BMW’s Gorgeous 328 Steals the Sunlight
The 328 is the car that embarked BMW on a path to greatness, and the Mille Miglia is where it earned its stripes. The 2002 and the driver’s sedan revolution it sparked, the 3 series, M division, decades of international racing glory, all of it begins with the original 328 of the 1930s—it is the genesis of the “Ultimate Driving Machine”.
Built from 1936 to 1940, the impression left by the 328 on the formative years of the sports car is deeper than its rather limited build and power output would suggest. Introduced at the 1936 International Eifel Race at the Nürburgring, the 328 eschewed the typical German sports and racing car design ethos of the day, with BMW opting for extreme lightweight construction, agility, and a relatively small, naturally aspirated motor of great efficiency and reliability in contrast to the complex, powerful, and heavy supercharged machines on offer elsewhere, most notably by Mercedes Benz with the 540K.
The 328 wasn’t particularly radical in its engineering, but was more than the sum of its somewhat conventional parts. In a tense pre-wartime climate, BMW had neither the physical resources nor the time to re-engineer the wheel, so instead they simply polished it to a mirror-like finish—the result just jelled. Designed and built in record time, the 328 cribbed its iron block two liter straight six from the 326, but was fitted with a bespoke aluminum alloy cylinder head good for a 60% increase to 80 HP—plenty of motivation for a 1,830 lb. car.
Part of the secret to its lightness was an A-shaped frame, with the tip facing frontwards and bracing lower wishbones controlled by an upper, transverse leaf spring. Out back was a traditional live axle sprung by semi-elliptical leafs. It was just enough chassis and no more, offering a combination of strength, simplicity, low weight, and for the time, incredible agility and roadholding.
BMW achieved one of their first international racing victories when a streamlined 328 won its class at the 1938 Mille Miglia, casting a very bright spotlight on the little Bavarian firm and providing crystal-clear evidence that their somewhat controversial lightweight formula was capable of bringing heat to larger, more powerful machines. Capitalizing on their new-found fame, Munich pulled out all the stops and further developed the little 328, with a custom Touring-bodied alloy coupe scoring a class win and fifth overall finish at the 1939 running of Le Mans and a first-place finish at the 1940 Mille.
Aside from Touring’s Superleggera coupe, the 328 saw several other custom competition-spec bodies, most notably the gorgeous and otherworldly Kamm Coupe, but to see any version in person proves an overwhelming experience, each providing a whole new slew of intriguing and delicious details to take in after even small adjustments in vantage point. One could literally spend an entire afternoon taking one in, the subtle changes in surface light as the sun traces an arc through the sky adding another layer of enjoyment to the viewing—for now, though, these photos will have to do.