BMW 2002: Die Flusternbombe

BMW 2002: Die Flusternbombe

by | Dec 17, 1988

Today, 20 years after its explosive inception, the BMW 2002 looks dated, rather like a lumpy, tallish little box on wheels. The passage of time and the introduction oflower, sleeker Bimmers has since trained the eye to expect a more aerodynamic shape, a neater sil­ houette for a package this size. So it’s easy to forget whan an incredible impact this unassuming-looking coupe exerted -on BMW as a company, on performance cars in general, on auto­ motive writers and, most importantly, on driving enthusiasts. After the 2002 appeared, nothing would ever be quite the same again. Very simply, the BMW 2002 redefined the affordable per formance-car market.

The 2002 was no ordinary car. Remember the times that created it. By the mid-Sixties, the German economic miracle was reaching new peaks. The Germans had their high-speed Auto­ bahnen back, the price of pre-OPEC embargo fuel was reasonable, and a whole postwar generation had grown up driving fast. Germans had always liked fine machinery, and now they had lots of newly minted marks to spend. Yet sports cars were still defined mainly in terms of British roadsters. Came the 2D02 and drivers had some­ thing completely new.

I fondly remember the first 2002 I ever drove. It was in Hawaii, whose looping mountain roads are ideally suited to sports cars. I recall storming up behind some luckless soul in an MG, sports cap and all. He was trying, no question. But I blasted past him even with three passengers and the radio playing, causing little apparent effort on the Bimmer’s part. Itcouldn’t have been the first time a 2002 had humiliated an English car. All the technology that had allowed Spitfires to annihilate Messerschmitts over the Channel in World War II had come full circle.

Getting into a 2002 20 years later, it’s tough at first to see what the fuss was all about. The wide bucket seats offer little lateral support, and the oversize, a-bit-too-thin steering wheel is at an awkward angle. However, the car’s terrific balance manifests itself the moment the lusty sohc four cranks into life, as the shift lever falls right into your hand. The 2002 has a firm, Teu­ tonic, all-of-a-piece feel to it, a first impression that grows even more favorable when you get under way. Hit the gas, and you’re rewarded with an almost instantaneous lunge forward, as though your foot were connected directly to the carburetor. The 2002 suffers from none of the vibration and aimless rattling associated with British pushrod engines of its period. Instead, its taut throttle and steering response are reminiscent of a modern BMW; it’s patently obvious that Munich had the correct equation from the beginning and has only honed it through the years.

The little 2002’s forte is a twisting, medium-speed road, where you can let it have its head. The precise worm­ and-roller steering allows you to carve a curve with precision. You find yourself clipping neatly from apex to apex, the willing engine wound tightly, the coupe’s body heeled over slightly. The aging but not dated 2002 still inspires a wonderful sense of confidence.

Looking back on the rise of the 2002, the operative word was “effort­ less.” The 2002 proved conclusively that one no longer had to be a “sport” to own a sports car. No more wrestling with spindly top frames, no more shaky dependence on the “Prince of Darkness,” Joe Lucas, purveyor of electrical components. BMW brought unit bodies to the party, along with Robert Bosch’s electrical reliability, fully independent suspension, a free­ revving overhead cam motor and crea­ ture comfort with abund ant trunk space. At last, an alternative existed for people who thought they had to give up fast motoring when a two­ seater was no longer big enough for their needs.

BMW’s U.S. fortunes in those hal­ cyon days of the mid-Sixties depended heavily on an aristocratic former Viennese named Max Edwin Hoffman (see Automobile Quarterly Volume X, Number 2). Hoffman began selling European cars in New York just after the war; Delahaye was his first marque, and before working with BMW he was associated with Jaguar, Cisitalia, Alfa Romeo, Fiat, Lancia, Volkswagen, Porsche and Mercedes-Benz -among others. Hoffman Motors’ swank Park Avenue showrooms hosted a seem­ingly endless procession of aspiring overseas automakers. The “Baron of Park Avenue”had already earned mil­ lions making felicitous import choices, and it was equally significant that he had enough clout with the Europeans to ensure that his marketing recom­ mendations were heard .

Dr. Ferry Porsche has acknowledged Hoffman’s  role  in creating the  racy Porsche Speedster. Maxie’s persuasive leverage in Stuttgart was also instru­ mental in giving the world  the dra­ matic  Mercedes-Benz  300  SL gull­ wing. And Count Al brecht Goertz, the talented industrial designer who cre ated  the  Datsun  240-Z,  still  credits Maxie’s influence in helping him get his first auto design commission, the BM W  507  roadster.  Consequently, several years later, when Herr Hoff­ man concluded that BMW’s hot little 1600 coupe could benefit from an even bigger engine than it had , he had  a successful track record to back him up. But that’s getting ahead of our story … Today , in  the  BMW  museum  in Munich, flickering old films recall the almost complete devastation that was Munich’s fate when the Second World War ended.  During the war,  BMW had  enjoyed  special  favor  with  the Nazis, receiving exclusive rights from the Reich Air Ministry to produce air­ cooled radial aircraft engines. Those were boom years for the company, as revenue   and   labor  force  statistics reached new heights. The activity at BMW factories and its importance to the war machine made BMW sites fre­ quent targets for Allied strategic bomb­ing. Out of the rubble after the war BMW’s  plucky  motorcycle  division again saved the d ay, as it had in 1918. Its affordable, twin-cylinder motorcycles were easy to make with far fewer parts than cars required. They were the company’s start on the road back to prosperity .

While BMW’s marketing savvy is highly praised today, many people forget all the twists and turns in that road before the right direction was found. When the  Bavarians did get back into the car business, they first offered the 501 and 502 sed ans. Those well-padded and expensive “baroque angles,” built from 1952 to 1961, were known for an eerie whistle at high speeds caused by wind blowing through the twin grilles, a distinctive noise that shrilly signaled the battered firm’s return to high performance.

Although BMW management knew its massive 500s were the wrong cars for those troubled times, it had little choice in the matter. In some respects, however , those models boded well for the future, since there was fresh engi­neering throughout the series, culmi­nating in the impressive V-8 that was introduced in 1954, Europe’s first post­ war production V-8. In 1950, the company built a Fiat Topolino-like Type 513 baby-car prototype but could n’t muster the capital to retool for it. Sev­eral elegant sports coupes and roads­ters followed: the 503 sedan, the first design to hint of the look of a modern BMW ; the stillborn 503 limousine; and Goertz’ 507 roadster. Sales were low throughout the line and , sadly, every one of the startlingly pretty 507s lost money for BM W. The curious back­ and forth product mix  reflected BM W’s indecision about the direction its cars should take. And it would worsen before it improved.

The company’s identity crisis led it to t he incred ible egg, the Isetta , in 1955, certainly a strange direction i n BMW’s marketing fortunes! Italian refrigerator manufacturer Renzo Rivol­ t a some h ow  pers uad ed Munich ‘s management to supply single-cylinder motors for his offbeat Isetta, with its three-cornered  wheelbase. This anomaly was constructed under license; two years later, BMW augmented it with prod uction of its own version: the 600, a four-cornered car and an improve­ ment in engineering. Munich gener­ ated its badly needed sales volume at last by selling 196,531 of these curious beasts from 1955 to 1962, but their ovoid shape and bargain price  did nothing to enhance  the firm’s image. With l 959’s conventionally styled and still-economical 700 model, BMW had a more reputable entry in the low-end market.

The bubble cars and the subsequent 700s bought valuable time for BMW to establish sales and to develop the all-important 1500. BMW’s for­ tunes turned on this model as if on a pivot. First appearing in 1961, its high­ revving chain-d riven sohc four made it an immediate hit and quickly became the basis of BMW’s long-awaited Euro­ pean turnaround. Alex von Falken­ hausen, former racer and later chief of BMW’s engine  development ,  is  cre­ d ited with the 1500’s engine design. Variations on his theme can be found under every BM W hood to this day. A number of other BM W precedents were also set by the 1500, including a rugged, pressed-steel u nitized body and engineer Eberhard Wolff’s clever chas­ sis layout, which incorporated Mac­ Pherson struts in front and independ­ ent  semit railing  arms  in  the  rear. Eq uall y importa nt , t he d efinitive BMW look was there, recognizable from the start. Chief stylist Wilhelm Hofmeister was responsible for the body design. He gave the car a crisp, pur­ poseful appearance t h at ret ained BMW’s traditional hallmarks (such as the twin-kid ney grille) while managing to launch the company firmly into the Sixties with flat hoods (thanks to the engine’s 30-degree slant), flat decks, clean , uncluttered sides and a min­ imum of useless ornamentation. The 1500 and its larger-engine successors were all four-door models ,  although the  Karmann   coachworks   used   the same floorpan to create the four-cylin­ der 2000 CS coupes. However, Hoff­ man, who was confident that “hot rodding” the existing sedan would help to establish a performance image for BMW in the States, soon encouraged Munich to build versions that were even more performance-oriented: the 1800 and 1800TI in 1963 and the 1600 in ’64.

Despite the newfound success, BMW’s management believed the com­ pany was moving upscale too fast. Munich’s sales chief Paul Hahnemann had a theory about finding slots in the marketplace where no one else was competing. Helmut Werner Bonsch, a former engineer in charge of market­ ing and product planning, developed specifications for BMW entries to fill Hahnemann’s slots. Both men thought a neat niche existed for an affordable high-performance coupe, and they matched it with the rather innocent­ looking 1600-2 in 1966. Max Hoff­ m an, h owever, wasn ‘t cert ain a shrunken 1600 would sell well in the United States. For once, he was mis­ taken.

While most  driveline components were largely unchanged, the new car had a 98.4-inch wheelbase (vs. the 100.4-inch-wheelbase 1600), and it was 11 inches shorter overall. Nothing on the market was remotely like the 1600- 2, and the word spread quickly in Germany. A year later, when U.S. test­ ers drove the cars, the cat was suddenly out of the bag. Rave reviews for the 1600-2 (the “2” distinguished the two­ door car from the existing 1600 four­ door sedans) brought a long proces­ sion of knowledgeable thrill-seekers to BMW dealers. Car and Driver wri­ ters likened it to “a real strong Alfa Veloce built by Germans.” They ad­ mired the car’s workmanship and loved the performance: “Floor the throttle and· it takes off like a scalded dog. Point it into a corner – any corner-and unless you’ve simply lost your mind,  it’ll  track  around  like  it  was locked into a slot.” The magazine’s cover blurb trumpeted the 1600 as “the World’s Best $2500 Automobile.”

Of course, American enthusiasts longed for the hotter twin-carb 1600 TI that quickly followed the base version in Europe. However, increasingly strin­ gent Federal emissions laws made the highly tuned TI difficult to certify. The l 573cc (96-cubic-inch) 1600 engine fell just under the critical 100-cubic-inch level in the emissions standards. Ac­ cording to the statute, that engine was allowed 410 ppm of unburned hydro­ carbons and 2.3 percent carbon  mon­ oxide. Ironically, it was easier to meet the regulation for 100 to 140 cubic inches with a bigger, 1900cc (122.5- cubic-inch) engine.

Reading between the lines, Max Hoffman (who by now was convinced a hotter 1600 would be a high flier) told the factory to transplant the existing single-carburetor 2.0-liter powerplant into the 1600. He pointed out that externally the two engines were virtu­ ally identical. Predictably, some “not invented here” reluctance ensued , coupled with the usual concern about how much development time this would entail. Seeing that BMW sales were accelerating as fast as his new 1600s, however, Hoffman didn’t want anything to slow the cars’ acceptance, and he wanted to plan for the future. He was so adamant that he is reputed to have told BMW’s engineering direc­ tor that if BMW wouldn’t do the transplant, he’d personally have Schorsch Meyer, BMW’s Munich dis­ tributor, install the engine. Of course, Hoffman got his way, and the rest is history. With the introduction of the 2002 in the United States in mid-1968, a new era began for BMW.

Road   &   Track  commented   that “despite an unpretentious sedan body … the 2002’s performance, as well as the fit and finish of the car … were fully comparable … with sports cars costing as much as $2000 more.” The maga zine’s initial report looked for a big improvement in performance over the earlier model. True, the 2002 did have 27 percent more displacement and weighed just 160 pounds more than the 1600. Emissions measures (an air pump and retarded ignition timing) were the villians, however. While the 2002 was nearly two seconds quicker from 0 to 60 and nearly 10 mph faster in top gear, the editors still wondered where all the extra horsepower went. They hadn’t totally run out of superlatives, though, naming the 2002 (and its smaller-engine sister) “the best sedan buys in the world .” “They’re almost too good to be true,” the writers en­ thused. “If too many Americans find this out, [BMW] may not be able to supply the demand.”

In contrast to Road & Track’s mea­ sured understatement, Car and Driv­ er’s editor at the time, David E. Davis Jr., was beside himself:

This neat little 2-door sedan [has] all the cojones and brio and elan of cars twice its size and four times its price … The 2002 is BMW’s way of coping with the smog problem. They couldn’t im­ port their little l 600TI, because their smog device won’t work on its multi-carbu reted engine. So they stuffed in the smooth, quiet engine from the larger sedan and – SHAZAM – instant winner! To my way of thinking, the 2002 is one of modern civilization’s all­ time best ways to get somewhere sitting down … The minute it starts moving, you know that Fangio and Moss and Tony Brooks and all those other big racing studs retired only because they feared that someday you’d have one of these, and when that day came, you’d be indomitable. They were right. You are indomitable .

In Europe, the 2002s were unfettered by emissions controls, and road testers outdid one another in their glee. Motor talked about BMW getting on the “shoehorn bandwagon” (perfecting the art of putting a larger engine into smaller chassis) with predictable re sults. “What admirable transport this makes the 2002″ while applauding the car’s attributes as a long-distance tourer. And, of course, the Germans were even more  enthusiastic; Davis quoted the editors of Auto Bild, who labeled the 2002 F/U st ern Bombe (Whispering Bomb). “You should bear in mind,” Davis observed, “that the German press speaks of bombs, whispering  and  otherwise,  with  unique authority.”

Late in 1969, the inevitable auto­ matic transmission (a three-speed ZF borrowed from the 2000 sedans) was fitted to the 2002s. Not much loss in actual acceleration times resulted, and the option broadened the car’s rapidly growing appeal. Unfortunately, the overstressed automatics lasted only about 50,000 miles before major over­ hauls were needed. Ninety percent of the 2002s had manual gearboxes, how­ ever, and they handled their task quite well, although first and second gear synchros tended to wear quickly.

Spurred by an enthusiastic advertis­ ing campaign, fanatically favorable automotive press reports, an increas­ ing number of owner testimonials and newer, more efficient dealership, BMW sales began to expand dramatically. At first, Hoffman believed the car’s base price had to be kept low, so  even tachometers were optional, although they quickly became  “mand atory” options. It didn’t seem to matter: BMW’s performance advantage was so  great  that  enthusiasts  cheerfully paid more for them. By the time the 2002 automatic joined the fold, the price had jumped by $679. Road & Track thought BMW’s price packing was “distasteful.” Although the car was advertised for $3340, all the man­ datory extras pegged the sticker at an actual $3679, including $59 for radial tires, $45 for vinyl upholstery, $20 for swaybars, $40 for the tach, $48 for re­ clining seats and even a two-buck charge for a chrome tailpipe tip.

On the home front, in September 1967. Europeans had begun enjoying an even speedier newcomer, the 2002ti. The addition of twin Solex 40PHH carburetors and a higher compression ratio boosted horsepower from 113 to 135 and increased top speed by nearly 12 mph. Like the 1600TI before it, the ti’s modified engine was uncertifiable stateside, so Americans who wanted speedier Bimmers had to wait until 1971 for the definitive 2002, the tii.

Ed. note: This is part one of an article that originally appeared in Automobile Quarterly. The next installment will appear next month.

This article was originally published in the December/January 1988/89 edition of Zundfolge