Whispering Bomb: The BMW 2002

Imagine a time when the name BMW meant nothing to the average American. Anyone who had heard of the company was probably a motorcyclist. Image-conscious Yuppies were nonexistent, and sporting imported sedans were practically unavailable. Then, in the late 1960s, one car changed all that. It was called the Whispering Bomb. It was the BMW 2002.

The story of the 2002 is the story of BMW’s success in America, and it began in the 1950s. During World War II, BMW had ceased production of the large luxurious sedans for which it was known. The company tried to resume production of these big cars following the war, but the German (and European) economy was severely depressed. The cars found few buyers.

The 1957 Suez crisis made things even more difficult, forcing BMW to rely on the production of Isetta bubble cars built under license from Iso—as well as the later, motorcycle-powered 700—to stay afloat. By the end of the decade, the company faced bankruptcy and an almost certain takeover by Deutsche Bank and Daimler-Benz.

Then a major investor named Dr. Herbert Quandt stepped up in the aftermath of a dramatic shareholders meeting in 1959. The ideas he shared there saved BMW. Under his supervision, the company set a new course to appeal to a blooming middle class, and in 1961 Quandt unveiled the cars that turned BMW around: the Neue Klasse. These were high-quality four-door sedans with modern suspension systems that provided excellent handling—a direct contrast to the stodgy sedans available from Mercedes.

The four-cylinder engines that powered these new sedans were designed by Alex von Falkenhausen. These M10 series engines featured an overhead camshaft, crossflow head and hemispherical combustion chambers. The M10’s bottom end was so strong that it remained in production for decades. It served as the basis for both the S14 found in the original M3 as well as the legendary BMW Formula 1 turbos of the 1980s.

The Neue Klasse cars were a great success. They allowed the company to expand its image, partly through an active motorsports program. BMW’s ledgers were once again in the black.

By early 1965, the company was ready to attract new buyers with a smaller, sportier two-door version of the successful Neue Klasse design. The car, which debuted in March 1966, was originally known as the 1600-2 before simply becoming the 1600 or 1602.

Somewhat more rounded and more attractive than the Neue Klasse cars, the 1602 was an instant success. The coupe began to attract attention in America, where the cars were imported by Max Hoffman. 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.”

The factory unveiled a high-performance version of the 1602, the twin-carburetor 1600ti, but there was no way to import the car to America in the face of new exhaust emission regulations. Hoffman countered by asking BMW to offer a 2-liter version of the car for the American market. Unbeknownst to Hoffman, von Falkenhausen and Planning Director Helmut Werner Bönsch had already commissioned 2-liter 1602s for their own use. Both men had been urging management to put the car into production; Hoffman’s request tipped the scales, and the new car was christened the 2002.

Blindsiding the Masses

The BMW 2002’s interior design was simple, but quality materials and workmanship gave it an up-market and purposeful feel.

The 2002 debuted in 1968 and set new standards for sports sedans. Auto Bild magazine coined the term “Whispering Bomb,” and at Car and Driver David E. Davis wrote this prediction about drivers of mere average sports cars: “Somewhere, someday, some guy in a BMW 2002 is going to blow them off so bad that they’ll henceforth have to leave every stoplight in second gear and never drive on a winding road again as long as they live.”

Within a couple of years, Americans no longer thought BMW meant “British Motor Works”; they knew the classy, sporty sedans were from Munich, and they wanted one. Dealers couldn’t keep them in stock, even at the higher prices that came with Hoffman’s “mandatory options” like a tachometer, anti-roll bars, higher-quality upholstery, reclining seats, power brakes and Michelin XAS tires.

The success of the 2002 can be traced to its specifications. Combine a 113-horsepower engine (that’s the period-correct SAE gross figure) with a 2100-pound curb weight, MacPherson strut front and semi-trailing arm independent rear suspension, and you have a winner. A 2002 could zip from zero to 60 in about 10 seconds, which was fast for a 1968 import. Its balance was excellent, and the brakes were outstanding.

Visibility and build quality were first-rate. The only similar cars on the planet were Lotus’s Cortina and Alfa’s GTV and Sprint Ti, which were uncommon and perceived as less reliable. BMW 2002s were soon appearing at rallies, autocrosses and road races all over America, and cars fielded by Alpina and Schnitzer dominated sedan racing in Europe. The legend was being written.

Upping the Ante

In 1973 the ’02 story gained another chapter with the introduction of the 2002tii. The addition of Kugelfischer mechanical fuel injection bumped horsepower up to 140. The tii also received better brakes and improved suspension. It was significantly quicker than the base 2002, although not as strong as it could have been because of its taller 3.45:1 final drive. (The standard 2002 received a 3.64:1 final drive ratio.)

As time passed, the ’02 got heavier and slower due to more complicated emission control systems. Still, the car’s good reputation continued to build. Prices eventually doubled, largely because of inflation fueled by the Arab oil embargo of the early ’70s, yet sales remained strong.

The mighty 2002 was finally replaced by the first 3 series, the 320i, in 1977. Although a more modern car, the 320i never captured the imagination of the faithful in the way the 2002 had. Through the decades that followed and right up to today, each sporting BMW has been compared to the 2002. The legend lives on.

A Racy Past

The BMW 2002 was raced and rallied extensively throughout the world. In Europe, it dominated sedan racing. A 2002tii even won the Austrian Alpine round of the 1973 World Rally Championship in the hands of Achim Warmbold and Jean Todt. (Yes, that Jean Todt, Ferrari’s CEO.)

In America the car competed in the SCCA Trans-Am 2.5 Challenge series. Despite the efforts of Don Pike and Hans Ziereis, the car was no match for the Alfa GTVs and BRE Datsun 510s and only scored a couple of wins. The 2002 fared much better in IMSA’s BF Goodrich Radial Challenge series, winning many races and the series championship for Peace Corps Director Nick Craw. The car was also a very successful club racer in SCCA’s B Sedan and Improved Touring classes.

Today the 2002 is still a good race car on many levels. Ian Mannix took a fifth-place trophy in F Street Prepared at the 2007 Tire Rack SCCA Solo National Championships in one. These cars also regularly compete in SCCA and BMW CCA club racing and autocross events as well as many vintage road races.

Things to Know

Although 2002 prices are rising, a good car is still very affordable. Many consider pre-1974 models to be more desirable thanks to the small, round taillights. The injected tii models are also more valuable than carbureted cars. Some rate the 1973 tii as the best of the U.S.-market 2002s.

Prices for good cars range from $3500 to around $7000 for a 2002 and $6000 to $10,000 for a tii. Excellent, authentic Baur Cabriolets and Turbos sell for well over $20,000. When you consider that these cars are at least 30 years old, parts availability is outstanding through BMW’s Mobile Tradition program.

Engine

2002 engines are generally robust, but the newest ones are still more than 30 years old. Cylinder heads are an area of concern, particularly rocker arms and shafts. Look for cracked heads due to overheating.

Emission control system problems are common, particularly on early cars with anti-backfire “gulp” valves and later cars with the troublesome Solex two-barrel carburetor. Many later cars have been fitted with Weber 32/36 DGV carbs, which greatly improve drivability.

A wide variety of BMW engines have been successfully swapped into 2002s, with the best (but not least expensive) probably being the 192-horsepower inline-four from the E30-chassis M3. Some call this combination an M2.

The 2002 has always had marginal cooling, particularly in hot climates. Common improvements include 320i or aftermarket radiators and electric cooling fans.

Body and Interior

As with most cars from this period, rust is the single most critical consideration. Important places to check include the rear upper shock mounts, spare tire well, fuel tank area, rear suspension mounting points, rocker panels, A-posts, floors under the seats, fenders, front turn signal housings, the leading edge of the hood, and lower portions of the doors.

Window winders commonly break, speedometers typically read about 10 percent fast, and sunroofs can leak.

Use caution when packing the trunk. The cargo hold doesn’t have a lining, so loose objects can cause dents that are visible from outside the car.

Drivetrain

The later 320i-series can provide two popular bolt-in modifications: the five-speed transmission and the limited-slip differential.

Chassis

Handling is taut and nimble in stock form, but upgrading to quality shock absorbers can make it exceptional. Bilstein and Koni are the favored brands. For even more improvement, the usual combination of shorter springs, stiffer anti-roll bars and wider wheels and tires will work wonders.

Significant lowering can result in extreme rear negative camber. Rear semi-trailing arm mounting brackets can be slotted to provide adjustable camber and toe; adjustable camber plates are available for the front struts.

Hurry up and stop: One single ingredient—tii brakes—can greatly improve braking power on a regular 2002.

2002 specifications
Body style: 2-door unibody sedan
Drivetrain layout: Front engine, rear-wheel drive
Engine: M10 series 1990cc, crossflow SOHC inline four cylinder
Horsepower: 113 @ 5800 rpm 2002 (SAE gross)
140 @ 5800 rpm early tii (SAE gross)
125 @ 5500 rpm late tii (SAE gross)
170 @ 5800 rpm Turbo (DIN)
Torque: 115 lb.-ft. @ 3000 rpm 2002 (SAE gross)
145 lb.-ft. @ 4500 rpm tii (SAE gross)
Transmission: Four-speed manual, all synchro.
Close-ratio five-speed optional tii and Turbo.
Differential ratio: 3.64:1 2002
3.45:1 tii
3.36:1 limited slip Turbo
3.9:1 1976 only.
Suspension: MacPherson strut front; semi-trailing arms, coil springs, tubular shocks rear. Front and rear anti-roll bars “mandatory option” on U.S. cars.
Wheels: 13x4-in. steel 2002
13x5-in. alloy tii
13x5-in. steel Turbo
Tires: 165HR13 Michelin XAS on most U.S. cars
185/70VR13 Pirelli CN36 Turbo
Brakes: Disc front, drum rear;
larger diameter front discs and rear drums on tii.
Curb weight (U.S.): 2210 lbs. (early),
2420 lbs. (late)
Wheelbase: 98.4 inches
Height: 54.0 inches (early),
55.5 inches (late)
Length: 166.5 inches (early),
176.0 inches (late)
Zero-to-60: 11.0 sec. (U.S. 2002),
9.5 sec. (U.S. tii),
6.7 sec. (turbo)
Price when new: Prices varied tremendously during the life of the ’02 series. Price of a normally equipped 2002 doubled from about $3800 in 1970 to about $7500 in 1976 due to inflation.
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Comments
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Wolfhard
Wolfhard
12/10/10 10:56 a.m.

Interestingly enough, this article mentioned the introduction of the 02 'touring' hatchback version for Europe in 1971, a model hardly known to many BMW enthusiasts across North America. Yet, I do understand that some of these practical little hatchbacks did make it across the pond being privately imported at some stage, and are often present at classic BMW meets in the U.S.. My personal experience after having purchased one of the about 180 1802 tourings still on the road in Germany: an unmatched combination of 02-style fun on any road across the Alps, and the practicality of folding down the rear seats to comfortably take your road bike along on that spontaneous get away to Northern Italy. - A true rival to the 1st. gen. Golf GTi from BMW, although just a few years ahead of the pace and hot-hatch craze to follow in Europe during the mid 1970s.

Want a later updated and upgraded version of the practical little fun-machine from Munich? Classic Motorsports author is correct in his mentioning that BMW did come back with another hatchback during the 1990s: the third-generation "E36" model 3-series 318 ti and - the truly desirable - 323 ti. Still based on the E30 plattform offering crisp handling manners, the two-door hatchback truly brings back old 2002 memories - or a touch of 02 touring history for that matter, and due to its added fold-down-rear-seat-practicality again - especially if equipped with the smooth and quiet yet responsive "M50" 2.5 l inline six and M-tech suspension package. A still underrated upcoming classic which should be picked up right now.

Combine both, and add BMW's latest best-seller-in-Europe 1-series two-door hatch back model, and you have the perfect line of "Bavarian Hot Hatch History".

Wolfhard Geile, Munich and Ottawa.

TR8owner
TR8owner HalfDork
3/18/11 2:34 p.m.

The 2002 was the "real" BMW IMHO. They made other good cars afterwards, but the 2002 was what originally defined the company.

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