1972 BMW 2002tii
1972 BMW 2002tii. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

The German Bayerische Motoren-Werke (BMW) grew out of the Bayerische Flugzeug-Werke, which was founded in 1916 to manufacture aircraft engines (the BMW badge was inspired by a spinning propeller). In 1922 the name changed to BMW and they began building boat and truck engines, and motorcycles, the first of which appeared in 1923.

To get into automobile building the Dixi-Werke car plant in Eisenach was acquired in 1928 to produce the BMW Dixi, a British Austin Seven built under licence. Motorcycle building was carried out in Munich.

During the ’30s, BMW gradually moved into larger cars and built up a good reputation for sporty, competitive machines, particularly the 327 and 328 models. Following the Second World War, during which there was no car production, BMW’s Eisenach factory in East Germany was lost to nationalization. Motorcycle production resumed in Munich, while they prepared to get back into building cars.

By 1951 BMW launched its first Munich-built car based on a prewar design, and this began a series of six and eight-cylinder automobiles which, while desirable, were expensive and unprofitable.

By the mid-50s bankruptcy seemed imminent, so BMW began building the Isetta 300 two-passenger bubble-car in 1955, followed by the more car-like 600 four-passenger model in 1957. Then came the 700 model in 1960, which although more conventional, still had a rear engine.

In 1962 the front-engine, rear-drive 1500 appeared. It would be the forerunner of the affordable sports sedan, the 2002, that really established BMW in the North American market. The 1500 grew into the popular and spirited 1600, and in 1967 BMW introduced a new version of the 1600 in Europe, called the “ti,” with an up-rated twin-carburetor engine.

It wasn’t compatible with North American exhaust emission standards, however, so our market got a tamer single-carburetor, 2.0 litre powerplant, and the 2002 was born. Even with the larger engine the emission controls kept the 2002 from being little if any faster than the 1600.

It had all the good BMW features, like the four-wheel independent suspension with MacPherson struts in front and semi-trailing arms at the rear, disc front brakes, and a chain-driven single overhead cam engine.

The 2002 was a two-door sedan of rather conservative style, and while only 1,372 mm (54 in.) high, it appeared taller because of its low beltline and large windows.

Performance was quite respectable. Road & Track magazine (5/68) recorded a zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) acceleration time of 11.3 seconds and a top speed of 173 km/h (108 mph).

The most outstanding feature of the 2002 was its combination of sedan accommodation and tight, sports car-like handling. Road & Track opined that it was “fully comparable in performance, handling, ride and finish with sports cars costing as much as $2,000 more…”

Car and Driver magazine, enthused, in the words of David E. Davis, Jr., that the 2002 was an “instant winner,” and “one of modern civilization’s all-time best ways to get somewhere sitting down…”

The 2002 built up a solid reputation and an enthusiastic following as the quintessential small sports sedan. It was the ideal car for the person who needed accommodation for a family, but still wanted the taut precise handling of a sports car. They were also vigorously campaigned in competition.

In 1971 Road & Track chose the 2002 best in class in their round-up of the world’s best cars. It was joined that year by the better-handling (thanks to wider wheels, bigger tires and better brakes), fuel-injected 2002tii model (the second i was for injection), but although horsepower was up from 113 to 140 compared with R & T’s previous test car, performance was only marginally better due to higher gear ratios, which did, however, provide more relaxed highway cruising.

The zero to (96 (60) time had dropped 1.5 seconds, to 9.8, and top speed was up to 184 (115). The appearance was also freshened up in 1971 with the use of longer, more wraparound bumpers and new body side trim.

In spite of a rapidly escalating price tag due in part to a changing German mark/U.S. dollar ratio, sales of the 2002 remained brisk as more and more motorists learned of its virtues.

What the 2002 achieved was to bring BMW’s spirit and elan into the realm of reasonable affordability, and consolidate its “Ultimate Driving Machine” image in the minds of a much greater number of drivers.

The 2002 continued until 1976, by which time a total of more than 400,000 had been built in a variety of body-types, although North America got only the two-door sedan. It was ultimately replaced by the 3-series BMW, which used many of the 2002’s well proved components.

The 2002 is still fondly remembered by many people who consider it, especially the tii version, to be the best BMW made when performance, handling, economy, practicality and price are all factored in.

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