Road Trip Bliss Is A One Of A Kind BMW 2002 tii On Europe’s Largest Classic Car Rally
Photography by Alex Sobran
What defines your most memorable drive across a long distance? Which cars turn a slog across space into a story of time well spent? I don’t think there’s a single ideal configuration of vehicle and venue—some prefer to aim at an unimpeded horizon from the swaddled comfort of swift and silent highway-spec modernity while others prefer the smells of an engine mixing with potato chips as they plot a remote course away from major arterial routes. There are a few criteria that almost all combinations should aim to meet though: the mode of transportation should be suited for the road of it; you have to enjoy more than just the looks of the car you’ve picked; and you should not only expect but enjoy getting lost a few times.
The great thing about road trips then is how different they can be while still quenching our human yearn to explore (even if this exploring involves satellites that will tell us to the tenth of a mile how close we are to the nearest source of hot food), and while we aren’t likely to come across anything uncharted these days or deal with any of the associated doubts and danger, places that are new to us are not uninteresting because we weren’t the first to find them, and there is still plenty of room in our heads to make their discovery just as interesting.
Being in a car, and driving one especially so, for hours and miles and hours and miles beyond those can place you in a headspace distinct from the one that attends everyday commuting or even the adrenaline shots that come from short and spirited jaunts to the local esses after work. These longer travels, these stretched out paths into new scenery, offer a chance to really understand a car, to learn and exercise its sources of fun and frustration, and it allows you to bond deeply to even those machines you think you already knew. Long trips punctuate all that time spent in your head with introspective moments along the way, and the fulfillment they provide attaches new meaning to the cars they occur in the fronts seat of.
People will all have their own version of the Good Road Trip, so I’ll get to the story of the best one I’ve been a part of. Last week I was given the opportunity by BMW Classic to drive their 2006 2002 tii (more on that strange string of numbers to come later) in Europe’s largest classic car rally: the Creme21. Open to a loose selection of automobiles produced in the span between 1970 and 1990, the Creme21 Youngtimer Rallye is named after a particular brand of lotion popular in the 1970s and is decked out in that signature orange shade. This event holds far more fun than the connotations might have you believe; it’s not some silly sponsorship, and it’s not a rally characterized by stop-and-go traffic amongst ultra-valuable metal that’s being simultaneously pampered and having their clutches ridden in stoplight-to-stoplight traffic while never exiting second gear. Here instead are slab-like Audi sedans wearing matted-down orange mustaches on their bumpers; here are circus-grade costumes being worn for the third day in a row; here are bocce ball games played in the mud; here are endless undulating roads with mile-long sight lines; and everywhere there are happy faces, even through the worst of the cutting wind and diagonal rain.
At some point I was standing under one of those erector-set-like tents as it experimented with flight whenever the gusts came in low, and this is where I recognized in person the kind of mindsets I’d been hearing about so much in the days prior: I just can’t imagine the typical road rally crowd laughing together as their umbrellas go from convex to concave while they stand in line to play a game that requires hopping around near the puddle-ridden road on foam mats as their clothes cling tight with water. These people have paid to do this, and I don’t think the bright attitudes and big smiles are being put on for show. Nothing here is taken seriously, so no matter what happens it’s never going to hinder your good time unless you let it. I witness nobody letting it, and on top of that plucky spirit there’s no detectable competitiveness beyond some simple desires to do well for the sake of it. My approach to the whole thing definitely fell in line with this; it was fun to try to inch up the average speed reading on our trip meter, but I had a much better time spotting and stopping at abandoned buildings and other little photogenic plots along the way. At the end of the whole thing, my co-driver Alex Seremet and I placed a dismal 200th place, but to me, seeing that laughable rank only confirmed that I’d made good and full use of my time in our perky boxy Bimmer.
Before I get into what the “new ‘02” was like to drive for a few hundred winding miles through Germany, I need to set the scene a bit, as the stuff outside the car accounts for a good deal of how you feel inside it. Moving through all these decidedly foreign places—damp autumnal days spent looking out at medieval churches and saturated greenery certainly isn’t something I get to experience often or ever in Los Angeles—I quickly let go of the background urge to complete the drive and traded that pedestrian focus for the meandering in-the-moment pleasures of the process. The route, which changes with each iteration of the Creme21, led us along a great big squiggly track across Germany’s central farmlands headed vaguely east, and while from an American perspective that thought might put in mind long straight hauls across endless flatness, this was happily not the case. The roads could be a bit patchy and bouncy in the less-populated zones, but for the most part they were of the type that makes you wonder if their planners had been driving enthusiasts trying to share their hobby with their neighbors.
Thursday, the first full day of driving, felt like many more packed into the space of one. The weather fluctuated at hourly intervals between bouts of sodden chilliness and halcyon blue brightness torn from fall’s brochure, and each tangled hamlet and village and commune was linked by long strips of empty but dynamic roads that took the form of steep switchbacks at certain times and of soft flowing curves of big distance at others. In a way it was very German: you get to see this charming little town and play the sound of its cobblestones, and then we will show you the next one, but only after you’ve given your car some exercise out in the fresh open air. It was a deal I happily participated in all day. Also of note is the lunch on Thursday—the potato soup was all well and good after a damp drive in, but the real treat was the PS.Speicher museum and it’s immersive exhibits like the ones below.
So what was it like? To me it could be summarized by these transitions from town to country. You enter these tight streets lined with agricultural courtyards and strong but postcard-cute rural homes, and then after a handful of minutes spent at low speed in the narrow streets that compel moving over to the outer edge for oncoming hatchbacks, you’re suddenly shot out into a no speed limit road that resembles a hillclimb sprint. Your vision shoots back out to the next corner rather than the chicken crossing in front of your car from one side of town to the other. You can see well ahead to any oncoming traffic, and combined with the stout posts that fence in these ribbons of tarmac, it allows for the kind of pace and speed that usually comes with much more uncertainty than you have here. It’s fun to be in the tight stuff up in the mountains and such, but after this trip I think the best form of fast driving comes from fourth gear sweepers that you can apex with complete preparation and safety.
As for the places containing the people who drive these roads daily, I didn’t take any worthy photos of the countless march of small towns we passed through (we’d scrubbed more than enough time stopping at abandoned buildings earlier, not to mention lots of little U-turns for missed directions that saw us pulling into the hotel parking lot at 10PM in the raining dark, but I’ll get to that), but I think that’s not such a bad thing for my memory or your perception of it, because it’s one of those instances where picturing a quaint old German agri-town in your mind can be better than any shots of tractors or nondescript blurry rocks from behind the windshield (which I attempted for much longer than I should have).
Trying to describe them from memory is sort of like trying to imagine them to begin with, so hopefully I can put them back into both of our heads: with the front end of the car pitched low from the abrupt change in speed required to assuage the strict traffic cameras that so often mark the borders between expansive acreage and populated clusters, what was once a view of big sky is now filled with big orangish stone walls that make up the dense geometry of these villages. The buildings are broad, but not many of them are tall; there is typically a church at the center or along the perimeter, and the streets are either lined with or made up of worn-slick patterns of smaller stones that hum with your progress. There aren’t many people to be seen, but a few cyclists will join the sparse traffic occasionally, and are often getting along at a faster speed than you. The lumpish forms of sleepy cats dot a few thick-paned windows framed by sturdy shutters that see use, and the smell of bigger animals, outdoor animals, comes through the vents with varying intensities determined by the breeze and their proximity to the main roads we travel. The whole scene gives off an impression of existing separately from the world at large. It’s a sense that things haven’t changed much, won’t, and don’t need to. It’s just “nice.” It’s the opposite of city stress, and these places are the perfect backdrop for the laid-back nature of the Creme21. It wasn’t all idyllic pastoral pleasantry though, as Thursday night would bring with it a bit of treachery.
Around dusk, or whichever time it is when the amount of headlights that are switched on instead of off becomes the majority, I reach for the 2002’s pull switch and then notice that nothing’s changed save for a few new reflections on the shiny surfaces in front of me. It was like this for more than a few minutes, with me chalking it up to the lack of laser-xenon-projectowhatevers that come equipped to newer cars. It turns out that either I or the light on the dash indicating the high beams was too dim (it was me). Luckily I’d only driven with the parking bulbs during that transitory time when you don’t necessarily need headlights but turn them on just to get it over with, because once it got dark enough to really rely on them the rain came back, and it stuck around this time.
I mentioned treachery. Our hotel for the night was perched high up in the choppy topography (The Shining references were apt and many), and we climbed easily a few thousand feet up along forested snarls of mountain road to get there. On the early stage of the ascent, our wipers revealed a flatbed and a tow-truck extracting a 911 from a ditch, not boding well for the two hours of branch-dodging driving that would cap our long day. In all honesty though I had a great time on this section exhausted as I was, in part because the equation of uphill plus small radii plus rain is a pretty good way to have some low-speed sideways fun. It helps of course when there’s a car in front to translate the turns to you beforehand, and this was what we were fortunate to have in the form of a mint blue VW mail truck and a dark-probably-red Ford Capri. I preferred the daytime spent along the well-marked arcs of pavement in the countryside, but I doubt I would have been able to stay awake much longer if it weren’t for the excitement of threading our faithful and faultless orange up into the darkness. I should note before I forget that throughout the whole trip, we only drove for about ten total minutes on a highway. Every rally should aspire to the kind of planning involved in making this the case.
Okay, time for the car. It wasn’t a car, it was a cheerful friend, a sunny speck of motion that drew everyone’s attention in the good way. That’s cheesy. I don’t care though, because when a car can make you this happy you don’t really care about looking cool. It’s okay to be mushy if you really feel like it. But mushy this car was not—this is perhaps the best example of an original 2002 tii. Why would I make that claim given this is the only tii I’ve ever driven? It has to do with what I mentioned at the outset, this is a 2006 2002. As in, first registered in 2005. And it’s not like it sat and rotted and sagged for three decades either. What it is is a car that’s wholly unique and almost wholly new, because about 90% of the components excluding the basic shell were pieces available within BMW’s classic parts service (then called Mobile Tradition). It isn’t the most preserved tii out there then, but it’s likely the best way to experience what the car would have felt like in the early ‘70s when it was fresh from the factory.
They aren’t in the game of improving the past at the sake of authenticity though, so the pieces they offer are faithful to the way they came, because there’s always a guy who can rig up some fix to an old imperfection but not many that can supply OEM replacements. That said, I could feel no imperfections here, and the complex mechanical Kugelfischer fuel injection performed faultlessly, regardless of the big swings in the external inputs it takes into account. Rain, humidity, elevation, along all points in the rev range, the motor never lagged nor hiccuped nor gave protest or signs of ailing of any kind. It’s kind of funny to me how part of the accepted charms of vintage car ownership involve a kind of happy misery in fixing their quirks and problems, but then I remember the car I’m driving has lower mileage than some lawn mowers. This car has plenty of personality, and all without needing its hood opened up for triage every time you stop for fuel.
By Friday I was really used to driving the 2002, and we’d even rearranged for some of our luggage to ride along with a crew car this time, as I was worried that a too-abrupt lunge into the next turn might leave a suitcase-sized bulge in the rear quarter panel (did I mention we had an escort from an X5 driven by two BMW mechanics and hauling a full case of tools in the trunk? That instills a level of confidence you can’t get with a phone number for a towing company, but it also means you try extra hard not to do something stupid that might require their talents). I drove it as fast as I dared, and I earned myself a pesky 10-km-over-the-limit ticket to prove it! I did push it harder than that of course, and I spent about half the time in the rain and half the time not in the rain, which made my two days with the 2002 all the more inclusive. I did urban knots downtown, I did big bucolic sweeps outside of it, and both in the bone dry and the doggedly wet. In short, I got to put the car in a lot of scenarios, and in all of them it left me wanting to check auction sites for the kinds of tattered 2002s I can afford, just to keep a piece of the experience of this one for myself.
This car has spoiled me on not just other examples of itself, but on vintage cars altogether. It’s not especially fast, it’s angles of body roll are comical by today’s sporting car standards, and its creature comforts boil down to the availability of heat and wiper blades—which to the credit of both, worked just as they should—but we all know that’s the wrong way to evaluate something like this. What matters is whether you want to drive it, want to stop driving it occasionally so you can look at it, and want to find excuses to use it so you can do both. I loved walking up to its eager face each morning and after each brief fuel stop, following the horizontal chrome belt line to the door handle I would open once I finished admiring its appearance (isn’t Inka just the perfect color for this car?), and then getting situated in the unassumingly capacious cabin. On that topic: it’s amazing what an upright greenhouse and thin door cards do to create usable space! I’ve sat in modern mid-size models that offer less room than this car does. I know that’s partly thanks to the safety advancements in new car construction, but it begs the question as to why designers seem to be so afraid of reducing the rake of their front and rear glass.
If you’re still sticking with me, I’ll get on to the driving impressions now before wrapping up. The first thing that came to mind when I left the start city of Bielefeld and could put my attention on the car rather than traffic signals and distance charts was that this was clearly not the typical 2002 experience, on either side of that spectrum. On one hand, it certainly didn’t behave like the “driver” that so many tired examples are referred to these days when their owners list them for sale. To that end, it didn’t have any of the steering wheel play or suspension sloppiness of cars that’ve seen lots of spirited driving and not enough checkups in the garage, and though I said it had its fair share of tilt through the turns, the steering was connected and precise and communicated as well as you can imagine a car known for that sort of thing can do. I found myself wanting a smaller diameter for the steering wheel at times, but that was more for my knees than a want for more feedback or sharpness. Turn-in was responsive in the dry conditions, and though it was a pretty heavy feeling to move the wheel quickly through especially compact esses, it was in the sense of solidness more than anything you’d call sluggishness. It was happy to change directions as quickly as you’d tell it to, and when it got a little loose in the traction department it was always easily manageable whether you wanted to accentuate or end the slide you’d started.
So it wasn’t one of these well-used vintage cars whose steering wheels are more like suggestions rather than instruments, but what about the other end, what about the opposite? Was it a car that felt like you’d taken something made for racing onto public roads? Was it a raw sports car experience? Not at all. For one, it was never supposed to be. Even with its high-strung and specialized power plant, short wheelbase, and airy mass, it’s very civilized. Your grandma could drive this car around town, and maybe she did so decades ago. The clutch action for example is among the easiest I’ve operated, but true to the dual-nature of this car as both simple and sporting, it still offers enough weight and spring to confidently move between the gears when you’re trying to overtake less-fun travelers blocking the open road ahead.
Cresting and descending gentle hills and prompting chirps from the of-course-correct Michelin XAS tires, the car feels like it was made to flogged and tossed around, and then once you come to the end of those roads and reenter the places where there are people to hit, its size and proportion and visibility and charm will change your mind: no, it’s not a piece of sports equipment, it’s the perfect city car! In reality it’s the kind of special thing that can do both without noticeable compromise from either end. And to sum up my time driving the tii, I recall the countless times that I’d feel a swell of contentedness brought about by something simple like taking a left turn. At speed, in plodding traffic, I so often found myself just smiling and doing something stupid like patting the dashboard as if it were a loved pet. It’s a happy car, and it’s probably odd to say it, but you can tell it likes being one. It likes to make you happy and it does it continuously.
I will only be so privileged to participate in the Creme21 Youngtimer Rallye again in a car half as nice as this one, but whether or not that happens, I know I’m lucky enough to have this memory.