The 2002 Turbo Is BMW’s Ultimate Driving Instructor
Photography by Will Broadhead
My foot is flat to the floor, the 46-year-old pedal is buried as deep as it will go in the time-smoothed pile of the carpet. I find myself wanting to open the throttle even more, knowing full well that it won’t make a blind bit of difference the harder I press on the pedal. I need to get the tach to the right side of the gauge, and I can’t help being a little impatient when the payoff is this good. The power band of this little Bavarian box is classic turbo, a constant cycle of anticipation and reward.
Driving this 1974 BMW 2002 Turbo—one of just 43 that were delivered to the UK—through the Cotswolds countryside is to spend the day chasing and playing with boost. The 2002 chassis makes for some of the most rewarding momentum driving out there in any trim, and the top dog Turbo version elevates the whole experience without fundamentally changing it.
It feels familiar when you’re going through town, but if you keep the boost gauge on the dash pointing rightward you’ve got yourself an incendiary little missile to pilot. I mentioned some impatience earlier, but despite how far we’ve come with turbo technology since the early 1970s, I still think lag in cases like this is something to embrace. It’s a similar situation to the manual transmission versus blip-quick automatics—there is no question about which is quantitatively superior, but what’s so exciting about efficiency anyway? Technological progress is all well and good and I’m no performance car luddite, but with that said I’d rather have the challenge of balancing gear changes and managing the lag through a set of curving elevation changes than giving away more and more of my responsibility to the machine. Waiting for the snail to spool up is half the fun of having an old turbo car. Maybe the proponents of lag are secret masochists—dessert tastes better if you have to eat a bit of broccoli first—or maybe we just like cars with some personality.
The 2002 Turbo has attitude. I’ll not wax too much on the model’s history, that ground’s been covered umpteen times—introduced at the ’73 Frankfurt Motor Show thanks to Bob Lutz’s impact at BMW, regarded as BMW’s first turbocharged production car, built upon the hugely successful 2002 tii, etc.—you know this story.
This particular example has its own to tell. Its first owner, John Cooper (there must be something about that name…) recognized the Turbo’s potential as a rally car, so he fitted it with some extra lights, braced it up with a roll cage, and entered the car in the 1974 Manx International Rally, which is still a fiercely contested event on the Isle of Man, won by the likes of Ari Vatanen and Colin McRae over the years. After the rally the BMW went to an Alpina center in the UK where it received a comprehensive checkover before it went on to live as a road car once more. It changed hands again before going into storage for more than a decade. It has since been restored again using original BMW parts.
Before I take my test drive I am imagining what it would have been like to compete in this car at the Manx with my helmet bumping the cage as I wrestled it through hairpins, and it’s enough to get me properly excited to get on with it. After warming it up and getting reacquainted with the upright driving position of 2002s, I decide it’s time to find out what it can do. I’ve driven faster and more powerful cars, but there’s something instantly agreeable about this car. The way this thing delivers its forced induction party trick, it really does feel like taking off. It’s not insane acceleration to be clear, but the distinctiveness with which you transition into Jekyll territory is enough to make it feel every bit as eventful as a car that does the 0-60 in half the time.
Whenever I come out of a corner correctly and find the boost waiting I’m rewarded with my head being pressed into the seat as the steering wheel is seemingly pulled away. The bolsters on the seats are nice enough, but there’s a plenty of longitudinal movement involved in driving this car. In places where the asphalt is patchier the spritely Bimmer feels more stiffly sprung than I’d expect, and it is prone to heed the whims of the road in general.
Changes in camber, dips and divots, and every other undulation is relayed through the wheel, and the car is equally happy to obey its driver. It makes for an engaging feeling at any speed, while any additional pace delivers you deeper into go-kart territory. The car rewards confidence. Keep the revs high, find a line, don’t chicken out. It’s a different kind of confidence than what’s required to wring out a modern performance car, but it’s no less sensory. The 2002 Turbo isn’t a slow car, but it’s hard to call it fast, too. It’s sort of an ultimate version of driving a slow car fast. It’s not your first-car base-model Ford Escort, but it’s not a Porsche Turbo, either.
It definitely has more in common with the latter. That injection of power feels familiar. And it’s as habit-forming in this car as any other early turbo hero. I can’t help but check the boost gauge constantly, willing the needle to stay in the sweet spot. It makes me drive with more attentiveness and focus than just about any other road car. It’s an easy car to drive, but finding its true potential requires no small effort. I try to shepherd the car through the corners with as little abruptness as possible, keeping everything in balance so that dopamine keeps flowing. Find yourself in too high of a gear, or having to scrub speed around the apex, and it can feel a bit like waiting for the bus. If you let the revs drop it becomes a bit like a boring trip to the shops.
Like the rest of the early turbo performance cars, the 2002 Turbo is a bit of a catch-22. That which makes it so lovable is also what makes it irksome to the impatient. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Even among a celebrated history of silky straight-sixes, I think this BMW is a driver’s machine that easily stacks up to legends like the E30 M3. That’s a case of comparing a pink lady to a granny smith perhaps, but in terms of engagement, I think the Turbo makes a case for being more the more rewarding, more colorful car.