A Day Spent Carving Corners In A Tweaked BMW 2002
Story & Photography by Alexander Bermudez
When searching for words that characterize the experience one gets from a modern sports car, “frustrating” is not one you would expect to come to mind. Yet with so much power and so little opportunity to use it, I have been hard-pressed to find a more suitable term.
This, of course, is nothing new; high-performance cars have been too fast for public roads for quite some time now. Nevertheless, there seems to be no end to the constant upstaging amongst auto manufacturers or the public’s appetite for the outcome. Still, the old idea of driving a slow car fast seems more relevant today than ever before and none more so than with Radu Muntean’s 1971 BMW 2002.
Angular fender flares punctuate the car’s four corners, giving this once tame BMW a stubborn, combative stance. Yellow fog lights, Minilite wheels and aggressive front air dam fashion a narrative reminiscent of old European rally competitors. From the rear, the license plate reads, “STITCH”, a reference to the car’s distinctive petrol blue paint. Radu’s background in automotive design, coupled with his inherent flair for color and apparent fetish for Disney permeate through the car’s aesthetic—the results of which are impossible for me to resist.
Inside, it’s just the bare essentials: there is a wheel, shifter, two seats, a roll bar and not much else. The BMW jolts to life as the starter motor giving way to the unmistakable sound of its Bavarian engine.
Its transplanted E30 powertrain resonates through the mostly metallic cabin, sending energetic bursts of adrenaline to my fingertips; the unassisted steering becoming lighter as I depress the heavy accelerator pedal. Within moments, the intoxicating sound of the car’s unbaffled exhaust screams for second gear. I oblige, but the car wants more: third, fourth and fifth gears quickly follow. I feel like the conductor of a symphony of combustion.? Its inline-six engine barks its way down Oak Knoll Avenue, no doubt a slight on Pasadena’s overly delicate sensibilities. Ahead, a red traffic light inspires rapid-fire downshifts, which in turn trigger car alarms to sound in protest. As the green light illuminates, I attack the intersection with a series of flat shifts at full throttle; the car responds in turn with a ferocity that, thankfully, dwarfs our actual speed. Finally out of the city, it’s time to hit the open road.
We travel north towards the Grapevine. The single overhead cam of its M20 engine incites a heavy right foot, but the lack of functional instrumentation leaves speed to wild speculation and my license susceptible to the short end of the law. Nevertheless, at this moment, the drive is so electrifying that all sense of restraint is quickly lost…is it me reaching for more speed or the car?
Four northbound lanes of Interstate gently make their way toward the Tejon Pass, but dark clouds hang above the verdant topography, casting ominous shadows against the Tehachapi Mountains ahead. As if on cue, the percussion of heavy rain pounds the horizontal planes of this little blue bomber. Rainwater is thankfully pushed away from the windscreen—the wipers don’t work, anyway. Inside, condensation builds quickly; in response I crack both windows open, although this only exchanges one annoyance for another, as droplets of water find their way to my shoulder and seat.
While waterlogged traffic slowly grinds to a halt, the windscreen becomes obscured by the fragmented color of brake lights, glistening through the wet, mottled glass.
I start to feel the distinct sensation of moist leather as I desperately maneuver the car’s steering wheel from one lane to another, in a vain attempt to circumvent the delay and open it up once again.
The rain eventually subsides, traffic accelerates, and we buzz north until we reach Lake Huges Road. Both oil and gas are replenished before we embark on Ridge Route Road, a welcome alternative to the mind-numbing Interstate. Finally, its Toyos begin to squeal beneath my feet.
The car is well balanced, but play in the steering column becomes symptomatic as the road becomes increasingly technical. The gearbox, on the other hand, is a delightful piece of engineering that no doubt was the envy of rivals in Stuttgart. With its silky smooth operation, one easily forgets that this E30 transmission was conceived and constructed years ago.
After several miles of meandering through the landscape, Ridge Route Road intersects with Templin Highway, an impressive piece of tarmac that goes absolutely nowhere. Its only redeeming quality is that it adjoins a fragment of U.S. Route 99, once the primary transit corridor from Mexico to Canada until it was decommissioned in 1968. The BMW does well on the derelict sweepers of the old road; the combination of fifteen-inch wheels and tall sidewalls allow the chassis to cover the rough un-kept surface with surprising poise. The surrounding landscape is as dramatic as it is varied with snowcapped mountains overlooking the lush valley below.
The road twists and turns until it comes to an abrupt end by means of a gate; I shrugged off my disappointment and made my way back to the Interstate.
Smokey Bear Road is a solitary junction sixty miles north of Pasadena; with no visible points of interest, one could be easily excused for driving by without a second thought. But for those that don’t, there is a wealth of loose gravel waiting to be exploited in Hungry Valley’s State Vehicular Recreation Area, one of California’s largest off-road playgrounds and home to the Gorman Ridge Rally. Admittedly, the Park Ranger seemed somewhat perplexed when I pulled up to the south entrance in a lowered sports sedan with R-compound tires. I assured her that I was a complete idiot and that everything would be just fine. She seemed to agree and waved me on!
Predictably, once inside, the park’s dirt roads reduced the BMW’s grip to almost nothing. Under heavy acceleration, the rear wheels would move as much sideways as they did forward; a combination of hair-raising counter steering and precise throttle input kept the car straight, with a cloud of dust chasing me down Hungry Valley Road.
In that moment, it became clear that hustling a rear-wheel drive car on loose gravel is about as much fun as you can have with an automobile. It is no surprise Hungry Valley is so popular year round.
The BMW regained traction as we meet the hard asphalt of Gold Hill Road. We started to cover more ground now and while some dust escapes through the open windows, a blanket of fine white particles begin to line the car’s uncarpeted interior. Regardless, the BMW was unquestionably in its element, happily skipping along the lumpy asphalt towards Gorman. The driver, on the other hand, was busy reconciling the fact that rallying would no doubt be in his future, adding to a lengthy list of automotive activities already frowned upon by his better half.
After hours behind the wheel, the BMWs sympathetic vibrations eventually began to drain my enthusiasm. Radu’s car is invigorating—to say the least—but much like my favorite hot sauce, too much can sometimes overwhelm the palate. I find myself feebly selecting neutral to deaden both sound and vibration whenever the opportunity to coast presents itself.
My fatigue is a symptom of satisfaction, and a testament to this car’s somewhat unexpected brilliance. After all, I had spent the day extracting every last ounce of power from the 2.5-liter engine, and, more importantly, we never achieved a speed worthy of the law’s attention.
What more can one ask for from a true driver’s car?