By Stuart Grant with Images by Douglas Abbot

BMW’s 2002 carried on the brand’s resurgence that started with the arrival of the 1960s Neue Klasse (New Class) saloons – think of the 1500, 1800 and 2000 four-door models here.  However, the ‘02’ part of the badge (standing for two-door) showed its real difference. This immediately elevated the range up the sporting list and set the ‘sheer driving pleasure’ wheels in motion – a theme which has continued with the Bavarian giant’s saloons ever since. But the firm really drove home the fact that the 02 held the top spot in the class by fitting 1 672 units with a turbocharger and adding a liberal sprinkling of flared arches, graphics, aero accessories and interior go-faster goodies.


A 2002 Turbo looks aggressive – yes, the reverse ‘Turbo’ script on the front air-dam’s sole purpose is to frighten mirror watchers out of the fast lane on the autobahn – but treat it with respect and it is remarkably docile. Get heavy on the loud pedal and hit the 4000rpm mark midway through a corner, though, and there’s a good chance you’ll be reversing off the road at rapid speed. It’s the ultimate Jekyll-and-Hyde car, with Dr Jekyll operating below 4500 and Hyde punching hard above it. It’s for this reason that it’s estimated that less than 50% of the original cars made survive today, and as far as we know just two exist in South Africa.

For those who have been in a 2002, the cabin space will be familiar. There’s that brilliant sitting-in-a-fishbowl feeling brought on by the pillarless doors and narrow posts. The dash is simple, flat and uncluttered, and the lack of occupant-facing ventilation is another 2002 trait that the Turbo didn’t escape. Seating is good for four adults, but the driver sits on the wrong (left) side; all Turbos were like this as the steering box on right-hand-drive cars didn’t allow for fitment of the turbocharger. A keen eye will spot a 250km/h (or 150mph) speedo and red instrument surround, and then fixate on the additional gauge pod strapped onto the side of the binnacle – housing a clock and dial for boost, of course. Bucket seats are way more supportive than those of the regular 02’s and the thick-rimmed, three-spoke steering wheel is a lot racier.


Except for a KKK turbocharger, the view under the hood was not much different from that of the Kugelfischer fuel-injected 2002Tii being sold at the time. At the pair’s core is the same 1990cc four-cylinder engine but in the Turbo, compression ratio was substantially lower at 6.9:1. This becomes evident when firing up a 2002 Turbo. It’s all very docile, even disappointing. Pull off gently and it feels like a detuned Tii. But keep the gas going, and as the exhaust gases produced start spinning the turbo, all hell (and the rear-wheel traction) breaks loose as 170bhp at 5800rpm and 243Nm at 4000rpm are unleashed. Manage the wheelspin and 60mph will come up in 6.6 seconds; find enough courage to keep pushing and you’ll hit the 130mph (around 210km/h) max – that was Porsche 911 territory when the BMW was launched in 1973. The 2002 Turbo could well have been a faster sprinter if a taller final drive had been fitted to make it more user-friendly.

Use it as a daily by keeping that additional gauge in the white sector and do not, I repeat do NOT, let the needle climb into the red in a fit of road rage. If it does, hold on tight and pray there’s no sudden cloud burst. Use it as a weekend toy and you’ll want to get the needle into the red because the acceleration is addictive… but be advised that to eliminate the dreaded turbo-lag, it’s best to keep the needle hovering near the red while swapping between the four cogs – the ratio spacing and beating the synchro means this is not the easiest thing to accomplish. Get it all right and not only does this make Mr Hyde slightly more predictable, but the forward surge and thrust back into the seat is addictive.


How does the old saying go? There’s no power without control…

As mentioned, BMW’s hotrod was a little unruly but the engineers attempted to deliver some form of control. Larger than normal servo-assisted ventilated front disc brakes were borrowed from the 3.0CS Coupé and bigger rear drums were fitted, as was a front-to-rear brake-balancing valve. Traction was (slightly) improved with a limited-slip differential, beefier anti-roll bars, stiffer adjustable shock absorbers and 5.5J fat ‘tekkies’. The floorpan above the rear axle got some more strengthening and, for those times when the enthusiastic driving took hold, a larger fuel tank was added to the recipe.

It all came together well, and road tests indicate that the nose-heavy saloon would naturally understeer but with the abundance of power could be coaxed into neutral or oversteer mode instantly, and that the worm-and-roller steering was up to the task of managing this with exceptional accuracy, light weight and feel. 


When unveiled at the Frankfurt Motor Show in September 1973, the 2002 caused quite a stir – or is that whirr? – for two reasons. Big news was the claim of being the world’s first turbocharged production car, while the other publicity came from controversy surrounding its styling: the fastened-on arches, deep front spoiler and reverse ‘Turbo’ script had a German safety and speed activist group and parliamentarian, who deemed the car too aggressive for road use, up in arms. This was somewhat remedied by the removal of the front text before series production began in January 1974.

Turbocharging was a known thing but in production car terms it was in its infancy – so much so that the 02 version was touted as the world’s first turbocharged production car. This in itself is very debatable, with the 1962/63 launch of the Chevrolet Corvair Monza and Oldsmobile Jetfire passenger cars somehow flying below the European radar. Whatever the case, turbos were not new to BMW’s motorsport division.

As the 1960s drew to a close, BMW’s saloon car racing programme started suffering against newer competition with more modern technology. The trusted 2-litre had been developed to make 130 horses, but more was needed. Initially an increase in capacity seemed like the only option but this meant using Siamese cylinder bores which, fearing reliability issues, chief engine designer Alex von Falkenhausen blocked. The fitment of a six-cylinder was considered, but engine bay dimensions saw this idea scratched from the list. With no other option, the idea of a force-fed 2002 race car project arose. In 1969, the works entries with 270hp on tap did well enough on track (winning the European Touring Car Challenge) to inspire Von Falkenhausen to start working on a turbocharged engine for a 2002 road car. But it wasn’t as simple as bolting on the unit and took until mid-’73 to make it road-usable and reliable.  


In one fell swoop the 2002 Turbo flew up the four-seater sporting saloon class, blowing away the likes of the Fiat 124 Coupé, Ford Escort RS2000 and Alfa Romeo 2000GTV in performance. It came at a cost though – double that of a regular 2002Tii and the mentioned competitors, but still 30% cheaper than the only four-seater that could really compete with it, Porsche’s 911.

Despite being a show- and heart-stopper, sales of the 2002 Turbo were slow from the get-go thanks to a case of terrible timing – the fuel crisis hit a month after launch and all performance cars fell out of favour. BMW couldn’t shake the image of being a heavy drinker and, as a result, didn’t bother to subject the Turbo to the stringent emission-control tests required to retail it in the USA or spend cash developing it in right-hand drive.

Turbo production came to an end in December 1974 and left the normally aspirated versions to soldier on for another year, before the all-new BMW 3-Series was released. Force-feeding wasn’t totally shelved, and BMW kept its hand in the game building the same M10-based turbo engine into a Formula 1 World Championship-winning unit (Nelson Piquet/Brabham 1983). A quick glance at the current crop of new cars, BMW included, and you’ll see many are now turbocharged. Perhaps the 2002 Turbo was just too far ahead of the curve and the rest lagged behind…


* Thanks to www.sportsandgtclassics.com for supplying the pictured car.

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