Car-Guy Numerology2002 Is Finally Here And BMW Missed The Boat
Automotive enthusiasts around the world are getting all weak in the knees over BMW's launch of the new Mini, a German-designed, retrospectively styled interpretation of a British icon. There is no doubt that the Mini will be hugely successful and may eventually even make money for BMW, something the original Mini probably never did when it was owned by the British. But faithful BMW fanatics around the world have got to be scratching their heads over how the German carmaker could let the year 2002 arrive without making an equally exciting retro-car based on its original BMW 2002 model.
The BMW 2002 was probably the most important automobile BMW ever built. Before its arrival in the mid '60s, the Munich-based manufacturer was known for its boxer-engine motorcycles, a few odd little Isetta microcars and a range of expensive, limited-production sedans. This was a company going nowhere fast.
All of that changed, however, with the introduction of the BMW 1600-2 in 1966. Here was a robust, small two-door sedan with sophisticated independent front and rear suspension and a willing 1.6-liter overhead valve engine. It was something brand-new, and it introduced the world to the idea of a sport sedan. In 1967 BMW introduced the 1600ti, with twin Solex sidedraft carburetors as well as a front anti-roll bar, wider rims and bigger brakes.
But, this hotted-up and highly tuned 1600cc engine had trouble meeting U.S. emissions standards, and another solution was needed. It was found in the 114-bhp 2-liter engine from the company's larger 2000 series cars. This was transplanted into the 1600 chassis and introduced as the 2002 in 1968. The larger engine was all that was needed to turn the little BMW into a giant-killer, and a legend was born. The car sold very well and propelled BMW into the upper echelon of performance car manufacturers.
Most American enthusiasts probably first learned about the BMW 2002 in a 1968 issue of Car and Driver. David E. Davis, Jr. wrote one of automotive journalism's definitive car reviews when he penned "Turn your Hymnals to 2002," extolling the virtues of the newly introduced model. Read today, his review is filled with charming late-1960s references to squares and LSD and shag carpets, but the thing that is most clear is that Mr. Davis felt the little BMW was truly special. In many ways that one story was a defining moment for BMW in America, car journalism in general and automotive enthusiasts everywhere. Current owners of classic old BMW 2002s still sleep with a copy under their pillows.
Davis described the car this way: "To my way of thinking, the 2002 is one of modern civilization's all-time best ways to get somewhere sitting down." Later in his story he went on describe future BMW buyers as "pretty well-adjusted enthusiasts who want a good car, people with the sense of humor to enjoy its giant-killing performance and the taste to appreciate its mechanical excellence." That pretty well described the BMW buyer of the 1970s. It wasn't until the 1980s and '90s that BMW went after a different type of buyer, going upscale to compete with the offerings from Mercedes-Benz.
What was so good about the 2002?Remember, at the time it was introduced performance cars were either anemic British sports cars that were cramped, drafty, slow and unreliable, or huge V8-powered muscle cars that were fast in a straight line but limited in their cornering abilities. Fast, nimble and agile, the BMW 2002 sedan could outhandle sports cars and give everything but the most ferocious muscle cars a good run away from a stoplight. The only thing that came close to the BMW's performance was an Alfa Romeo, and they were both thin on the ground and even less reliable than the British cars. Best of all, the 2002 could do all of this with a spacious and comfortable cabin that had room for four with their entire complement of luggage. It was boxy with lots of glass area, almost the antithesis of the swoopy space needle styling that other companies were associating with performance.
Although the first 2002 models came with a single downdraft Solex carburetor, BMW was quick to provide quicker versions. The top of the heap was the 2002tii with mechanical fuel injection. These cars would produce 140 gross horsepower (about 125 of today's SAE horsepower) and had numerous suspension and brake upgrades. The tii stood for "touring international injection." The 2002tii was introduced in the U.S. in 1972 and offered real performance, both on the street and on the race track.
My first drive in a 2002 came about as a reward for having an attractive older sister. One of her suitors, named Tom, had a metallic blue 2002tii that was just a couple of years old and that he would use to pick up my sister. One Saturday afternoon, perhaps as a way to gain points with the object of his intentions, he threw me the keys and told me I could take it for a drive. Here I was, 17 years old, on a bright sunny day at the strip on the beach with the sunroof open, the breeze in my hair, at the pinnacle of automotive bliss. Okay, so I occasionally confused the tachometer with the speedometer, but I had never before driven such a potent and sophisticated performance machine. I brought the car back 2 hours later. It had seemed like 15 minutes.
BMW's success with the 2002 also inspired others to copy the concept. The most successful was the Datsun 510, a fairly close copy in the boxy sedan mold with independent front and rear suspension and a quite similar engine configuration. The Datsun was raced and rallied very successfully and sold quite well as an inexpensive way to get involved in motorsports. Even the Datsun people admitted the 510 was a BMW clone. Saab built a more direct price and performance competitor to the BMW 2002. The 99 EMS model was held up against the 2002 in magazine ads and comparison tests as a front-wheel-drive alternative to the German-built machine. Every sports sedan around today owes its genesis to the little Bavarian.
It actually took BMW quite a while to iron all the bugs out of the 2002. Emission controls and the ever-increasing expectations for creature comforts left the engineers at the small Bavarian company frequently scratching their heads. By 1976, its last year of production, however, the little 2002 was smooth, quiet reliable and fast. Then it was replaced by the BMW 320, a pleasant enough larger car that never came close to exciting the romance and lust that the 2002 created.
Enthusiasm for the 2002 has remained strong since its demise. For many years it was the mainstay of BMW clubs around the country. Many of the cars were modified for racing, and the 2002 is still very common in BMW club racing events and even at vintage races. The cars are not terribly expensive, considering all that they offer, and can be found in running condition in every price range from as little as $1,500 to as much as $15,000. The 2002 rusts quite easily, and the condition of the car's body structure is much more important than the mechanical shape of the engine and driveline. Because so many BMW enthusiasts have owned 2002s, parts and expertise are relatively easy to come by.
The 2002 had been a phenomenon, one that had pulled BMW into the big leagues. It had established the company as a performance leader and had given them a rabid group of automotive enthusiasts on a platter. By the early to mid 1980s, cars from BMW had become the yuppie car of choice and the darling of automotive enthusiast magazine test drivers. The company continued to capitalize on the strong foundation created by the 2002, and today's "Ultimate Driving Machine" image can trace its roots to those early 2002s and their dedicated owners.
All of which leaves me more than a bit confused. Why would a company that had as the basis of its success a charismatic model named 2002 use the 2002 model year to introduce a retrospective car based upon a British model that has no previous involvement with BMW heritage? I have no problem if BMW wants to update the innovative original concept of the Mini with an all-new car that has a large measure of the original's cheeky style. But, is it really that much a stretch to think the company might have allocated some resources to make a two-door sport sedan in the old 2002 idiom, brought up to date with modern mechanicals and creature comforts? I mean, this is where BMW came from, and for many people the original 2002 is what BMW should really be all about. The 2002 had distinctive albeit boxy styling that should easily translate into today's retro-crazed marketplace. Mind you, there has been talk from BMW of a new car to slot in below the current entry level 3 Series as a sort of spiritual successor to the old 2002. But it seems to me that any company that could redo the Mini in time for a 2002 launch date should have been able to bring out a new 2002 in the year 2002. They only had the last 25 years to think about it. Well, it's too late. Sure BMW can bring out a new 2002, and it will undoubtedly be an excellent automobile as everything from BMW generally has been. But the company missed the boat by missing the date. There is only one 2002.