MIDLIFE CRISIS CONTROL

By Stuart Grant with photography by Mike Schmucker

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BMW turns 105 years old in February, but as with most motor manufacturers the journey wasn’t without the odd speed bump. For the Bavarian outfit the 1950s was a desperate time, but thankfully the launch of its Neue Klass (New Class) sedans in the 1960s saw the firm’s fortunes swinging around. While some credit for this recovery can be attributed to the four-door saloons, the real stand out in cementing the outfit as a global giant were the two-door sporting saloons.

BMW stayed descriptive with its model-naming of the new cars, where numbers made up a model name. The first two represented the engine capacity and the second two the number of doors. So an 1804 was an 1800cc four-door while a 1602 was, as you guessed, a 1600cc two-door machine. Let’s step back a bit to lay the foundation though. BMW can trace its roots back to the Munich-based Bayerische Flugzeug Werke (Bavarian Aircraft Works) that formed to support the aerial war effort in 1916. Many of you will know that the famed BMW logo represents a rotating aeroplane propeller. With Germany defeated and the need for military aircraft not high on the list of wants, the firm was forced into finding new business avenues and diversified into building engines for trucks, boats and motorcycles. This meant a new name in 1922 and BMW was adopted, standing for ‘Bayerische Motoren Werke’.

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By 1923 the step was taken to build its own motorcycle, known as the R-23. It employed the revolutionary shaft-drive system instead of a chain – a feature still seen on BMW motorcycles. A next logical step on the expansion ladder was to make a car. To accomplish this, BMW bought the Dixi company of Eisnach, which had licence to build the Austin Seven. BMW rebadged the Dixi 3/15PS as a BMW 3/15 and churned the little car out up to 1932 when it finally cut the Austin tie and introduced fully inhouse-designed sophisticated items like the very sporting six-cylinder-powered 326 and legendary 328 roadster.

With the onset of World War II, BMW returned to its roots in the aeronautical field, making engines for the likes of the Focke-Wolf 190. This led to heavy bombing by the allied forces, with the Munich facility basically a pile of rubble in 1945 while the Eisenach plant was taken over by the Soviet forces. The latter managed to get the ball rolling in 1945, churning out EMW- (Eisenach Motoren Werke) badged variants of the 326 and 327 models, but BMW had to wait until 1948 to get the Munich operation functioning again – albeit only as a motorcycle set-up. Bike sales boomed though and set the finances up to restart car production with a brand-new model in 1952 – the 501.

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The 501, which was an expensive saloon, was a bizarre choice of vehicle to relaunch with, considering the world was recovering from the hardships of war. At the time, Mercedes-Benz was the only other real player in the luxury saloon market with its 220 model but when they downgraded this to the more financially friendly and economical ‘Ponton’, BMW was left high and dry. Initially the response was to build even fancier cabriolet and coupé versions (titled the 503) and even a Mercedes-Benz 300SL ‘Gullwing’ competitor called the 507, but the bank balance remained lean.

For 1955 a new tack was taken in another very strange direction. BMW announced the Isetta micro-car, which was built under licence from Iso in Milan. 162 000 units sold but the bank balance was still not exactly flourishing, and BMW realised the need for a true inhouse-designed and built commuter. Although it was almost a stretched version of the Isetta with a rear-mounted BMW bike engine, the new 1957 BMW 600 was a step in the right direction. A more powerful 700 hit the shelves in 1959, which with lines by Italian styling house Michelotti, introduced the idea of three-box-shaped BMWs and gave the vehicle a ‘real’ car look and feel. The 700 did well in racing and sold decently, but the margins were still so low that the books looked no better. Standing back from the picture it became clear that the gap in the model line-up between the small 700s and the luxury 501/502 saloons was the one that needed filling.

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Filling this gap almost didn’t happen though when BMW lost 15 million Marks, and there was strong support from shareholders for a proposal that the company should sell out. Thankfully for us BMW fans, a minority group blocked this proposal and following some serious negotiations in 1960, the investor brothers Harald and Herbert Quandt put in money and acquired two-thirds of the outfit. They recruited new people for top management spots and put an emphasis on developing a new family saloon – Neue Klass.

Design parameters called for no carryover engineering and a new engine good for a minimum of 80bhp. Alex von Falkenhausen designed the engine, the chassis structure came from Eberhard Wolff and his team and Wilhelm Hofmeister steered the body styling. Billed as the BMW 1500, the new monocoque-constructed four-door, which was shown at the 1961 Frankfurt Motor Show, found acclaim immediately and set many characteristics for BMW that we still see today. Able to hold five occupants at a decent lick thanks to its 1499cc overhead-cam four-cylinder and Getrag four-speed manual, the 1500 offered practicality and style in bucketloads. It combined a sporting ride with comfort thanks to its MacPherson strut front suspension and independent rear, and the ZF worm-and-roller steering box delivered a directness and feedback not common amongst its competitors. Sheer driving pleasure was born, and BMW headed toward profitability.

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While the development of the 1500 had been a costly one, it did allow for plenty of potential with regard to the extension of the model line-up. First up, the engine’s stroke was increased to give 1773cc, which saw the birth of the 1800-badged variant, good for 90bhp. To add more variety, a 1600 model was also added, which saw the 1500 mated to a big-bore block with the result of a 1573cc capacity and 83bhp. The Neue Klass floorpan and running gear were then adapted to a delicate coupé known as the 2000C and yes, as you guessed from the badge, a 2-litre (1990cc) engine was added to the mix. In this format the engine was good for 100bhp. By adding twin-carburettors to the mix, 120bhp was achieved. Of course, this engine eventually found its way into the four-door bodies, which not only meant record-breaking family holiday runs, but also kickstarted BMW’s passion for saloon car racing, which continues today.

Pushing the envelope and not wanting to stagnate, BMW was already back at the drawing board in 1963 with plans to develop a slightly smaller two-door version of the Neue Klass. The thinking was simple: a two-door would reintroduce the real sporting characteristics the firm had earned in the 1930s. Two-doors meant a shorter wheelbase to enhance handling, a lighter body for better performance and a more athletic aesthetic.

In record time the wheelbase was chopped from 100.4 inches to 98.4. Most of the mechanicals carried over but Hofmeister redid the cabin and a facelift was given to the front end. In March 1966 BMW launched the new 1573cc (1600) model called the 1600-2 and it immediately became a winner. The diet programme when compared to the four-door meant the 1600 could keep up with the four-door 1800 in the performance department and the handling and sporting feel blew the socks off most testers, with the only cars really comparable in most minds being the Alfa Romeo Giulia and GTV. In reality the Alfa options had a bit more go than the 1600-2 but, as is so often the case with sporting saloons, a few people at the top of the firm can take a bit of credit for spearheading a slightly stronger option.

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In the BMW case these top dogs were Alex von Falkenhausen and Helmut Werner Bönsch. Von Falkenhausen joined BMW as a bike racer and motorcycle designer in 1934. He later switched to car racing and did a stint as an independent racing car manufacturer. But in 1954 he returned to BMW where he headed the racing division and then from ‘57 onward held the overall responsibility for engine development. He took the step to independently slot the existing 2-litre into his personal 1600-2. Unknown to Von Falkenhausen, BMW’s Planning Director carried out the same conversion on his car. It was only when both cars arrived at the BMW workshop on the same day mid-1967, where they both talked enthusiastically about their machines, that the idea of a production run really took off.

A proposal was put to the directors, it went through relatively smoothly and the 2002 was born. Timing was spot on as BMW, which had only seen very small sales in the USA before this, identified the market as key to the growth of the firm. US importer Max Hoffmann, who had seen the rave reviews and decent sales around the 1600-2, had coincidently also asked Germany for a slightly more powerful version for the American conditions. The twin carb 1600ti could meet the requirement for power but fell short in the stringent emission legislations. And so the legend was born in January 1968.

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Over its 8½-year life span the 2002 went through three progressions or facelifts and saw various subdivisions in spec and performance, with the cherry on top being a fearsome Turbo variant, which many claim to be the first production car powered by a turbo-charger. A total of 401 947 units hit the world’s roads, and thanks to its class-leading compromise between performance and practicality, the 2002 is not only an essential ingredient in the recipe for BMW’s success but also one of the most sought-after classics to own and drive.

Of course, there is the story of the ’02 in motorsport and the likes of the famed tuning houses such as AC Schnitzer and Alpina, but that’s a story for another day. For now we say happy 100 years to BMW and 50 years to the 2002.

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