THE PERFECT CLASSIC


After using his rebuilt 1970 version for a year Bert Grobbelaar ponders this question: is BMW’s 2002 one of the most practical classics ever?


Back in the 1980s, I wanted to add a classic sedan to the family car stable, something to serve as a ‘new’ Mom’s taxi and replace a ten-year-old Citroën GS Club. Not wanting a new Citi Golf, Mazda, Opel or modern commuter car, the following were shortlisted:

Lancia Fulvia Coupé: Beautifully styled, slightly small sedan from the Lancia pedigreed origin. The Lancia was dropped, though, as it was thought to be a bit too small.

Alfa Romeo Sprint /Junior: A long lusted-after model in the classical Alfa mould and with the best styling but it failed to make the cut as a result of its limited passenger-carrying capacity.

BMW 2002:  Two-door sport sedan; the original round taillight model I have wanted since the early ‘70s when secondhand ones were trading at around R4 300 but just too expensive for a guy in his early twenties. In the end, for reasons of practicality, performance and perceived build quality, the BMW 2002 won the day and the choice was made.

So when a 2002 was advertised in the smalls that used to run in <<<Car>>> magazine I went to view the car in Bedfordview, where a Mr. Stubbs had the car in his garage alongside a number of other delectable cars. Mr. Stubbs was an ex-SAAF WWII fighter pilot who flew, amongst others, the Curtiss P40 Kittyhawk in the desert campaign up in the north. He later joined KLM as an airline pilot and had purchased the 2002 new for use in Amsterdam – hence the left-hand drive. After importing the car to SA, and running up something like 80 000kms, he kept the 02 with the intention of passing it on to his son. Thankfully not everybody has the same taste and his son passed on the offer and settled for a new Ford Focus instead.

 

Although I had a bit of doubt because of the LHD, I soon settled on a price of R14 000. I shook hands with Mr. Stubbs and became the proud owner of an original, single downdraft carburettor, 4-speed manual ‘70 model BMW 2002. It was still in Sahara Beige, was unmolested, had never been in an accident and was still in very good overall condition.

A ten-year stint followed, with the 2002 running the usual domestic tour of duties and school runs around the old Halfway House, as well as the occasional road trip for the fun of it – part of the delights of sporting sedan ownership. With normal levels of maintenance it did its job admirably, with only minor mechanical failures and routine service and parts replacements required – all done in-house.

I went offshore in 1998 to do a stint of expat employment in far off places like China and several African countries and the well-travelled 02 was passed on to my son Stefan as a student carriage and beyond – in the process bestowing on the car a whole dose of additional sentimental attachment and motoring memories. Under Stefan’s temporary care the Beemer performed the usual student car services, trips to Cape Town, KwaZulu-Natal South Coast and even far up to the Mapungubwe area of the bushveld admirably.

But after approximately 26 years of ownership the BMW M10 engine suffered from a loss of coolant, overheated and was put into temporary retirement. It had also suffered the ravages of time and use and mutated into a solid old jalopy, no longer the great drive that the original design delivered, with wobbling steering, dubious brakes, worn suspension, cracked windscreen, tatty interior and all the other features of a classic rebuild candidate. Total mileage at that stage was in excess of 300 000km.

When a ‘quick fix’ attempt to get the car going again revealed extensive problems, Stefan and I decided it was time to put the 02 out to pasture and scrap it. This decision was quickly overturned when one of the ‘student days’ memory makers, Hannelie Grobbelaar (no relation) insisted that the car had to be saved for heritage and sentimental reasons. The ensuing lecture and accusations of bad judgement were enough to reverse the decision and a classic car rebuild project started taking shape...

I’d retired to the Garden Route and had become involved in the blossoming Knysna classic car scene through joining Ron Hollis at Bodge Engineering, so the old banger was shipped down and interned into Bodge Engineering, starting with a full strip down before the rebuild followed. Over 16 months the car was rebuilt and was back on the road again at the beginning of May 2016, just in time to be shown at the Knysna Motor Show.

THE REBUILD

The preference was to return to as near as possible original specification, with only slight upgrades on the performance side. With due consideration to cost the rebuild was done as conservatively as possible but still sticking mostly to the original specs, with no compromises on quality and mechanical details. Under the hawkish eyes of the Bodge team (Ron Hollis, Alf Newnham and Analdo) I was not allowed to even attempt any shortcuts. Regular assistance and ‘snooping’ by the shop cops ensured that any lapse in my standards were quickly nipped in the bud.



One of the original considerations for upgrading the car was the fitment of the rare 5-speed gearbox and a limited slip diff. A gearbox and diff were acquired from a secondhand transmission dealer in Midrand but after having supplied some incorrect reconditioned units he did a disappearing act and the rebuild was completed using the original gearbox and diff. (Anybody interested in swapping 5-speed gearbox from an early E21 318 BMW is invited to contact me.)

After stripping down the body the car was handed over to Hein Bruwer and his team at Spotless for a full body restoration and new paint. Because it was an old Transvaal car there was very little rust and the chassis had never been bent. Against strong criticism and heckling by the Bodge boys and other belligerents I persisted in the colour choice, repainting it in the original BMW Sahara.

 

With that job excellently completed by Spotless, the gleaming shell was passed back to the Bodge workshop and the reassembly of the car was tackled. Hours were spent on the suspension, running gear, engine and mechanicals and then more on the electricals and upholstery and trim. All suspension rubbers and bushes were replaced and so were the carpets, but the original upholstery and seat covers were cleaned up, repaired and retained.

The engine saw some major deviations from original with the M10 block receiving a fully-balanced bottom end, a Tii forged crankshaft, Tii conrods and pistons topped off with a Tii cylinder head fettled by Vanderlinde Developments. For good measure twin side-draft Weber DCOE 40s on an Ireland Engineering inlet manifold were added. Ron applied his tuning skills to the Webers and the car started up first time – a proud moment and significant milestone had been reached, and the ‘new’ old BMW 2002 started its born-again life. After further fettling and adjustment the car was pressed into daily service as my primary means of transport. 

Working mostly from Bodge and doing the bulk of the mechanical work myself I spent 800 hours to get the rebuild to the 98% mark – ably assisted with advice and support from Ron and the boys as well as the greater classic car community that operates in the Knysna industrial area. Approximately 800 days had passed from the time the car was taken off the road up to its successful recommissioning, proving once again that classic car rebuilds are not to be rushed!

As its daily driver, and given the rebuild quality, this 2002 is once again close to what BMW had envisaged with their original design. With its uprated engine it runs comfortably with the modern traffic and on regular commuter duties between Plett and Knysna the car is a delight to drive at moderate speeds, trundling along at an easy 80 to 100km/h in fourth gear with ample capacity to effortlessly accelerate past slower traffic. Longer trips allow the driver to truly engage, with high average speeds obtained and maintained – the only limitation being the fuel consumption when the side-drafts are given the reins too frequently. Handling is particularly suited to long swooping long bends and hills and valleys, with fast cruising speeds achieved. The suspension comes to life and is very enjoyable when put to the task.

So far two trips taken between Cape Town and Plett with two and three occupants have shown that the car is an ideal tool, with the performance not suffering as the payload increases and the boot space is generous enough to swallow the luggage and more. Inside the cabin is roomy, the seats are comfortable and while not overly generous, rear legroom is quite sufficient. In addition the car’s relatively generous ground clearance and classic style suspension configuration make it ideal for road trips that might also include some adventurous sections on gravel roads. With no low frontal air dams or wind-cheating devices the 02 is very capable on our (poorly maintained) rural tar roads and light off-road gravel tracks.

It was this capability that led to the first post-rebuild road trip in August last year – a four day trip into the Eastern Cape interior frontier regions past Fort Beaufort and Adelaide, then Cathcart and onward to Elliot via Queenstown. The scenic mountain tracks around Elliot and Barkly East led us to the village of Rhodes along some fine dirt roads that even allowed for a bit of spirited ‘rallying’ – just for fun. To the amazement of some of the locals in their Toyota Land Cruiser the 2002 took on the Naude’s Neck Pass. There was a mishap though: when descending the rocky road surface at walking pace, the rear wheels lost grip on a transverse stretch of rock ledge and the BMW lurched and dropped onto a round boulder, resulting in a not-so-neat impression on the fuel tank. But this was not at all the fault of the car and certainly not indicative of any notion that the 2002 could not handle the pass.

The rest of the trip took us past the towns of Mount Fletcher, Matatiele, Kokstad and Underberg, with the aim being to get to the Cathedral Peak area of the Drakensberg for the third night’s stopover. Back on the tarred surface of the N3 and heading towards Gauteng the car returned to its easy canter at a sedate 120km/h, and it was a pleasure to experience the many appreciating glances, gestures and words from other motorists – certainly a most enjoyable experience and a good reason why we drive notable classic cars.

So what’s not to like?

In its current form, the 2002 suffers a bit from the following:

  • The higher output and revving capability of the uprated engine can do with a 5-speed transmission. At speeds above 130km/h the engine begins to run at high revs.
  • The standard car does not have any air conditioning. This would be very nice to have, especially on long trips.
  • With the car running on standard steel wheels the braking performance is not brilliant. Upgrades to the brakes are possible but larger alloy wheels would need to be fitted to increase the disc size upfront. Rear drum brakes also detract from the performance character of the car and in this respect the 1960s Alfa Romeos were superior to the BMW.
  • In twin carb format it drinks a bit. The standard engine spec and single carb would help the fuel consumption figure.

In summary, the array of comfort and styling features of today’s modern offerings brings some potentially troublesome electronics to the party, making them a poor ownership proposition to the enthusiast driver. If given a choice I’d pick a ‘new’ old BMW 2002 any day and believe that such a practical classic will still be around in another twenty years. In a moment of unbiased reflection perhaps an Alfa Giulia 1600/2000 sedan could offer some competition to the 02 as the practical classic king of the road, but with 30 years of ownership and having put huge effort into this rebuild I’m likely to stick with the 2002 for many more years.

 


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