BMW Zentrum museum and visitor center
While in Greer, South Carolina, for rider training at BMW’s Performance Center, I checked out the nearby Zentrum facility on the sprawling, mind-bogglingly vast campus of the marque’s North American manufacturing plant. Though diminutive in size, the Zentrum packs a high-quality punch, with a finely curated selection of vehicles and gorgeous displays representing BMW’s relentless and diverse progression of designs in both two- and four-wheeled formats, from its early days right up to the latest, greatest machines and several not available to the general public.
Dwarfed by the gargantuan, featureless factory building just behind it, the recently renovated Zentrum is an intricately serrated, glass-walled, C-shaped structure, replete with a large array of fountains in front of its relaxing courtyard and understated entryway. There’s a paradoxical combination of industrial and artistic aesthetics that ought to be incongruent, but they’re integrated seamlessly and effectively—perhaps as an architectural homage to BMW’s success at wedding form and function in so many of their creations.
Inside, visitors are greeted by a bright and airy space simultaneously uncrowded, yet packed with stunningly delicious eye candy to examine—quite closely, if desired, as there are very few ropes or railings between observers and the observed. An information booth in the reception area contains friendly staff (also scattered throughout the rest of the building) who will provide orientation and discuss the availability of scheduled one- or two-hour tours of the manufacturing plant. Tour tickets can be purchased there, by phone, or online via links on the Zentrum website for $15 or $25, respectively (BMW car club members and students aged 12-20 get a $5 discount; a CCA card is required when purchasing, and children under 12 are not permitted on plant tours). Much to my dismay, I learned these tours are often fully booked days in advance, so it behooves you to sign up for one well before your arrival; I certainly will next time! However, there is a Plan B available: a looping video of narrated tour highlights and absolutely amazing facts about plant operations, which plays continuously on a large screen in front of comfortable bench seating.
Now, on to what I came for! The first multi-level exhibit area features an eclectic collection of iconic BMW cars, arranged somewhat randomly and ranging from the open cockpit 1930 Ihle DIXI to the 2000 X5 SUV, the first model produced at the adjacent plant over two decades ago. The latter has a special place in my heart, since I owned one back in the day and still revel in memories of its Saturn V thrust, sports car handling, and luxurious accommodations. Several newer models are present, too, documenting the continuous arc of automotive development spanning nearly a century. Each classic is impeccably restored to its original showroom condition, and all vehicles on display, new and old, inspire extensive salivation—including the BMW/Williams FW22-02 formula one racer perched menacingly along the front wall.
Next, outside an auditorium not in use while I was there, is a pair of electric vehicles, an i-3 and i-8, representing a direction of innovation extending into the future, with electrons figuring ever more prominently in technological advances. Then comes “The most powerful letter in the world: M,” featuring both roadgoing and racetrack versions of BMW’s top-tier performance coupes. Sadly, the motorcycle exhibit is miniscule, with just four modern variants (one being a scooter) showing a bit of the present-day lineup’s breadth. Still, given the Zentrum’s extreme space limitations and the dominance of the company’s automotive division, bikes may have received an arguably generous allotment of real estate.
Lastly, there’s an exhibit of the various X-series vehicles currently in production at Plant Spartanburg, so called, even though it’s technically in Greer, because Spartanburg is a more recognizable landmark. Nevermind that Greer is actually a tad closer to even more well-known Greenville—go figure! Given the world-leading demand for SUVs in the US, it makes sense for BMW to produce these here at the rate of 1,500 per day and ship what we don’t buy to other parts of the globe.
No museum would be complete without a gift shop, and the Zentrum’s is stocked with all sorts of BMW- and Mini-branded merchandise (modern Minis are made by BMW), including the obligatory shirts, caps, and drinkware, along with some genuinely interesting novelties. Expect BMW pricing. There’s also a little cafe, named after the Isetta “bubble car” (1955-1962) and decorated with an adorable specimen of the tiny machine on a waist-high pedestal.
The Zentrum is a gem—small, multi-faceted, and exquisitely beautiful. Although the vehicles on display are quite limited in number, they’re fascinating and accessible enough to fill a couple of hours with delight. I wouldn’t recommend going for the motorcycle exhibit, since you could do far better on that count by simply strolling into your local dealership. If, however, you’re already in or near Greer and possess a fondness for BMW cars, it’s well worth a visit. Admission is free, it’s open Monday through Friday from 9:30 AM to 5:30 PM, and you can easily augment your trip to the museum with a tour of the magnificent manufacturing facility if you plan ahead. Note that the Zentrum is located deep within the BMW campus. After passing through the main entrance, you’ll wind past a series of monolithic plant buildings before the access road terminates at a visitor parking lot with the Zentrum at its far edge.
1400 Highway 101 South
Greer, SC 29651