We tend to think of big corporations as monoliths – everlasting and unchanging.
Coca-Cola always has and always will sell us Coke. Barclay’s will variously hand out and demand the return of money. The BBC will make television and radio.
That simplistic notion does big companies something of a disservice though, and it ignores both their capacity to change and evolve.
They have to do this though in order to survive and prosper.
The trick is to do all that behind the scenes while maintaining a dignified and consistent customer-facing frontage.
BMW is the master at this.
It has actually taken quite a remarkable journey from its far-off corporate roots, and its life and times as a maker and seller of cars in the UK is especially emblematic of this.
For its here in Great Britain that BMW has truly been taken to heart, not just as a car brand but as an enormous influence on the way we perceive and purchase other brands.
Let’s think back to 1980, when BMW (GB) (latterly BMW UK) was formed.
The first generations of the 5 Series (E12) and 7 Series (E23) had not long gone on sale, and these were really the first big move for BMW away from its core compact car range, which began in 1962 with the 1500 ‘Neue Klasse” and, in 1977, had began (by way of the 1602 and 2002) the first generation of the 3 Series saloon (E21).
The 3 Series. That was the real turning point.
Prior to then BMW had gone through an up and down life of producing small, cheap bubble cars (licence-built Italian-designed Isettas) super-luxury saloons and sports cars (such as the aptly-named 501 and 502 ‘Baroque Angels’ and the 507 GT car) but with the arrival of the 3 Series, and especially with the 1982 debut of the evergreen E30 version of that model, BMW’s future was set.
James Ruppert is nowadays a lauded author and motoring writer, but back in the eighties he was actually a BMW salesman, in the old Park Lane dealership, and he remembers the arrival of the 3 Series as a pivotal moment.
I was lucky enough to be there at the very point when BMW went from prestige niche to prestige mainstream.
The E30 model 3 Series changed everything, being practical, relatively affordable but an aspirational approach to specifying equipment and choosing the engine size.
There really was a 3 Series for every buyer.
That was the clincher.
A BMW was still out of reach, financially, for most car buyers, but only just so.
With a bit of saving, or perhaps with taking a shorter holiday or getting a minor promotion, the workaday Ford or Vauxhall could be consigned to the bin and you could plant a perfect slice of Germanic aspiration on your driveway, and never mind that a radio would cost you extra.
From there, the rise and rise of BMW as a global car maker was more or less inevitable and its work would only become more and more UK-centric.
For a start, the British car buyer really took BMW to heart, buying them in large numbers, especially the various generations of 3 Series.
As we entered the nineties and noughties, and interest rates fell, BMW took careful advantage of the fact that its strong resale values meant that it could offer temptingly affordable finance packages on its key models.
Sales took off like a rocket at this point and it was by the time of the introduction in the mid-2000s of the E90 3 Series that that model famously began to out-sell the supposedly mass-market Ford Mondeo.
Tony Blair may have carefully aimed his 1997 election campaign at ‘Mondeo Man’ but by the time he left office, we were all firmly BMW people.
Once the millennium hit, interest in this innovative brand continued to swell, and today, this iconic brand is one of the most successful and popular car manufacturers in the world.