I SAW two BMWs yesterday. One was a 5-series sedan, being driven at considerable velocity by an Asian merchant banker who was on the phone, and the other was an X5 SUV with what looked like an accountant propped up in the front seat. I didn’t know it was an X5 at first. I just thought it was an appendage growing off the bumper of the car in front, but then I saw the soulless eyes of an accountant flash for a moment as he got up and sat on the horn.
Naturally, when both of these prestigious Bavarian automobiles slithered past I thought, “Mm, lovely. Have to get meself one of them things.” No I didn’t. I thought, “My word, BMWs have got rather fat and ugly lately.” I was disgusted. I was saddened. Surely, I thought, there was a time when the Ultimate Driving Machine looked better than this? Yes, there was.
However, don’t go right back into history, because if you do, you’ll find they weren’t Ultimate Driving Machines at all. They were aeroplane engines. They probably were ultimate, however, being built to perfection by people called Otto and Karl, in a company called the Bayerische Motoren Werke (Bavarian Motor Works), or BMW for short. It was in this backdrop that one day, BMW bought the Dixi car company and starting making engines which could be fitted to Dixi bodies. But Dixi is a silly name, probably invented by Walt Disney, and BMW apparently thought so too, because in 1932 they started manufacturing their own cars under their own name with their own engines. The result was quite spectacular, actually. Cars like the 1934 6-cylinder 303 and the sensational 1936 328 sports cars soon won respect in European races and the stony hearts of Baron Vons alike. They played second fiddle to companies like Mercedes-Benz and Horch, of course, but that was natural. The up-and-coming Nazi goons were hardly going to want a racy roadster with a belt strapping the bonnet together, requiring, at intervals, improvisation with their wives’ panty hose, were they now? Nein.
But while making racy cars and motorcycles was a completely innocent pursuit, making aeroplane engines was quickly becoming a very naughty thing to do. And after September 1939, one which could land you a couple of bombs. Uncle Sam and John Bull, in particular, were not impressed, and it wasn’t long before little of the works, the motors, or Bavaria itself remained. Thus the Bavarian Motor Works had all but ceased to exist.
Which became rather apparent after the bombs stopped falling. Most of the BMW factories had been completely wiped out, and the chief factory in Eisenach lay soundly in the Soviet Zone, which sort of put the kibosh on any decent cars coming out of there. That’s not to say they didn’t try, though. The Soviets did manage to kick together some ‘EMWs’ (Eisenach Motor Works) which used the same BMW designs – albeit with a red, not blue BMW logo – before the whole thing fell apart, cars included.
Eventually, after much scraping of the depleted capital barrel, BMW’s West Germany factory recommenced car production in 1951, starting with the beautiful 501 and 502 ‘Baroque Angels’, and quickly following up with the stunning 507 sports car. They were impressive. But they weren’t cheap. The 501 cost 4 times the average German salary at the time, and if you were that wealthy, why wouldn’t you get that 300S thing that Mercedes was building instead? Most did. An exception being Elvis Presley, who bought himself a white 507, painted it red because fans were continually drawing on it with lipstick, threw out the fine BMW engine and put it a rattly Ford one instead. Which goes to show exactly what sort of artist he was.
But if you can imagine for a moment your new laptop tumbling off the table and being caught, by the cord, just before it kissed the slate, you get the idea of how close BMW got to becoming one of those car brands which everyone mourns the loss of for about 3 minutes and then forgets about. But at the last minute one of Germany’s wealthiest families, the Quandts, came to the rescue. They replaced the management team and injected a deal of cash which was quickly put to use in developing the “Neu Klasse”, or New Class. It loses in the translation I think.
It was new. BMW had realised to their discomfort that there was not much point in trying to woo the well-heeled, because they just bought Mercedes-Benzes anyway, so why not target the new series of BMWs at the mildly less washed members of German society. So that’s what they did. They started with the 1500, which was a sturdy and rather pleasant looking sedan hewn from rock and steel by Germans, which are all sort of the same thing. As a result, it was a good, solid car, and it sold well.
But while the 1500 and the 1600 and the other variations of that theme which followed might have captured minds, they hadn’t captured hearts. People bought them because Fraulein said so, and because they knew it was a sensible thing to do. They were German Toyota Camrys in a time when that word was blissfully unknown. This was all to change. One day, BMW’s US importer, Max Hoffman – who also prompted Mercedes to make the Gullwing and Porsche to make the 356 – told BMW that they should take the 2.0L 4-cylinder from one of their larger cars and plonk it in a sporty two-door version of the 1600. I mean, wouldn’t that be fun? The bosses back in Munich weren’t so sure. Fun? “Zhis Max Hoffman has been vif ze Americans too long.”, they would have said. But then they must have had a lot of good German beer, and got very happy, because in 1956 they revealed a smart little sports sedan – the BMW 2002.
They didn’t realize the full scale of what they had just done. They just thought, like a German would, that they had made a good car. And they had. But by fusing a potent engine with a practical body, they had also just created a whole new class of car. The small performance car. In years to come, this class was to expand at a terrific rate; the BMW 2002 garnering a huge worldwide cult following in the process, which continues to the present day.
At the time, however, it just garnered vast volumes of profit for BMW – thanks largely to the fact that, at that stage, there were plenty of US servicemen still stationed in West Germany. Which they weren’t wonderfully happy about. Louisa was Louisiana, growing older and uglier by the minute, and possibly with a new boyfriend, and it just wasn’t any fun being stuck in a half-bombed city full of people who barked at each other and ate sour cabbage. I just wanna go home. So the US government thought up a plan. They said that any serviceman, before he returned, could buy his own vehicle in Germany and have it shipped – free – on the returning CVE aircraft carriers, which were empty. Good so far. But what really helped the idea take off was the fact that the US dollar ran rings around the German mark, meaning that practically any soldier on reasonable pay could buy a car.
And which one would the young, immature Americans choose? The cool, sporty-looking 2002, of course. It was a win-win arrangement. Sales of the 2002 went through the roof, bringing in profit for BMW, while the Americans were literally getting whole aircraft carriers full of 2002s for a pittance. Add that to the number that Hoffman was importing, and it wasn’t long before BMW, hitherto little known outside of Germany, was a common sight on American roads. It’s stayed that way ever since. In fact, I believe the Americans even build BMWs now, which might explain why they’re becoming obese.
In Europe, too, the BMW 2002 proved a brilliant success. On the track it earned a feisty reputation, even winning the Touring Car Championship, while on the road it could give the dashing Sir Muddleduck in his Jaguar E-Type a run for his money, at least initially. And while Sir Muddleduck would have to return to Muddleduck Hall to get the Bentley, the 2002 driver could just pull over after shredding rubber, pick up wifie and children, and all go out for a picnic on the Thames. As if you’d want to though. Dead Irishmen in there.
One thing was clear. The BMW 2002, with its brilliant blend of practicality and celerity, was a phenomenon which had taken the world by surprise. The funny thing was that BMW was just as surprised as anyone. While they nodded wisely at public events, and soaked in the feverish enthusiasm for their chef-d'oeuvre, back in the boardroom they probably asked each other, “Vhat on earv did ve do?” They hadn’t a clue. So they just made the best of it anyway.
But that was then. This is now. 2016. The 50th Anniversary of the 2002, and the 100th Anniversary of the Bavarian Motor Works itself. And I am standing beside a 1971 BMW 2002 in a beige jacket and a brown cap I borrowed from someone in the 1880s, and haven’t had a chance to return. An Arctic blast is whistling down from the hills and skating off the Cotter River, making it rather chilly. But all this is the sort of thing people chat about when they’re at the zoo avoiding the white elephant, and is rather inconsequential, irreverent even, when you’re standing next to one of the world’s greatest cars. Excitement makes a good heater.
The car belongs to local BMW collector, Donald Campbell, who generously sacrificed a cold Saturday morning to allow ATW to experience his pride and joy first hand. Painted in an iridescent orange (which is actually close to the original shade), with a black interior, this 2002 was originally bought brand new by Campbell’s father-in-law. “But I always wanted it”, he admits. And now he’s got it. “In loving hands”, as the emotional Christopher Lawrence from Classic FM might say. Which is why I won’t.
Though ownership of a recognized historical vehicle like this isn’t all roses and no thorns. “Mechanically, the BMW 2002 is indestructible,” says Campbell, “so when I need spare parts they’re body or trim parts.” And they’re increasingly difficult to find, and expensive when you do. Without organisations like BMW Classic Cars on the Mornington Peninsular, it would be nigh impossible. Surprisingly, red-tape isn’t much of a challenge, at least in the ACT. “Historic rego allows for 2,000 kilometres a year, logged twice a month,” Campbell says, “but the ACT is more generous than NSW.” And what are the benefits of historic registration? “Cheapness,” he simply replies. I’d add a nice-looking numberplate to that.
As we cruise along the Cotter’s winding roads, the first thing to notice about the 2002 is the way it carries itself. It feels amazing smooth. In fact, I have been in modern cars which rode less smoothly than this Beamer. “You can see,” says Campbell, “how well it handles the corners. It was quite fast for its time, and the handling was, and still is, very precise.” There’s a bit of wind buffeting from the front window, as it stands rather upright, but who cares? Its refinement is hardly tarnished.
Sitting in the 2002’s practical and solid cabin is an interesting experience. The smell is lovely. It’s like walking into an old, musty, ‘70s railway carriage. Rich, disintegrating, old vinyl. I seriously don’t know why it isn’t made into perfume. And thanks to the 2002’s upright design and enormous windows, the visibility can only be described as being a panoramic view, which is nice when the scenery in question is rolling hills and steep precipices interspersed with gum trees and moody cyclists swathed in fluorescence.
However, while being in a glasshouse is rather pleasant on a truly terrible winter morning, according to Campbell it gets incredibly hot in summer. “It’s designed for Europe, not Australia,” he says. Which made me wonder what all those American GIs living in Arizona thought. Considering that Americans are just a crust of bravura and then all marshmallow fluff, I rather suspect they went wailing to Mom.
It’s also interesting to see how BMW saved costs on the 2002. Nowadays car companies keep the prices low by cutting out the plastics from ice-cream containers and making the interior out of that and glue and glitter. Back then, especially in Germany, that was verboten. Making a good car meant making a car which didn’t lose the door lining when it bumped over the BMW driveway gutter. That’s apparent from the bulletproof feel of all the materials in the 2002. The doors, for one thing, weight 3 tonnes apiece and cannot be merely shut. They must be hurled at the chassis, maintaining in the meanwhile that delicate blend of actually shutting the door while not shattering the window glass. And trust me, that’s difficult blend to achieve. On one occasion, I gave the 2002’s door a terrific slam only to have it swing open at the next roundabout. Had any damage been incurred, I have no doubt I would have been sent flying off a precipice, and rightly so.
But that’s the thing. Everything is just so solid. You could lock a grizzly bear in there, and you’d come back and he’d be sitting there moaning and holding his paw.
Which begs the question: how then did BMW save costs? Simple. They didn’t offer any options or accessories. There was one BMW 2002 – the BMW 2002. It was the same the world over. And I actually think people would be happier if car companies were to do the same thing today. Take the extra money spent on technological gadgetry and put it into build quality instead. After all, what use is Bluetooth if the Bluetooth knob was last seen receding into the dash? Very little.
Pulling over at one of the many picnic spots dotted along the Cotter allows me to trade the 2002’s light and airy cabin for the light and airy outside world, the whiff of old vinyl for the refreshing scent of nature, the sound of a rumbling 2.0L engine for that of a river travelling through rocks. It also provides the opportunity to step backwards and admire the design of something from an entirely different age. It is something to admire, certainly. The 2002’s exterior manages to be simple and unpretentious, yet very smart and sporty. The traditional kidney grilles. The silver coachlines. The cigar butt taillights, which echo the front’s beautifully. Those big glass windows. It’s a nice thing to look at. A very nice thing to look at.
But it wasn’t to stay that way. The Americans, having made a bit of a mess of the Bay of Pigs thing, were now on the lookout for the next thing they could ruin, and pretty soon Congressmen all thought that the BMW 2002’s rear lights were too small, and they should be made bigger and squarer, so that Jeff Davis doesn’t run into the back of it with his Cadillac. And just in case he does, we’ll legislate that all cars in the USA must be fitted with huge rubber bumpers front and back. Huge, man. The kind you can use for a kitchen bench. Thus did the Americans eventually spoil the clean visuals of the MG B, the Lamborghini Urraco, and the BMW 2002, before they all lost interest and went and did that Watergate thing. BMW, like the rest, couldn’t afford to lose the lucrative American market, so on went the rubber bumpers and the mismatched rear lights, and the rest of the ugly design tweaks.
And arguably, BMW has never been the same since. Yes, there’s been nice-looking Beamers since the days of the 2002, such as the 1988 M1, the 1996 Z3M, or some of the 5-series sedans. And none of them have really been awful. But they just aren’t the same. BMW doesn’t make things like the sensational 328, the Baroque Angels, the 507, or the remarkable 2002 anymore. Instead, they make bland and ugly SUVs and overdesigned sedans and hatchbacks which have appeal to no one excepts accountants and merchant bankers. In fact, as the sun beams through the boughs of gum trees and glints off the BMW 2002’s iridescent paintwork, and the stream gushes in the distance, I feel as though the best chapter in the History of BMW is closed forever.
But then a brand new BMW M4 zooms past on the Cotter Road, its exhaust howling and spitting in fury, and I begin to think… I might be wrong. Perhaps the legacy of the glorious 2002 lives on.