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THE THREE LIVES OF THE BMW BARON: ON MAY 22ND, BMW ENGINEER ALEXANDER VON FALKENHAUSEN WOULD HAVE CELEBRATED HIS 100TH BIRTHDAY
Fri May 18 23:15:00 CEST 2007 Press Release
Munich. As a racing competitor, designer and test driver, Baron Alexander von Falkenhausen had a greater influence on the history of BMW than almost any other man. On 22 May 2007 he would have been 100 years old. Von Falkenhausen joined Bayerische Motoren Werke in 1934. He began as a race rider and designer in the motorcycle division and then switched to car racing. After the war he had a spell as an independent manufacturer of racing cars, but in 1954 returned to BMW where he headed the motor racing division. From 1957 onward he additionally had overall responsibility for engine development. In 1976 von Falkenhausen retired as the oldest member of the company's staff. He died on May 28th 1989 at the age of 92 in his hometown, Munich.
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On 22 May BMW engineer Alexander von Falkenhausen would have celebrated his
Munich. As a racing competitor, designer and test driver, Baron Alexander von
Falkenhausen had a greater influence on the history of BMW than almost any
other man. On 22 May 2007 he would have been 100 years old. Von Falkenhausen
joined Bayerische Motoren Werke in 1934. He began as a race rider and designer
in the motorcycle division and then switched to car racing. After the war he
had a spell as an independent manufacturer of racing cars, but in 1954 returned
to BMW where he headed the motor racing division. From 1957 onward he
additionally had overall responsibility for engine development. In 1976 von
Falkenhausen retired as the oldest member of the company's staff. He died on
May 28th 1989 at the age of 92 in his hometown, Munich.
At first glance Alexander von Falkenhausen might have seemed like a man of
artistic temperament. But his modest demeanour, his alert mind and his
unparalleled versatility propelled him into a unique career as an engineer and
manager. He was respectfully dubbed "Lord of the Blue and White" or "Baron BMW".
Motorcycle racer and designer
Born in Munich's bohemian Schwabing district, the young Alexander von
Falkenhausen grew up in a military family. But instead of embarking on an
officer's career, the 17-year-old high-school boy mounted a DKW motorcycle in
1924 and scored his first racing success by coming second in a local hill-climb
event. Shortly afterwards, the young man's growing enthusiasm for the internal
combustion engine even led him to abandon his schooling when he was offered a
job as a designer with a small engine company. After two years Falkenhausen
resumed his studies and in 1928 passed his school-leaving examination. He then
studied mechanical engineering at Munich's Technical University, specialising
in motor vehicles and aero-engines.
In the spring of 1934, with an engineering degree in his pocket, he could have
joined Bayerische Flugzeugwerke, the aircraft company in Augsburg founded by
his professor, Willy Messerschmidt. But since the beginning of the year he had
already been under contract as a works driver with Bayerische Motoren Werke in
Munich. Von Falkenhausen had caught the eye of BMW, riding motorcycles he had
built himself, or else mounted on an English Calthorpe machine, when he proved
to be a dogged adversary for the BMW riders on their single-cylinder R 4
As well as being contracted for racing in off-road events, von Falkenhausen
worked as a designer on motorcycle frames. In 1935 BMW achieved a crucial
improvement in the riding characteristics of their motorcycles with the
introduction of the telescopic front fork. In 1936, for the first time, von
Falkenhausen added rear-wheel suspension. With his experimental motorcycle,
designated the BMW R 5, he returned to off-road racing and won gold medals in
the toughest challenge of all, the International Six Day Trial, in both 1936
and 1937. This convinced his racing colleagues at BMW to stake everything on
rear-wheel suspension in 1937. A year later von Falkenhausen's concept went
into series production on the BMW R 51.
From 1938 onward von Falkenhausen played a key part in the continued
development of BMW motorcycles. Large-scale test rides with the military
sidecar machine, the BMW R 75, took him very close to the battle zone on the
Russian front. Beyond that he was kept very busy with other military
assignments, such as developing a one-man armoured vehicle and adapting a
9-cylinder radial engine from BMW's aero-engine range to drive a large battle
tank. "There was no likelihood that the war would last long enough for us to
get the thing finished," was von Falkenhausen's later comment on that period.
Secretly the remaining motorcycle team were working on unusual new designs such
as a 350 cc flat-twin machine and a frame with a self-supporting monocoque
incorporating the fuel tank, as well as self-supporting sidecar bodywork.
After his spell as an independent manufacturer of racing cars, Alexander von
Falkenhausen returned to BMW in 1954. As well as managing the racing division,
he took over the technical development of the road racers. This gave rise both
to a short-stroke version of the 500 cc flat twin and to a 250 cc flat twin.
With two joints for the drive shaft and a parallelogram support bracket for the
rear swinging arm, von Falkenhausen designed the forerunner of the BMW
Paralever, which has featured in the series production range since 1987.
Race car driver and designer
After his initial successes in the saddle of a motorcycle, Alexander von
Falkenhausen worked his way into BMW's four-wheel stable. At first he had to
make do with outings in sports cars he bought himself: a BMW Wartburg quickly
followed by a BMW 315/1. The motorcycle reliability trials were joined by
hill-climbs and circuit races in cars - some of which he won, gaining high
placings in others. The next logical step would have been to continue his
racing career in BMW 328s, but his sporting ambitions were interrupted by the
Second World War.
In 1946 von Falkenhausen, driving a privately owned BMW 328, took part in the
very first post-war motor races in Germany. A victory and a second place in
these made even his more illustrious colleagues sit up and take notice. But the
following year he attracted still greater attention with the first cars that he
designed and built himself. To begin with he named them "Al-Fa", as he had once
dubbed his motorcycles, but for obvious reasons the inventive designer soon
re-christened his competition sports cars AFM (for Alexander von Falkenhausen
Munich). Driving a lightweight self-built roadster powered by a modified
1.5-litre engine based on the BMW 328, he succeeded in winning the 1948 German
Sports Car Championship.
As well as the boss himself, other celebrities like Hans Stuck Sr. took the
wheel of an AFM. Once at Monza, driving the Formula 2 Munich monoposto racing
car, Stuck even managed to beat the reigning world champion Ascari who was in a
Ferrari. AFM also added a Swiss Championship to its list of triumphs. But
although von Falkenhausen went down in motor sport history as a designer of
racing cars, the big commercial breakthrough for the AFM company failed to
materialise. Time and again, projects for the development of a series-produced
car collapsed. Finally, in 1954 the end of the 2.0-litre Formula 2 forced von
Falkenhausen to abandon hopes of entrepreneurial independence and accept an
offer from BMW.
He celebrated some great international successes, especially in alpine rallies
in Austria, France and Yugoslavia, on which his co-driver was his wife "Kitty"
- the Baroness Katharina, born the Countess von der Mühle-Eckart. After this he
competed in one last rally season in his 16-year-old BMW 328, before switching
in 1956 to a BMW 502. Later, as a private driver, von Falkenhausen won further
rallies and races in the BMW 600 fitted with a flat-twin motorcycle engine.
From 1 May 1957 onwards von Falkenhausen had the additional job of head of
BMW's engine development. Under his management the power unit of the BMW 700
was created, which he himself put to use with great success in motor racing.
With the small BMWs in touring car and grand tourisme categories (with enhanced
performance) he won no less than 17 mountain races in Germany and abroad
between 1960 and 1964 - not to mention a number of rallies.
In 1961 the 4-cylinder high-performance engine known as the "New Class", the
design of which was substantially influenced by von Falkenhausen, made its
debut in the BMW 1500, and now the perfect engine was available for racing cars
of all kinds. In 1964 von Falkenhausen himself drove the sports version of the
4-door saloon, the BMW 1800 TI/SA, to victory in the Eberbach hill-climb and
won a gold medal in the Munich-Vienna-Budapest Rally. He scored his final race
victory on 16 August 1964, this time in the racing Spider BMW RS 850, at the
airfield race in Neubiberg. The von Falkenhausen family continued to enjoy
racing success, with Alexander's son-in-law Dieter Quester driving BMW works
cars to a number of wins in touring car events, Formula 2 and sports car races.
In 1968 BMW's racing division competed in all three categories simultaneously.
However, the motor racing career of Alexander von Falkenhausen was not over
yet. Another great turning point was still to come. In 1966 the 4-cylinder
engine block formed the basis of a BMW racing engine with four valves per
cylinder, controlled by two overhead camshafts. The 2-litre unit showed what it
was capable of in world record-breaking runs at Hockenheim - where it was
fitted in a Formula One Brabham. When the new best times were achieved over 500
m and a quarter-mile, at the wheel was none other than the 59-year-old BMW
engine boss, Alexander von Falkenhausen in person.
At AFM, von Falkenhausen was designer, team manager and sometimes even driver
all in one. This meant learning how to succeed in the motor racing circus with
limited financial resources. Not only was the little company constantly short
of money; when he moved to BMW to take up the job of motorcycle racing manager,
the situation was scarcely any different. How he would have liked, in 1955, to
put the British racing rider John Surtees under contract with BMW, but the
budget did not stretch to that. In fact, BMW had officially given up competing
in races altogether. Nevertheless, von Falkenhausen and his loyal team always
found ways and means of getting BMW racing motorcycles first over the finishing
line. The emphasis was on sidecar combinations, since here the BMW RS flat-twin
engines had proved to be the ideal power source. In 1954, as well preparing
engines for the contract riders, the workshop also guaranteed the supply of
spare parts for private owners for up to 20 years after the small-series
manufacture of the BMW RS racing motorcycle.
Rising sales of the BMW 700 and the New Class, as well his infectious passion
for motor racing, helped von Falkenhausen to convince the BMW board of the
necessity of a commitment to sport. In this way the sporting reputation of the
BMW brand was established once and for all during this period. With the BMW
1800 TI/SA works cars, the company competed from 1964 onward in the
long-distance races for the European Touring Car Championship. The BMW team
made its first big mark in 1965 by winning the Spa-Francorchamps 24-hour event.
A year later Hubert Hahne even won the European Championship in a BMW. Later
on, the lighter 2-door BMW 2002 accumulated racing victories and championships.
Thus did Alexander von Falkenhausen lead the BMW team to the very top in
European touring car competitions.
However, as racing manager he set a great deal more in motion. With
characteristic single-mindedness he wanted to take his passion for motor sport
still further, both as technician and manager. From the 1967 to the 1971 season
BMW competed in Formula 2 with its own monoposto cars powered by 1600 cc
4-cylinder engines. From 1973 onward 2-litre engines were used and "BMW Power"
became the benchmark in Formula 2.
Writing in the Swiss Automobil-Revue, Robert Braunschweig used a telling
phrase: "Alex von Falkenhausen was a human combustion chamber." That summed up
both his work as a designer and developer of engines and his great passion for
testing these power units himself, preferably in the sporting arena. At BMW he
found the ideal set-up for this. In 1957, three years after rejoining BMW, he
was appointed head of engine development without having to relinquish his
function as manager of the racing division.
In this period BMW's road car range comprised the BMW Isetta and the BMW 600
micro-cars, the big 501 and 502 saloons and the 503 and 507 sports cars. As
well as boosting the performance of the V8 engine for competitive purposes,
another of his jobs was to develop the flat twin that was derived from the
motorcycle engine. Ultimately, this engine provided the power for the hugely
successful BMW 700. He was given the further objective of closing the gaping
gap in the range between the small and the large cars. Long-term concepts for
the mid-range were already in hand in the 1950s, but BMW's financial
circumstances made immediate implementation impossible.
The New Class, brought to the market in 1962 with the BMW 1500, caught the
public eye and sold successfully, not least because of its modern 4-cylinder
engine. As the man responsible for design and development, von Falkenhausen had
to fight his corner in some tough debates with the BMW board over the apparent
extravagance of the five-bearing crankshaft, the overhead camshaft and the
unusual combustion chamber design. His stubbornness would pay off in two
respects: the 4-cylinder BMW M10, in its 1600 cc, 1800 cc and 2000 cc variants,
formed the backbone of the engine range from 1962 to 1988 and at the same time
enjoyed a unique second career as the basis for racing engine development.
Whereas touring car events stipulated production-type engines, for Formula 2
and sports car racing new cylinder heads were created with four valves per
cylinder and twin overhead camshafts. BMW also supplied other race car
manufacturers and teams with racing engines, in a volume that would far exceed
500 units. The successes of his racing cars and engines gave von Falkenhausen
ever new motivation to go still further - at times with ideas that at first
appeared rather adventurous. Even his closest colleagues were left speechless
when, at Christmas 1968, he announced his next project: "Let's try a
Though described by some in-house technicians as a "schoolboy prank", the thing
worked brilliantly; the output of the BMW 2002 rose from 200 hp to 280 hp, and
it won four rounds of the European Touring Car Championship in 1969, thus
securing a repeat title for BMW. Four years later came the BMW 2002 Turbo, the
first European production car to feature a turbocharged engine. When, in 1983,
Nelson Piquet driving a Brabham-BMW BT52 became the first Formula One world
champion to use a turbo engine, the "Lord of the Blue and White" once again had
a victorious smile on his face: with the 4-cylinder engine block from 1962, the
racing cylinder head and his turbocharger idea, BMW had scaled the absolute
summit of motor sport.