As I sit here, fresh from the elegant embrace of BMW's new 2002, it occurs to me that something between nine and ten million Americans are going to make a terrible mistake this year. Like dutiful little robots they will march out of their identical split-level boxes and buy the wrong kind of car. Fools, fools! Terrible, terrible, I say. Why are you blowing your money on this year's too-new-to-be-true facelift of the Continental / Countess Mara / Sprite / Sprint Status Symbol / Sting Ray / Sex Substitute / Mainliner / Belair / Newport / Overkill / Electra / Eldorado / Javelin / Toad / GTO / GTA / GTB / GTS / GTX / Reality Blaster / Variant / Park Lane / Park Ward / Ward-Heeler / XK-E / Dino / Dud car when you should be buying a BMW 2002, I ask.
(This piece originally appeared in the April 1968 issue of Car and Driver magazine and is considered by many to be the first truly modern car review and one of the all-time best. It is the review a generation of scribes tried to copy. It is reprinted here with the blessing and permission of C/D EiC Eddie Alterman and the publication. — Ed.)
Down at the club, Piggy Tremalion and Bucko Penoyer and all their twit friends buy shrieking little 2-seaters with rag tops and skinny wire wheels, unaware that somewhere, someday, some guy in a BMW 2002 is going to blow them off so bad that they'll henceforth leave every stoplight in second gear and never drive on a winding road again as long as they live.
In the suburbs, Biff Everykid and Kevin Acne and Marvin Sweatsock will press their fathers to buy HO Firebirds with tachometers mounted out near the horizon somewhere and enough power to light the city of Seattle, totally indifferent to the fact that they could fit more friends into a BMW in greater comfort and stop better and go around corners better and get about 29 times better gas mileage.
Mr. and Mrs. America will paste a "Support Your Local Police" sticker on the back bumper of their new T-Bird and run Old Glory up the radio antenna and never know that for about 2500 bucks less they could have gotten a car with more leg room, more head room, more luggage space, good brakes, decent tires, independent rear suspension, a glove box finished like the inside of an expensive overcoat and an ashtray that slides out like it was on the end of a butler's arm—not to mention a lot of other good stuff they didn't even know they could get on an automobile, like doors that fit and seats that don't make you tired when you sit in them.
So far as I'm concerned, to hell with all of 'em. If they're content to remain in the automotive dark, let them. I know about the BMW 2002, and I suspect enthusiasts will buy as many as those pink-cheeked Bavarians in their leather pants and mountain-climbing shoes would like to build and ship over here. Something between nine and ten million squares will miss out on this neat little 2-door sedan with all the cojones and brio and elan of cars twice its size and four times its price, but some ten thousand keen types will buy them in 1968, so the majority loses for once.
The 2002 is BMW's way of coping with the smog problem. They couldn't import their little 1600 TI, because their smog device won't work on its multi-carbureted engine. So they stuffed in the smooth, quiet 2-liter (single carburetor) engine from the larger 2000 sedan and—SHAZAM—instant winner!
To my way of thinking, the 2002 is one of modern civilization's all-time best ways to get somewhere sitting down. It grabs you. You sit in magnificently-adjustable seats with great, tall windows all around you. You are comfortable and you can see in every direction. You start it. Willing and un-lumpy is how it feels. No rough idle, no zappy noises to indicate that the task you propose might be anything more than child's play for all those 114 Bavarian superhorses.
Depress the clutch. Easy. Like there was no spring. Snick. First gear. Remove weight of left foot from clutch. Place weight of right foot on accelerator. The minute it starts moving, you know that Fangio and Moss and Tony Brooks and all those other big racing studs retired only because they feared that someday you'd have one of these, and when that day came, you'd be indomitable. They were right. You are indomitable.
First stoplight. I blow off aging Plymouth sedan and 6-cylinder Mustang. Not worthy of my steel. Too easy. Next time. Big old 6-banger Healey and '65 GTO. GTO can't believe I'm serious, lets me get away before he opens all the holes and comes smoking past with pain and outrage all over his stricken countenance. Nearly hits rear-end of truck in panicky attempt to reaffirm virility. Austin-Healey a different matter. Tries for all he's worth, but British engineering know-how and quality-craftsmanship not up to the job. I don't even shift fast from third to fourth, just to let him feel my utter contempt.
Nobody believes it, until I suck their headlights out. But nobody doubts it, once that nearly-silent, unobtrusive little car has disappeared down the road and around the next bend, still accelerating without a sign of the brake lights. I learn not to tangle with the kids in their big hot Mothers with the 500 horsepower engines unless I can get them into a tight place demanding agility, brakes, and the raw courage that is built into the BMW driver's seat as a no-cost extra.
What you like to look for are Triumphs and Porsches and such. Them you can slaughter, no matter how hard they try. And they always try. They really believe all that jazz about their highly-tuned, super-sophisticated sports machines, and the first couple of drubbings at the hands of the 2002 make them think they're off on a bad trip or something. But then they learn the awful truth, and they begin to hang back at traffic signals, pretending that they weren't really racing and all. Ha! Grovel, Morgan. Slink home with your tail between your legs, MG-B. Hide in the garage when you see a BMW coming. If you have to race with something, pick a sick kid on an old bicycle.
But I don't want you to get the notion that this is nothing more than a pocket street racer. The BMW 2002 may be the first car in history to successfully bridge the gap between the diametrically-opposed automotive requirements of the wildly romantic car nut, on one hand, and the hyperpragmatic people at Consumer Reports, on the other. Enthusiasts' cars invariably come off second-best in a CU evaluation, because such high-spirited steeds often tend to be all desire and no protein—more Magdalen than Mom.
CU used to like the VW a lot, back when it was being hailed as the thinking man's answer to the excesses of Detroit, but now that the Beetle has joined Chevrolet at the pinnacle of establishment-acceptance, it's falling from CU's favor. But the BMW 2002 is quite another matter. It is still obscure enough to have made no inroads at all with the right-thinking squares of the establishment. It rides like a dream. It has a surprising amount of room inside. It gets great gas mileage. It's finished, inside and out, like a Mercedes-Benz, but it doesn't cost very much. All those qualifications are designed to earn the BMW a permanent place in the Consumer hall of fame. But for the enthusiasts—at the same time, and without even stepping into a phone booth to change costume—it goes like bloody hell and handles like the original bear. No doubt about it, the BMW 2002 is bound to get Germany back into the CU charts, to borrow a phrase from the pop vernacular.
If it wasn't already German, I'd be tempted to say it could be as American as Mom's apple pie or Rapp Brown's carbine. Not American in the same sense as the contemporary domestic car, with all its vast complexity and nouveau riche self-consciousness, but American in the sense of Thomas Edison and a-penny-saved-is-a-penny-earned and Henry Ford I (before his ego overloaded all the fuses and short-circuited his mind and conscience). The 2002 mirrors faithfully all those basic tenets of the Puritan ethic on which our Republic was supposedly based. It does everything it's supposed to do, and it does it with ingenuity, style, and verve.
In its unique ability to blend fun-and-games with no-nonsense virtue, this newest BMW also reflects another traditional American article of faith—our unshakable belief that we can find and marry a pretty girl who will expertly cook, scrub floors, change diapers, keep the books, and still be the greatest thing since the San Francisco Earthquake in bed. It's a dream to which we cling eternally, in spite of the fact that nobody can recall it ever having come true. But, as if to erase our doubts, along comes an inexpensive little machine from Bavaria that really can perform the automotive equivalent of all those diverse domestic and erotic responsibilities, and hope springs anew.
I'll be interested to see who those 10,000 owners of the 1968 BMW 2002 actually turn out to be. The twits won't buy it, because it's too sensible, too comfortable, too easy to live with. The kids won't buy it because it doesn't look like something on its way to a soft moon-landing and it doesn't have three-billion horsepower. BMW buyers will—I suspect—have to be pretty well-adjusted enthusiasts who want a good car, people with the sense of humor to enjoy its giant-killing performance and the taste to appreciate its mechanical excellence.
They will not be the kind who buy invisible middle-of-the-line 4-door sedans because that's what their friends and neighbors buy, nor will they be those pitiful men/boys who buy cars and use them as falsies for fleshing out baggy jockstraps. Good horses don't like bad riders, and it's doubtful if the 2002 will attract too many of the timid or confused fantasy-buyers. It's too real.
That last phrase is kind of a key to the whole BMW bag. It is too real. For a couple of years now, "unreal" has been a big word with the semi-literate savages of hot rodding. It's supposed to be a high compliment, but it turns out to be an unwittingly incisive comment on the whole metalflake-angel hair-Batmobile scene. LSD is a drag, not a drug, for that group. Gurus like George Barris and Ed Roth were blowing their minds on fiberglass and tuck-and-roll upholstery while the Indians still thought peyote nuts were something you put on chocolate sundaes.
Let me tell you there's nothing unreal about the 2002. Give it a coat of pearlescent orange paint and surround the pedals with lavender angel hair and it would just naturally die of shame. Like a good sheep dog, it is ill-suited for show competition, only becoming beautiful when it's doing its job. It is a devoted servant of man, delighted with its lot in life, asking only that it be treated with the respect it deserves. You can't knock that . . .
The Germans have a word for it. The German paper Auto Bild called the 2002 Flüstern Bombe which means "Whispering Bomb," and you should bear in mind that the German press speaks of bombs, whispering and otherwise, with unique authority. They, too, saw something American in the car's design concept, but only insofar as BMW had elected to stuff a larger, smoother engine into their smallest vehicle.
But that's really pure BMW, when you think about it. The current 2000 series started life in 1962 as a 1500, then it became an 1800 and finally a full two liters—going from 94 to 114 horsepower in the process. The current 1600 was introduced about a year-and-a-half ago, and BMW-ophiles everywhere began to think of that glorious day in the future when the factory would decide to put in the 2-liter engine. Well, sports fans, the glorious day has arrived, and the resulting automobile is everything the faithful could have been hoping for.
The engine cranks out 114 hp at 5800 rpm, and the way it's geared it just seems to wind forever—it'll actually turn 60 mph in second, and an easy 80 mph in third. Top speed (which doubles as cruising speed) is a shade over a hundred, and nothing in the chassis, running gear, or engine ever gives the impression that it's being worked too hard. It's like effortless, no kidding. It couldn't come down the side of a mountain any more gracefully if Gower Champion choreographed the whole trip.
Maybe the neatest part of the whole deal is the fact that the 2002 was originally proposed as a kind of second-choice, American anti-smog version of the wailing 1600 TI they were selling in Germany, but the second-choice version turns out to be better than the original. The 2002 is faster 0-60, and faster at the top end as well. Not to mention the fact that it's a whole lot smoother and quieter.
How they can do all that good stuff and then screw it up with one of those incredible Blaupunkt radios is a little hard to imagine, but that's what they did. The rule with Blaupunkt and Becker seems to be, "The Bigger and More Complicated and Expensive Our Radios Are, The Lousier The Reception." The 2002 had a lovely-looking AM/FM affair neatly slipped into its console—easily a hundred-and-fifty bucks worth of radio—and I couldn't pick up a Manhattan station from the far end of the Brooklyn Bridge. Honestly. It was maybe the dumbest radio anybody ever stuck in an automobile, like all Blaupunkt and Becker radios, yet the German car makers—for reasons unknown—continue to use them.
It's a great mystery. Motorola, Bendix, Delco, and Philco can all sell you foolproof, first-class radios for about 75 bones—the Japanese can knock one off for about 98 cents—but the best German car radio you can buy throws up its hands in despair if you expect it to pull in a station more than three-quarters of a mile away.
Fortunately, the BMW is fast enough that you can keep picking up new stations as the old ones fade away. What you really want to do in this case, though, is install a good domestic stereo tape system. Maybe a little kitchen, too. The car is nice enough that you'll probably want to spend an occasional weekend in it—especially when you're fighting with your wife, or there's nothing good on television.
A final word of advice. The crazy-mad little BMW 2002 is every bit as good as I say it is—maybe better. If the 1600 was the best $2500 sedan C/D ever tested, the 2002 is most certainly the best $2850 sedan in the whole cotton-picking world. Besides the model-number was increased by 25%, but the price increase for the larger engine only amounted to 14%, and if that ain't a fair deal . . .
Feel free to test-drive one, but please don't tell any of those ten million squares who are planning to buy something else. They deserve whatever they get. Now turn your hymnals to Number 2002 and we'll sing two choruses of Whispering Bomb . . .
Afterword by Matthew Davis, Director – Infiniti Global Communications
Just 60 U.S. cents – “Back when a cent was a cent!” – got you into the world of the April 1968
Car and Driver Magazine
as Editor-in-Chiefed briefly by Leon Mandel within the scuffed and tobacco-smoked halls of the Ziff-Davis Publishing Company headquarters on Park Avenue.
In that golden April issue from one damned amazing age of paper publishing came this word-gushing fire hose across the hood of mainstream car writing. All caused by a 114-horsepower little German.
Bless you, Matt Hardigree, for reaching to this now middle-aged teenager working on the brightly lit dark side of the business, allowing me to write about one of my dad’s best possible pieces of writing.
I do hope J. Lo followers and commenters give this 1968 BMW 2002 drive review a read now, or a re-read; it’s so lusciously good in a way automotive print writing can no longer muster or risk. It’s better edited than anything at all is really allowed to be these days in any medium, too, what with all those copy editors wandering the halls of Ziff-Davis then.
My father really loved a car when he really loved it. In the late 1960s, too, a good writer of cars could still easily get away with well-placed sexism, name-calling, drugs+cars associations, and very long well crafted sentences. I have an inner boy child that many days misses all that.
He and I both had our 2002 stories to tell and that two-door sedan remains one of the finest things ever built.
Who knows if utterly true, but my dad told me that he wrote this in a daze of enthusiasm, a definition stream of consciousness on his little bluish Olivetti. Within minutes of his having done the wild weekend solo drive through the boroughs and into Westchester County that finally shook this review loose, he was hunting and pecking madly in his quiet office. He said it actually took only a couple rounds of edits and that Mandel liked it pretty well right off.
BMW loved the review said it literally turned the corner for German car brands in the U.S., and the older guard still talks about it to this day. Blaupunkt hated it and pulled their advertising for a year. In the spirit, I am sure, of writers he really liked – the endlessly interesting Henry N. Manney III and James Thurber among them – he had seen the light that only a BMW 2002 could shine on a fabulous late winter’s drive in 1968 near the greatest city on Earth.
Photos: C/D, BMW.