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classic cars: bmw dixi 3/15

1929 BMW Dixi 3/15

More than eight decades ago, BMW dipped its throttle foot into the car business for the first time to build a diminutive British econo-car, the brilliantly simple Austin Seven, and calling it the Dixi.

And with that historical tidbit in mind, it might seem more than a little ironic that after getting its start building Austin's Seven, the German car maker now counts among its brands Mini, which in Austin Mini form was the second industry game-changing car from the drawing office of the pioneering British car maker. That's not where the irony, or the ignominy for that matter, ends of course, as BMW also includes in its portfolio another renowned British marque, Rolls-Royce.

But by the mid-1920s Bayerische Motoren Werke – created from a company that had built aero-engines during the First World War – had only managed to get itself up on two wheels as a motorcycle maker, although it was ardently aspiring to four. And to make this happen sooner rather than later, it acquired Dixi-Werke in 1928, which, leaving out some corporate genealogy, had been building cars since 1898 using the Wartburg nameplate.

Dixi-Werke, feeling the pinch of Germany's post-war economy, had decided it needed a cheap-to-produce, high-volume, low-cost car and arranged to build the Austin Seven under license, beginning production in early 1928. When BMW took over later in the year, the Seven came with the deal and became the BMW Dixi 3/15, the first four-wheeler to wear the company's distinctive blue and white propeller badge.

The Austin Seven was the creation of Victorian-era engineer and industry pioneer Herbert Austin who worked for Wolseley and then created the Austin Motor Co. in 1905. After the First World War, and now known as Sir Herbert, he built the large and pricey Austin 20 and the downsized Austin 12, but soon realized something smaller and cheaper altogether was what the market really needed.

The Austin Seven that appeared in 1922 wasn't just smaller but one of the tiniest cars ever seen with a wheelbase of just 1,905 mm and a narrow track of 1,016 mm. It was suspended on solid axles front and rear and had four drum brakes, weighed just 360 kg and was powered by a 15-hp, 747-cc flathead four with electric starter and three-speed gearbox. It could hit 80 km/h and return fuel economy, so the factory claimed, of 6.0 litres/100 km.

It turned out to be Britain's Model T and soon had average British working blokes trading in their family motorcycle sidecar outfits for one. When production ended in 1939, just less than 300,000 had been sold.

And Dixi-Werke wasn't the only foreign maker interested. Sevens were also produced by Rosengart in France, American Austin in the United States and Datsun (now Nissan) in Japan. Sidecar-maker and later Jaguar creator William Lyons got into the car business by building sporting "Swallow" bodies for Sevens. And they also provided the underpinnings for many competition "specials," including one built in the 1930s by Sir Alec Issigonis, who later designed the Morris Minor and the Mini and after the war by Colin Chapman who named his home-brewed creation the Lotus Mk1.

BMW's Dixi 3/15 PS, which went on sale in July, 1929, was originally a mechanical mirror image – with the steering wheel on the continental side – but with some upgrades to suspension and brakes and an all-steel, two-door body developed with help from Rosengart.

It was pitched – with the clever slogan, "Bigger inside than out" and priced at as low as 2,000 Reichsmarks (which could be paid in instalments) – at just about every conceivable buyer from local governments to doctors, lawyers, priests, farmers and just plain family "volk." It was, in fact, a "volkswagen" long before the idea occurred to then up-and-comer Adolf Hitler.

Even women were targeted, with one period photo showing a stylish young thing with a foot perched possessively on the running board of a soft-top Dixi and text that read, "The BMW works subscribe to the view that even a lady fully possesses all the qualities required to drive a car."

And it didn't hurt sales that the 3/15 went right out and gave BMW its first four-wheel-win in a five-day marathon through the passes of the Alps known as the International Alpine Rally.

Shortly after introduction, an open touring model with conventional steel-over-wood-frame bodywork was launched and then a two-seater sports version, a four-seater convertible and a commercial van. A Wartburg sports version with 18 hp was also added.

The BMW Dixi didn't have quite the same impact in Germany as the Seven did in Britain, but by the spring of 1932 a worthwhile 16,000 or so had been sold. It was then replaced by the 3/20, which company historians claim as the first "true" BMW.

Although it seems to have been inspired by the Seven/Dixi, the new car was significantly different with a tubular frame, an independent front (first seen on the 3/15DA-4) and swing-axle rear suspensions. The engine was based on the Seven's but displaced 782 cc and with an overhead valve cylinder head produced 20 hp and it was built on a longer wheelbase and fitted with a roomier body. About 7,000 were built before production ended in 1934.

By 1933, BMW was getting the feel of its new four-wheel business and launched the 303 powered by the first of the six-cylinder engines that would become its trademark in the years ahead. They impressed the owners of AFN Ltd in England, which began importing them and selling them under the Frazer Nash-BMW name.

BMW went on to create the ultra-modern and streamlined 326 saloon and convertible and the legendary 328 sports car of 1936 that really began to create the sporting reputation the brand maintains today.

Back in 1929

Comic book hero Tintin makes his first appearance. Written and illustrated by Herge in Belgium and syndicated in a children’s newspaper supplement, he’s featured in an adventure called Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, which, in 2011, was made into a 3-D movie by Steven Spielberg. Popeye also makes his first appearance in the United States

.It’s a busy year in Canada with a rum-running schooner sunk by the U.S. Coast Guard, explosions in Ottawa’s sewer system, the birth of goaltender Jacques Plante and the heroic flight of Wop May and Vic Horner, who brave -30C temperatures in open cockpits and low visibility to fly diphtheria medicine to Fort Vermilion in Northern Alberta.

The year sees the invention of 7-Up, the car radio by Motorola, penicillin by Sir Alexander Fleming and the chainsaw by Andreas Stihl of Switzerland.

The first Academy Awards are held in Hollywood and the silent movie Wings, a World War One fighter pilot shoot-em-up with some amazing flying scenes, wins Best Picture, the only silent film ever to win the award.