I have a bucket list of cars I wish to realistically own at some stage before I die. This list includes a second-generation Alfa Spider, a '60s Ford Mustang, maybe even an old '50s Cadillac convertible to drive out into the desert en route to Las Vegas or Palm Springs. But there's been a favorite at the top of this list for some time now.
On top of the heap is the BMW 2002—a car I've had a vehicular crush on for almost 20 years. The angled shark-like nose with bulging single headlights on either side of the twin-kidney BMW grilles was love at first sight for me. Then there's the rest of the car—a small, boxy but sporty body culminating in a rounded rear with either round taillights (looking more like afterburners than safety equipment), or the more conventional square lamps. It's gorgeous, cute, and sexy all at the same time.
Most enthusiasts are at least somewhat familiar with the '02, but the abbreviated story of its development goes something like this:
After financial struggles during the 1950s, BMW went back to smaller, 1.5 to 2.0L powered sedans, after predominately making luxury vehicles since the war ended. The BMW "New Class" started with the four-door sedan, the 1500, in 1962. It was the manufacturer's first brand-new car and new engine since the early 1930s. The 1800, 1600, and 2000 came in the years to follow with various evolutions in the M10 four-cylinder engine through each variant. In 1966, the 1600-2 was developed as a more affordable version of the 1600. It was shorter, with less luxuries, and had only two doors, hence the "2" designation in the name. Following in fashion with the earlier New Class models, the 1600-2 (or 1602 as it came to be called later) was given the "ti" (touring international) treatment by giving the 1.6L M10 a 9.5:1 compression ratio and dual Solex PHH side-draft carburetors churning out 105 hp. Then two simultaneous events occurred, giving the 2002 birth.
First, BMW's American importer, Max Hoffman, wanted a sportier version of the 1602, since the 1602ti could not pass American emission standards. At the same time, Helmut Werner Bonsch, the director of product planning for BMW, and Alex von Falkenhausen, the designer of the M10 engine, discovered they both privately drove 1602s modified with the 2.0L from the 2000 series. The two executives pitched their idea to the board to create a 2.0L 1602 for the public. Thus, the BMW 2002 (20 for 2.0L, 02 for two door), and the true beginning of a sport-sedan, was born. The 2002 came in two specs originally, the standard single carburetor version producing 100 hp, and the dual-carburetor ti producing 120 horses. In 1974, the car's looks changed slightly by adding U.S. safety regulated larger front and rear bumpers and eliminating the round taillights for more conventional rectangular ones.
Clarion, makers of high-end vehicle audio and electronics, decided to start its new Clarion Builds project division with the '74 BMW 2002 you see here. After realizing that everybody who works at Clarion has some level of car-fever, the company has decided to pick iconic cars to restore from the ground up, while adding subtle touches of modernity to show off the company's wares. The cars won't be gaudy show cars without real road-going practicality, but rather a tasteful tribute, ensuring any modifications blend right into the original architecture of the car. During the build, status updates were posted on bimmerfest.com, Facebook, Twitter, and other various online outlets for Clarion fans and automotive enthusiasts to follow along.
When Clarion acquired the 2002 from a local seller, it appeared to be in fairly decent condition. The car had been a daily driver, and it's appearance backed up its claim. The paint, an original Fjord Blue, was faded, the dashboard was cracked, and signs of rust were here and there. It was tired and not as sprite as its living legend status would suggest. Like a frumpy housewife getting a makeover on daytime TV, this BMW was exactly what Clarion had in mind to restore and show off its brilliance.
The 2002 was sent to BMW classic restoration shop Coupe Kings to be stripped down piece by piece to the bare shell. Once stripped apart, it was evident that rust was more of an issue than previously suspected. Many of the car's panels had to be replaced, with new ones sent from the BMW warehouse in Germany to then be subjected to "hours of cutting, welding, hammering, fitting, and refitting" according to the company's detailed posts of the build on bimmerfest.com. The new rust-free body was then sent to Diamond Hills Collision Center to be fine-tuned and painted its original but rare Fjord Blue.
Back at Coupe Works, the engine was completely rebuilt with all internals replaced, combustion increased from 8:1 to 10:1, and a custom intake manifold by Ireland Engineering. In addition, the 2002 was given a quasi ti treatment by installing dual two-barrel side-draft Weber carburetors, increasing the M10's output to the rear wheels by nearly 60 hp. A custom-made oval air filter and housing from K&M sits next to the throaty Webers. Suspension and brakes were also upgraded with components from Koni and Wilwood. A vintage-era-appropriate set of BBS RS001 wheels was sourced and restored, adding an appropriate performance touch to the vehicle's looks. To improve on the 2002's classic good looks, the unattractive, larger impact bumpers were replaced with the smaller, sleeker bumpers from a pre-'74 2002.
Inside, the car features seats also from the first generation 2002. The older seats, door panels, and consoles have been given a gorgeous leather treatment in the vein of the European exclusive deluxe versions offered at the time. The dash is now sans crack and is faultless. The headliner is velvet-soft Alcantara. The steering wheel, shift knob, and emergency brake handle have been replaced with Nardi components, offering yet another level of sophistication to the car.
And let us not forget the major Clarion touch given to it.
Inside the rear of the car, BP Autosound installed a custom liner in the trunk housing two 10-inch subwoofers capable of handling 1,000 watts, an exhibition clear case displaying the amplifier, LED trim lights to show off the hardware, as well as an array of speakers inside the car. The trunk is still nearly as functional as stock, since everything is embedded. The sound is predictably impressive. In addition, a navigation screen has been integrated into the center console displaying the cutting-edge tech you'd want or expect in a modern car.
All of this is very impressive, of course, but it's only a laundry list without saying how it actually drives.
The canyon roads that carve their way through the famed Malibu Hills seemed like an appropriate place to experience the 2002's legendary dynamics. It flings itself through the canyons like it's homesick, not having seen them in years. Which brings me back to those seats—BMW didn't bother much with side bolsters back in the '70s it appears. During heavy cornering, I was clutching the wheel while my shoulders seemed to alternate touching the driver and passenger doors.
Everything is also heavy in this car; the non-power steering is like twisting a giant steam valve, the brakes wreaked hell on my leg with the amount of energy required to push it down. The shifting was vague—I kept hoping I was shifting into Third and not Fifth. Oh, and forget about air conditioning to provide relief in the 100 degrees it reached outside.
But I'll be damned if I couldn't stop smiling the entire time. The engine has a fantastic amount of grunt (though not "modern fast"), the exhaust note coming from the Magnaflow exhaust is a gravely and growly tenor to accentuate the experience. It's also incredibly fun watching the car dive into the corners, the angled hood in front of you like an arrow pointing its way through the apexes. It was a perfect California car on a perfect California day; the smell of eucalyptus and pine in the mountains leading to the salty ocean breeze dropping down onto the Pacific Coast Highway. At speed, the open windows channel enough fresh air and nostalgia over me to substitute for air conditioning, and never once did the car threaten to overheat.
The Nardi 390 wooden steering wheel adds a classic feel to the car more so, I suspect, than even the stock plastic wheel could. The clutch was also impressively easy. The turning radius was exceptional. Hell, even the fuel economy was great—the car ran on the same tank of fuel the entire drive—from the 70 miles it took to get to the start of the canyons, to the entire day spent in the canyons, and still had plenty to spare for the drive home. There were plenty of turned heads and thumbs upturned, and I couldn't agree with them more.
There's no wonder this car is still seen so often, especially here in Southern California. This BMW 2002 experience came in a car that's as immaculate and lovingly retro-modified as this one makes it just that more special. The 2002's space as number one on my list is not threatened but rather cemented. Now, to see how much they're going for on Craigslist.