There is a theory in psychology today known as the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, which is defined as that feeling you get when you learn about something relatively obscure, and then that thing seems to pop up in your life over and over again. It’s known as a “frequency illusion,” and, according to Stanford linguistics professor Arnold Zwicky (the guy who came up with the theory), it is contingent upon two things: selective attention and confirmation bias. Effectively, it’s like reading about the history of Earl Grey tea one time in Business Law, and then seeing countless other things having to do with Earl Grey in the time immediately afterwords. Which is a thing that definitely did not happen to me this week. Anyway, this is a 1971 BMW 2002. Stop me if this sounds familiar.
If you’re a regular around these parts, you’ve probably come across something BMW-related at some point, and that’s no accident. BMW is one of the greats when it comes to performance cars, and is largely considered the first company to popularize practicality and performance in one package (perfectly predictably, I’d posit). And this is the car to start all that: the 2002. Remember the E30 M3? Or the M2 (no, not the new one, this one)? Yeah, they trace their origins back to this. Designed as a sportier version of the BMW “New Class” series of cars, the 2002 was introduced to the public in 1968 and was an immediate sales success. All told, they sold more than 850,000 of these things over the course of 8 and a half years. This was a good thing, and not just for BMW either. When the 2002 was new, the sixties were pretty much over, and with them much of the optimism, hope, and to-hell-with-the-rest attitude that had so characterized America. Now it was the 70s. Crime rates were up, divorce rates were up, the Bronx was burning and inflation was, um, inflating. Watergate happened. So did the Vietnam War. New York City almost went bankrupt. But at least we had this, the BMW 2002. A glimmer of hope, of uncorrupted good in a country decaying around our ears.
The 2002 drew its 100 horsepower from a 2.0 liter inline four cylinder. The idea came from a charming bit of serendipity in which two separate BMW employees dropped a 2.0 liter engine into their 1600-2’s, which they only realized when both cars went in for a service at the same time. The two men thought the idea was so novel they brought it to the company’s product planning team, and not long after, out popped the brand new 2002. This is the base car, which means it has a carburetor. Later, more performance-minded versions of the 2002 were fuel injected (scintillating, I know). But the car’s goodness didn’t come from just the engine. No, the 2002’s magic really stemmed from the way it drove. With MacPherson struts in the front and a semi-trailing arm in the rear, both of which could be optioned with anti-sway bars, the car struck an unrivaled balance between fiery backroad performance and a comfortable ride (some have made the argument that the Peugeot 504 did this the same or better than the BMW. But, you know, shut up). But don’t let the tuning fool you into thinking the driving experience was a walk in the park. This is the 70s, remember, before there were any electronic aids to make it easier for us to text while driving. It was an effort to steer this car, an effort to brake. It could be had with a three speed automatic or a four speed manual. Zero to sixty came in about 9 seconds for the manual car, a bit longer for the automatic. Go manuals!
Okay, storytime: in the mid-sixties, a radical student group in Germany formed in opposition to the German elite class and the United States military- two groups who exercised more than a little governmental control in the region. The group saw their leaders as little more than thinly veiled reincarnations of the Nazi regime (which is not illogical, as many former Nazis enjoyed jobs of considerable influence in the government). The group was responsible for killing over 30 people, but weirdly, about a quarter of the German population sympathized with the students, a chilling reflection of the extreme feelings that the government dredged up within its citizens. The group also had a strong affinity for the cars of Germany, particularly the BMW 2002, perhaps because of the ease at which they could be hotwired. In fact, the group and the cars became so ingrained with one another that the police began to set up checkpoints in which they only stopped people driving 2002s. Owners began making bumper stickers that read that the driver of the car was not a member (I don’t know if this was effective. It seems a little on the nose.) And the name of the group? The Red Army Faction. Also known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang. Funny how that came up again.
It’s funny how often the 2002 crops up now. Want to talk about yuppies? Or the resurgence of Cadillac? Or postwar German manufacturing? Or the Hofmeister Kink? The 2002 is always there, a quintessentially good car from a pretty dark corner of our history. The more you learn about it, the more it seems to pop up in your life. It defined what BMW was, as the go-to manufacturer of practical performance. It even, arguably, gave rise to modern automotive journalism. The 2002’s influence runs deep, a shining little rear-wheel-drive gem. I’m going to (mercifully) wrap this post up now, but don’t worry. I’m sure the 2002 will pop up again soon.
- The engine in the 2002 actually made 5 horsepower less than its direct predecessor, the 1600tii.
- The Turbo iteration of the 2002 was introduced in 1974, and was the first European car to be turbocharged.
- 20% of 2002s built went to the United States.
- When it came out, Car and Driver called this car a “whispering bomb.” No, I don’t know what they were talking about. Lots of drugs in the 70s.