Featured: Why The 2002 Turbo Is Still The Naughtiest BMW

Why The 2002 Turbo Is Still The Naughtiest BMW

By Robert Plotkin
November 14, 2017

Photography by Robert Plotkin

There once was a king named Faisal, who ruled a sea of sand atop a sea of oil. In 1973 he funded a pincer attack on Israel during Yom Kippur. It was a blitzkrieg success for three days, but then Israel, with the help of the West, counterattacked to victory. The king, furious in his humiliation, put both hands around the oil pipeline and choked the economy–until we were thumbing open 12% mortgage bills while waiting in alternate-day gas lines.

Oil prices quadrupled. In 1974, Nixon imposed the 55 mile per hour speed limit; the English were told to only heat one room in the house; the Netherlands imprisoned those who used more than their quota of electricity; and Germany banned flying, boating or driving on Sundays. Born into this realpolitik was BMWs second Motorsport car, the 2002 Turbo, which needed a 52 percent bigger gas tank to keep the fuel in proportion to the forced air for long enough.

“I was at BMW in the early ‘70s. Performance was glorified; no Autobahn speed was considered excessive,” said Bob Lutz, the cigar-chomping industry alpha in Road & Track. “Into this environment, I launched the 2002 Turbo: 170 hp, wide-bodied, and adorned with a colorful front spoiler that had the word “Turbo” on it in mirror script so that it could be viewed correctly in the rearview of the car ahead of it. Alas, the 1973 oil crisis intervened, speed limits were imposed, and the media was quick to brand performance cars as irresponsible. BMW took large amounts of heat, and my boss effectively threw me under the bus.”

At the time, turbocharging wasn’t associated with downsized, soggy engines that purported increased fuel economy like they do today; turbos were the naughtiest, filthiest, down and dirtiest way to Powerland. The most powerful of the naturally aspirated 2002s was the tii, with 130 ft/lb of torque at 4,500 rpm. The Turbo has 181 ft/lb at 4,000 rpm, or about 40 percent more, to give you an idea.

The 2002 Turbo was (remains) BMW’s most adolescent car. It stands in front of its full length mirror listening to Ziggy Stardust, flexing its wheel arches, dropping its chin, turbocharging its motor. It decals its flanks with Pantone Process Blue, Purple Pantone 268, and Pantone Warm Red.

It was the red of Texaco, the color of BMW’s Motorsport racing partner early on. After they split up, Texaco attempted to refuse BMW’s use of the trademark red, but the color remained. There is a little bit of Texas attitude in the car after all. But far from being all hat and no cattle, the 2002 Turbo backs up its flamboyance.

I would see Turbos in the paddocks and BMW corrals at the Monterey historic festival year after year, parked in the front row next to the E9 CSLs squatting in the fine dust of the silty hillside. Turbos were sister cars to the 1973 Porsche Carrera RS; they were both typically white, flared-out, accented with bright colors, scripted and prescriptive. Neither car was sold in the United States either–a little too naughty, like nipples in Vogue Paris.

Every opportunity to stare at those riveted-on flares was a met with the same thought: “I want. I want. I want.” This was despite the car’s reputation as a bitchin’ looking bore under 4,000 revs. Early BMW 2002tii models had a 10:1 compression ratio, but BMW lowered the Turbo to 6.9:1 to compensate for the boost that would come on later, so it really was a total dog until 4,000rpm, and then it instantly quadrupled its torque. As a result, many Turbo owners were caught off guard accelerating through corners, tiny 185/70VR13 tires power-sliding Mr. Hyde into the trees. If any car could be improved by modern tuning, this was it.

I began and ended my search for my own by world of mouth, asking a 2002 Turbo owner if he knew of any others for sale. He said that, “Jack’s car,” may be for sale, and gave me Jack Frederick’s number. He was remodeling his house in the Sierra Nevadas and was thinking about selling the car to finance it, so I asked if I could come out to drive it, but he said no, it had been kept at Sports Car Restoration (SCR) in Connecticut since 2009. He said he was worried about devaluing it through use, especially after Bimmer did a feature article:

“Not only has it been perfectly restored, it’s been subtly improved with the kind of modifications BMW might have made as production went on. The car is smooth, powerful, and utterly intoxicating, it’s the best BMW 2002 Turbo I’ve ever driven, and it makes even the most preserved OEM example seem like a cantankerous old beast by comparison.”

So what were the modifications? Jack sent the 2002 Turbo to Korman, the noted BMW engine builder and race-prep shop, who rebuilt the engine, replacing in the process the irredeemable standard turbo with a Garrett T03. But the new turbo was spooling at 2,400rpm instead of 4,000, and there wasn’t enough fuel at lower rpm. So Korman added a fifth fuel injector and consulted with Turbo specialist Corky Bell and the original engineer of the Kugelfischer fuel injection system to accommodate it. This had a remarkable effect: the turbo gauge on the dash wakes up down low and an audible whistle builds in volume with the tach’s climb, commensurate with the power. But it doesn’t feel like a modern, boring, flat torque-curved stop-gap to electric cars. The power keeps rising with the revs in the Turbo, it’s predictable, torquey, and guttural as the power rises to an apogee at its 6,400rpm redline, at least 42 more foot-pounds of torque than the stock 180 figure.

Furthermore, the battery was relocated to the trunk, and an intercooler was stuck in the hole it left behind, lowering the charge temperatures and increasing/maintaining the power. Korman fitted their Roadsport suspension package, an E21’s five-speed gearbox, and then it was all sent to SCR for a nut and bolt restoration in its original Chamonix White.

I bought it. Jack met me with the carcass of the original turbo, and a file box of receipts wrapped in yellow skull and crossbones tape. He didn’t know exactly how much he spent on the restoration: sending it back to Korman three times for engine development and the extraordinary body and interior restoration made is such that he stopped counting after a while, and wrapped all records of it in caution tape to deter his wife should she even find it buried deep in storage.

And it will always be Jack’s car at its core. He passioned his money into what amounted to development program for the 2002 Turbo, using some of the original Motorsport engineers. Jack had SCR restore it to better-than-new condition, and he also had the good judgement to sell it to someone who would drive the shit out of it!

After the Turbo was delivered, I changed the the steering rack to an new old stock Alpina quick-ratio unit. I removed the aging and crack-prone magnesium Campagnolo 13-inch wheels, and replaced them with restored BBS RS001s shod in Toyo 245/45/R15 RA1 rubber. And finally, I replaced the stock Turbo-specific steering wheel with a Petri made for the CSL. Purists may now gurgle and wipe tears of blood from their eyes. As I started the car in its suburban garage, I felt like Robert Redford riding his magnificent stallion off the stage and into the hills in the Electric Horseman. This horny, rabid BMW had been locked inside its restoration shop for the past seven years, the previous owner reluctant to drive a car on which he spent thousands alone just to cadmium plate the bolts.

What it’s like to drive? I start by approaching with disbelief that its key is in my hand. It’s impossibly special. You’ve never seen one on the road. You stare at the bolted wheel arches, pregnant with R-compound rubber; the art deco door handle meets your fingers coldly; the thumb button requires a manly gouge. Then the door opens on it’s diminutive, 45-year-old hinges. You’re inside, and the greenhouse is enormous, completely out of proportion with a modern car. It’s like an English conservatory in there. It all looks beautifully Germanic, black and ribbed with only a touch of red on the gauge cluster to distinguish the insides from more pedestrian 2002s. The primitive inertial reel seatbelt requires patience and a slow hand, and it clicks with a pleasantly resonating ping once latched.

Turn the delicate key in the tumbler and it starts immediately, settling into a muted, utilitarian idle. The turbo boost gauge is still in hibernation at this point. You rest your hand on the E21-sourced gear knob, and thanks to firmer bushings in this car, you feel the vibrations of the souped-up M10 under the hood. It moves into first with a short, mechanical movement, and you can feel the synchromesh equalizing the revs as it drops into gear. The floor pedals are hinged like a 911’s, on the floor.

Jack installed a lightened flywheel in this car, and the clutch is surprisingly meaty, like the rest of the control weights. The Turbo weighs 2,337 pounds, 44 pounds less than a 1974 Porsche 911S. But the controls are heavier, particularly the steering. Parallel parking a 2002 Turbo inspires a lot of grunting and apprehension in concert. The steering requires Herculean strength at a stop, and the absence of a front bumper means parking necessitates foresight and forearm strength alike.

But once on the move, the steering lightens until it feels like an ‘80s 911—firm, but manageable on the straights, gaining significant weight in the corners, and growing lighter as it approaches the tires’ limits. It’s hard to feel the edge of grip on the Turbo now that it’s on R-compound rubber, which has its benefits and its drawbacks in that regard.

When I first got the Turbo, the tires were old and hard. The brake pedal was firm and communicative, but lockup came surprisingly easy. It was fun and educational to threshold brake into every corner, brittle tires chirp, chirp, chirping; rear tires slipping happily on full-throttle exits. But when a Honda Civic braked hard in front of me and I almost crunched the little shark nose, I knew it was time for modern rubber.

Today there isn’t a lot of choice in 13-inch tires, and magnesium wheels become brittle with age, so it felt like the right time to update the rolling gear. The main thing I noticed with the BBS wheels was a great decrease in braking distances. That doesn’t change the fact that the 2002’s A-pillars are thin and unprotective. In old cars, it’s all about active safety—I needed to out-brake, out-corner and out-accelerate any dangers. The brakes are small and don’t have a lot of thermal capacity for track days, but with the sticky tires they will do the job when Bambi decides to next jump out in front. Lost from the experience though is some of the adrenaline of danger, but so too is the danger itself. It’s a fair trade.

Driving the 2002 Turbo is very different from a contemporary BMW M2 though, which BMW is marketing as sort of a successor to small nimble Bimmer sports cars like the Turbo and original M3. The new M2 mimics an electric car though, its torque curve essentially flat from 2,500 to redline. You just put your foot down and 1.2 seconds later, boost comes in full, no matter the gear. The 2002 Turbo isn’t like that. It’s much more raucous and mechanical.

Boost builds early, but comes on strongly and most definitively at 4,000 rpm, and it simply rips up to the redline—that’s your operating range in the mountains. Boost takes a second to come on, so it’s best to keep maintaining throttle as soon as you are finished braking, keeping the turbo spooled and eager. Like all turbos, it would be best to left-foot brake, but I’m a clumsy left-foot-braker, and instead I just ease on the throttle to spin the turbo, and then apply full throttle past the apex. the car may have the same power-to-weight ratio as an early 911, but there is a lot more torque, and as the engine surges through the tach, it feels delightfully overpowered.

The chassis valiantly tries to handle the power, but unlike an early 911, it feels more its age here; tight, but a bit more crude. Normal speeds are thrilling, even though I know that the tires can handle more than my courage would allow on public roads. Korman’s Roadsport suspension upgrades the springs, shocks, bushings, and roll bars, such that the ride, even on the 45 aspect ratio tires, is firm but it never crashes over asphalt imperfections. 45-year-old cars don’t shrug off mid-corner braking like the stability-controlled, multi-link wonders of today—there are consequences. So you drive it like an old 911—fast in, faster out—it flows through the corners with meaty precision, like a modern dancer with thighs twice as thick as any traditional  ballerina.

The car has much to praise, but the transmission and shifter are the standouts in my mind. Like most of the 1,672 Turbos produced, my Italian-market car originally came with a four-speed gearbox. I desired the optional dogleg close-ratio five-speed that is all but identical to the one in the Porsche 901, but Korman—along with most other Turbo experts—prefer the five-speed overdrive ‘box from the E21, which is stronger and can better handle any additional torque.

I drive around with the quarter windows cranked open, to better hear the squeals of praise that the tires let out when things get “spirited.” Truckers let me merge in front of them. Designers get the vapors in its presence.

I recently parked it in the kind of neighborhood you wouldn’t walk around in past midnight, and returned to find it surrounded by a pack of teenagers. I pulled my shoulders back and straightened my spine.

“Dude. Is that a 2002 Turbo?” asked one.

“Yep. Is it OK to park it here?”

“Are you crazy? No way! That car had its window smashed last week,” he said, pointing to a car with its windows smashed (presumably last week), “and that one over there was graffitied. We got around it to protect this until you came back.”

“Thanks man.”

“Thank you for driving it in here. I thought I’d never see one.”

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2 years ago

An amazing piece of art to be discussed in the upbringing of the ’20s.

4 years ago

Lovely to read and enjoyed the article. About to pick up an original UK 2002 Turbo to join my band of 911’s and M635. I will enjoy the comparisons and let you know my thoughts.

Javier Berrocal
Javier Berrocal
5 years ago

What a nice story but damn, what a gorgeous car!

wade m russell
wade m russell
6 years ago

Well written article. Agree to all, and especially appreciated Capt. Lutz comments! First Bimmer I ever owned was a 7302. Your car is it`s perfected brother , with a double Grad Degree! Kinda like my current M4GTS: Holly Goodness is she FUN ! Thanx for writing.

Ross Grimson
Ross Grimson
6 years ago

Thanks Petrolicious, thanks Robert. I enjoyed your well crafted article immensely. Great to read your story of this fine machine, its liberation from incarceration and your enthusiastic enjoyment of all it has to offer. Just as its maker intended. I wish you and your machine, many happy miles.

Jack Sassoon
Jack Sassoon
6 years ago

I have to say I never associated the Oil Crisis facts stated in your article with Faisal’s rage and humiliation. Where did you get them? But anyway, thank you for a portion of my 1970’s re-education as they all make sense.
Found two typos. Here’s one in this paragraph: “Turbos were sister cars to the 1973 Porsche Carrara RS”.
The other, never mind. But please change those wheels. “You’ll feel better about it.” Lovely car, and congratulations.

Mark St Clair
Mark St Clair
6 years ago

Hmmmmm flowery prose indeed but please don’t compare a 2002 (turbo, base model, ti or tii) to a 911. Both are truly great cars but the only thing they have in common is their country of origin and era. With all due respect, you are fooling yourself regarding the steering feel, no car on the planet has the same steering feel as a 911 (I have owned both). They may feel similar at crawling speeds but not through corners. As a mark of respect for a truly rare vehicle, ditch those late 20th century wheels for a better period aesthetic compromise (widened factory steel perhaps) and for Christ’s sake replace the E21-sourced gear knob for the real thing. Other than that, congratulations you lucky bugger.

6 years ago

Turkish friend had one, said his favorite part of ownership was scaring his passengers, apparently the turbo was like an off/on switch. Didn’t this drivetrain go into the Turbo Concept car, which inspired the M1 a few years later?

6 years ago

Let me know when you get tired of it!