(first posted 8/30/2016) There’s a wise old saying that warns not to propose marriage to a woman until you’ve met her mother. What if potential MIL is out of the country for an extended period, and you’re in a hurry? You could do what I did in 1977: look in the garage to see what she drives. There I found a BMW 2002 stashed securely away. And it wasn’t an automatic either. It’s all I needed to know: “Stephanie, will you marry me?”
The BMW 3 Series has become the icon of the sporty upscale coupe. It all started with the BMW 1600/2002, beginning in 1966, a half century ago. What made the 2002 the hot car of its time? Was it true virtue or a healthy measure of hype? The late 60s were a time of great change, and the little BMW arrived well equipped to make its mark. That turned out to be quite a big one. And in the process, it no less than vaulted its maker from relative obscurity to the top of the premium car segment? Who in 1966 would have thunk that would happen? Absolutely nobody.
BMW was just barely coming off life support, thanks to the “Neue Klasse” cars that arrived a couple of years earlier. The 1500/1800/2000 sedans (CC here) were leading edge in their configuration, suspension and engine, but no one will accuse them of being beautiful. They were a tad too Germanic: tall, boxy, and a bit dowdy. Just the ticket for Germans who wanted a sporty sedan to haul the whole family with. But that’s not where the action was in the US market; those early four door BMWs were modest sellers here.
BMW’s brilliant move was to spin off a slightly smaller two-door variant, the 1600-02, sometimes referred to as the 1602. And they engaged Michelotti to make the styling a bit less home-baked. Even with all of 85hp (I’m going to use the Euro DIN hp numbers throughout this article because they more closely correspond to today’s SAE net horsepower rating), the lightweight (2000lb) 1600 was a sprightly performer for the times.
But it was its fully independent suspension that really made it stand out in the crowd, as well as its all-round balance and poise. Alfa Romeo, whose hot little sedans had defined and practically owned this segment, finally had some serious competition; too much so, actually. The 1600 co-opted the lusty sportiness of the Giulia.
The supple yet reasonably well-controlled suspension (trailing throttle oversteer came a bit too readily) was perhaps the single most defining aspect of the 1600/2002. Yes, there were other hot little European sedans to be had, such as the Ford Cortina GT, the Alfas, the Opel Kadett GT 1900, and the Fiat 124, among others. And import drivers had come to appreciate the remarkable capabilities (and quirks) of Mercedes’ and VW’s rear swing axles. But neither of them targeted the sporty sedan market. With the exception of the similarly irs equipped (but less sporty) Peugeot 504, Americans for the most part were uninitiated with its benefits in a sporty sedan. Certainly, the domestics did nothing to further that, except for the Corvair. But rear-engined cars, and their unique little vices were a class unto themselves.
But the little BMW 1600 was the mold from which all modern RWD cars have sprung, and once one experienced its joys, very few if ever went back to chattering, shuddering, stiffly-sprung live rear axles. Detroit’s only formula of how to make cars handle better was with stiffer springs and shocks. Great for a perfectly smooth road or the track; wretched on a bumpy winding road. The BMW broke the pony cars’ thrall with superb handling along with a ride that didn’t break it’s drivers’ backs.
I had a religious experience at the hands of a priest in seventh grade (no, not that kind). A new young priest arrived at Immaculate Conception in 1966, driving the first 1600 in Towson. As the youngest cleric on the totem pole, he got to oversee the CYO (youth organization). He was cool, bright, and car nut; I got to ride with him to a retreat way out in Northern Baltimore County, and he drove like the very devil himself. I had never experienced someone driving the snot out of a car quite like this; it was a divine revelation.
The little 1600 had to be spanked hard to fly, but in the right hands it did, although it’s chassis was capable of much more. BMW was on it. Soon Europeans were relishing the 1600 Ti, a juiced up little bomb, and a foreshadowing of what VW did with its original Euro-only GTI some years later.
But the 1600 Ti’s timing was too advanced, literally, for the US. Smog controls nixed it, but BMW’s brilliant US distributor, Max Hoffman, had the solution: imitate the Americans. Forget high-winding little engines; just drop the bigger 2 liter engine out of the 2000 sedan in the 1600. It was cheaper to build than the 1600Ti, and Americans twist more towards torque than absolute horsepower. The 2002 was conceived in America, and then conquered it.
One hundred horsepower; that’s what the 2002 legend was made with. Later versions undoubtedly had even less. But in 1970 it was good enough for a 9.6 second run from zero to sixty (C/D), the same as a 1975 Trans Am 400. And the bigger four’s torque forgave lazy shifting: this was not a high-strung mill, and peaked at 5800 rpm. Everyone raved about it, and Stephanie’s brother convinced their Mom to spend a major chunk of a small inheritance on hers. This despite the fact she was a single working mom with four kids. Someone had their priorities…on second thought, maybe the 2002 in the garage should have given me pause.
I didn’t get a lot of seat time in her car, but a brisk late-night dash up 395 to Mammoth Mountain for a weekend of skiing was more than enough to leave indelible impressions. It was softer than I might have expected, hardly a nervous sports sedan. The engine pulled nicely in the mid-range, but its upper registers were dulled by emission controls. It all felt very solid and chunky, and the visibility was of course stellar. I vividly remember driving over a rough rail crossing, bracing myself for the harsh, jarring response; the little Bimmer just sailed over it.
The several times I had to rescue MIL because her BMW had overheated in LA traffic are also memorable. The 2002 was not without its faults, overheating being the worst of them. The cramped rear seat was pretty high on the list: this is a tiny car for today’s standards, but the accommodations for the driver were excellent: fine seats, tasteful and high-quality interior appointments compared to Detroit’s cheesy seventies’ bordello-look, and unparalleled visibility. The 2002 was truly the antithesis of the pony cars (and all new cars) when it comes to the drivers position and the unobstructed view out: it’s like riding in a glass box.
The BMW mothership may not have initiated the move to drop the 2 L into the 1600, but they wasted no time in also making the ti version from the sedan and coupe available too. Also banned from the US because of its polluting ways, the 2002 ti sported 120 horses. And it quickly became the GTO of Europe.
The final trick was fuel injection, a Kugelfischer unit, that bought power to 130 hp, and made it EPA compliant. Arriving in 1971, the 2002Tii instantly became the hot setup for those in the know. Wider wheels, upgraded suspension, bigger tires, and a hair-trigger response from the gas pedal. Stats don’t really do justice to these cars, but the 2002 Tii clicked of the run to sixty in 8.20 seconds and topped out at an honest 120 mph. Not bad for a brick with a glass box on top of it.
The 2002s initiated a whole generation of drivers in the joys of moderate oversteer. Not the terminal kind, when a tail-heavy rear-engined car no longer can fight the law of centrifugal force. The 2002 started out with mild under steer, but transitioned into a happy tail-out attitude that could be sustained and controlled with the throttle, and not something to be feared or vanquished like in a VW.
I could write about the 2002 all day; it was just about the biggest single boon bestowed on eager drivers in modern history. Evolution has favored the BMW, as has the cachet the BMW name earned thanks so much to the 2002. And now its successor, hardly recognizable as a direct descendant, is a perpetual success and spawned a host of imitators, none of which have really been able to take it on. Has any other car been so continuously successful for a solid 50 years?