Somewhere between the 1927 Dixi, actually an Austin Seven built under licence, and its present-day paragons, BMW turned into a serious concern and one whose cars bear comparison with the very best. Naturally it was a gradual process with a number of individual highpoints along the way such as the 328 in 1937 and the svelte 507 20 years later. For most British enthusiasts, however, the turning point arguably didn’t come until a good deal later; arriving with this one which, in many ways, set the benchmark for a whole new class of small but perfectly formed sporting saloons.
Certainly it was these so-called 02 cars which (more than any other model at the time) laid the foundations for the company’s good fortunes in the 1960s. As with BMWs today there was a whole series of them, including the 1502, 1602, 2002, a couple of Baur cabriolets – which have an obvious appeal despite sacrificing the purity of the original design – and the somewhat unfashionable 2002 Touring hatchback. Enjoyable to drive – with the notable exception of the first named which, to be fair to BMW, was more of a response to the looming oil crisis than to anything which need concern us here – like most modern BMWs they were also handsome, beautifully made and felt from stem to stern like the thoroughly engineered, high quality products they clearly were.
Four decades on, their appeal is as strong as ever, and looking at the cars it’s very easy to understand why. With plenty of by-now familiar BMW design cues from designer Wilhelm Hoftmeister and particularly pleasing proportions overall, despite a slightly austere appearance, the cars all share a sense of crisp 1960’s style and elegance.
Then, as now, the star of the show was the range-topping white’n’stripey 2002 Turbo. This indeed was the car which introduced turbocharging to the mainstream – Saab was only second with its stylish all-black 99 – although the term mainstream is perhaps somewhat relative as BMW succeeded in selling only 51 of them here in the UK which was well down on Saab’s total. Initially the car came with reversed out decals on the front spoiler, spelling-out ‘TURBO’ in mirror-writing – a bid to intimidate drivers on the autobahn and get them to move out of the way. However after some bad press at home in Germany this slightly garish feature was removed.
Unsurprisingly perhaps the innovative, complex and relatively fragile turbo engine makes this range-topper very much an enthusiast’s car, which is to say a machine for the experts, assuming that you can actually find one for sale and don’t mind the spares-availability problem.
The rest of the range make very good classic buys, however, being not only classy exemplars of period motoring but also simple and straightforward enough to be genuinely usable, everyday machines. It’s also helpful that BMW HQ retains a genuine sense of obligation to its (as it were) older customers; this means many mechanical components and body parts are still available and often at fairly reasonable cost. BMW dealers are similarly likely to be unphased by a request for a service for one of these older cars; indeed the best of main-dealer mechanics usually seem genuinely pleased to get a chance for a little bit of heritage maintenance.
The cost of ownership (rather than just acquisition) is just one of the factors which makes the purchase of a 2002 rather more worthwhile than the slightly cheaper 1502 or 1602. This because in real terms, the day to day running expenses will be broadly similar regardless of which model you choose. For this reason, and turbo aside, the Kugelfischer fuel-injected 2002 Tii is the one to go for – its 0-60 mph time of 8.2 seconds is still respectable and positively blistering by 1971 standards – or failing that a twin-carb 2002 Ti. Ti, incidentally, stands for Touring International – the second ‘i’ denotes a fuel-injected set-up – and only a few ever found their way to Britain.
Either way, the slant-four engines tend to be as durable as one would hope from a builder with BMW’s engineering expertise and reputation – it’s an old-fashioned iron block with an alloy head – although with a car like this it makes sense to find one with a known history and as full a service record as possible. Thereafter regular maintenance is essential, as indeed it is for all older cars, together with frequent oil changes. (Keeping the car topped up with anti-freeze all year is also advisable, if only to prevent corrosion inside the head and to limit the chance of it warping expensively through overheating.)
Bodily the cars are similarly robust, and the doors and boot should all close with a reassuring clunk even now. That said, after nearly 40 years, the threat of rust is bound to be present, although in this regard 02s are no worse than any other 1970s saloon and actually good deal better than most. Jacking points and sills are their most noticeable achilles’ heels, and boot and bonnet panels are similarly susceptible to tinworm around the edges or where the paint is badly chipped. (Cabriolets are another matter altogether, mind you, and, with numerous moisture traps beneath and around the hood, can require so much restoration as to be not worth the bother.)
And speaking of rust, here is another of the rewards to be reaped by buying what was, in its day, an unquestionably prestige product. On any ageing classic the trim, those fiddly bits of often low-grade metal strip which finish the car off nicely, can be prone to rust, tricky to restore and frequently impossible to replace. On the 02 cars, however, you don’t have to worry for BMW specified rust-free stainless steel for all its brightwork. It sometimes scratches but 40 years on knowledgeable owners are still mouthing the words ‘thank you’ to whichever bean-counter gave it the OK.