In my humble estimation, the V8-powered BMW 507 roadster—a complete folly from the company, because its $9,000-to-$10,500 list price in the 1950s ensured its doom—was one of the most beautiful cars ever built. It’s lovely to look at, on par with the Jaguar E-Type and at least as evocative as Carroll Shelby’s AC Cobra (which inspired a million kit cars).
Just 252 507s were produced from 1956 to 1959. Not many were sold, but one went to…The King of Rock and Roll himself, Elvis Presley. The master of Graceland was well known to prefer Cadillacs, but those were in short supply when he was on Army duty in Germany.
What happened was this: This particular 507, chassis number 70079, was not a new car, but had been used in competition by famous German driver Hans Stuck. It was a celebrity before Elvis ever saw it. According to BMW’s historians, it began life in 1957 with German registration number M-JX 800.
The car was exhibited at the Frankfurt International Motor Show that year, and became the go-to vehicle for press drives. Between May and August of ’58, Stuck used 70079 to win a number of hillclimb race events in Germany, Switzerland and Austria. Also that summer, the BMW made its film debut in the feature Hula-Hopp Conny, inexplicably without Elvis—though German favorite Cornelia Froboess was in the cast!
The stage was set: After all the hoopla, the BMW was sent to the dealership in Frankfurt, where it got an upgraded engine and gearbox, and was slated for export. And in walks Elvis, 23 at the time. He was smitten with the white roadster and bought it on the spot, after a brief test drive. The car sported a 150-horsepower aluminum V-8, a Becker Mexico radio, center-lock rims, and a black-and-white interior.
70079 became Elvis’ commuter car. As BMW describes it:
Elvis Presley used the BMW 507 to drive between his home in Bad Nauheim and the U.S. Army base in Friedberg. His female fans always kept a close eye on him and he was often mobbed by them. The paintwork of the roadster was frequently daubed with messages of love painted in lipstick. These signs of adoration were by no means unusual for a rock star but they were an embarrassment to Presley as a young U.S. soldier. A new livery in red for the vehicle solved the problem.
There’s a lot of misinformation out there, including confident reports that Elvis owned two 507s, a white one and a red one—but they’re actually the same car repainted. Also apocryphal is the idea that Elvis sold his 507 to film star Ursula Andress.
Elvis did prove a fickle owner, and once he finished his Army service in 1960 it was (mostly) back to the American iron. Was the BMW the only foreign car Elvis ever owned? No, read on.
Elvis brought the BMW back with him, but only a few months later he traded it in at a Chrysler dealer in New York. The next owner (paying just $4,500) was radio host Tommy Charles, a sometime-race driver who took the car back to his native Alabama and butchered it in fine style. A big Chevy engine was shoehorned in, destroying part of the front frame carrier. The gearbox, rear axle and the whole instrument panel went, too.
The Anglo-American hybrid did win a race at Daytona Beach, and competed widely. Charles sold the car in 1963, and it went through unsympathetic ownership after that until Jack Castor, a San Francisco-based space engineer, historic bicycle and classic car owner, bought it in 1968. He used it only briefly before putting it in storage.
Luckily, Castor was into documentation, and he kept an extensive file, which included that critical chassis number. He contacted American journalist Jackie Jouret, a devoted BMW-phile who writes for California’s Bimmer magazine. In 2006, she was already looking for Elvis’ 507 and had uncovered much of its early history.
Jouret and Castor went together to the pumpkin warehouse where the red 507, in sad condition, was stored. “Jack had tied down its engine bonnet with ropes,” Jouret said. “It took some time until we actually got the engine compartment open and identified the stamped chassis number: 70079, the Holy Grail among BMW numbers.”
Castor had planned to restore the car himself but could never find an appropriate engine. After several years of negotiation, the car went to BMW Group Classic in Germany, and a protracted restoration was undertaken. A lot of parts had to be remade from scratch, such as the window winders, door handles, front frame carrier and leather upholstery. A suitable 3.2-liter engine (also used on the 3200) had to be found, rebuilt and installed. Everything was done with 1950s manufacturing techniques.
As a postscript, BMW (which is celebrating its 100th anniversary as an automaker this year) later produced the Z8, a tribute to the 507--and it lost money, too. Meanwhile, Elvis’ 507 is now headed for this year’s glittering Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, where it will be exhibited on August 21. It now looks exactly as it did when it was Elvis’ commuter car.
There are endless Elvis Cadillac stories. My friend Frank Nicodemus, who runs ace restorer Castle Cadillac, tells me that when Elvis' mother's 1955 Fleetwood was being repainted pink, he heard from the estate, wanting weatherstripping and a replacement carpet with "EAP" lettering. The job of duplicating the exact font would have been easier if they'd let the original carpets out of their sight, but they were considered too valuable to ship.
Incidentally, Elvis did own other foreign cars. He had tiny German Messerschmitt and BMW Isetta cars early on, and later a DeTomaso Pantera, Ferrari 308 GT4, Mercedes-Benz 600 limousine and a very elegant Rolls-Royce Phantom V—the model usually reserved for royalty. But he was royalty—the King of Rock and Roll!
Here's some good video of the 507 restoration in progress: