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ONE OF the world’s most familiar automakers traces its heritage to Bavaria and to aviation. However, BMW, Bayerische Motoren Werke, wasn’t originally the company’s name. And there was good reason for the aeronautic badging of its predecessor, BFW, Flugzeug, as in aircraft. Not that there aren’t people who disagree.
Bavaria’s coat of arms has two large gold lions supporting a shield of five elements. This shield is quartered with a smaller gold lion, three black lions, a red and white Franconia Rake, and a blue panther. Within the shield is a smaller shield of blue and white diamonds, the colors of the Bavarian flag.
What with its fiery breath, I mistook the panther for a dragon. However, the real story is even better: The mythical panther dates from ancient Greece and was one of the favorite mounts of Dionysus, the god of wine, ritual madness and fertility. By medieval times, the panther got another rep: It would feast, fall asleep and, on reawakening, roar with a sweet-smelling breath. This odor would attract any creature, other than dragons. The hapless creature would be promptly eaten by the panther, thus beginning the cycle anew.
Today, I believe this continues in wine drinker’s “dragon breath,” an irony being the dragon was the one creature immune to the panther’s allure.
Back to Bavaria: Gustav Otto was son of Nicolaus Otto, inventor of the spark-ignited four-stroke internal combustion engine. Gustav was also an aircraft pioneer (German aviator license #34) who opened a fledgling airplane factory just north of Munich in 1910.
Next door, Karl Rapp and Julius Auspitzer established Rapp Motoren Werke in 1913. And, in March 1916, the two companies joined forces as BFW, Bayerische Flugzeug Werke.
That same year, BFW principals got to know Franz Josef Popp, an Austrian-born engineer (with a perfect surname for one involved in engine design). In turn, Popp encouraged them to lure away Max Fritz, a talented designer of engines at Mercedes.
Fritz designed a 185-hp water-cooled single-overhead-cam inline-6 engine that became known as the BMW IIIa. According to Jerry Sloniger’s “It All Began with Aero Engines,”Aviation Quarterly, Volume 6, No. 1, “This was the first engine actually called a BMW and 2000 were ordered immediately by the Kaiser’s air officers.”
Only 70 of these BMW IIIa engines were manufactured before the end of World War I. 1919 Jane’s All The World’s Aircraft lists Bayerische Motor Werke, Munich, but notes only “The motor appears to follow general Mercédès design, with overhead camshaft.” However, the BMW IIIa powered the last of the Fokker D.VII, one of Germany’s famous WWI fighter planes. Indeed, the 366 Fokker D.VIIs built were unique among German military equipment specifically cited in the Armistice Agreement.
Given its Bavarian heritage and aviation origins, it wouldn’t be surprising to find BMW née BFW choosing as its emblem a whirling propeller of blue and white. However, even an official modern BMW video suggests otherwise (somewhat lamely, if you ask me). I encourage you to watch the video and see if you agree. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays, 2015