Before the M3 – BMW 2002 Turbo


What came before the M3, and how could it show us what's to come?

An M3 for the 1970s: focus on the legendary BMW 2002 Turbo

When BMW moved away from naturally-aspirated power for the 2014 M3, slotting in a 3-litre twin-turbo powerplant, it left furrowed brows among traditionalists.

But it was far from the first turbo-powered sporting saloon to come out of Munich, and it could be argued that the current car can trace its roots all the way back to the 1970s and the legendary – and increasingly rare – 2002 Turbo.

2002 turbo

An M-car in all but name, the BMW 2002 Turbo was launched at the Frankfurt Motor Show in 1973 – five years before BMW’s motorsport division first put its single-letter name to a road car, the M1.

It was Europe’s first turbocharged production car, and propelled the entry-level 02 series which started life in 1966 as a humble 1600cc sedan into a genuine sporting machine capable of smashing through 125mph.

By bolting a primitive KKK turbocharger to the 2-litre engine from the 2002 tii, BMW ramped up the power from 130bhp to 170bhp, resulting in a rapid – for the time – 0-60 dash in 8 seconds flat and a claimed top speed of 131mph.

2002 BMW

Few saloons in the world could keep up, and the aggressive styling (too aggressive for some German journalists’ tastes at the time) left those seeing the “Turbo” logo in mirror script on the front air dam looming behind them in no doubt that something very special was approaching.

The design team went to town on the bodywork – flared riveted wheel arches, deep front spoiler, full-length decals and rear spoiler left some saying it was “provoking aggressiveness”. Well, if you’ve got it, flaunt it.

This being 1973, the car suffered from massive turbo lag of up to three seconds, and was prone to swapping ends in inexpert hands not fully prepared for the arrival of the boost.

Indeed, engine development chief Alex von Falkenhausen said the power unit and chassis had scope to produce and cope with more than the car’s 170bhp, but “we rather thought that 170bhp was about the limit for the running gear of a car not necessarily driven by experts only”.

two BMW

The car’s full performance potential could only be realised above 4000rpm when the full 180lb ft of torque is available.

Road & Track magazine, testing the car shortly after its launch, described the Turbo as “slightly gutless in the lower speed ranges” thanks partly to its low compression ratio.

But once on the Autobahn, where the car was meant to live, it was a different story: “It was not before a short stretch of Autobahn was reached, on the way to BMW’s test track, that the car showed its Jekyll-and-Hyde character by the way it rocketed up to the provisional 100-km/h (62-mph) limit.

“Undoubtedly the most impressive thing about the car is its smooth top-end acceleration and the complete lack of fuss with which high cruising speeds can be maintained.”

Once on the track, “in the fast curves at the ends of the parallel straights of the track, the car felt beautifully stable and neutral”.

rear BMW 2002 turbo

In short, it had all the basic characteristics (minus the turbo lag) that you’d expect to find in its M3 successor, launched 13 years later.

Thanks partly to the 1973 oil crisis, only 1,672 Turbos were built, with just 10 remaining registered for road use in the UK today.

If you’re lucky enough to find one for sale, it’s likely to set you back upwards of £60,000.

BMW interior