The BMW 3-series is now one of the most popular cars in the world. Some 408,937 examples left BMW assembly halls last year, more than 40 percent of the company's global production. But when you grab hold of the steering wheel of a 3-series, it's the spirit of the BMW 2002 that you're channeling through your hands. This almost painfully plain, two-door sedan from the 1960s happens to be responsible for almost everything we know and love about the BMW 3-series today.
It all started in 1963 with the development of the BMW 1600. BMW had emerged from the shadow of bankruptcy in 1959 when the Quandt brothers rescued it from the clutches of Daimler-Benz, so when the company decided four years later to develop an affordable two-door sedan, it did so as cheaply as possible and with parts available from the recently introduced BMW "Neue Klasse" four-door. On March 9, 1966--one day before the car's official introduction at the Geneva auto show--the BMW 1600 was unveiled for the first time as part of a display in front of the Munich opera house to celebrate BMW's fiftieth anniversary.
It was an era of muscle cars, even in Germany, so it's no surprise that BMW engine guru Alex von Falkenhausen soon decided to build a muscle car for himself by yanking out the 85-hp, 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine from his personal 1600 and replacing it with a100-hp, 2.0-liter four from a four-door sedan. At the same time--and without knowledge of von Falkenhausen's conversion--BMW's planning director, Helmut Bnsch, had the exact same operation performed on his personal car. (Neither man knew of the other's car until one day in 1967 when both vehicles were parked in BMW's in-house workshop.) Soon the engine swap became a matter of company policy; production of the BMW 2002 formally began in January 1968. By 1970, twenty percent of all 2002s were being sold in the United States. The 2002 was far more successful here than the 1600 that preceded it and essentially established the then virtually unknown BMW marque on our shores. It isn't an exaggeration to say that BMW owes nearly its entire U.S. presence to the car.
Just last year, BMW completely restored this particular 1973 BMW 2002tii with almost entirely new parts. Built in a glass-enclosed workshop adjacent to the BMW museum in Munich, the car is a promotion for Mobile Tradition, a BMW division that's responsible for keeping in stock a wide range of replacement parts for classic BMWs. When we picked up the tii in San Francisco for a couple of days last summer, it was easy to think of it as a kicky but irrelevant salute to the wacky 1970s, a tooty-fruity tribute to an era of bright colors and bad taste. But then we drove it, and driving made all the difference--just as it should in a BMW.