Neue Sensation: 1973 BMW 2002

It’s quite hard to imagine it today but back in the post-war era of the late 1950s, BMW was in dire straits. Their cars were either outdated, too expensive or simply not making enough money to keep the ailing manufacturer afloat. Even though the Bavarians had some new models on the drawing board, they simply didn’t have the resources to push them forward into development. BMW was about to go bankrupt, and Daimler-Benz, the largest automotive company at the time, was about to takeover Bayerische Motoren Werke. Not because they saw the Munich marque as a competitor since BMW was nowhere close to Daimler, but because they wanted to convert BMW into a supplier of car bodies for Mercedes-Benz cars.

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With limited options for BMW, the takeover seemed almost all but certain. Things were looking bleak for the Bavarians and during a meeting which took place on the 9th of December 1959, the Daimler-Benz acquisition had almost won the vote of the BMW board. Before the board could make the final decision though, one of the company’s shareholders, a certain Mr Herbert Quandt who initially was in favour of the takeover, decided to go against the advice of all his bankers and quietly increase his stake in the troubled manufacturer. After raising his number of shares to almost 50%, he secured an agreement with the state of Bavaria that would allow him to purchase BMW.

With fresh funds from Mr Quandt, the cars that were previously stalled on the drawing boards were now free to be developed and thus, the Neue Klasse series of cars were born and following their great success, formed the basis that all modern BMW cars would follow. Many today credit the Neue Klasse project as the very reason why BMW avoided financial collapse in the early 1960s.

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The success of the Neue Klasse cars meant BMW now had the means to expand their portfolio (and to go racing). Keen to attract a new demographic of younger drivers, the 02 cars were created. Built on a shortened Neue Klasse chassis, the 1600-2 (later known as the 1600 or simply, 1602), was a smaller, sportier and in the eyes of this writer, prettier 2-door (hence the designation 02) iteration of the Neue Klasse design. It was in short, an instant success.

Here was a car that had a (at the time) powerful engine, handled well, sat 4 people comfortable, had solid German build quality and at the same time, outperformed many contemporary sports cars of its day. The 1602’s combination of performance, handling and build quality led Car and Driver magazine to call it “the best $2500 car in the world.”

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In 1968, the larger-engined 2002 came on board, at the request of Max Hoffman, the importer and sole distributor for BMW cars from the mid-sixties to 1975. Hoffman was a highly influential person in the automotive world at the time and he was also instrumental in the development and refinement of several other iconic luxury sports cars, including the Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing and Porsche 356 Speedster.

Hoffman wanted a higher performance 1602 to import into the United States but with tightening emission requirements introduced, BMW’s more powerful twin-carburettor 1600ti variant of making it across the pond. Hoffman quickly suggested that BMW drop in the 2-litre engine from their 2000 Coupe into the 1602 since that powerplant was able to meet emission regulations.

Unbeknownst to Mr Hoffman, Helmut Werner Bönsch, BMW’s director of product planning, and Alex von Falkenhausen, designer of the M10 engine (and race car driver), each had a two-litre engine installed in their personal 1600-2 cars. Neither man knew of the other’s car until one day in mid-1967 when both cars were in the workshops together at BMW. Both of them then decided to put a formal proposal to the BMW Board that such a model should be considered for production. With Mr Hoffman’s third and entirely separate proposal coming from the United States, the 2002 was born.

Commercially, the 02 cars were a massive success for the marque. While the Neue Klasse might have saved BMW from financial ruin, it was the 02 that truly turned BMW’s fortune around and changed its fate.

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With the Turbo cars sitting on top of the 2002 food chain, the model range fell to 3 distinct variants. The Kugelfischer mechanically fuel-injected 2002Tii with 130bhp, the dual-carburettor high compression 2002Ti with 119bhp and the base single-carburettor 2002 with 101bhp. Which is the car we have today, a late model single-carb 2002 hailing from 1973 finished in Polaris silver. 1973 was also the year when BMW introduced light exterior changes, including revised tail-lights, grille and kidney trim which can be seen on this car.

Of course, with 46 years under its belt, much of this car’s originality has gone out the manually winded window but what hasn’t been lost, is her personality. Just looking at the car is an exercise in restraint and purity of design. Every stroke intentional and every line serving a purpose.

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Inside, this minimalist approach continues with a very simple layout presented to the driver. No iDrive, no climate control, no electric anything. Everything mechanical and everything requiring an intentional action to adjust. The only modern amenity? A Bang & Olufsen Bluetooth speaker playing the In-Car-Entertainment role. On this car, the centre console has also been deleted for a cleaner aesthetic and it was a good decision to lose the centre stack.

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Driving the car presents a whole new experience for those used to modern machinery. Visibility is ridiculously good with almost paper-thin pillars holding the roof up. There might not be a side mirror on the passenger side but just turning your head makes you realise why such an omission doesn’t really matter.

Every action, again, has to be deliberate, every move on the road planned ahead if the intention is to drive smoothly. Getting everything right can be a rather satisfying and therapeutic endeavour. That’s not to say the car isn’t responsive, whilst the car might not even keep up with modern-day vans on the expressways, its lack of weight allows one to change directions rather easily when on the move. But at slower carpark speeds, its lack of power steering does not.

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Driving this 2002, I finally understood how driving joy can be derived without having to break speed limits and without needing a million horsepower at the wheels. Driving this 2002, I finally understood the joy of driving slowly but deliberately, the joy of feeling vibrations through the steering, the joy of slipping through the 4-speed gearbox, the joy of scenery going by and the joy of knowing that this car and how it drives, was the basis for the Ultimate Driving Machine.

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She might be old, slow and a little bit rusty, but in perfect moments, she’s definitely a new sensation.

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