“As I sit here, fresh from the elegant embrace of BMW’s new 2002, it occurs to me that something between nine and ten million Americans are going to make a terrible mistake this year. Like dutiful little robots they will march out of their identical split-level boxes and buy the wrong kind of car. Fools, fools! Terrible, terrible, I say. Why are you blowing your money on this year’s too-new-to-be-true facelift of the Continental / Countess Mara / Sprite / Sprint Status Symbol / Sting Ray / Sex Substitute / Mainliner / Belair / Newport / Overkill / Electra / Eldorado / Javelin / Toad / GTO / GTA / GTB / GTS / GTX / Reality Blaster / Variant / Park Lane / Park Ward / Ward-Heeler / XK-E / Dino / Dud car when you should be buying a BMW 2002, I ask.”
In the mid-’60s, if BMW was known in America at all, it was for two cars: the egg-shaped ’57-62 Isetta mircocar, or the ’56-’59 507 roadster, a gorgeous Mercedes-Benz 300SL fighter that was designed to crack the American market. Despite being Elvis’s ride of choice while stationed at an army base in Germany, the 507’s $10,500 price tag put it in Rolls-Royce territory – and well out of reach for most sports car buyers.
Other than that, it was just another struggling European marque fighting for scraps in a time when Volkswagen was America’s best-selling “Import Car,” Renault was the distant runner-up, and The Big Three thought the Chevy Corvair, Ford Falcon, and Plymouth Valiant would be enough to crush the rest. But across the pond, the Bavarian company was working on something completely new, and something ’60s-era American automakers couldn’t have imagined in their wildest dreams. This car would not only become a classic, it would change the automotive world forever.
That car was the BMW 2002. Not only did it put BMW on the map, it transformed the tiny company from an also ran into the “Ultimate Driving Machine.” It introduced the world at large to European sporty sedans, and banished the idea that practical, reliable cars can’t also be a lot of fun. Without the 2002, the blue-white roundel and kidney grilles that enthusiasts lust after today might have disappeared sometime back when Lyndon Johnson was still in the White House, and the most popular rear-engined enthusiast car from Germany was the Volkswagen Beetle.
“So far as I’m concerned, to hell with all of ‘em. If they’re content to remain in the automotive dark, let them. I know about the BMW 2002, and I suspect enthusiasts will buy as many as those pink-cheeked Bavarians in their leather pants and mountain-climbing shoes would like to build and ship over here. Something between nine and ten million squares will miss out on this neat little 2-door sedan with all the cojones and brio and elan of cars twice its size and four times its price, but some ten thousand keen types will buy them in 1968, so the majority loses for once.”
“To my way of thinking, the 2002 is one of modern civilization’s all-time best ways to get somewhere sitting down. It grabs you. You sit in magnificently-adjustable seats with great, tall windows all around you. You are comfortable and you can see in every direction. You start it. Willing and un-lumpy is how it feels. No rough idle, no zappy noises to indicate that the task you propose might be anything more than child’s play for all those 114 Bavarian superhorses.”
In the decade after World War II, there by and large were two types of German cars: Micro cars, and full-size luxury sedans. In this climate, Volkswagen’s Type I was considered a mid-market sedan. And it was somewhere in this gulf that BMW found itself struggling to stay alive. Despite the beauty that was the 507, and the elegant and stately (albeit in a prewar kind of way) 501/2 sedan, the company was barely staying afloat on the strength of its motorcycles and Isetta microcars that it built under license from Italian builder Iso. In 1959, with BMW in crisis and teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, the supervisory board proposed a merger with Mercedes-Benz, which was blocked by dealers and shareholders. Within a year, industrialists Herbert and Harald Quandt owned two-thirds of company stock, and began investing heavily in a modern lineup.
Their first try was the 700, a pretty two-door sedan that became a success in Germany. But the 700 wouldn’t save the company on its own; with its diminutive size and its rear-mounted air-cooled motorcycle engine, it was more of an economical Volkswagen competitor than a modern sedan. For its next act, however, BMW managed to catch lightning in a bottle. Released in 1962 and dubbed the “Neue Klasse,” it was the company’s first all-new car and engine designed from the ground up since 1933, and it happened to come along right as the West German middle class was coming into its own.
The 1500 four-door sedan bowed in 1962, followed by the identical (though more powerful) 1600 and 1800 sedans in 1964. In 1966, a two-door sedan was added to the lineup, and suddenly the car’s sporting character came into focus. The New Class cars already had a gem of an engine in BMW’s overhead cam M10 engine. And with each passing year, its engineers managed to get more out of it. The 2000 four-door came in ’66, and the two-door 2002 followed in ’68. The success of the New Class cars in Germany had taken the company from the brink of disaster to success story, but with the release of 2002, suddenly the world was BMW’s.
“First stoplight. I blow off aging Plymouth sedan and 6-cylinder Mustang. Not worthy of my steel. Too easy. Next time. Big old 6-banger Healey and ’65 GTO. GTO can’t believe I’m serious, lets me get away before he opens all the holes and comes smoking past with pain and outrage all over his stricken countenance. Nearly hits rear-end of truck in panicky attempt to reaffirm virility. Austin-Healey a different matter. Tries for all he’s worth, but British engineering know-how and quality-craftsmanship not up to the job. I don’t even shift fast from third to fourth, just to let him feel my utter contempt.”
“Nobody believes it, until I suck their headlights out. But nobody doubts it, once that nearly-silent, unobtrusive little car has disappeared down the road and around the next bend, still accelerating without a sign of the brake lights. I learn not to tangle with the kids in their big hot Mothers with the 500 horsepower engines unless I can get them into a tight place demanding agility, brakes, and the raw courage that is built into the BMW driver’s seat as a no-cost extra.”
In 1968, as American forces surged into Vietnam amid heavy combat, Detroit was in the midst of ramping up its own invented horsepower wars. Between the Shelby Mustang, Pontiac GTO, and Dodge Charger R/T, it was the golden age of high horsepower and blistering straight-line speed, but God help you if you needed to corner. This was an era when the GTO was nicknamed the Goat for its relative agility – for a 3,400 pound 17-foot long car, that is. For Americans, the 2002 was unlike anything that had come before it. It wasn’t unattainable like a Ferrari or a Jaguar E-Type, and it wasn’t temperamental and impractical like an Austin Healey or Triumph, it was a small, compact sedan that looked good, was built as well as cars that cost twice as much, and could outperform almost anything else on the road.
With its sober good looks and minimal interior, the 2002 fit somewhere between a luxury car and a sports car. In the U.S. at least, it was thought of as an enthusiast’s car, something that you could truly race on weekends, then drive to work on Monday. And unlike the gigantic muscle cars of the era, the 2002 could hit 60 in the high eight second range (with a little tuning), carved corners, got fuel economy in the low 20s, and didn’t need its valves replaced every 50,000 miles or so. Most importantly, it established BMW as a legitimate contender in the U.S., allowing the company to expand its lineup and shift its focus to a global stage.
In the early ’70s, BMW had continued to refine the 2002, releasing the performance-oriented ti and tii models. In 1973, the company unveiled the Turbo, with an outrageous body kit and a turbocharged M10 good for 170 horsepower. Unfortunately, the Turbo was rolled out just as the oil crisis brought the auto world to its knees, and production ended after just 1,672 were built.
In 1975, after nearly one million cars sold, the New Class lineup was beginning to show its age, and it began to be replaced by an all-new lineup of cars known as the 3 Series. But a funny thing happened; aesthetically, the 3 Series wasn’t that much of a break from the outgoing models. It was originally a two-door, though a four-door model was offered. It had a wide grille with BMW’s trademark “kidneys” in the center. And its rear-side glass had that traditional “Hofmeister Kink” that designer Wilhelm Hofmeister penned for the New Class cars.
Of course, BMW itself was in a much better place thanks to the success of the New Class cars. The 2002’s blend of Teutonic minimalism, low-key luxury, and performance had given the brand an avid and growing fanbase around the world, so why mess with a good thing? To promote the new cars in the lead-up to their global launch, the company launched a massive advertising campaign to support it, and with the help of a Chicago ad firm, it came up with a slogan largely based on the sporting pedigree the company earned on the strength of both the 2002, and the 3.0 CSL that’s since become part of the BMW identity: “The Ultimate Driving Machine.”
But without the 2002, BMW might not be the Ultimate Driving Machine – in fact, it might not be here at all. Automotive history is littered with enough “make-or-break” cars that didn’t come through, leaving plenty to ponder for a lifetime. But that’s just one reason why the 2002 is so fascinating.
Imagine being a gearhead in 1968, and seeing a strange, upright little shoebox of a thing overtake your brand new Camaro and disappear around the next corner. No chrome, long hood, redline tires, mag wheels, or fastback, either. Suddenly, a little-known brand in Germany has a car that can seemingly do everything – and for less than a fully-loaded Mustang. In the 47 years since, for every M3, M5, Z3M Coupe, Alpina, 7 Series, and everything else that’s cemented BMW’s reputation as the luxury-performance brand, it all comes back to a foundation built on the success of the 2002. And that’s not a bad place to start.
“Depress the clutch. Easy. Like there was no spring. Snick. First gear. Remove weight of left foot from clutch. Place weight of right foot on accelerator. 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.”
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