In 1966, BMW was practically unknown in the US unless you were a touring motorcycle enthusiast or had seen an Isetta given away on a quiz show. BMW’s sales in the US that year were just 1253 cars. Then BMW 1600-2 came to America’s shores, tripling US sales to 4564 the following year, boosted by favorable articles in the Buff Books. Car and Driver called it “the best $2500 sedan anywhere.” Road & Track’s road test was equally enthusiastic. Then, BMW took a cue from American manufacturers, stuffed their largest m10 engine in their smallest body, and created the 2002. That opened the floodgates and established BMW as the premier performance automobile line in the US. ’02 series sales alone in 1969 were 9637, 2/3 of those 2002s, in their first year of sales in the US. By the end of the BMW 2002 production in 1976, BMW’s annual US sales were over 26,000, and BMW was no longer an unknown make in the US; it was—and still is--The Ultimate Driving Machine.
After World War II, BMW was in dire straits. Their Eisenach factory was in what became East Germany and lost to the company, along with critical tooling and dies. Their Munich factory was in ruins, having suffered extensive bombing damage. For several years, the company survived by making aluminum cookware, bicycles and other small items. It wasn’t until 1948 that motorcycle production resumed; cars didn’t come until 1952. And those were basically warmed-over pre-war models—large and expensive. Not what was needed—or what sold—in struggling postwar Germany.
A fortuitous licensing agreement in 1955 with Iso—an Italian appliance manufacturer—allowed BMW to build the egg-shaped Isetta, with a single cylinder BMW motorcycle engine replacing the Italian two-stroke scooter engine.
While barely qualifying as a car—at least it had four wheels—an Isetta was the perfect step up from a motorcycle or scooter, allowing (at least small) German families to travel snug and dry—if not rapidly.
The Isetta’s success—in one and two door versions--begat the BMW 700, a proper car, albeit small and still powered by a motorcycle engine. But neither the Isetta, the 700, the large 501 and 502 “Baroque Angels”--essentially pre-war designs--plus penny numbers of luxurious coupes and convertibles were enough to keep BMW solvent.
With Daimler-Benz sniffing around BMW’s door looking for a bargain takeover, the Quandt family intervened and bought into the company with sufficient funds to keep things going—and to allow the development and production of the company’s savior model, the Neue Klasse (NK) sedan. This, BMW’s first new-from-the-ground-up model since before World War II was a success from its initial introduction in the fall of 1961.
By 1964 BMW knew they had a hit on their hands and offered the basic sedan body with several trim levels and different engine displacements. But with the discontinuation of the Isetta and the 700, the entry price of the least expensive NK sedan was beyond the reach of many Germans, the country’s “economic miracle” notwithstanding. The company needed a car that bespoke BMW in performance, handling, and appointments but was less expensive and, thus, necessarily smaller than the NK sedans. Enter Type 114.
Running gear development was relatively simple: use the drivetrain and suspension from the NK sedans, already well-developed and mounted on subframes. Then design a smaller, two door body with lines that mimicked the larger sedans, and buyers would have everything a NK owner would have except for two doors and a bit more rear leg room—for considerably fewer Marks.
By May, 1965 designer Georg Bertram had the final body design complete; BMW’s board approved the entire package in November, and the car— designated the 1600-2 to differentiate it from the four-door 1600 — was officially introduced on March 9, 1966 during BMW’s 50th anniversary celebration.
While the NK sedans were sold in the US by Hoffman Motors, the importer, annual sales were in the very low four figure range. They were relatively expensive, priced with comparable small Mercedes Benz models (and much larger Oldsmobiles and Buicks) and sold by a company that was practically unknown in the US—unless you were a motorcycle enthusiast. BMW 1600-2 changed that. Only a few two-doors made it to the US in 1966, but in 1967, BMW’s US sales jumped to 4564, from only 1253 cars the previous year. Max Hoffman knew he had a hit on his hands. He also knew the hit would be even bigger with a bit more than the 1600’s 85 horsepower; it was adequate, but not really Performance. He first thought to import the performance version of the 1600-2 with dual sidedraft carbs and 15 more horsepower. However, the looming US emission standards nixed that idea; all that carburetion would never pass Federal standards.
But there was a 2-liter version of the 1600 engine, identical on the outside, that would bolt right into the two-door’s engine compartment. And with just a single barrel carburetor, it generated 100 horsepower, the same as the now-verboten BMW 1600ti. Coincidentally, two BMW executives had the same idea and had the factory fit the larger m10 engine from the BMW 2000 sedan into their personal 1600-2 cars. With US sales suddenly increasing—solely due to the two door, when Hoffman approached the factory with his two liter idea, they were receptive. BMW 2002 was born.
The first ones arrived in the US in April, 1968 and caused a sensation. David Davis wrote his 2002 paean, “Turn Your Hymnals to 2002” in the April 1968 Car and Driver, and the word was out. A SOHC m10 engine, fully independent suspension, disk front brakes, and 100 hp (113 SAE). And it would outrun and outhandle almost every contemporary sports car (save 6 cylinder Porsches, XKEs, and exotics) while wearing a two door sedan body with a big trunk and seating for four. The rest, as they say, is history. The 02 series put BMW on the map in the US—in a few short years, taking the marque from unknown to The Ultimate Driving Machine—a niche it still occupies a half century later.