The cars we loved.
Today we take small high performance cars for granted. It seems everyone makes some sort of performance sedan with “European” inspired handling. That was not always the case. Back in the day if you wanted a small sedan that could take the curves with the best of them, you were almost out of luck. It was either sports car or muscle car and not much in between. The BMW 2002 would change all of that. This legendary car would put BMW on the path to profitability and establish it as a maker of small sporting sedans and coupes. 2002 was BMW’s evolution of the 1600/1602 series, part of what BMW was calling New Class or Neue Klasse. This was a range of cars that included sedans, coupes and cabriolets. The 2002 was technically a two door sedan (or 3 door lift back), called such because of its boxy upright 3 box design inherited from the 1500 sedan. There were related models with designations that indicated engine size (1600 1800 etc.).
No SatNav, DVD or heated seats here, the 2002 was all business. So much so that the gadget in today’s BMWs look overly frivolous by comparison. The typical 2002 interior was a showcase of form follows function. The simple and straightforward look with clear and easy to read gauges was firmly in the German tradition. Seats were vinyl, the dash hard plastics with the occasional wood grain accent. Chrome was kept to a minimum, but tastefully restrained in its use.
Like a lot of other imports from the era, the 2002 was lightweight at around 2,200 lbs and used a small efficient engine. The 2.0L inline four-cylinder engine produced a modest 108 hp and was often connected to a four speed manual transmission. For its time it was a healthy output for so small a displacement. Higher performing models like a 2002 Turbo would shortly follow. Of the higher performing models, the most notable is the rare 2002tii from the 73-74’ model years. Perhaps the most desirable of all 2002, it had 130 to 140 hp and employed innovations like a single overhead cam and fuel injection.
Like BMWs of today, all models of the 2002 offered road holding worthy of a dedicated sports car. This was possible do to an independent MacPherson strut suspension. At the time most cars had some sort of beam or live axle suspended by leaf springs in back. The 2002’s suspension was sophisticated, even by today’s standards. Front disc brakes were also a plus with drums in the rear. The benefits of rear wheel drive were fully exploited resulting in the 2002 becoming a performance cult hit. It immediately saw race duty in hill climb and rally events. The 2002’s impact on the automotive market cannot be understated. Before it performance cars were either exotic sports machines or American styled muscle cars. Performance in the late 60’s was packaged with big engines and a heavy emphasis on either being a grand tourer or a red blooded and fussy sports car.
The 2002 would combine the traits of performance and practicality and place them in a small sedan thus opening up a new market niche for performance in modestly priced smaller cars. The 2002tii marked a new course for BMW which it has strayed little from to this day. The wave of smaller sporty cars that the 2002 inspired would later range from the Audi 80 to the Chevy Citation X-11. Thought the field would become crowded and littered with failed attempts at following this strict formula, BMW would always lead the segment and set the standard for years to come.
In addition to saving BMW from bankruptcy, the 2002 allowed BMW to meet strict emissions standards with its efficient engine design while still offering a high level of performance. During the early 70’s BMW was still a third-rate brand (sales wise) behind VW and Mercedes. In many places in the
US, it was not even possible to buy a BMW. Even Audi sold more cars. BMW managed to sell nearly 900,000 2002s before it was replaced. As German cars go, the 2002 was rugged and reliable most of the time, but the technology employed in its engineering could make it something of a headache for its owners (who had sloppy maintainance schedules). Many of owners would eventually swap out the fuel injection system for simpler cheaper carburetors. Speaking of owners, 2002’s have a healthy following of devoted fans worldwide who no doubt must include plenty of mechanics. Parts for these cars are difficult to come by and are often expensive.
BMW would tweak the formula for these cars and by 1977 would release its replacement in the US, the 3 Series. The rest would be compact car history.