The modern German car landscape is a bewildering mosaic of acronyms, esoteric electronics that nobody really needs and complicated financing arrangements that try to lock you into a single manufacturer for the rest of your life, with your first-born child signed over as debt security.
It’s a jungle out there.
To make it worse, there are several quite ghastly “sports SUVs” which kill the earth’s environment faster than a box of plastic straws dropped straight into the ocean. It’s strange that the doggy-doing-its-business profile of the Chrysler Crossfire inspired a generation of German car designers.
Nevertheless, it’s hard to argue that the performance offerings from Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz are anything less than engineering masterpieces, bringing the very best of safety and performance technology to the world. This is even true for the grotesque models in the range.
Let’s turn back the clock 50 years. You might be surprised to learn that the RS Quattro vs. AMG vs. ///M battle simply didn’t exist in the 70s.
Mercedes-Benz was building family tanks and high-end convertibles rather than reasonably affordable sports coupes, so it can’t even be included in this conversation.
Audi’s offering was the 100, a car with styling that was ahead of its time. Unfortunately, the most powerful 100 in the early 70s only had power similar to the entry-level BMW 2002. More importantly, that power was turning the wrong wheels, so it was less of a performance car and more of a pretty thing with more space for the family.
The ///M stripes didn’t appear on a BMW until 1973 and the “M” brand itself only debuted on the epic 1978 M1. It’s worth noting that the first model to receive those stripes was the 2002 Turbo, a 127kW bahnstormer of note that was prematurely killed off by the 1973 oil crisis, when the oil price quadrupled from $3 to $12 per barrel.
Nevertheless, of the three Germans, it was only BMW building an attainable sports coupe in the early ’70s.
If Audi and Mercedes-Benz weren’t the competition to BMW, who was?
Although current sales figures may make this sound ridiculous, the true competitor was in fact Alfa Romeo.
In the red corner (obviously), we have the Italian Alfa GTV that oozes style and flair. With a powerful 2 litre engine, 5-speed gearbox, disc brakes all-round and limited slip differential, this was a performance car that defined a generation.
In the blue corner, we have the no-nonsense BMW 2002 that offers performance and style in the way that BMW has become so famous for over a number of decades.
You would be forgiven for thinking that the two cars might be similar to drive. The framework is pretty much the same – two doors, two litre engines and rear-wheel drive.
The reality is that the two cars are both great, but for totally different reasons.
The 2002 was born out of two senior BMW staff members going rogue and building themselves personal outlaws, although the term didn’t exist then in a motoring context. Helmut Bonsch (BMW director of product planning) and Alex von Falkenhausen (designer of the 1600 M10 engine) did the world a favour by upgrading their personal 1600-2s by dropping in two-litre engines.
One can only speculate that the eureka moment must have taken place over a frosty German ale one evening, when they found out that they had each done the exact same modification to their cars. This coincided with a request from the American importer for a sportier version of the 02 series.
The 2002 was born – a 2 litre BMW with 2 doors and what has proven to be one of the most iconic classic car shapes of them all. The Audi 100’s styling may have been revered at the time, with elements of Aston Martin’s design language to the profile, but there’s no denying that the BMW and the Alfa win the bedroom wall poster award, creating classic car enthusiasts out of younger petrolheads on a daily basis worldwide.
This cream-coloured work of art that you see here is a 1972 BMW 2002. This is the single-carburettor version with 75kW, rather than the dual-carburettor 2002 ti with 89kW or the fuel injected 2002 tii with 97kW.
BMW is famous for merging sportiness and executive style exceptionally well and usually in an understated manner, at least vs. shouty AMGs that can be heard 10 minutes before you see them. That DNA is everywhere in the 2002.
Beautiful from every angle, the 2002’s slanted nose and boot lines give the car a fascinating parallelogram side profile. The clever design delivers cabin and boot space that 105-series Alfa drivers can only dream of, but without losing the overall feel of a sports coupe.
The cream colour (named “Chamonix” after the valley in France) perfectly accentuates the shape and creates an attractive contrast to the dark grille and bumper strips.
The interior is simple but effective, which seems to be an approach that BMW has stuck to over the years. The 2002 provides its occupants with a place to sit that will feel a lot more modern than many other cars of that period.
The seats are vastly superior to those found in the GTV, which adds to the premium feel of this car. The Nardi Personal aluminium steering wheel is period-correct but is not what this car was originally supplied with. It perfectly honours the overall mix of sportiness and class though, so Helmut and Alex would probably approve. They weren’t scared of a modification or two.
They would also approve of the period-correct 14” Melber wheels imported from Germany, which replace the 13” steel rims and hub caps. They do a fantastic job of giving the car a sexier stance and better handling.
This particular car, in true German fashion, comes with record keeping that would put most audit firms to shame. The service history is meticulous.
Craig Rode is the proud owner of this car, which he affectionately named Crème Brûlée. This isn’t his first 2002 and almost certainly won’t be his last. He is almost as proud to own what he believes is the only original copy in South Africa of “The Icon: 50 years of the 2002” which features a car with identical spec to this car:
The 2002 is great fun to drive, with the rear-wheel drive platform bringing a purity to the overall experience. The raspy engine note, characteristic of ’60s and ’70s cars with carburettors, is intoxicating. The seating position is comfortable but supportive, which allows people of normal proportions to get comfortable (unlike in the Alfa). The ride quality is more than good enough to persuade the Mrs to join your breakfast run.
However, there are some areas where the Italians won the war. The gearbox is one of them, as the BMW only had a 4-speed gearbox and doesn’t have the most confidence-inspiring throw. In contrast, the GTV’s 5-speed gearbox is one of the best to be found on any classic car (provided you’ve fixed the synchromesh!)
The other is the engine, with the GTV’s Nord unit putting out 97kW. The BMW engine could only achieve this power with fuel injection several years after Alfa did it with a dual-carburettor setup.
The 2002 is a cult car and with good reason. It would be a welcome addition to any garage, especially with an M2 parked next to it. BMW has stayed true to its DNA for decades, which is why the brand has an immense reputation and a huge number of lifetime enthusiasts.
Does it beat the GTV, though?
The answer is: it depends.
I would pick the Alfa to tackle a mountain pass, but I wouldn’t hesitate to pick the BMW to do it with someone special in the passenger seat. The Alfa is a driver’s car, but the BMW is an enjoyable experience for everyone involved.