BBS has suffered turbulent times of late. But their ability to innovate remains industry leading. Finlay Ringer celebrates the iconic wheel manufacturer

Let me take you back to 197 0: The Lamborghini Miura is in production, Volkswagen’s standout model is the Beetle and Ayrton Senna is still in karting. It is a prosperous time for the motorsports world as some of the most legendary cars and drivers are competing in the greatest races the world has ever seen. In the small town of Schiltach, in Germany, the Baumgartner Brand Schiltach (BBS) company is about to stamp their mark on the growing car scene.

Nowadays, the BBS brand is the benchmark for both manufacturer and aftermarket rims, but they actually got their start in life making plastic bodywork parts for road cars. The business was founded in 1970 by racing enthusiasts and designers Heinrich Baumgartner and Klaus Brand. Baumgartner was obsessed with aluminium and wanted to make the best wheel on the market out of the lightweight metal. They took advantage of the infancy of the aftermarket world and moved swiftly from their plastic aero kits, which were selling poorly, to start manufacturing their first wheels.

Their original design was created in unison with the Mahle company as BBS did not have the facilities for mass production. The cross-spoke BBS-Mahle made use of a three-piece design with a cast aluminium centre and rolled aluminium front and rear sections. Their lightweight and strong design had never been seen before and was perfect for race use. The two sections made it easier to adjust the size of the rim (which varied from 13 to 15 inches) to fit any vehicle.

They first made their appearance in racing with BMW in 1972, who ordered their newer one-piece design, and were later contracted to build a low-cost version of their rims by Martin Braungardt, who drove a Ford Capri in the Group 2 and Group 5 series of Touring Cars. BBS pioneered their ‘Air Inside’ technology, which built off of their three-piece design and created air cavities allowing for a light and adaptable design that was optimised for easy repairs and air flow. It turned out to be far from cheap, but solidified a partnership with Braungardt and the BMW team, which he moved to the next year. The five year plan with the Bavarian company was very prosperous and saw the growth of the BBS brand with triumphs on vehicles like the BMW 3.0 CSL Batmobile. The excessive aerodynamics and beautiful styling of these prototype racers was complemented by the chic looks of BBS’s product. The stylish yet functional package was a challenge to beat and Baumgartner’s vision was proudly fitted to the front runners of the championship.

By the end of the 1970s, BBS was a notable marque and had several factories including BBS Seral in Fréland-Kaysersberg, France. Business was booming and a majority of race teams from across all championships sported BBS rims. The tuning scene also adored the brand and made use of their rims, aerodynamic kits and suspension systems for their road cars. Even today, BBS is the name to beat when it comes to aftermarket equipment.

The company continued to create innovative products; in 1976, the Porsche 935 debuted with BBS’s turbofan wheels which, aside from looking incredible, were the first wheel designed to specifically aid brake cooling with its bladed design. In 1982, their legendary BBS RS design went on sale. It was (and still is) a perfect addition to spice up the design of any vehicle. From then on, the 1980s saw rapid economic growth for the company; they moved to a large facility in the Lehengericht district creating 200 jobs and expanded global production by creating BBS of America, BBS Japan and reshaping the aforementioned Seral plant into BBS France. In 1987, they created 500 jobs and gained massive investment when they went public.

The 1990s dawned and continued the trend of profitability and success. The so-called ‘golden era’ saw victories in every sector of motorsports and partnerships with the biggest brands in the industry. They used the technique of forging to create wheels for the Ferrari F1 team in 1992 and to create a two-piece successor to the BBS RS in 1993. Their standout year was 1994 where they won every major motorsports championship as a supplier; winners from DTM, IndyCar, ADAC Touring Cars, Le Mans, Daytona and F1 all rode on BBS rims.

I wonder if it was at this point that the two founders finally felt that they had accomplished their vision. Was this the end goal? They had won every major championship, formed some of the biggest partnerships and had their products fitted to legendary OEM vehicles like the first 911 GT3 and the BMW E30 M3. The future looked bright for the business, but misfortune was about to ensue.

The triumph of the 1990s directly contradicted the 2000s, which were somewhat more tumultuous for the brand. Despite a dominant term as Ferrari’s F1 sponsor and further development of the ‘Air Inside’ technology, it was not enough to cushion the blow of the death of their founder Baumgartner in 2002. This signalled the decline of the business. The death blow was dealt by a crippling aluminium shorting in 2007 which forced the company to declare bankruptcy. Belgian firm Punch International stepped in, but BBS had to file again in 2011 South Korean company Nice Corp. bought the organisation and allowed them to continue separating the motorsports division into an independent asset, which remained a market leader. However, their hopes were diminished once more as on the eve of their 50th anniversary in 2020, they had to declare insolvency again, citing a loss of investment due to the coronavirus pandemic.

But brands as iconic as BBS will always hold mass appeal. Their saviour this time came in the form of the KW Automotive Group, who are famous for their suspension technology. As our story reaches the present day, BBS remains a key player in the automotive industry, holding contracts for both the NASCAR and Formula 1 championships.

They may have had their struggles, but their unparalleled creations overshadow their trials. In a very short period of time, BBS elevated their brand image and created an item that consumers had to have. Even today, choosing one of their timeless designs is the perfect way to help a vehicle stand out.