In a world full of self-driving cars, hybrid technology and automatic parking, it’s sometimes hard to remember a time in which cars were mechanical objects that needed a degree of skill to pilot around a corner without coming to an abrupt stop.
But let’s wind back the clock 50 years to early-1960’s Germany. A country finding its identity, and an automotive industry trying to break into the American market, which at the time was where car manufacturers would either prosper or get lost in the annuls of time.
Let’s imagine for a second that you’re a director at BMW. It’s frustrating. You open up the morning motoring news to read about the ongoing success of the Mercedes Benz racing program, the legendary Gullwing coupes from the 50’s, and the new “Pagodas”. You slam the paper down on your desk and you wonder how you can reinvent the company. The 328 is a distant memory, and your current array of heavy and lacklustre cars leave you frustrated. You’re losing market share to your competition, and you need a change. So you head down to speak with the engineers and you work on a new vision – it’s lightweight, it’s compact, it’s sporty. And it would go on to redefine your brand for the next 50 years.
Within a short space of time you have a car ready to unveil, and in 1966 you release the very first “02”: a 1600-2, which would later be redesignated as “1602”. 1.6L 2-door rear wheel drive saloon. Weighing not much more than 900kg, with a solid and reliable engine with overhead cam, fully counterbalanced forged crankshaft with a 4-speed ZF transmission, the 1602 had all the right ingredients to be a winner.
Mostly stock, save for an obnoxious pair of 45mm Weber carburettors.
But it took a stroke of genius to really put the 02 on the map, and when two engineers, unaware of the other’s project, simultaneously stuffed a 2.0L engine from BMW’s bigger saloons into their own 1602, the 1602 would be redefined in 1968 to give BMW its most important vehicle it’s ever produced: the 2002. The 2.0L heart would put out a respectable 98 HP, and have extra reinforcements and different gear ratios from the earlier 1602.
Competing against other compact saloons like the Alfa Romeo GTV, Mazda RX-2, Ford Escort and Datsun 1600, the 2002 was more expensive, but it didn’t seem to deter its buyers. The car had simple lines and a unique shape. With that distinctive shark-nose front end and round taillights not dissimilar to those on a Ford Cortina, the 2002 oozed charm. Immediately it was a commercial success, breaking into the US market. BMW had done it, they created the perfect compact sports saloon that would last the test of time. In 1977 when the final 2002 rolled off the production line, the 3-series would follow in its footsteps, and, well, you know the rest.
In 2007 I purchased my first 2002. It was a non-starting car that needed some engine work to get it running again. As an engine builder, I wasn’t concerned, so I made the 1400km trek with a borrowed towcar and trailer, and took with me the $1500 the guy was asking. To be honest, I didn’t know a whole lot about 2002s when I bought it, except that it was cheap and it was unique. When I got it home I stripped the car entirely, and within months my parents’ garage looked like a wrecking yard.
Fast forward to 2012, and my parents’ garage still looked like a wrecking yard, my 02 in about a million pieces all over the floor, components in various states of repair. After a frustrating afternoon of not being able to remove some trim pieces from the exterior bodywork, I opened my computer and started searching for a running car. Within 2 weeks I took keys to a registered, roadworthy, running white 2002. I will never forget that first drive home. The steering wheel was rotated 45 degrees out, the headlights were dimmer than a candle, and driving in a straight line was nigh-on impossible.
What I remember more than that though, is just how right BMW got that car. The driving position and the big, thin steering wheel. The thin pillars that give you absolutely no blindspots and make you feel like you’re sitting in some kind of gun turret. And that funny little grumbling engine that doesn’t seam to have any dead-spots in the torque curve. Sure, my car was pretty tired, but I knew immediately that this was a pretty special car. Before I even got home, I’d named him Klaus.
For over two years Klaus was my daily drive, and not once did it fail me. Not once did it break down or not start in cold weather. Not once did a single part fall off it or leave me stranded. However, on a particularly hot day, I took it to a club track day and unfortunately the tired, abused engine suffered a terminal issue, entirely my fault. So the engine came out and a new engine was fitted, but this time with some go-fast bits. A pair of 45mm Weber carburettors, a bigger cam, some high compression pistons, and some upgraded suspension. The difference was night and day. My tired little 2002 became a track weapon, and on a small club track would prove almost untouchable for silly cars with flappy paddle gearboxes.
Perhaps it’s the lightweight but stiff construction, or the perfect weight distribution, or the strong 2.0L engine with big tuning capabilities, but I’d inadvertently turned my 2002 from a great car, into a truly exceptional car. When talking about straight line performance, most cars these days will outperform a 2002, but that’s not the point. Other cars will come and go in my lifetime, but Klaus, my 1973 BMW 2002, will be with me forever.