MR EBERHARD Von Kuenheim, the chairman of BMW, will retire next month after 23 years with the company. He leaves behind a company which, under his leadership, survived the deepening recession and avoided the layoffs and plant closures that have crippled other German car makers. For the first time, BMW is producing more passenger cars that its rival, Mercedes-Benz, and, unlike the Benz, is returning a profit. On the stock market, Daimler-Benz shares have lost 40 per cent of their value in the last five years, while BMW's share value remains almost unchanged. Mr Von Kuenheim will be replaced by 45-year-old production director Mr Bernd Pischetsrieder. Dr Wolfgang Reitzle, head of research and development at BMW, was in line for the top job, but spoiled his chances with a seemingly bungled transfer to troubled Porsche. When Mr Von Kuenheim took over at the helm of BMW in 1970, it was little more than a specialist sports car builder, manufacturing high-quality vehicles for a small band of enthusiasts. The decision to begin production in North America should help realise Mr Von Kuenheim's ambitions to secure a two per cent share of the world market, which equals 800,000 to 840,000 vehicles a year before the end of the decade. The mainstay of the BMW range is the new 3-Series, which accounts for 62 per cent of sales. The 325i coupe is the most popular car and the new high-powered M3, from the motor-sports division, and the soon-to-be-released convertible will complete the range. The old-style convertible and touring versions of the 3-Series, using the body of the last generation car, will remain in production until 1994. The new 5-Series will be launched in 1995 and is codenamed E39. It will feature new body styling, optional rear-wheeling, new integrated rear suspension and revised engines. As with the 3-Series, the 5 will, at first, go on sale as a four-door saloon with coupe and convertible versions to follow. The 7-Series will be replaced in 1994 by a revised model which will feature four-wheel steering, bigger capacity engines and a larger and more spacious cabin. The 8-Series coupe has proved a slow seller, accounting for a mere 0.8 per cent of total sales. BMW is unlikely to approve an updated version of a car that makes little profit, and the 8-Series will probably continue in its present form beyond the year 2000. BMW's future plans are dominated by the current recession and low demand for luxury cars. Like all German car makers, BMW needs to be leaner and more efficient. The workforce is likely to be trimmed from 70,000 to 50,000 workers by the year 2000, and there are likely to be more parts shared between the different series to cut production costs. For this reason, there will probably not be another independent 7-series model and, to save money, the 5 and 7-Series will probably share a platform. The new 5-Series platform will be made to accommodate the longer wheelbase to give the space and comfort that buyers of the current 7-Series expect from the biggest luxury BMW. Mr Von Kuenheim remains as chairman of the supervisory board of BMW, to oversee the continued success of the Bavarian car maker.