“That wondrous car, despite its flaws and failures, has always been in my heart”, writes Merv Kaufman.
I see them on the street, here in Manhattan, now and then. Some of them have vastly dented bumpers; others have faded and streaked versions of their original paint; still others have the telltale signs of rust creeping up through rocker panels—a sight all too familiar to me.
I bought my BMW 2002 second hand—they weren’t called “pre-owned” back in 1975. The car was three years old, and though it drove well, I was aware that it had been bruised in some kind of accident—its rear bumper had a sizable crease. I remember writing a check for $3,500 and wondering if I’d made a mistake.
Then I drove it home, and when I felt that surge of power from its muscular four-cylinder engine I knew I’d done the right thing. What I didn’t know at the time is that I’d be driving that car for the next 15 years and then feel sad and sickened when I finally gave it up.
The 2002, produced from 1968 to ’76. became the inspiration for a whole line of sports sedans, many of them manufactured by BMW. It originated in 1966 with introduction in Europe of the 1600, which came to the U.S. a year later, to be followed by the fabled 2002.
BMW’s “pocket rocket,” as the 2002 was referred to by the company, had power and refinements its predecessor lacked. But even so, it was a pretty basic machine. My car had a four-speed transmission, a carburetor, no power steering or power brakes, a rather crude heating system, no a/c, and clunky seat belts that were put on by some after-market cost cutter.
The car’s boxy design made some people call it homely, for surely far sleeker silhouettes were in evidence in sporty-looking vehicles even then. But I have to say that, small as it was (just under 14 feet long), I never had to apologize to anyone relegated to the back seat. Foot room was modest, but head room was generous. And the 17-cubic-foot trunk meant that huge loads could be carried—compared with what most vehicles provide today.
But driving that car, even at safe speeds, was nothing but fun. The roar of that feisty little engine was like the growl of a very swift animal. Parking? Well, that could be a chore. My wife recalls that she and my daughter had to pull and push on the steering wheel together when a tight parking space challenged them.
My 2002 was a fair-weather vehicle—I’ll admit that. In the humid heat of an East Coast summer, I kept an eagle eye on the thermometer, aware that the car could quickly overheat. And in the winter, a frosty morning could mean a delayed or stubborn start. But once the engine turned over and sputtered into life, I knew I could feel confident that I’d get where I needed to go.
And it wasn’t just a man’s car, though I’m sure the engineers back in Bavaria had in mind a muscled, perhaps tattooed male with a cigarette in one hand and a beer can in the other piloting their product along twisting, rutted roads. My wife loved the car, and to this day looks wistful and nearly teary-eyed when she sees a vintage 2002 on the highway or parked at a curb. Our daughter learned to drive on this car, which may well have made her the excellent motorist she turned out to be.
Over the years, I shelled out what I needed to, to keep our 2002 on the road, but eventually my trips to a certified mechanic in an outer borough became more frequent and the parts and labor costs more burdensome. Then the rust factor entered the picture, and I knew that, short of restoring the car, the best thing I could do was sell it.
My buyer, a wide-eyed young man, approached the car with much greater eagerness than I’d displayed the day I drove it away. That he nearly wept with joy as he climbed behind the wheel more than made up for the agonizing sense of loss I knew I’d experience later. I felt my car would be in good, appreciative hands.
My 2002, if it still exists, would be 40 years old this year—an old guy, to be sure. I hope it’s not up on jacks somewhere or buried in some landfill; I envision it zipping in and out of traffic handily on some highway or roaring up a mountainside, passing vehicles that lack the zip of its hardy 2002 cubic-inch engine. There were times, when we were on the road together, that I felt that car and I were one; I spoke to it often, as I do now:
“Happy Birthday, dear old friend.”