Retrospective: Driving Impressions of a BMW 2002

I rarely turn down an opportunity to drive older cars, and when my buddy Matt brought his recently purchased BMW 2002 to breakfast Saturday morning I prevailed on him to toss me the keys.

Just to keep me honest, his daughter, Natalie Fenaroli, came along to supervise (a better driver than most of us – and fresh off testing/training in Formula Fords in New Zealand – http://fast33.com/). Actually she wanted to come along so she’d get to drive it home; she was gaming her father.

The BMW 2002 was the start of the American fascination with BMW. The late David E. Davis’ paean to the 2002 in Car and Driver set in motion the idea that the Bavarians were building world beater performance touring cars. And the 2002 was all David E. Davis said it was. I can remember lusting after one in the 1970s and then not being able to will myself to fork over the cash needed to purchase one (one of the dumbest decisions I ever made).

I approach driving old cars with some trepidation. I can tell you the tale of two Model As, one poorly maintained and a handful (mechanical brakes that needed adjustment) and the other better than new. So you have to be prepared to discount the rough edges of age to find the gem underneath.

Opening the door you get an idea quickly of why these cars are light – the door is thin, extremely so when compared to the chunky thick – safety – first versions that we live with now. The seat belts had no tensioner, and they had to be carefully reeled out. And don’t even think about airbags. One thing this 2002 was afflicted with however, were those nasty late ’70s 5 mph bumpers.

It had been awhile since I’d driven a car equipped with carburetors, and Natalie had to remind me what the starting sequence was; pump the accelerator twice – nice mechanical linkage to the throttle plate in the carb – and then crank the engine with the key twisted full right. If you let off the key, you had to start the sequence over (but pump the accelerator too much and you’ll flood the carb).

The car starts, and wonder of wonders, it’s equipped with a working AC unit. Nice cold air (at the expense of a few of the 2.0L four’s ponies). The other item this 2002 was afflicted with was an automatic transmission. But the cost of a 2002 with an auto is less than a similar example with a manual transmission – and this car was purchased with a daily commute in traffic as its mission in life.

The steering wheel is thin but transmits road feel to the hands in copious amounts. The steering is not power assisted, so it’s a bit heavy (especially if you’re used to the overboosted/anesthetized Lexus/Buick steering paradigm).

Underway and we’re in a pretty crowded area with lots of cars trying to find parking spaces, pedestrians, bicycles, and a busy street to turn onto. It’s now that you appreciate the acres of glass in the 2002. This is what a ‘greenhouse’ on a car should be. Tall windows, thin pillars and, as a result, wraparound vision.

The AC and automatic tranny soak up their fair share of horses and subsequently it would be hard to describe the acceleration as quick – but it’s perfectly capable of hanging with traffic. It’s when you slow down that you get jolted back to the ’70s. There is no power assist. So it’s all about how much leg muscle you can bring to the party. Once you’re aware that this isn’t a dainty little on/off switch, the brakes are actually a delight to use. Good pedal feedback and decent stopping distances.

The sensations of driving this car gave the impression of dealing with something that was simple and quite honest. Decent power (and even better if I’d have switched off the AC), excellent steering feel, good brakes, and an eagerness to go where pointed were what shown through in the short drive.

The icing on the cake would have been to drive the BMW 2002 back to back with say, a 1977 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme. That would have shown just how startling the car was to buyers of the era. The BMW 2002 was all that was good with cars in the late 1970s, at a time when cars were in transition thanks to air pollution and safety regulations.

When I pulled up to the stop outside of the restaurant we had breakfast at, set the brake and hit the emergency flasher button, I found Matt and described my impressions of the car. When I looked back at the car, Natalie had found her way into the driver’s seat and Matt was definitely going to be a passenger on the ride home.

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