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Top Gear’s coolest racing cars: BMW 328

76 years on from its 1940 win, TG drives the 328 at the Mille Miglia

  • The stars align to spectacular effect on this week’s ‘coolest racing car’. How often are we likely to actually compete in said car in the very race it was originally conceived to contest?

    OK, so the modern Mille Miglia isn’t anything like as racey as the original, and the configuration is different to the 1940 event BMW won – back then it was known as the Gran Premio Brescia delle Mille Miglia, and consisted of nine laps of a 103-mile route that triangulated Brescia, Cremona, and Mantua. But as prepares for the 2016 Mille Miglia – which involves a bewildering immersion in daily route books the size of a Beijing telephone directory, and an induction into the arcane art of rally trip computers – we can’t help feeling a tiny bit heroic. Whatever this is, it’s emphatically not a leisurely, elongated tootle through the Italian countryside.

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  • The 328 is a major milestone in BMW’s brand mythology. The Bavarians are celebrating their centenary this year, and when BMW discreetly started sussing out customer interest in a new coupe in 1935, it had only been building cars for seven years. BMW – which rose out of the Rapp Motorenwerke engine manufacturer – took over the Dixi Eisenach works in 1928, which was manufacturing the Austin Seven under licence. BMW modified the recipe from 1929, although the catchily named 3/15 PS DA was still recognisably based on the chummy little Brit, hardly a nascent driving machine and very far from ultimate.

  • So when the 328 debuted in the Eifelrennen at the Nürburgring on June 14th, 1936, it catapulted the company forward in every sense. A former motorcycle racer called Ernst Henne won the race in the car, and around 100 more victories followed that year, including a 1-2-3 at in the famous Ulster TT.

    Aerodynamics pioneer Professor Wunibald Kamm soon began experimenting with a sleek-bodied derivation, carrying out wind tunnel tests. Italian coachbuilder Touring was drafted in to bolster BMW’s then-modest manufacturing capacity, and the resulting ultra-lightweight – superleggera – coupe took a class win and finished fifth overall at Le Mans in 1939, having covered 1981 miles at an average speed of 82.5mph.

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  • But such was the Mille Miglia’s prominence in the era that BMW set its sights firmly on the Italian classic, an ambition which locked the Germans into a furious race against time. Five 328s were entered, three roadsters, one streamlined coupe, and the car that had won its class at Le Mans. The quintet duly crossed the Alps in March 1940, and began preparations for the Mille Miglia. Given what was occurring in Europe at the time, it was amazing any of this was happening at all. Nevertheless, BMW would line up alongside 70 Italian driver teams.

  • The race started at 4am on April 28th 1940, Fritz Huschke von Hanstein (later a key figure in Porsche’s motorsport team) and Walter Baumer leading the way in the car that had won Le Mans the previous summer. (One of the other BMW drivers was the Italian Franco Cortese, who would later score the very first win for Ferrari in a 125 S in 1947.) Von Hanstein was locked into such a relentless groove that he almost ignored his team’s pleas to hand over to Baumer, but he did so with just a few miles remaining. The duo had averaged a remarkable 103mph, an achievement that remains core to the BMW story 76 years later. The second-place Alfa Romeo 6C was 15 minutes behind; three of the other five BMW starters finished in third, fifth and sixth place. ‘No other car has had a more lasting and profound impact on the history of BMW motorsport,’ the company notes.

  • There would be no more Mille Miglias until 1947, for obvious reasons. BMW’s motorsport division was dismantled; various cars and bits of equipment were stashed in secret locations throughout Bavaria. The winning MM coupe duly resurfaced and was impounded by some Allied soldiers, one of whom abandoned it after crashing into a ditch. Former BMW engineer Claus von Rücker heard about the accident and salvaged the car, whose aluminium bodywork had been sprayed in the olive green colours of the US army. Von Rücker restored it, and took it with him when he emigrated to Canada in 1947. Subsequently sold to a New York-based photographer called Robert Grier, this storied little BMW was left to his widow, after which it spent 30 years sitting forlornly in a rented garage in Connecticut. Ultimately it was saved and fully restored by a Californian collector called Jim Profitt, who sold it back to BMW just 14 years ago.

  • drove that car at Goodwood a few years ago, but our Mille Miglia chariot is the very car that finished fifth in 1940. It’s an astonishing privilege to cross the starting ramp in such a gilded artefact, not least because this is a one-off conservatively valued at £6m. BMW Classic’s expert Dr Thomas Tischler assures me that the car is robust enough to hack another 1000 miles in the company of 445 other assorted gentlemen (and lady) drivers, playboys, and extravagantly coiffed Euro loonies.

    It is, although the sternest test of its strength comes just three hours into the three-and-half-day long rally when a fellow competitor (car no.87, driven by Norbert Abel and Franz Steinbacher) misjudges the distance between our two cars and nerfs the BMW up the chuff. We’re not even moving at the time. (I’ll be chasing down the quote from the insurance company for the repair to a one-off, £6m all-aluminium BMW. Just out of curiosity.)

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  • Tellingly, it’s not just in the UK where the weather can play a major role. It rains solidly for the first day, intermittently on day two, before giving way to a heatwave throughout Saturday and Sunday. As lovely as the 328 MM roadster is, its open-top configuration proves tricky in both sets of climatic conditions: wet or scorching hot are the two options available. And when I say scorching hot, I mean scorching hot, hot enough to melt the soles of my racing boots, hot enough to fry an egg on the turned aluminium dashboard (if you could balance it vertically), hot enough to leave me needing a half-litre bottle of mineral water every 45 minutes (less pleasing when it, too, is hot).

  • And that’s it for the gripes. The Mille Miglia has to be the greatest motoring event in the world, an unsurpassable mix of fabulous, often priceless cars, brilliant roads, eye-popping scenery, and an emotional charged demonstration of the abiding love Italy has for its automotive heritage. Through Ferrara, Macerata, San Benedetto del Tronto, Rieti, Rome, Viterbo, Radicofani, Siena, Poggibonsi, Florence, Bologna, Parma, Monza, Bergamo and more we drove. Italy’s cloistered, medieval towns are beautiful at the best of times, but passing through them as part of a convoy of this magnitude is a genuinely moving experience.

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  • As for the car, it’s exceptionally good to drive, pure, unfiltered, and impressively fast for a 76-year old. BMW has introduced synchromesh to the gearbox, so there’s no problem there. We’re strongly advised to lean on the car’s powerful engine braking in preference to the actual brakes, a good practice as the miles pile on and the stoppers transition from adequate to non-existent. It slides sweetly if you want it to, and we soon discover that roundabout showboating whips up the onlookers who crowd every available spot.

  • The current Mille Miglia incorporates a nerdy series of time trials to slow things down. This is how the – mostly Italian, it has to be said – pros win, requiring pinpoint accuracy and functioning timing equipment. Our trip meter is variously waterlogged and suffering from heat exhaustion, afflictions that Team TG may also be enduring. We wind up 163rd, which is actually not as bad as it sounds. But not as good as fifth…

  • BMW 328

    Drivers: Fritz Huschke von Hanstein, Walter Baumer, Willy Briem, Uli Richter

    Engine: 2.0-litre straight-six, 136bhp

    Top speed: 137mph

    Stand-out moment: winning the Mille Miglia in 1940

    (Thanks to Graeme Grieve for his patience and good humour)

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