Up ahead, it looks like a white phantom, a spectral presence winding its way through the redwoods and into the mist of the California coast. You try to get closer, half-expecting to catch a glimpse of Ernst Henne’s leather-helmeted ghost behind the wheel. Out here along the Navarro River Road, a 328 roadster is a peculiar sight, the sound of its straight-six engine echoing another time, another place.
For this car’s owner, that’s precisely the point.
“I love the past,” Dirk de Groen says. “I love things that don’t exist any more. Other people want to go into the future—my daughter wants to be an astronaut, to go to the moon—I couldn’t care less. Put me in a time machine, take me back to 1960, the year I was born. I want to see what the world was like when I was a little boy.”
De Groen’s boyhood in the Netherlands was already BMW-centric. His father bought a Neue Klasse 2000 sedan in the late 1960s, and his grandfather had a Neue Klasse 1800. When Dirk got his license, the first thing he did was get a BMW of his own: the 1602 that had captured his imagination from a Dutch dealer’s lot. It was a well-used 1970 model with 250,000 km on the odometer, but Dirk was obsessed. He bought it with a little help from his father, but mostly with money he’d earned himself, working after school at a gas station, McDonald’s and a BMW dealership. A year later, he traded the 1602 to the same dealer for a 2002 tii Touring, which he kept until leaving the Netherlands for graduate school in the U.S. in 1982.
A career in banking followed, but de Groen didn’t get another BMW until 1998, when he and his wife, Alexandra, returned to Florida after a ten-year stint in Haiti. And when he did, it was a modern one: an E39 5 Series, followed by an E60, an X3 and a 135i. It wasn’t until about ten years ago that he started to think seriously about old BMWs again.
He bought a 1973 2002 tii and restored it to be a daily driver. That didn’t quite work out—its vintage air conditioning was no match for the south Florida heat—but it set de Groen on a path that hasn’t yet reached its end. He’d returned to the Neue Klasse BMWs of his youth and adolescence, but de Groen found himself wanting to go back still further. He started looking at the prewar roadsters, specifically the 328 that had dominated the sports car classes in the late 1930s. He wanted to go back not merely to his own childhood but that of his father, or even his grandfather.
“I’m looking for that driving experience,” he says. “How those people before the war felt when they were driving in these rudimentary vehicles, these cars that have no bumpers, that are noisy.”