I officially started my trans-continental BMW-delivery drive at 3 AM today, and, like any good road trip, the first stop was to pay an awkward visit to some old, distant relatives. But not mine, the car's. And not really awkward, but awesome, because I went to the Lane Motor Museum.
This kind of old relative visit beats the hell out of the ones I usually get, which involve watching my Uncle Murray eat most of a Greek diner's menu while relating to me absolutely every known fact about Mayor La Guardia.
The Lane is my current favorite motor museum for two big reasons: first, they have a collection that emphasizes the weird, obscure stuff I love, and second-first, incredibly, they'll let me drive these cars. Once I knew I was taking a Westward trek in this Jalopnik 228i, I contacted the Lane and arranged to drive a bunch of vintage BMWs that I think give some interesting contexts and contrasts to BMW's latest lower-end (at least in the US) offering.
As always, the Lane (and their remarkably dedicated staff) really came through, providing me with a delightful lineup of BMWs: a 1938 BMW 320 cabriolet, a 1957 BMW Isetta 300, a 1958 BMW 600, and a 1974 BMW 2002 that was actually brought in from the personal collections of one of the Lane's key people, David Yando.
I got to take short drives in each of the cars — not really long enough for full reviews, but enough time to get a general feel of how the car drives and what its character is like. The overall realization is that BMW has a past that's really much more varied and diverse than their current and well-known lineup of premium performance cars would suggest.
Just read on. You'll see.
1938 BMW 320 Cabriolet
I asked the extremely knowledgeable Lane staff to find me a BMW that would have been roughly analogous to the current 2 series, but in the 1930s or so. And I think this 320 fits the bill perfectly.
Like the 2, it was designed as a sort of sports/performance car, but was made to reside on the lower side of the BMW product line. It was only in production for one year, and was made from a shortened BMW 326 chassis and drivetrain (but with just one carb), with suspension from the BMW 329. It was smaller than its siblings, like the modern 2 series, and was designed to be pretty rewarding to drive.
Of course, "rewarding to drive" on paper in 1938 looks a lot different than today. The 1971cc straight-6 in the 320 makes a charmingly meager 45 HP, roughly a whole BRZ less than a modern 2 series. Even so, when driving the car, the performance felt downright peppy, with the car reaching and maintaining 60 MPH with no problem at all.
In fact, driving the 320 is much easier than its lovely archaic looks would suggest — throttle response is good, shifting feels almost modern (though that could be because this one, like many of its kind, actually has a replacement Volvo 140 gearbox) and the engine sound is much throatier and better than anything putting out 45 HP has any right to be.
You remember you're in something unashamedly vintage when you try and see behind you — the visibility in almost any direction other than straight ahead is bafflingly bad, especially when you consider this is a convertible. Part of that may have to do with a top that's roughly love-seat sized when folded down. The seats offer less grip than a pair of soapy mittens, and you find your ass sliding all over the place in even pretty mild turns.
This car also has two big engineering and design mysteries: the first is that no one seems to be exactly sure who designed and built the charming cabriolet body. It has parts from the BMW-built convertible and coupe, but the lines are quite different. Maybe it's Bauer? No one really knows.
The second, and I think more dumbfounding mystery has to do with the design of the trunk. It seems like it was specifically created to make German men in the rain lose their minds in frustrated rage.
To get it open, you have to twirl these two knobs about 7,000 times a side with no visual indicator that you're making any progress, and once it's unlatched, the lid with the integrated spare tire weighs about as much as a sleeping bag full of cinder blocks. It's fucking heavy.
Just imagining some poor bastard trying to work the damn thing in the rain and then getting bludgeoned unconscious when the lid invariably drops on his head makes you understand why the Germans have words like Shadenfreude.
1957 BMW Isetta 300
I've been wanting to drive an Isetta for years, and I'm happy to say that in its own crude, humble way, it didn't disappoint. This little refigerator-door'd human-scale Kinder Surprise Egg was really the car that saved BMW's bacon in the rough period right after the war, providing them with something cheap and mass-market to sell to all those broke-ass, war-weary people who weren't going to be able to buy a BMW 507 even if they crapped Deutschemarks.
The clever, minimal design was licensed from the Italian company Iso, and BMW used their own motorcycle engines to get the little bubbles moving. This one, looking like a big beige wad of Wrigley's gum, has a 13 HP, 1-cylinder 300cc motor tucked in front of the right-side rear wheel. Considering the size, that power output isn't all that bad.
Getting into the Isetta is easier than you'd think, since the whole steering column swings out with the door, and gives you something to grab to pull it closed. The little bench seat is roomy enough for one, but you better really like, as in like-like, anyone you're crammed in there with.
That said, I think the biggest surprise about driving one of these is how non-claustrophobic it actually is in there. With the little fabric sunroof open letting in a breeze and all those windows around you, you don't feel cramped. Weirdly, it's almost like your wearing a gigantic helmet as opposed to being in a tiny car.
The visibility is fantastic, the steering is quite direct, and the positioning of the front wheels by your feet and the lack of any hood make the car feel more like a big prosthetic extention of your body than almost anything else I've been in. Driving around in it was surprisingly easy and fun.
It's not all a picnic, though. The nature of a one-cylinder means that the engine isn't so much this constant blend of motive power, but rather this staccato pulsing of energy. You drive along and not just hear, but feel the BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG as that one power stroke shoves everything along. It feels pretty crude, and I suppose that's because it is.
Also, this was by far the hardest car to shift. The shift lever is this tiny little lollipop/magic wand thing sprouting out of the side of the car you're not used to shifting on, and the position, shift pattern, and fussy mechanism all conspire to make finding a gear like shoving a drinking straw into a cup full of erector set parts. It's not easy.
Still, I had a blast in this absurd little egg, and it was sobering to think that at one time, for many families, this was all the car you had, and you made it work.
1958 BMW 600
The 600 isn't technically an Isetta, but it's pretty much an Isetta. But an Isetta with some pretty major changes. It now uses one of BMW's famous boxer-twin motorcycle engines, which improves the performance significantly.
It also stretches and reworks the Isetta plan from the front wheels back, giving a true back seat, a rear door, and even a usable little luggage well at the rear. You still enter via that front-mounted door assembly, but now there's a much more significant and better-realized dashboard.
This particular 600 had no brakes and only 2nd and 4th gears, so I don't think I got to fully appreciate it as I drove it around the Lane's big empty parking lot. Though I did get pretty good at steering while holding a gear lever in place while grabbing a handbrake to stop.
It's funny that no matter how many times you're told a car has no brakes, you'll still stab that dead pedal with your foot and experience a few nanoseconds of total panic, again and again.
Oh, and I'm including the little notes from the original owner about how to start the car because, holy shit, just read it.
1974 BMW 2002
This is by far the most direct comparison to the 2 series of all these BMWs. Of course it is. BMW says so themselves, and shows pictures of 2002s in the background of a bunch of 2 series marketing shots. And they're smart to do that.
They're smart because a well-sorted 2002 is really one of the most engaging and satisfying common vintage cars that you can buy, and David's was no exception. Even though David's is a rectangular-taillight version that purists snort at, and it's wearing a nice coat of rusty patina, it's mechanically tip-top.
Driving the 2002, after the Isetta and 600, of course feels incredibly modern and powerful. Because, comparatively, it is. Compared to the 228i, it's decidedly vintage, but in a rewarding, not difficult way.
The Weber-carb'd engine has a great sound and pulls strongly though the gears. The shifter itself is a classic accordian-booted joystick-looking thing, and manages to be strangely rubbery-feeling while at the same time being pretty precise, Despite the squishy feel, I never had any issues finding the gears, and it was easy to shift pretty quickly.
The 2002's visibility is much better than the new car, and the handing is tight, responsive, and gives plenty of feel through the wheel, your ass on the seat, and even your feet on the floor. It feels so damn good to drive it around.
Sure, it's not as comfortable as the 2015 car, because duh, but if I could make this trip in a nicely sorted 2002 instead, I would leap at the chance. Every drive in a nice 2002 can be a drive for pleasure, and that's an achievement.
If I had to pick one car out of this bewitching lineup, I think I'd have to be true to my idiot nature and pick the BMW 600. Well, a version of the 600 with all the stuff working. I'm just so in love with the wildly good space-utilization and packaging, and if I could get that Isetta-style body-prosthetic extension feeling with the extra room and power, I'd have to say it'd make me happy every time I drove it.
It wouldn't be an easy choice, though, and I'm sure in the comments I'll be reminded what a moron I am, and I won't entirely disagree. These are some fantastic cars.