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BMW CCA Foundation Presents “The Icon: 50 Years of the 2002”

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Photography by the author.

The BMW Car Club of America is one of the largest and most active car clubs in America, growing exponentially since its founding in 1969. It’s really no coincidence that the club was founded then, as BMW’s legendary 2002 sports sedan went on sale just one year prior. The 2002, a lightweight, sharp-handling two-door with a zingy overhead-camshaft four-cylinder and perhaps the greatest greenhouse ever for a car in terms of visibility, transformed the way people see sedans. Its sports car performance not only invented a market niche—oft-copied but rarely duplicated outside of Munich—but also inspired a bunch of Boston-area enthusiasts to create a unique car club around it

Now, nearly 50 years later, the club’s BMW CCA Foundation will present an exhibit celebrating that most-celebrated of BMWs. Titled “The Icon: 50 Years of the 2002,” the exhibit opens this coming Friday, May 18, at the BMW CCA Foundation Museum in Greer, South Carolina, located adjacent to the BMW Performance Center driver training facility—all of which sits across Highway S.C. 101 from BMW’s massive assembly plant in Greer.

The BMW CCA founded the BMW CCA Foundation in 2002 with an ambitious goal “to be a living repository of BMW information and benefit the motoring community.” A 501(c)(3) non-profit with a Platinum Seal of Transparency from GuideStar, the BMW CCA Foundation has already established an archive with perhaps the largest collection of BMW artifacts outside of BMW itself in Munich. They have also led more than 1,000 Street Survival Teen Driving Safety Programs throughout the country, training more than 20,000 teen drivers in real-world safety programs. The addition of the museum and what appears to be a changing cycle of exhibits only enhances the value of the Foundation.

The 2002 story has been told many times, including in the pages of Hemmings Motor News. But getting up close and personal with the many variants of the model is a far cry from reading about in a magazine. Some 24 cars, all but one loaned by BMW CCA members—the other on loan from BMW of North America, have been selected to represent as many possibilities of the 2002 as could be shown with 24 cars.

If you go, expect to see an original 2000 Neue Klasse (New Class) sedan that laid the foundation for all things BMW for decades to come, but also the chassis and hardware for the 2002. An early production 1600 two-door will also be part of the show as that car begat the 1602, which became the 2002 with the installation of the larger, more powerful engine. The exhibition includes both early round-taillamp cars and later square-lamp ones. There will be at least one 2002tii, the sportier, more powerful, sharper-handling version that featured Kugelfischer fuel injection to boost the engine by approximately 30-percent more power. A rare 2002 Turbo, a model never officially sold in the U.S., represents the not only the fastest and more powerful 2002 made, but the first fuel-injected, turbocharged production car in the world.

The Icon will also include three race cars and several modified cars. As Jackie Jouret, author of the exhibit’s exhaustively researched companion book, told us, “These cars align themselves really well to modification and I think you can see in the exhibit and in the book the range of possibilities.”

The Icon is Jouret’s second collaboration with the BMW CCA Foundation. Her initial effort was Heroes of Bavaria: 75 Years of BMW Motorsport that accompanied the Foundation’s first museum exhibit previously. Jouret knows BMWs intimately, having served as editor of Bimmer magazine for 17 years until its demise last year. We asked Jouret about the 2002’s enduring appeal.

“In 2005, I went to South Carolina with Ken Gross and Larry Koch from BMW and we did a three-way comparison between the 2002, the E21 320i and the E30 325is, and we drove all three cars on the street and on a section of track on the Performance Center that they had blocked off for us. I think over the course of those two days, I understood what the 2002 was all about.”

“It was such a stark contrast between the 2002 and the car that replaced it [the E21 1977 320i]. Normally, in the automotive world, we become accustomed to each successive car as becoming more capable, faster, better, heavier…We tend to assume that the technical improvement to the suspension, to the chassis, to the brakes, to the engine will allow a car to overcome a weight disadvantage. And I think that’s generally true. Capability tends to be on an upward trajectory.”

“But when you got to the E21, from the 2002tii, specifically, you didn’t get that. I think BMW—perhaps every automotive manufacturer—was having trouble dealing with the emissions requirements that were imposed by the federal government. I don’t know why that was so difficult,…but, in any case, the car had less power, so it wasn’t as quick. And the E21 also had some unwelcome handling traits, specifically from the rear axle. You notice those things if you try to drive it hard. If you just drove it to and from the grocery store, you’d never notice it, unless you got into an emergency situation. But if you were on the race track, of if you were driving fast on a twisty road, you definitely noticed that it didn’t handle as well as the 2002, either.”

“I think that created a situation in which the 2002 retained a lot of cachet for enthusiasts that it might have lost had the model trajectory gone differently. I think that created a lot of loyalty among 2002 fans to the car that persisted really until now. I don’t think that car has ever really lost its appeal as an enthusiast’s/driver’s car.”

Jouret’s effusive praise for the iconic 2002 doesn’t stop there. “That, combined with the fact that it was really the first BMW to have truly popular appeal in this country, has created a legend—and a legend that I think is genuinely well deserved. That car has some really fine attributes for enthusiasts. It’s a very analog experience. The visibility out of the greenhouse is absolutely fantastic. There is nothing to interfere with your view of an apex, either the left or the right. The car is quick. It’s responsive. It doesn’t have power steering, so you’ve got to put a lot of effort into it. You have to work for your speed in a 2002. You have to actually drive the car. And it’s very rewarding, I think, to get it right.”

The Icon: 50 Years of the BMW 2002 debuts on Friday, May 18, with a special opening event, including a talk by Jouret on the development of the 2002 and other guest speakers. The opening also coincides with The Vintage, one of the country’s largest gatherings of vintage and classic BMW’s, held a bit north in Asheville, North Carolina, that weekend. We haven’t been in a few years, but the annual event, first held in 2004, is well worth a visit for fans of the Bavarian automaker. The exhibit is expected to run through January 2019, with the museum generally open from Monday through Friday, 9:00 am to 5:00 pm.