By Mike Johnston
I learned to drive stick shift in a BMW...on a test drive.
In high school I read car magazines obsessively in study hall, where I encountered David E. Davis's famous review of the BMW 2002, an article that helped put the German carmaker on the map*. Much later I actually got to visit the legendary editor at his home, to inspect a Mexican view camera he had on display in his living room; but that's another story.
["Open Mike" consists of off-topic essays on a variety of topics, in which Yr. Hmbl. Ed. indulges himself on the odd Sunday.]
Infected with the bug via David E., like tens of thousands of others, I tried to get my father to consider buying a BMW Bavaria, a car, like the current VW Passat, that was made specifically to appeal to the U.S. market. I think he was willing to stretch to the expensive ~$5k purchase price, but—sadly for my 16-year-old self—the dealer insisted on tacking on enough "mandatory options" to crank the price to upwards of $6k. "For six thousand dollars, I could buy a Cadillac," my father said. To him, that was a cost-value equation that needed no further elaboration. (It wasn't hard to figure out that what he really wanted was a Cadillac, although he didn't buy one then and I don't think he ever did.)
So the Bavaria was out. But either he offered to take me along for a test drive of the smaller, cheaper 2002, for my sake; or I convinced him to do so, also for my sake. Whichever it was, we ended up tootling out of a dealership one beautiful spring morning in a brand new BMW 2002tii for a trial spin. He was driving; I wasn't supposed to drive it. Out of view of the dealership, however, he offered to turn the wheel over to me, which had been our plan all along.
"I don't think I can after all," I said, "I don't know how to drive a stick."
"Nothing to it," he said. "Just do what I tell you."
We kept that 2002tii out for 45 minutes, or maybe an hour—long enough that we had made made the dealer very unhappy by the time we returned. But by the time the test drive was over I'd learned how to drive a car with a manual transmission, and had tossed that lovely 2002tii around the streets of Milwaukee with increasing confidence along with the occasional missed gear.
...And had fallen in love. Love of the perverted but ordinary teenage-boy-to-automobile variant.
Dad decided not to buy a 2002. It was too small for him, too much of a "tin can," and too expensive. Fair enough; his money, his car. (He bought a Buick Electra 225, for not all that much more than the 2002 would have cost.)
But me...I was typed for life. The scant hour or less I spent in that 2002tii has governed my taste in cars literally down to the present day.
Cut to ten or twelve years later. Ronald Reagan was President, "greed was good," and the car for yuppies was the BMW. (This fashion actually worried BMW, which didn't want to be typecast.) The 3-Series of the Reagan years were superb cars for the era: light, nimble, with silky-smooth but communicative suspensions, responsive steering, and powerful naturally-aspirated engines. All that, and upright seating positions, easy ingress and egress, and panoramic greenhouses to boot. The cars were almost Spartan, utterly no-nonsense, distilled to a level of purity seldom attained then and seldom seen since.
While I was in art school, a former classmate of mine from Dartmouth arrived in D.C. with all the yuppie bonafides: a fast-track lawyer's job, a $5,000 wardrobe of suits he'd taken out a loan to buy, and a beautiful new E30-type BMW coupe. I think it was a 320. I, of course, had decided to become an art photographer, and was finishing up my BFA, and I wouldn't buy my first car until I was 30. I had no jealousy for my buddy's suits (or his 80-hour work weeks!), but I sure was jealous of that car.
In my opinion, BMW as a modern carmaker reached its pinnacle with the inline 6-cylinder 325i of 1987 to 1991. As close to a perfect car as has ever been made**.
And then, the rot set in.
With every passing year, yuppies like my friend got more prosperous. And with every passing generation, BMWs got bigger, more complicated, heavier, more luxurious (read "decadent")—and of course more expensive. A big blow came along in 1992, when the notorious Chris Bangle came on board as BMW Group's Chief of Design. Possibly my second-least-favorite car designer ever, after the incorrigibly lowbrow Bill Mitchell of GM, Bangle did to BMWs what Tina Brown did to The New Yorker starting that very same year, 1992. Both wreaked havoc with wholesale changes that, in my opinion, showed far too little respect for their brands' established heritage and history. Bangle would no doubt be remembered as a talented and successful designer if only he weren't ruining BMW at the same time. He threw BMW's established design language—arguably among the most successful and iconic in the world, if not in all of automotive history—straight out the window, and BMWs would never look the same again. He retired in 2009, perhaps exhausted by continual criticism, and remains controversial.
So take a good hard look at this "evolution" picture. Here's what I see when I look at it:
I see a BMW turning into a Pontiac.
That's the meaning of BMW today, sez me. After the company's great successes in the '70s and '80s it could have become anything it wanted—and what it decided to do was to become Pontiac. Granted, a German version: slicker, smoother, better built, and of course more expensive. But modern BMWs are what the General would be building if its "sporty division" had gone upscale and moved to das Vaterland instead of getting drowned like an unlucky kitten.
C'mon, even if you love your modern BMW, you've gotta admit that they all look like Pontiacs now. (I'm laughing here, and yes, it's good-natured laughter. I know people love their Bimmers. Don't take this personally.)
And the DNA strain of the sainted 2002? BMW itself even helped demonstrate how far it had fallen. By 2004 (A.D., I mean), the 3-series had bloated sufficiently that there was room for a smaller car below it, and BMW introduced the 1-series, an odd car that managed to look overwrought and homely at the same time, with its Frank-Gehry-inspired Chris Bangle styling. The 1-Series came with a gorgeously-produced book outlining the car's descent from the original 2002, but it was essentially just a 3-series with less interior room (and worse resale). It feels just as heavy as a 3-series—and doesn't even cost much less! BMW had demonstrated, rather conclusively really, that it no longer knew how to build a small, nimble sports coupe of the kind with which it had built its own empire.
The 1's were not popular. And me? After years of longing, I finally got over my BMW-envy in the mid-aughts. I wouldn't buy one now. What I wouldn't give, though, to be able to buy an '87–'91 325i with the 2.5-liter straight six new today. (I'm not sure I would hark back all the way to the 2002...I do like some modern features, like a 5-speed and fuel injection.)
Off to the Auto Show!
Well, you can probably tell I'm just playin' here.
Part of this is simply nostalgia. Wishing for a high-water-mark BMW is like wishing I could still shoot with a Contax RTS II (a camera that was designed by Porsche Design, by the way. BMW never designed a camera that I know of). Cars today are far more reliable than they were in the era of the 2002, and need servicing less often; they're much safer, they don't rust (something that certainly cannot be said of the 2002), and they get much better gas mileage.
At the same time, they're much more like appliances now. Aerodynamics has given them all a samey look, and banished forever the stark 3-box design and the high greenhouse of the ultra-classic 325i. High cost, falling wages, and the need for insurance has made car-buying a more sober proposition than it's ever been, unless you play in the rarefied sandbox populated by the 1% (or even the 10%).
I'm off to the Milwaukee Auto Show today (or maybe tomorrow, I haven't decided)—gonna have some fun. Not shopping, just looking. And taking pictures. I'll admire the shiny German Pontiacs, no doubt, and the Cadillac ATS that's chasing the 3-Series' tail, and all the rest of the pretty metal.
One thing is for serious, though—I won't see anything like the early- to mid-1970s 2002tii or the mid- to late-'80s 325i. They're gone. The old ethos is dead, as yesterday as a Pentax Spotmatic. Nobody makes sports sedans and coupes like those any more—simple, Spartan, upright, lithe and light.
Not even BMW.
*It's been called the best car review ever written; it's certainly one of the most influential. You can download a PDF of it from this page.
**Try finding one now. There are few survivors. People kept them to the bitter end—a low-mileage example now might have 120,000 miles (and a sad amount of mods), and twice that is more typical. Owners loved those cars, and used 'em up.
UPDATE Monday a.m.: A video introduction to BMW's new Design Director, Karim Habib. He says a lot of the kind of stuff you have to say when you work for a big corporation, which doesn't sound like a human talking, but note the car he's driving starting at about the 2:40 mark and ff...good to see. His personal automobile? Don't know. Thanks to Albano and Marc for this.
Original contents copyright 2013 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
A book of interest today:
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
David: "HA HA...my second car was a BMW 2002, a '67 I believe. It was the only car I ever loved, and I mean loved. I learned to work on cars on my first vehicle, a '67 Mercury Comet. The motor was a straight six and you could put two people in the motor bay on either side...simple, great car to learn on. When I got my used B'mer I was rolling. However, on a day drive to Lake Geneva with a buddy, the original motor threw a rod. I bought a reconditioned motor, a thing of beauty. Popped it in and put a Weber carb on it and that car was just sweet...really sweet. Drove it forever and then one day loaned it to a friend so he could go fishing at the lake and he totalled it. Man, I was crushed, just flattened. I took it as a sign and went back to conventional, utilitarian vehicles. The 2002 was a thing of magic...just right in its styling, great lines for small car like that, no pretense...it had attitude and I loved driving it.
"Did I say that I hate cars? This from a guy who hates cars."
Joel Schochet: "A year and a half ago, shortly after I retired, I decided to buy my first convertible. I wanted some luxury features (having been spoiled by a couple of Audi's, including an S4) and demanded performance (like the S4). My wife and I both test drove BMW 135i and 335i convertibles and our conclusions were identical: even with the additional horsepower, the 335i drove like a beast; but we loved 'tossing' the 135i around. (I got stopped for speeding on the test drive but the cop was understanding.) Because of the different tops, the smaller car even had a larger trunk, so we could pack all our photo gear. (Not an issue now that I've gone to Micro 4/3.) I ordered the 135i with the M Sport package to get the stiffer suspension and a top speed of 150.
"In my declining years, I love to get in that car and toss it around. Going 130+ mph with the top down is a gas, although not for anyone in the back. Yes, it's not spartan and has a 'manumatic' but the dual-clutch transmission isn't bad at all. The seats are wonderful to my twice-fused lumbar region and the sound system is more than adequate for a convertible. In college, I lusted for a TR-6. Over 40 years later, I have my age-appropriate foreign sports (sporty?) car."
Yonatan Katznelson: "I spent my formative years (the '70s) in Israel, and BMWs were very popular back then, especially the 2002 in all its various incarnations. During the Israeli incursion into Lebanon in 1982, it was clear that the 2002 was a favorite of the Christian Falangists as well—they used them as assault vehicles. The most impressive adaptation of a sports car that I saw there however, was an Alfa Romeo Spider convertible with a 50-caliber machine gun mounted on the back."
Carsten Bockermann: "'In my opinion, BMW as a modern carmaker reached its pinnacle with the inline 6-cylinder 325i of 1987 to 1991.' Should you care to read what a German car enthusiast thinks about your statement: he agrees. That enthusiast is me, obviously ;-) ."
Jim Hayes: "Did you know that David E. Davis was prejudiced? He was partially responsible for Max Hoffman dropping a BMW 2000 engine into the 1600-engined 2-door when the factory said it could not be done.
"I intervied DED at Pebble Beach for an article I wrote about Max Hoffman that was published in The BMW Club mag Roundel about a decade ago. Max and David were well acquainted. Both were characters too.
"While Hoffman was trying to make the BMW sellable in the U.S., I was driving an Alfa Romeo Giulia TI sedan. The BMW had an iron engine, 4-speed, and disc/drum brakes while the Alfa had a twincam all-aluminum engine, 5-speed gearbox, and four disks. No contest!
"Too bad you have not driven a 1-Series. My 128i weighs about 400 lbs. less than a 3-Series, uses mostly aluminum suspension pieces, and is one of the best driving cars I have owned (which includes many Alfas (including four racecars), BMWs (one M3) and a few F150s for good measure)."
"Design? Hey I loved the AlfaTI, one of the oddest cars of all times! Ugly cars can still go fast!"
Kent: "BMW's bloated and heavy? Not my early Z4 ragtop! I know some people say less than kind things about the Z4, but I love mine. Not so taken with the later hardtop convertible versions, but the pre-facelift E85 roadsters are ideal, in my somewhat biased opinion. As a nimble, sporty two-seater convertible that can comfortably accommodate a largish driver (that'd be me), I'd say the Z4 is the bees knees."
Joey Wilson: "For me, BMWs will always be 2002's, Bavarias, and the beyond lovely 3.0 CSL coupes from the '70s. These days, BMW is a lifestyle destination, and Mercedes-Benz...I just don't know what they're up to. There will never be a better automotive writer than DED Jr, except for possibly Pete DeLorenzo, do not miss his AUTOEXTREMIST blog. The current German brand that is what BMW always wanted to be: Audi. Watch Dr. Ulrich and crew at LeMans, any wonder?"
Mike replies: And note that Pete writes about BMWs this morning (Monday).
William: "The David E. Davis 'Now turn your hymnals to Number 2002' article changed my life.
"I bought a 2002 as soon as I could afford one (a 1971 in 1976). A friend laughed at the 2002 and said it was like riding in a shoe box. Then I took him for a ride out in the country. Before long there was a sweeping reverse camber curve we both knew well. The 2002 took the corner at 70 mph which was about 20 mph faster than my friend considered possible when he had pushed his Mustang through that curve. In fact I remember his foot reflexively trying to hit a brake pedal that wasn't there. The 2002's tires didn't squeal. The body hardly rolled. No understeer, no drama, it just powered through the corner. I looked over at him and said, 'not too bad for a shoebox.'
"Then I added a used Bavaria to the stable. I have owned many BMWs since then. But the 2002 is my favorite.
"My stock 1971 Porsche was quick on the track. But anyone who hasn't tried to keep up with a stock E30 M car on a road racing course can't imagine how fast the M E30 is compared to how it looks. It is hard to believe.
"As for today, BMWs are different. So are Leicas. Things change. Now I own a newer 5 Series. Every so often a bit of the 2002/Bavaria DNA reveals itself and I remember when I was younger and driving was a lot more fun. I do not regret a single penny I've spent on BMWs."