When you walk up to this '73 2002tii (Touring International Injection), it seems barely there, a pocket-size sedan. This car is engineered rather than styled, so its most remarkable exterior feature is a wafer-thin roof supported by delicate pillars. Once you climb into the 2002, you find flat, vinyl-covered seats, a bus's steering wheel with a rim of black plastic, and almost nothing of visual interest. The small instrument binnacle contains cheap, black-faced dials with faintly scientific faces. Altogether, the 2002 has the stripped-down character of German design in the postwar years, when making do with less was a matter of necessity, not philosophy.Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, car enthusiasts of the late 1960s loved the BMW's spare, functional look and practical-yet-sports-car-eating performance. The Bay Area had long been one of the epicenters of sports car culture in the States, and the 2002's rejection of Nixon-era glitz suited a generation that had read The Whole Earth Catalog. Like so many Americans, they had already grown to like the idea of German engineering because of the popularity of the Volkswagen Beetle, and so, to them, the 2002 came to signify speed and quality in a way that the Alfa Romeo GTV, the Datsun 510, and the Ford Lotus Cortina never could.
The thought of a 2.0-liter, SOHC four-cylinder engine doesn't exactly set the soul on fire, especially when you know that it comes from a design that dates to 1960, but then you look down to see that the 2002 is effortlessly wafting along the Junipero Serra Freeway at 80 mph. Thanks to a light, 2310-pound package, even 100-mph-plus cruising is possible with the tii's 125 hp. In the late 1960s, so many 2002s were seen at flat-out speeds on German autobahns that the car became known as the Flsternde Bombe, or "whispering bomb," as if it were some kind of Luftwaffe secret weapon left over from World War II.
There's no secret technology to this BMW engine, though, just sound design. The two-valve aluminum head has semihemispherical combustion chambers, while the iron block is so stout that it became the basis for the famous 1300-hp, turbocharged BMW Formula 1 engine of the early 1980s. The 2002tii, imported to the United States between 1971 and 1974, featured Kugelfischer mechanical fuel injection, which helped add 28 percent more power to the output of the standard 2002 engine and, more important, also met the recently introduced U.S. air emissions regulations. The tii's torque peak lies pretty far across the tachometer dial at 4500 rpm, but the engine wants to pull strongly across the scale to the horsepower peak at 5800 rpm. The power also seems to swell as the vehicle increases speed, a feeling that BMW still builds into its products today.
The tii also feels effortless on Skyline Boulevard, the two-lane highway along the crest of the San Francisco peninsula that winds through a forest of coastal oaks and redwoods. The 2002 has a long-travel, independent rear suspension, which in the early 1970s was a relatively rare and magical technology, and it helps deliver a supple sure-footedness that set the BMW apart from the live-axle British sports cars and American pony cars of the time, which bucked, bounced, and bounded like donkey carts. You can drive as fast as you dare, but the 2002 always approaches every corner in the same way, rolling decidedly and understeering determinedly, the steering wheel heavy in your hands.