Under the shadow of the First World War, a chief engineer at Munich’s Rapp-Motorenwerk by the name of Max Friz had an idea. An idea born from his former vocation at Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft. An idea to engineer a high compression, large displacement, silky smooth engine with six cylinders firing in a straight line with supreme balance and enough thrust to propel aircraft to soaring altitudes.
An idea that was soon to be tested as Max Friz stood and watched at an airfield near Munich as his prototype Biplane took to the skies with a lucrative government contract hanging in the balance. As the 19-litre IIIa Flugmotor punched through the skies to hit a maximum altitude of 16,000 feet in 29 minutes, its performance was considered a breakthrough success.
That success prompted a reorganization of the company, and on July 21, 1917, it became the Bavarian Engine Works Company, or more commonly known as, Bayerisch Motoren Werke, and its logo went from a black horse to the stylized white spinning propellers on a blue-sky background. The colours themselves the historic white-blue of the Bavarian coat-of-arms.
It’s been over a hundred years since BMW’s maiden straight-six took flight and since then, this once little aircraft engine builder has grown to become one of the World’s most successful automotive companies with an incomparable number of awards for their engines.
While BMW has gone on to build engines with a multitude of layouts, it is the straight-six that first laid the foundations for its reputation. A reputation so intertwined with the marque that even today, no mention of an Inline-six powerplant would be complete without referencing the iconic Bavarian manufacturer.
And that is where we find ourselves, bonnet open, staring down at this gem of an Inline-six. The B58, a Top 10 Best engines of the year winner in 2016 with the 340i, in 2017 with the M240i, in 2019 with the X5 and in 2020 with the car we have today, the M340i.
While delving into the origins of BMW’s Straight-six does provide for some entertaining historical fodder, there is good reason for this romanticising because as we all know, BMW’s B58 will soon be heading off into the sunset. A fact made all the more sombre because this sonorous engine is a true straight-six TwinPower Turbo’d masterpiece.
As the B58 punches towards 6,500 revolutions per minute with 500Nm of force, its smooth warm baritone notes rise in pitch, culminating with a swell of harmonics setting in to produce a full-on metallic wail as fuel, air, compression and a spark come together through the magic of Internal Combustion to violently unleash 374 fine Bavarian horses.
For all of the 3’s numerous (and rightly justified) praise, awards, accolades and technological prowess, in the M340i xDrive, it is the B58 that takes centrestage with an acoustic performance matched only by the zing of its theatre as it chases towards the setting horizon.
As we enter into a new era of electrified vehicles, we should take the time to savour and appreciate what BMW has passionately built over that singular idea born over a hundred years ago because one day, this soulful Straight-six will disappear into the annals of history. But before that happens, Bayerisch Motoren Werke has made sure it soars.