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The Glove Box: BMW 02

Welcome back to the Glove Box, the weekly feature in which I, Ross Parish, tell you, College Prep, about a car I think is significant, interesting, cool, or otherwise worth our mental focus. Today’s car, as I hinted via email, is the BMW (Bayerische Motoren Werke, in case you forgot) 02 series. I’ll admit something off the bat: those of you who really know cars probably think I should be writing about the BMW 1500 and the “Neue Klasse” four-door sedans that took BMW out of the financial doldrums and turned it into the luxury car maker with pretensions of sportiness that it remains today. And you’re partly right. But the Neue Klasse’s little sibling, the 02 (named so for its two doors instead of four), is the fun one, familiar to all car enthusiasts but almost mythical for its driving experience. Unlike the Citroën from last week, the story of the 02 is much more than the car itself. Its design is simple, it has a manual gearbox, its suspension is made of metal and rubber rather than pressurized fluid, and its headlights don’t turn. Instead, the 02 has become a powerful fixture in car culture by what it achieves with such a simple design.

Looking back from today, some believe that the arrival of the 2002 (the model with the larger engine; more on that later) in 1968 marked the beginning of the 1970s. David E. Davis of Car and Driver reviewed the plucky German when it was new, reveling in how he could take Porsches and Camaros by surprise in the little two-door. In that article, which remains the model for automotive journalism today, Davis saw the 2002 as putting an end to the complacency of big V8s in big cars and puffed-up chests in sporty ones: the compact all-rounder was here to vanquish them all, and it was paving the way for the destruction of the American automakers’ monopoly on their home market. After BMW, Honda and Toyota joined in to chip away at the Big Three (Ford, GM, and Chrysler), which, by 1980, were spiraling towards bankruptcy and forced to downsize and adapt. Arguably, though the ‘70s are long gone, American cars are just now catching up to their foreign competitors, much of which is thanks to the success of the 2002 on these shores.

The 02’s mechanical background had its say in the car’s greatness. In the 1950s, BMW offered a stratified lineup of motorcycle-engined microcars and family cars on one end and V8-powered luxury cruisers on the other. It hemorrhaged money with that gap in the middle. Shareholders, engineers, and designers collaborated to produce the simply styled, sweetly steering 1500, a completely clean-sheet design, in 1962. (Designer Wilhelm Hofmeister added a little design touch that has remained on BMWs ever since: his eponymous kink.) That line of cars preceded the 5 Series, and they carry their own, comparatively underrated, allure. After about a year of production, BMW’s leaders began to discuss a shorter version of the 1500 that might reignite the sporting image BMW had carried in the 1930s. In 1966, the 1600-2 debuted in Munich, and soon drew comparisons to the best compact sports cars of the day, exactly what BMW was hoping for with this humble sedan, simpler to run and repair than a contemporary Alfa Romeo, aimed at businesspeople with an adventurous, racy side. When BMW’s US importer, Max Hoffman, wanted in, BMW sent the 1.6-liter 1602 but couldn’t bring over the dual-carbureted, higher-horsepower 1602 Ti, which finalized the decision to add the option of a more powerful 2-liter engine to the lineup. The 2002 was born.

From 1966 to about 1976, the 02 series spawned numerous body styles: cabriolets, targas, and, my favorite, Tourings. It also bore the many fruits of BMW’s engine development endeavors. From the initial 1602 ti came the 2002 ti (same dual-carburetor setup), the 2002 tii with fuel injection, and, finally, the Turbo, which beat Porsche to market as the first turbocharged production car from Europe. The 2002 ti made 120 horsepower, an ample amount (especially back then) for a car weighing just a little over a ton, while the Turbo’s (likely underrated) 170 was quite rowdy. With such a combination of chassis and engines, the 2002 did go into motorsport, but there aren’t really any heroic stories of motorsport success to share. Conversely, many people who were alive when the 2002 was new have a story of riding in or driving an 02 on normal, public roads. This is a car that is fun to drive even at 30 miles an hour. The 02 series sits on its pedestal today because it had no pretense. It was just a well-rounded, reliable, capable, classless car. Today’s BMW 3 Series, the descendant of the 02, has difficulty making such claims.

Arguably, ever since the 2002, BMW has failed to replicate that car’s driving experience in anything else it makes. Now that safety regulations are much stricter in every dimension and BMW has, contrary to what it might say, focused itself on luxury, there is essentially no hope for a reborn 2002. The 2-series of today is a fine enough analog, but nothing like the real thing. Since BMW made hundreds of thousands of 02s, however, the magic is still attainable. Fetch a 2002 now and, as long as you keep it healthy, you’ll lose next to no money on it other than for maintenance. Now that Turbo prices are above $50k (or $100k), the lesser models are starting to see upticks in market value. The 2002 is something of a rarity for US car enthusiasts. Our Citroëns lost their swiveling headlamps, most French and Italian car brands lacked staying power here, and emissions choked many other potential imports. But we got all the 2002 had to offer, and in large quantities to boot, thanks to its position as the everyman’s sedan first and a sports car second. That’s something to be celebrated, too.

Photo from Auto Clasico


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