We recently had a BMW 503 come into the shop that I never heard of, and certainly didn’t know the story that almost caused BMW to become bankrupt in the 1950s. It’s a fascinating tale.
While the world was mesmerized by BMW’s arch rival Mercedes-Benz and its 300SL Gull Wing, BMW felt compelled to make their own stunning roadster. It was believed that Americans would have a significant interest in such a vehicle at the right price point. BMW’s American imported Max Hoffman promised he could sell 1,000 cars if priced around $5,000 US dollars.
The project was an all-out effort by BMW where the manufacturer developed a BMW 503 Grand Turismo as well as a 507 Roadster.
While they used the pre-existing BMW 501 and 502 parts bin to help keep costs down, they felt compelled to build vehicles that would be top-quality and become a showcase to the world. As you might expect when trying to build such cars, the budget quickly escalated.
One major contributor to the cost was its hand-built aluminum chassis. It also was the first convertible to feature an electric soft top as standard equipment. Power came from the pre-existing alloy BMW OHV V8 producing 140 horsepower and 164 lb torque. Yet for a relatively small vehicle, it’s fairly heavy at 3,230 lbs.
The resulting selling price for the 503 was $16,000 USD (DM29,500)! And remember, this was in the 1950s when $1 represents over $10 today. Yes, $160,000 vehicle price in 2023’s dollar value. It is not surprising that sales were so low due to the high price tag. The cars also had quite a bit of competition, such as the Chevy Corvette which was only selling for around $3,500 USD and it had 283 horsepower!
In the end, just 273 examples of the BMW 503 coupe were built, with only 139 convertible cars built. In March of 1959, BMW stopped production but had already suffered significant financial losses from the projects.
Check out this entertaining video of the BMW 503 which shows some of the key aspects that made the car ahead of its time.