. 

The reaction to the BMW 507 was just as Hoffman had hoped. It looked like nothing BMW had made before. In fact it didn’t look much like anything that anyone had made before, with its broad grill and front fenders that make it appear to be preparing to take a leap at you. 

Related: Elvis Presley’s BMW 507 complete after two-year restoration 

On looks alone it was a big hit, and its performance was more than enough to back up the claims made by its appearance. The one problem was price. Hoffman knew Americans would be prepared to pay a premium over US-made sports cars, but production of the 507 with its hand-made aluminium body saw costs spiralling to the point where it was prohibitively expensive, even at a price that saw BMW losing money with every car sold. 

Between 1956 and 1959 just over 250 cars were made before BMW called a halt to production of the 507. The venture had been so costly that BMW nearly went out of business. So you could consider the whole project a failure. 

But not really, because although not many 507s were sold, the ones that did sell were very visible. Ursula Andress bought one, as did Alain Delon. But most famously the 507 was loved by Elvis Presley, who drove one whilst stationed in Germany on his military service. His BMW was white, but after a while he had it painted red – legend has it – to avoid the embarrassment of his army buddies seeing the lipstick messages regularly daubed on the bodywork.

Whether it was down to Elvis, or whether it was just the car itself, the 507 did wonders for BMW’s reputation, which it continued to build upon, for making fast, exciting cars. And visually the 507’s DNA can still be seen in BMWs right up until the modern day. And as a classic, the fact that the 507 was only made in very small numbers only serves to send prices skyward. 

The 1957 BMW 507 Roadster Series 1 is Lot 134 in the RM Sotheby’s Villa Erba sale on Saturday 27th May 2017. Estimate €1.7m - €2m (£1.4m – 1.7m)

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Related: The cars of Elvis Presley (Provided by Motoring Research)

Elvis Presley: a life in cars: Elvis Presley. The undisputed King of Rock and Roll who, to many, is simply ‘The King’. He owned many cars during his all-too brief life, a number of which were Cadillacs. Here we chart a selection of the most famous. The cars of Elvis Presley
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