When the BMW 1600 was introduced in 1967, Car and Driver proclaimed it “the best small car we have ever driven.” Britain’s Autocar described its handling as “exceptional,” just like its build quality.
Barely a year later, however, the 1600 was all but forgotten in the wake of the car that followed it: the 2002 that became a legend almost the moment it hit the streets.
Although the two cars were virtually identical, the 2002 had a crucial advantage over the 1600: power. With just 85 horsepower, the 1600 couldn’t compete with the 100-hp 2002. The zero to 62 mph dash that took 13.3 seconds in the 1600 took just 10.9 in the 2002, a 1.4-second gap in which the 1600 would be thoroughly smoked in every stop light Grand Prix.
David Ullom knew all about the 1600’s horsepower shortage when he bought one in 1972, but it mattered far less than the car’s virtues.
“The 1600 had a good suspension design, and it was a great handling car with a lot of visibility,” recalls Ullom. “It has the aerodynamics of a barn door, but there aren’t too many places where you can run it over 120-130 mph anyway. It was a little underpowered, but that could be cured.”
As someone who’d been hot-rodding cars since age 16, when he modified a 1938 Ford coupe with a small-block Chevy engine, Ullom knew just what to do when a ratty 1600 rolled into his brother Ed’s Cumberland Valley Motors BMW dealership in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. [Ed Ullom has since sold the BMW franchise to Sun Valley Motors, and Cumberland continues as a Volkswagen/Dodge/Subaru dealership.—Ed.]
“It was taken as a trade-in,” he says. “An older lady had owned it, and she didn’t use it as a typical BMW owner would. Instead, she kind of used it as you would a pickup truck. She hauled a lot of junk around in it, and the seats were all scratched up. My brother was going to convert it into a race car, but I talked him into letting me buy it instead. I’ve been playing with that car in one way or another since 1972.”
He started by replacing the ruined interior with pieces from a wrecked 2002, then got to work on the car’s performance and handling. The project would take decades, and it ended with what is basically a race car—ironically, his brother’s intention for the car back in 1972.
Race car parts under the hood
As it is on any true hot rod, the engine is the centerpiece of Ullom’s 1600, and it’s more like a race engine than anything built for the street. With the goal of improving output from 85 to 205 horsepower, Ullom enlisted the services of Goddard Engineering in Providence, Rhode Island, which built the motor with consultation and some parts from BMW guru Ray Korman.