It's tough to imagine an automotive landscape without a BMW 2002 to kick-start the compact sports-sedan movement. BMW's New Class (or Neue Klasse, if you sprechen sie Deutsch) arrived after a decade of expensive cars no one bought (like the 507 sports car) and microcars that offered little profit margin (like the licensed Isetta). The New Class was BMW's best hope for survival; it arrived in 1962 as a 1,500cc sedan with unit-body construction, fully independent suspension featuring MacPherson struts in front and a semi-trailing-arm arrangement in the rear, front disc brakes and a SOHC inline Four. It was proof that you could have fun without having to sacrifice passenger room or quality. (Fuel injection arrived as an option in 1972, a full decade before most car companies thought about getting out of carburetors altogether.) Put it all together and that sounds like a fairly modern specification, but remember, BMW did this when TVs were black-and-white, Kennedy was still president and WWII was only a little more distant for them than 9/11 is for us.
New models and upgrades followed slowly as BMW climbed out of its financial hole on the success of the New Class. A variety of two-doors followed, as did a 1,990cc variant of BMW's M10 engine; the 2002 model, launched in 1966, sold nearly 850,000 copies alone worldwide in the next decade, out of more than 1.2 million New Class BMWs. The 2002 put BMW on the map and instantly became the world prototype for a small, quality-built, technologically-advanced small sedan. (Datsun's 510 sedan is an excellent case in point.) 2002s were even available with turbocharged two-liter Fours before, for example the '73 Turbo. It was Europe's first turbocharged production car (beating even Porsche and Saab to the punch), good for 170hp from its KKK turbo. So, seeing a blown Four under the hood of a BMW 2002 isn't unusual. Seeing a Honda engine under that reverse-opening hood, however, is an eyebrow-raiser.
Recall that at the turn of the millennium, Honda gave us the F20C: all-aluminum construction, 11.7:1 compression, 51-degree valve angle, heat-treated and surface-carburized forged alloy crank and connecting rods, forged aluminum pistons with short skirts, the engine's five main bearings incorporated into a single girdle for strength, an 8,300rpm peak and a 9000rpm redline are among the specs. More impressive: a naturally-aspirated 120hp per liter, or converted to English measure, nearly two horsepower per cubic inch. Without boost, Honda's naturally-aspirated revver made 70 more horses than BMW's blown block.
Now, drop the S2000's power into a car that's some 700 pounds lighter, as a 2002 is compared to the Honda; suddenly that power gets a lot snappier. Mount a turbo onto the hard-working F20C and suddenly you're in another stratosphere. With ten pounds of boost, stock internals, stock compression, a stock Honda 6-speed trans and only a handful of tweaks, like larger throttle bodies, fuel rails, injectors and an AEM computer, owner Max Polishchuk (who also owns CAtuned Motorsports, a BMW-friendly shop in Sacramento, CA), claims 404 horsepower at the wheels. "And we're not done," he tells us. Do the math: that's near enough to five pounds per horsepower for our liking.
But...why a Honda F20C? BMW makes plenty of good engines; witness the late-'80s M3's S14 inline Four, or better yet the S65 V8 seen in the last generation of M3s. The answer is straightforward enough: "We have loved BMWs for a long time," Max tells us. "Even as kids. But we have built Hondas and have had many S2000s. We joked for years about stuffing one into a classic car. The BMW S14 is a great classic racing motor but a used motor needing a rebuild is right around $3,000. Rebuild parts are very expensive, and a typical rebuild consumes about 40 hours. Add up the parts and labor and it comes out to be a lot of money with not a lot of power. The F20C offers a great horsepower-to-weight ratio, as well as cheap power."
Curiously, the holdup is with the rear, which is currently a stock 3.91-open-geared early '80s BMW 320i rear that bolts right into the 2002. "We've had it up to 500 horsepower," Max says, "but the differential was gone after 10 passes. We are in the process of machining out the internal case diameter to accept heavy-duty internals from the E30 [the 1982-1994 generation of 3-series BMW]. That should handle well above 650hp."
It's such an interesting idea that CAtuned sells a conversion kit with custom-fabricated mounts; they've performed three of these operations in-house, including theirs, but have sold a greater number abroad, to Canada, the UK and Germany. Fitting the six-speed Honda 'box required a newly-fabricated transmission tunnel. And any time you're going to start cutting up a unit-body floor, more than tripling the horsepower it was designed to harness, it's always a good idea to reinforce things here and there. "The subframes were solid, but we did add some support in various spots. There's a custom strut bar done like a race cage in the trunk; the battery has been relocated there too, for better weight distribution."
Otherwise, it's really a minimalist creation. The front brakes have 11-inch rotors and Wilwood four-piston calipers now, because there's no way the stock rotors would be able to handle that kind of power in a panic, but the rear brakes are still drums for the moment. The interior has improved seating and steering (and shifting, obviously, thanks to the new transmission), but the stereo is a simple Pioneer in-dash CD player with Kicker speakers. Those American park-bench bumpers have been brought closer to the body than the thin stock chrome Euro bumpers ever were, but the red paint is deliberately unfinished; the wheels look massive, yet are only 15 inches in diameter (stock wheels and tires on US-spec 2002s were 13-inchers!). Coilovers and sway bars on the stock chassis architecture are the basis for the suspension. With the hood down, the slammed stance and bigger rolling stock are the only indications that this isn't grandpa's Bimmer.