Curbside Classic: 1976 BMW 2002 – The Ultimate Big-Bumpered Driving Machine

This is a milestone car–not just for BMW, but for the whole future of the sport-sedan segment, now such a large one. Plenty of folks have written about the original BMW 1600 and 2002, introduced in 1966 and 1968 respectively, and sporting clean styling, great handling, and nice slim, chrome bumpers. The one I found recently, however, is at the tail end of its decade of production, with battering-ram bumpers and a catalytic converter; but still, it’s an awfully nice car. This was the proto-3 Series, and part of the Neue Klasse of BMWs that saved the Munich-based company’s bacon.

Prior to the revolutionary Neue Klasse sedans in 1964, BMW was just barely getting by, thanks to the two-cylinder rear-engine 700 (above) being a minor success. The 700 gave Harald Quandt enough hope in BMW’s future to invest in it heavily, and save it from the future that befell Borgward, which went to the great hereafter in 1963. In addition to the 700 sedan and coupe, BMW also had at the time the little Isetta bubble-car, the four-passenger Isetta off-shoot 600, and the big, expensive 2600, little changed from the original 1953 “Baroque Angel” 501/502 sedans.

The BMW 1500 Neue Klasse was an instant sensation and hit (CC here). It offered a unique formula of performance, handling and comfort that was just not readily available elsewhere. In short order, more powerful 1800 and 1800 Ti models were added, as well as a more luxurious 2000 and 2000Ti. The legendary BMW M10 SOHC hemi four took well to performance increases, and a racing development of it would eventually end up in a F1 car making some 1300 hp in 1986.

The success of the Neue Klasse emboldened BMW to make a smaller version, with two doors. The 1600 debuted in 1966, and was initially called 1600-2 (later 1602) so as not to be confused with the larger four-door 1600 sedan in production at the same time. It sported the same clean, boxy lines and tall roof that made for a very spacious interior for a car of its size (the photo above was shot by Davo; lots more pics of it can be found here on the Cohort). Lots of glass area gave it superb visibility. It was no stunner like a Jaguar XKE/E-Type given its Teutonic boxiness, but still was a very good looking automobile. With 96 (gross) hp, it was a lively performer for the times.

BMW was on a roll now, and in 1969, took the big step of adding a larger six cylinder line, the 2500 and 2800 models (as seen above and below, photos courtesy of Cohort contributor carnivalofsorts13).

The later 2800 and 3.0Si (also sold in a lower-trim version called the Bavaria in the States) was a very attractive sedan; and its M30 six cylinder engine also became one of the the most highly revered of its kind for decades. But let’s get back to the small two-doors.

The 2002 was introduced alongside the 1602 in 1968. It was mostly the same car, but featured a 1990 cc version of the M10 four-cylinder engine as used in the 2000 sedan, good for 108 horsepower. The US market undoubtedly inspired its existence, as in Europe the performance version 1600ti already made 105 hp. But the combination of emission controls and American’s general preference for larger, less peaky engines made the 2002 a superb compromise, and the 1602 version eventually disappeared in the US.

Granted, 108 horsepower doesn’t sound like much in a time of 300-horse 2012 Impala rental cars, but back then it was a revelation in such a well-mannered, lightweight car–especially in America. In the mid- to late-1960s, the Great Brougham Epoch was just getting started, and the 2002 became the seminal small sports sedan alternative, very delicious to those in the know.


The 2002 was also offered in a sportier 130hp “ti” (dual carbs) and tii” (fuel injection) versions, and are the most desirable of the type. And in 1972-73, the 2002 Turbo (above) was not only the first turbocharged production BMW, but the first turbocharged production car in Europe. It was a rocket, producing 170 hp at 5800 rpm, and 180 lb-ft of torque. You couldn’t miss it either, with its colorful decals, front air dam and fender flares.

As the years passed, the 2002 changed, albeit not very drastically. US-bound cars got the biggest changes, starting with tacked-on side marker lights in 1968. That wasn’t so bad, but aesthetically the worst was yet to come, as big federally-mandated bumpers were added for 1974. Substituting them for the earlier models’ chrome slimline bumpers not only hurt the car’s looks a bit, but also added to its weight. Under the hood, even more performance-choking emissions equipment brought down power; despite all this, it remained a fine little sporty car, one that started a lineage still going strong today.

Inside, you could almost believe it was still 1967. Things changed very little, all the way to the end, and those firm bucket seats were just as good as always.

And look, full instrumentation. Yes, that black interior is a little drab, but this car was all business, save for a bit of wood trim to brighten the instrument panel. Everything was clearly marked and close to hand, including the short-throw manual transmission. It was nice to get so much information from your car. Remember, in the mid-1970s most Detroit cars had a fuel gauge and speedometer, period.

The 2002 was offered until 1976, which is the year of today’s CC. I spotted this attractive, gunmetal gray example at a friend’s used car lot. It’s a nice original car and is ready to roll. One of Jeff’s salesmen, Dan, owns this beauty. Despite the plates, it is not for sale. I don’t blame you, Dan!

From checking out this car and sitting in it (thanks Dan!), I can tell you it is very attractive. There might be two dozen of these in Eugene, but seeing one around here is a treat. I can’t even remember the last time I saw one of these in the metal.

The 1602/2002, along with the 1500/1800/2000 sedans, represented a new beginning for BMW. The ’02 had a good run, and from its success came the very first 3-Series, the E21, which took over in 1976. Obviously, BMW cooked up a pretty good recipe; the 3 is still with us 36 years later and, judging from all the 325s and 335s I see running around, is BMW’s most successful model. It all started here.