Raiding the parts shelf to make the ultimate BMW Neue Klasse

Zachary
By Zachary Mayne
May 13, 2022 | BMW, 1600, GRM+, Neue Klasse | Posted in Features | From the Aug. 2013 issue | Never miss an article

Photography by Zachary Mayne

In the mid-1960s there was a dedicated, faithful BMW assembly line worker by the name of Helmut Frey. As thanks for his many years of service, BMW rewarded him with a brand-new 1966 1600 Neue Klasse sedan. As the story goes, Frey was incredibly grateful for the generous bonus. He had just become the owner of the model that had helped turn around a struggling BMW.

Custom Fabrication

In 1959, the BMW car company was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. A last-minute investment from Bavarian financier Herbert Quandt and his half-brother Harald Quandt saved BMW from being acquired at a cut-rate price by a competitor. 

The first order of business under its new ownership: introducing fresh models that would breathe desperately needed life back into the company. BMW was already producing the little 700 coupe and sedan as well as the popular but less profit-generating Isetta lineup of microcars. By 1965, BMW’s range of V8 cars was discontinued, making way for the next generation of machines out of Munich.

A new model came in the form of the Neue Klasse–known stateside as the New Class–sedan, introduced at the Frankfurt Auto Show in 1961. Power came from an all-new 1500cc engine with a five-bearing crank and an overhead cam design. Production of the 1500 began in 1962, but the model was replaced in 1964 by the 1600, which used a bored-out version of the engine. This was the model that BMW gave to Helmut Frey for his hard work.

There was only one hitch: Frey had just helped build some of the company’s brand-new 1800 TI/SA sedans. These were high-performance variants based on the upgraded 1800 Neue Klasse sedans, which had recently begun production. Working on these competition specials gave him plenty of food for thought on how he could improve his own car. 

He didn’t want to make a copy of the TI, but he did want to emulate its spirit: daily driver ability paired with track-ready performance. Thanks to his job at the BMW factory, he had access to just about any production and non-production performance part he cared to install. He was also privy to the fact that BMW was about to release a larger, 2.0-liter engine.

Naturally, adding the larger engine was Frey’s first modification to the car. Throughout the following year, he upgraded everything, from the transmission, brakes and rear end to the interior. 

Years later, he handed down the hotrodded Neue Klasse to his son. Frey’s son, in turn, handed it down to his own son, who lived in the U.S. The car was shipped to the States, and eventually it ended up parked. Years later, it turned up on craigslist, being sold as just another old BMW.

Helmut-Approved Hotrod

Nice story, right? But it isn’t true. Aside from the history of the BMW car company and the watershed Neue Klasse, the tale of the assembly line employee is completely fabricated. Not by us, but by one Jim Huff, the owner of the Neue Klasse sedan pictured here. 

The four-door 1600 is almost a foot longer than a BMW 2002. That makes the ride more stable and poised. A more modern M20 engine took the little 1600’s place under the hood, and the car wears Ground Control coil-over suspension.

When Huff, who lives in San Francisco, began building the car, he figured a little back story would help him crystallize his vision for his own Neue Klasse, which he built in large part for road rallies and enjoyable daily driving.

“The goal was to bring it back to life in a German rally/mafia car-like manner,” he says of the BMW. “Having seen articles on the TI/SA version of the NK cars and many vintage race photos of early NK cars, I knew it needed to evoke this kind of feeling while being a street car as well.” 

Huff’s technique of visualizing a story to accompany his build seems to have worked. His BMW sedan hits all the right notes, from the understated aesthetics to the upgraded but still vintage driveline. It’s easy to imagine that this car was built in period.

Of course, Huff is no stranger to classic BMWs. He has owned a 1970 2002 for the past seven years, and he’s built it up from the inside out to feature a six-cylinder M20 and a host of chassis upgrades. The 2002 is his daily driver, but he also enters it in road rallies, including the multiday Snow Ball Rally for classic cars that travels from California to Nevada and back.

The way Huff discovered that Neue Klasses exist is an interesting–and true–story. “One day, my wife bought me a [scale] model of a BMW,” he says. The nose appeared similar to a 2002’s, but upon closer inspection Huff realized the model looked different elsewhere. “I flipped it over and ‘BMW 1500’ was stamped on the bottom,” he recalls. 

This revelation opened up a whole new chapter of BMW’s history for Huff. So when he came across a real Neue Klasse for sale locally, he couldn’t resist taking a look. The car was discovered purely by chance during one of his “random craigslist sessions.” 

Rough Around the Edges

“It was not so great-looking,” admits Huff of the 1600, which was located in nearby San Jose, California, “but it seemed worthy to bring back to life. The biggest deal is that it was dry, with only a bit of surface rust on the nose near the road.” The BMW was multicolored, with a blue body, gold hood and tan trunk lid, attesting to the fact that it had been around the block a few times. But fundamentally, it was solid. 

“I had the mindset of wanting to get this thing on the road in a timely manner in order to drive the crap out of it,” he says. Once Huff had stripped the BMW’s body, it was resprayed with Bristol Grey, a very period-correct, non-metallic hue that perfectly suits the sedan’s clean, simple lines. 

The interior was also redone with road rallies and aggressive street driving in mind. “We stripped out the rotted-out bits, and when we were done it was pretty darn empty,” continues Huff. He sourced a new carpet kit from a company in the Netherlands. A pair of vintage Corbeau race seats with evocative metal grommets in the upholstery was then bolted in with custom-fabbed brackets. Occupants are held in with 3-inch lap belts, and a Nardi steering wheel replaces the stock unit. 

“The rear seat is from an E30,” says Huff. “It fit with some slight mods and is sleeker-looking than the cushy stock seat.” The crocodile dash front that the BMW sported from the factory remains in place, but the dash top was sourced from BMW expert John Barlow of Vintage BMW Source. The NK’s original gauges were restored at the same time.

The BMW’s chassis and driveline have also been suitably upgraded for rallies and public roads. Huff entrusted Mano Agulian of Manofied Racing with building an appropriate engine for the car. 

Starting with a trusty 2-liter M10 block from a 2002, Agulian mated the 10:1-compression pistons to the stock cranskshaft. Bolted to the bottom end is an M10 head that was originally fitted to an E21-chassis 3-Series, which provides a little more torque. A higher-revving,


284-degree camshaft further bumps power and provides a more entertaining powerband. Fuel is delivered to the engine via a Carter electric fuel pump, where it mixes with incoming air in the pair of side-draft DCOE 40 Weber carbs. 

Huff estimates that the M10 puts out 155 horsepower. Ensuring that the engine remains cool during those multiday rallies is a larger radiator from an E21-chassis 320i. The radiator has been further upgraded with a pusher fan. The 1600’s original four-speed has made way for a Getrag 245 five-speed, also from an E21. 

Ground Control coil-overs ensure that the Neue Klasse corners in a predictable manner. These pieces were actually made with Ground Control’s input, as the company wanted to help develop the suspension when they heard that the coil-overs were destined for such an unusual car.

The car’s been repainted a period-correct Bristol Grey color. Inside, vintage Corbeaus support the driver’s hinterlands. The gauges have been completely refreshed to work like new. A complete rear end from an E30-chassis BMW has been modified to fit this car. 

By far one of the car’s most unusual modifications is the entire E30 rear end. Credit for the installation goes to Ryan Gangemi of Gangemi Motorworks, who also performed the majority of the build. According to Huff, the 1600’s original differential is pretty weak compared to newer BMW diffs. Huff and Gangemi looked into various upgrade theories, but they couldn’t come up with a solid solution–until the day Gangemi called Huff and told him that he had test-fitted an E30 rear end that was lying around the shop. It could be made to fit the 1600’s chassis with some fabrication, he explained.

“The wheels are off of a 2000CS–steelies that are 14x5.5,” says Huff. “Stock are 4.5 inches wide and TI/SA wheels are 6 inches wide. I have a set I will eventually widen to 6.5 inches. 

“It really glides down the road and reacts quite well in the twisty roads,” says Huff of his creation. “Even though it’s a four-door, it’s only 11 inches longer and 4 inches wider than a 2002.” That and the fact that the wheelbase is only an inch longer than a 2002’s means the sedan feels surprisingly compact on a winding country lane. 

If Helmut Frey were real–and still alive–he’d be proud.

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