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BMW 328 1936_39 – Quietly Innovative ‘Thirties Hero.

BMW_328
Written by lombreblanche
  1. If the 02 cars stand at one end of the classic BMW spectrum the 328 represents the other, being not just a legendary 1930s works racer but also in a sense the start of a pedigree or bloodline which led to the aforementioned AC Ace and thus at a stretch to the Cobra (which as we saw earlier was still in production more than half a century on).

 

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The Cobra traded European know-how for American cubic inches, but the pretty Ace was one of many sports cars and specials either side of the war which used BMW’s superb M328 engine (designed by Rudolf Schleicher and Fritz Fiedler). Others include both the venerated and the more or less forgotten, a wild variety of specialist machines from the likes of Bristol, Frazer Nash, Lotus and Cooper as well as Veritas, Arnolt, Lister and ERA.

This one got it first, however, the iron-block, alloy-head in-line six producing a respectable, rather than remarkable, 80 bhp from just 1,971 cc although some later developments, including race cars running methanol, were to achieve double this.

It’s not just the engine that makes the 328 special however. Take a closer look at the bodywork and you can see that despite its somewhat perpendicular windscreen and radiator cowl, those utilitarian pressed-steel wheels and the firmly upright, and slightly exposed, driving position, it’s actually a surprisingly sleek and beguiling beast.

Surprisingly modern in its detailing too, with touches of Bauhaus (a school in Germany that combined arts and craft, and is famous for the approach to design that it publicised and taught) about its simple instrument panel and Bakelite switches. Then there are a number of features to the car which in the mid-1930s were not just futuristic for something in this class but also destined to be highly influential. That v-shaped split-screen, for example, would resurface on Jaguar’s groundbreaking XK120. So too would the 328’s moulded wings and slippery fared-in headlights -albeit not for another 12 years or more.

The 328 was also usefully small, impressively lightweight and hugely nimble, its clever tubular chassis, hydraulic brakes and independent suspension all streets ahead of the competition, many of whom at this time were still struggling with massive, vintage-style channel-section frames. Throw in precise rack-and-pinion steering and star drivers such as Britain’s A.P.F. Fane and Dick Seaman and the scene was set for the Bavarian bomber to scoop one win after another.

In fact numerous class wins quickly fell to the car in a number of the most important international events including the 1936 and 1937 Tourist Trophies, the Mille Miglia the following year, and the final pre-war Le Mans 24 Hours. Finally, in the 1940 Gran Premo Brescia, a coupé streamliner version actually beat all-comers. Nor was the 328 yet finished, the car continued to win occasionally, though mostly only in amateur events, in the hands of one Tony Crook, the man who was to head Bristol Cars for the next few decades and oversee further development of the M328 until well into the 1960s.

Inevitably, today it is these race-winning cars which command the highest prices, a documented track record and known competition history always pumping prices ever higher. Even without this, however, the 328 has never really dipped below the ‘highly sought-after’ mark and its combination of badge, ability, and sheer good looks has over the years conspired to ensure that there are almost certainly no bargain 328s left anywhere on the planet.

There’s also the fact that it’s got the BMW quality mark stamped all over it too, with an easily recognisable strain of the company’s present-day DNA clearly shot through every cell. As a result, and like a modern M3’s, the snug cockpit feels both comfortable and purposeful, the power delivery is smooth and progressive, and the exhaust note – whilst decidedly punchy – still exudes a sophistication and quality often lacking in its rivals. Of course if you compare the 328 to anything even vaguely modern, its skinny tyres and suspension set-up bring their own limitations, and the car will certainly understeer going into a sharp bend. But set it against its own contemporaries (or even the much later XK120) and it feels more wieldy, extremely controllable, and above all fantastically well-balanced. More lively too, and in the best possible way.

But there’s something else about the 328 too, something which helps to explain why they are so in demand and always have been. This is that it’s fundamentally a racing car yet one which, whilst you can’t use it everyday, you can certainly drive throughout the year if that’s what takes your fancy. Many indeed don’t race at all nowadays, often because having been modified so heavily over the years – as we hinted at the top, the engine cries out for it – they’re no longer eligible. Instead their owners get them out on the road and in all weathers, the v-shaped screen and sidescreens protecting them from the weather whilst the heatsoak from the exhaust keeps things nice and toasty behind the wheel.

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