Jim Pettengill
Jim Pettengill HalfDork
8/24/09 10:30 a.m.

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.

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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 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.

Jordan Rimpela
Jordan Rimpela Digital Editor
7/15/19 11:28 a.m.

Updated with bigger photos and current pricing. These have absolutely skyrocketed in value. 

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