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TG drives the BMW 2002

Oh yes, it's time to meet the M2's great-grandfather, the legendary turbo saloon

  • The immaculate BMW 2002 Turbo I’m currently clinging to is one of only nine currently registered in the UK – that makes it three times rarer than a LaFerrari on these shores – and minters like this are now swapping hands for upwards of £60,000. Given its short wheelbase and primitive KKK turbocharger lashed to a 2.0-litre motor, it also has a reputation for swapping ends if you’re not on high alert for the arrival of the boost.

    Designed to tap the obvious potential in the 2002’s chassis, only 1,672 were ever built between 1973 and 1975 – each one receiving a calculated makeover from the engineering department with bigger brakes, a limited-slip differential, wider tyres and a 40bhp hike over the tii. And then the design department indulged in too many steins and set about reshaping the exterior. I mean, just look at it – those riveted arches, that snow-shovel front spoiler and the full-length decals are full-on bonkers and still have the power to shock today.

    Photography: Rowan Horncastle

    This feature was originally published in the December 2015 issue of Top Gear magazine.

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  • If we had more time to play with, I’d probably rethink our choice of corner. Call me a wuss, but a blind exit, off-camber, tight right-hander smothered liberally in cowpats on a moist October afternoon doesn’t scream “Faster, Jack, faster.” It has more of a “Don’t crash, you ham-fisted imbecile, or you will lose your job, your house and your wife” kind of a feel. Still, the clock is ticking, so I grit my teeth and stick to the plan.

    I’m insured up to the eyeballs, but the thought of spannering this high-value classic is making my palms sweat and my bowels gurgle. For the first few minutes, I’m like an antelope with a lion smacking its chops nearby: ears pricked listening for the whoosh of the turbo before it uncorks its full force, foot feathering the throttle like a surgeon’s hand, eyes on stalks – one analysing the road for dung-related friction changes, the other scanning the horizon for oncoming traffic. It’s a full-on job driving an old-timer like this.

  • The first barrage of sensations is unsettling, to say the least. For starters, there’s huge play in the steering wheel so it flops about in your hands like a dead fish as you pinball off lumps and undulations in the road. It’s noisy as hell, too – not just the engine but the tyres, the creaking body and the wind pummelling the upright windscreen and near-vertical front end. At anything below 10mph, the non-assisted steering requires biceps like loaves of bread and the four-speed manual gearbox has so much slack that selecting a gear is a coin toss. Meanwhile, the arthritic clutch pedal triggers a lactic acid convention in my left thigh.

    And then it clicks. Intimidation clears the way for elation, and I’m hustling along at unruly speeds. You see, peel back the unfamiliar facade of old-car quirks – block them out, in fact – and what you’re left with is a performance car whose fundamentals are still relevant and measurable against today’s crop. Case in point being the 168bhp engine.

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  • Considering this was the first German series production car to employ a turbocharger, you’d expect to be able to pop the kettle on before the turbo wakes up, but it’s a lot perkier than that. A low drone turns to a buzz overladen by an intensifying hiss as the turbo spools, then at 4,000rpm – the delivery point for peak torque of 173lb ft – you get the hit of the whole fruit. Windows down to make the most of the rasping pea-shooter exhaust, there’s a smack of forward momentum comparable with a modern warm hatch. With a lack of insulation from the outside world, though, it feels a heck of a lot faster than that.

    What really builds my confidence is a lack of spikiness in the power curve – it’s more of a smooth bulge than an abrupt onslaught. Emboldened by its exceptional balance in the corners, and the fact that it only wants to bite my head off if I behave like a fool, I start burying the throttle at each apex so the turbo is primed at the exit. It becomes rhythmic: swinging it around corners, opening the taps down the straights, climbing on the front discs and rear drums harder than you first think. And repeat.

  • Even the steering – truculent at low speeds and frankly useless around the dead-ahead – has come to life. Push through the slack and you feel it bite, a physical connection to the plump front tyres – and you can lean on them hard because you’re fully aware if they’re about to wash wide. I want to drive it harder – I’m gelling with it now. Even the firm bolsters on the squishy vintage sport seats are perfectly moulded to my love handles.

    Just as a meaningful relationship is forming, it’s dashed against the rocks. Dwindling light and a fuel needle wagging forlornly around empty force our hand – we hand back the keys and stare longingly as it parps over the brow of the hill. The new M2 has the potency and tech to rock our world, but if it can muster half the charisma of the 2002 Turbo it’ll be the best M car for a generation.

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