MF Review: 1976 BMW 2002 (Our New Baseline)

Turn your hymnals to 2002. David E. Davis wrote those words over 40 years ago as his opening to what has been since known a the greatest American car review of all time. The BMW 2002 was a small German car that had none of the grunt or the style that American roads were used to. What it did have was “all the cojones and brio and elan of cars twice its size and four times its price”. This was a car that defined not just BMW but what was possible in as small sports sedan. Similar to what the R50 and R53 MINI did in 2002, it defined what we as consumers in the US should demand.

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Fast forward over 40 years and BMW has evolved into a large profitable company that makes a wide range of cars including the MINIs we all love. While there are more than a few modern BMWs that we like, there’s no question that many have lost the magic that the BMW 2002 had in abundance. And all have lost that perfectly weighted (and unassisted) steering feel that the 2002 had so effortlessly – even MINIs.

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So we bought one. What better way to judge current and future BMWs and MINIs than going back to what created the brand as we know it.

Why not a classic Mini? That’s personal. My first memories of a car were of a 1974 BMW 2002 that served as our family transportation well into the 1980s. It colored my view of what a car should be. And now it will do that again.

The Car

We bought a 1976 BMW 2002. Enthusiast restored and owned, it was extremely well sorted and has had about everything possible replaced on it within the last ten years. Along with new everything it also had a huge list of upgrades:

  • 5-speed transmission conversion
  • Battery relocation
  • Supersprint header and full Ansa sport exhaust
  • Bilstein Sport Shocks
  • H&R lowering springs
  • Tucked front bumper
  • Upgraded halogen headlights
  • Camber plates
  • Stock front & rear sway bars w/ urethane bushings and links
  • Steel braided brake hoses
  • Front and rear strut braces
  • OEM mudflaps (apparently these are super rare)
  • 320i alternator
  • 320i recaro seats
  • Head Gasket (done by Sports Car Restoration in CT)
  • BMW reproduction Coco mats
  • Hella fog lights set up to work with dash pull switch and relays
  • Parker performance console
  • modern cd player w/ infinity speakers mounted under rear seats
  • Momo Indy Steering Wheel
  • E30 basket weave rims

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The best part is how it drives. It’s not at all fast by modern standards. The brakes are a hair above adequate and it takes time to get used to the floor hinged pedal. But taken as a whole the driving the experience is unlike anything else. It is impeccably balanced and transmits every ounce of detail you could imagine from the road to the wheel. It is in a word – alive. And you feel alive driving it.

Of course it’s dramatically bigger than a classic Mini and not as agile. It also has a style that is, at some angles awkward when compared to modern cars. But like the classic Mini, it’s incredibly unique.

For 1970s standards (granted much of our 1976 2002 was technically engineered in the 60s) there’s a solidity to the structure that’s surprising. Part of that is due to the mods added to the car from the previous owner; camber plates, new bushings, strut braces and battery relocation brace all doing their jobs in unison. The result is almost nonexistent body roll in corners and the ability to place and control car unlike a modern BMW.

Equipped with the Supersprint header and Ansa exhaust our 2002 rumbles to life sounding much more sinister than it looks. On the road it’s not all that loud but the deepness to the sound definitely makes an impression on those in the know.

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Inside is in fair shape with E21 Recaro sport seats being the major addition. The only thing of consequence I’ve added so far is a wood rimmed Momo Indy steering wheel. The Indy’s smaller diameter makes parallel parking (and three point turns) a full body workout. But on the road the immediacy the size provides matches the overall character of the car and the steering.

Owning a E28 535is and now a E10 2002 has been critical in creating context for reviewing modern BMWs and even having more context with MINIs. But on a personal level their just enjoyable to own. The sound of the key in the lock and the smell of the interior as you step in greet you unlike anything modern. Then there’s the process of starting (which is an actual process). Shifting from 1st to 2nd and accelerating through the range is slow but satisfying. And you quickly realize that you aren’t the only one who notices how special the car is. Our 2002 gets more attention from car lovers and the general public than anything we’ve ever driven. Like driving a new MINI 15 years ago (when they were quite rare), the 2002 elicits very different reactions. The 2002 is cool in a way that only something old can be. It’s not a pretty car. In fact it’s the anthesis of current automotive trends of big wheels, high belt lines and aggressive styling. The 2002’s design is driven by purpose and purity. And the reactions we often see and hear (whether they are subconscious or not) seem to be motivated by that. In other words they just don’t make ’em like this anymore.

I highly encourage anyone who considers themselves an enthusiasts to own something vintage at some point in their lives. While there’s plenty to choose from for BMW and MINI fans, there’s no better place to start than a 2002. The view behind the wheel is pretty rewarding.

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Our Rating

9 Design

10 Handling

7 Efficiency

7 Utility

9 Value

10 MotoringFile Enthusiast Index

Scoring is done within the context of the vintage car market and cross-referenced with with modern automotive world.

  • Bob Lavoie

    Back during the early 1960’s after my 4 years in the Air Force, I came home with my 1956 Chevy. I was drunk vine by a used car lot & I saw this interesting sport car….a 10 year old 1952 Jaguar XK120 coupe….price $800. That would be the 1st of several sport cars I had during the 1960’s-early 70’s. After a short ownership, I swapped that Jag coupe even for a same year Jag XK120 Roadster. The other owner liked my coupe, I liked his roaster so we swapped titles with no money exchanged.

    Those 2 Jags were lots of fun but also required lots of upkeep to keep them running. Had non sinchro 1st gear, had lousy brakes, the engine would heat up quickly & too much after only a few traffic lights down here in a hot summer Florida. And they used lots of oil…even on the rebuilt engine that I had done on the 2nd Jag. But they were still a fun drive.

    Eventfully had a new ’65 Austi Healey Sprite, followed in 1966 by a 1958 Porsche 356A coupe. I consider that car about my favorite of all time! Paid $800 for it, put another $600 into an engine & clutch overhaul, then drove it over 100K miles with no significant problems. I just made sure I always had a spare clutch cable, & fan belt with me at all times…..also my unisyin gauge to sync the carburetors.

    Once married with children in the early 70’s the Porsche was gone after 7 great years. Needed a commuting car, so opted for a 1972 Honda Z600 coupe hatch which was the size of a classic mini…right down to the 10″ wheels…had a 2 cyl 600 cc 36hp air cooled motorcycle engine.

    It wasn’t until 2008 when I entered my 1st MINI R56 2008 S hatch. Then afterward had a 2012 JCW Coupe & a 2015 S 4 door. Now I’m awaiting my 2017 S Countryman all4 that I did a build & ordered a week ago. It will hit the production line this case Ming Thu!!! A real mix of MINIs among the 4. But I enjoy all of them as I did my old sport cars from the 1950’s-60’s.

    • Amazing list Bob!

    • Nick Dawson

      Good to hear that you have settled on the F60 S All4. Good choice! What colour have you chosen, and have you ordered manual or auto?

      • Bob Lavoie

        Since I’m now an ol’ fart of 76 approaching 77 this summer, like my current 4 door S hatch, this new F60 S all4 will be an automatic, not a 6 speed but the new 8 speed with paddles. Previous 1st 2 MINIs & all my classic early sport cars were manual.

        Chose the ‘chestnut’ body color with black roof (similar to the Spicy Orange color that my 2012 JCW Coupe had, but a bit darker). Also added the black pin spoke wheels and the off-road exterior styling.

        Reason for going with this new Countryman is the taller entry & easier in/out seating compared to the lower models like my current F55S. Looking for more comfort, carrying capacity, but still want a MINI with good handling & performance. I enjoyed the 2012 JCW coupe for 3 years, but just couldn’t get by the very limited rear view visibility.

  • Bob Lavoie

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/c7bd3089fd73451d22040f43c5b45435910283fcc2dafae8334b16ea2fda49a6.jpg Gabriel & Nick…here’s the build look of my ordered F60S Countryman with the chestnut body color, black roof, black pin spoke wheels & off road styling. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/32cc38ff22856d3d3489affc64e5089058cddee3593b41237df18584d41742e1.jpg

    • Nick Dawson

      Very nice indeed and great color choice Bob. We too are likely to opt for Chestnut – we want a change from Light White! I suspect that you will really love the 8-speed box with paddles.

      We are off to our winter home in Penang next week, so we shall miss the UK launch, but it will be something to look forward to on our return in the spring. Happy motoring!

  • Bob Lavoie

    Nick….there was a Light White S All4 new CM On display at my local MINI dealership last weekend. It also had the offroad styling. After seeing it in the flesh, that’s when I decided to go for it, & built one online & passed it to my sales person last Monday to go for the build.

    My 08S hatch was an all Pepper White, then the Spicy OJ/black roof on the ’12 JCW Coupe, and Thunder Gray/black roof on my current ’15 S 4 door. As I understand, the new CM will be at dealers here in the US for release to customers sometime toward late March. No word on the specific release date. Expect mine will be among the earliest ones at my dealer with its production date set for Thu Feb 9.

    Still haven’t seen any US mileage figures yet. With the larger 16 gal fuel tank, (think previous CM was about 13.2 gal), the range should be increased a good bit, assuming similar or better mileage figures along with the green mode feature.

  • MINIAC

    My 1967 Austin Cooper S was stolen in August 1972. A month later, thinking the Mini would never be recovered, I ordered a BMW 2002 tii in Inka (Orange). About a month and a half later the police busted a car ring who were stealing Minis, and mine was among five they had. Since the Mini needed the transmission rebuilt and the insurance company had paid me twice the Bluebook value on the Mini, I decided not to buy the Mini back. Little did I know that it would take until February for the 2002 tii to arrive … and it would one in Taiga (Metallic Green).

    This 1973 BMW 2002 tii would be my daily driver for almost 30 years. I sold it in September 2002, about two and a half months after taking delivery of my 2002 MINI Cooper S. I lost track of the tii until about a year ago when the current owner contacted me, It’s alive and well in San Diego!

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/06c47eb916209cd900da6983e9a64bc1ee874391aef230b41c91bcb9c0683ce7.jpg