BMW was saved from bankruptcy in the late Fifties by this Herald lookalike

That select group known as "British owners" often face provocations such as: "What a lovely little Renault!" What an insult to the first Michelotti-designed BMW. The 700 re-established the firm's motor-sport credentials and saved all BMWs from bearing a three-pointed star badge, helping to fend off a Daimler-Benz takeover bid.

The origins of the 700 lie in sketches by Wolfgang Denzel, a racing driver and BMW's sole agent in Austria, for a small/medium-sized rear-engined model based on an enlarged 600 floor pan. When Denzel presented his ideas to BMW in November 1957, the firm was on the verge of bank-ruptcy; the Isetta bubble-car had been grown into the four-seater two-door 600, but little cars were fast becoming regarded by Germans as relics of post-war austerity. The 600 sold only 34,000 in two years.

At the top end, the marque had its famous V8 502 "Baroque Angel" saloons, but they didn't sell well as the vital German mid-market sector was dominated by Daimler-Benz, Ford, Opel and, in particular, Borgward. After the "economic miracle" of the 1950s, people who could buy a medium-sized upmarket sports saloon went for the Borgward Isabella 1500. The lack of something similar from BMW was crippling the firm.

As a stopgap, BMW decreed that the 700 would have a bigger version of the R67 air-cooled motorcycle engine. The latest rear-engined offerings from Fiat, Renault and NSU were hitting Volkswagen sales, and the 700 would have to compete in this sector and generate funds for the forthcoming 1500 Neue Klasse.

But BMW – then the second-smallest motor manufacturer in West Germany – was vastly in debt, and by 1959 there was a strong chance of a Daimler-Benz takeover. Then, the story goes, the textiles magnate Herbert Quandt saw the plans for the 700 and was so impressed that he increased his shareholding in BMW to 50 per cent and brokered a deal with the banks, guaranteeing the development of the new car.

BMW wanted a clear break from the Isetta, so Giovanni Michelotti of Turin was commissioned to style it. His initial design was for a 2+2 coupé and, after a request from BMW for a four-seat design, he devised a two-door saloon that looked remarkably like Triumph's Herald. The 700 coupé entered production in August 1959, joined by the saloon at the end of the year.

In spite of being more expensive than its VW and Glas Goggomobil rivals, it did well at the Frankfurt show. The crisp Italian lines had upmarket appeal; brochures featured a snappily clad gent posing in a 700 fitted with whitewall tyres. By July 1960, BMW had sold 20,000 700s. Next year, the top-of-the-range 700 Luxus LWB and 700 Sport Coupé were introduced.

Hans Stuck's victory in the 1960 German Hill Climb Championship in a 700 was BMW's first win in two decades. From 1961 to 1965, the 700 took 22 class victories on the rally circuits. BMW was not slow to capitalise on a racing record achieved against cars twice the 700's size. A 1962 British advert urged wise motorists to "graduate to a 700" and showed a 700 Sport leading a Saab 96 and a Morris Mini Cooper at Goodwood.

For the more affluent customer, there were two further 700 variants, the RS and Cabriolet. The former, built from 1961 to 1963, had an aluminium body and a highly modified engine. Only 19 RSs were built. Most 700 fans who craved fresh-air motoring preferred the Baur-built Cabriolet.

Although the 700 was popular with the British motoring press, it was always going to be rare here. Today, surviving UK 700s barely make it into double figures.

The 700 Cabriolet looks perfectly proportioned, a scaled-down Autobahn cruiser rather than an enlarged Isetta.

One big contrast to sports cars of the Midget/Sprite school of design is the 700's standard of interior finish. This was a time when many British sports-car drivers thought wind-down windows were sissy, but the 700 Cabriolet had a heater, fresh air ventilation, reversing lamps, a cigarette lighter, a clock, reclining front seats, twin sun visors, a combined ignition-gear lever lock and an ivory-trimmed interior. Even the standard 700 saloon looks as if it should have Audrey Hepburn or Brigitte Bardot at the wheel.

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