Believe the hype

Can a vintage car really be that much fun to drive in the modern world? It can if it’s a BMW 328, a 1930s machine that demonstrates clearly how racing improves the breed.

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April 5, 2013

In this, the Age of Irony, it’s rare to be genuinely amazed. And yet I am, from the moment I fire up this 1937 328 roadster and drive it away from BMW Classic’s workshop in Munich toward the backroads around Aying. I’ve driven old BMWs before, but this one is different. Where most old cars feel like Mister Magoo’s jalopy, this 75-year-old 328 feels like a real sports car, with no allowances needed for its age.

Light and agile, it handles like a dream on the undulating Bavarian backroads. There’s plenty of grip from its high-profile tires and less body roll than I’d expect. The steering is simply sublime, and even the brakes work well enough to cope with Munich traffic, fergawdsakes!

I’ve been told for years how good a 328 is, and now I know for myself. This is the real deal, a sports car for the ages. Believe the hype.

A golden age for transportation

To understand how it’s possible for a car this old to be this good, we have to go back to when this 328 was new: to 1937 or even a little before. The 1930s were something of a golden age for transportation, and everything from boats to trains to airplanes—and of course the automobile—was improving rapidly in speed, safety and comfort.

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BMW was fairly new to the field of automobile manufacture, having built cars only since buying the Dixi factory in 1929, but it applied its earlier expertise building aero engines and motorcycles to make huge technological leaps in a very short time. The gap from the Dixi 3/15 HP to the 328 is enormous, and not just because the Dixi’s 15-hp four had become an 80-hp straight six by the time the first 328 was built in June 1936.

By comparison, the Dixi is mere transportation, a simple replacement for the horse and carriage that doesn’t eat hay. The 328 is a sports car, meant to win races and thrill its driver and passenger. There’s a world of difference between those two functions, and an enormous conceptual leap to be made in going from one to the other.

That said, Dixis were raced, and BMW had purchased that tradition along with the car factory in Eisenach. Carrying on with racing was only natural, as BMW had already set speed records and scored Grand Prix wins with its motorcycles, and its enthusiasm for motorsport was easily transferred from two wheels to four.

BMW’s first real sports cars

It only took a few years before BMW’s first true sports cars hit the market. As Rainer Simons notes in his superb 328: From roadster to legend, BMW’s engineers were pioneers in the application of physics to automobile construction. Their primary goal was to limit the effects of centrifugal force by reducing the car’s mass, thereby improving grip in the corners. Acceleration and braking also improved, as less energy was needed to propel a lower mass forward or to arrest its momentum. It’s pretty basic stuff, but it hasn’t always governed automobile construction, in the ’30s or even today.

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As part of its program of Leichtbau, or lightweight construction, BMW had patented a tubular frame for its 303, introduced in 1933 as BMW’s first all-new car with no basis in the Dixi. The 303 also marked the debut of the double-kidney grille as well as BMW’s first six-cylinder automotive engine, the 1,182cc M78.

Designed by Fritz Fiedler, that tubular frame made the 303 exceptionally light—around 400 lbs. lighter than comparable models, according to Horst Mönnig’s exhaustive marque history, BMW: Ein Deutsche Geschichte. It also gave the 303 exceptional handling, and it formed the basis for nearly every BMW prior to World War II.

Especially noteworthy among those were the 315/1 and 319/1, low-slung roadsters designed specifically for sportive road use and weekend racing. These cars used the 303’s frame, here improved with better suspension, more responsive steering and a lower center of gravity. They were also powered by new six-cylinder engines displacing either 1,490cc or 1,911cc. While 1934’s M315/1 was essentially a 40-hp, long-stroke version of the M78, the M319/1 that followed a year later was powered by a sportier variation of the M319, itself an all-new design with siamesed cylinders, a counterbalanced crank with high-load bearings and a cylinder head carrying the largest valves BMW could fit. While the standard M319 was good for 45 hp at 3,750 rpm with two Solex 26 BFLV carbs, the M319/1 made 55 hp at 4,000 rpm thanks to a trio of Solex 30 BFRH carbs and a compression ratio of 6.8:1 instead of 5.6:1.

BMW had made a giant leap with the 319/1, and more developments followed. Good thing, too, as motorsport was advancing so quickly in the mid-’30s that the engine’s 55 hp were insufficient almost immediately. Though BMW was still having plenty of success in the 1.5-liter category with the 315/1, the company knew that the real glory would come with victories in the 2.0-liter class, then the premier category for sports car racing.

Without a doubt, Fiedler and his R&D counterpart Rudolf Schleicher would have liked to build an all-new overhead-cam engine, but budget constraints forced them to develop a new engine from the existing M319 instead. After seeing a similar design by the French firm Talbot at the Paris auto show in 1935, Simons says, they designed a new cylinder head that inclined the valves at 80 degrees and opened the inlet valves via pushrods that came straight up from the cam in the usual fashion. The exhaust valves, meanwhile, were opened by an ingenious system that used a bell crank, a short pushrod across the head and a rocker arm.

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With that design and a compression ratio of 7.5:1, the triple-carbed 1,971cc M328 made 80 hp at 4,500 rpm. Tuned for competition, its output could be safely increased to 100 or even 110 hp at 5,000 to 5,400 rpm on 80-octane fuel. Give it special racing fuel and the M328 could make 120 hp. Strengthen the crankshaft, fit bigger carbs and up the octane and it could deliver as much as 136 hp. (As Dr. Karlheinz Lange notes in BMW Engines, BMW experimented in 1941 with direct fuel injection and butterfly throttles to get still more power from the M328, but these efforts were stifled by developments beyond the world of racing, i.e. the onset of World War II.)

A capable chassis meets sleek, modern styling

Clearly, the development team led by Fiedler and Schleicher had built an engine capable of pleasing its drivers and winning 2.0-liter races, but what about the chassis? BMW had neither the time nor the budget to create a new chassis, and so the 319/1 served as the basis for the new car.

Fortunately, the 319/1 had already garnered high praise for its handling. In its review of the car for its December 17, 1935 issue, Britain’s The Motor wrote, “The car handled beautifully, with a rapid, high-geared steering which makes cornering a matter of wrist-work rather than steering. At speeds over 70 mph, the little two-seater rode the bumps and crevices [of Brooklands track] like a train. On the road, the car was a pure joy.”

Those qualities remained intact even as engine power increased substantially, a testament to the soundness of the design. The 319/1 contributed its tube frame, its independent front and solid rear axles with transverse leaf spring up front and semi-elliptical springs at the rear, its 2,400mm (94.5-inch) wheelbase and 45.4 front/48.0 rear track widths. To that, BMW was able to add 16-inch disc wheels with a Rudge-style locking mechanism and new hydraulic brakes with 280mm (11.0-inch) drums at all four corners.

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The 319/1’s basic shape remained intact, too, but in becoming the 328 it received substantial refinements. Although Wilhelm Meyerhuber was head of BMW’s automotive styling department in Eisenach, Simons gives credit for the design and engineering of the bodywork to Fiedler and Peter Szymanowski, head of bodywork design, along with Kurt Joachim, Schleicher’s assistant in vehicle testing whom Simons credits for the front of the 328 roadster. The drawings of the car, Simons reports, were made in Munich while the prototype bodywork was built in Eisenach.

Marrying elegance to aerodynamic efficiency, the 328’s fenders were integrated with the main body more cleanly and completely than in the 319/1, giving the entire car a newfound rakishness. The 328 looked sportier than almost anything else on the road, and it created a template for sports car styling that endured into the 1950s and even beyond.

Simons says the total development cost of the 328 was just 450,000 Reichsmarks, or $179,435, an astonishingly economical figure even in 1935. (Development of the 326, by comparison, cost BMW $887,096 that year.)

Reputation, made

For that miniscule investment, BMW got a car that established a world-beating reputation from the moment it first appeared in public. That didn’t take place at an auto show or press launch but at the Nürburgring, where a prototype 328 was entered in the Eifelrennen of June 14, 1936. Driven by Ernst Henne, familiar to BMW fans from the world of motorcycle speed records, the car won the race for 2.0-liter sports cars on its first attempt. That astonishing feat was followed by three more victories that summer, and the car hadn’t even entered production yet.

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Countless victories followed, all of which established the 328 as the sports car to have if you wanted a great-handling roadster for the street that could do double-duty at the Nürburgring on weekends. It was the M3 of its day, practical road car with a superb sporting pedigree.

As an aside, it should be mentioned that although Germany’s Nazi government provided direct support to the Auto Union and Mercedes Grand Prix teams, BMW got nothing of the sort for its efforts in sports car racing. The Nazionalsozialistesches Kraftfahrerkorps or NSKK only supported individual drivers of sports cars, not manufacturers or racing teams. Some NSKK drivers did drive for BMW, however, including 1940 Mille Miglia winner Huschke von Hanstein and Prince Max zu Schaumberg-Lippe, who won the 2.0-liter class at the 24 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps in 1938.

BMW built 464 of these swoopy little roadsters, including three prototypes built in June 1936, two Mille Miglia roadsters and 59 bare chassis to which customers could attach their own bodywork. Although the first non-prototype car was built in January 1937, production didn’t begin in earnest until April that year, and it ended in August 1939.

BMW still had pending orders for the car when, as Simons reports, a telegram arrived on September 5 from the Reich Transport Ministry forbidding the sale and delivery of vehicles “except to authorities, public bodies and for export.” All German motor vehicle manufacturers had received the same telegram, and from that moment forward the entire country’s manufacturing resources were to be diverted to the production of war materiel.

That wasn’t quite the end of the story for BMW’s sports car efforts—BMW engineers continued working on a successor to the 328 in defiance of the Nazi directive, and the company’s racing team developed cars for the Mille Miglia and other races through the summer of 1940—but it’s the end of the story for the 328 as we know it, and for BMW as a maker of world-class sports cars until the mid-1960s. The war put that to an abrupt end, although BMW’s tragedy pales in comparison to the 50-million-plus deaths and countless dislocations that also resulted from Hitler’s madness.

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The joy of driving

To drive a 328 today, however, is to be reminded of something not tragic but joyful, which is the delight we all experience from the simple pleasure of automotive physics. Fiedler and Schleicher used physics to their advantage in creating their Leichtbau BMWs, and this 328 is their crowning achievement.

The car I’m driving, chassis number 85061, is one of several 328s owned by BMW Classic. All are run regularly in events like the Mille Miglia Storica and other historic rallies; the last time I saw this one, in fact, was on the Mille Miglia in 2007. I was riding as a passenger in another 328, and we’d been cooking along on an Italian two-lane when a stop sign appeared abruptly after a blind corner. Just as I turned around, the black 328 appeared, its driver’s eyes bulging from their sockets. I thought we’d end up in a million-dollar pile of ’30s sheet metal, but the black car braked hard and swerved out of the way just in time. Good brakes and agile handling aren’t just for the race track, you know!

As it turns out, this car’s brakes are stock, along with its chassis. Its gorgeous black over green color combination isn’t, however. Like almost half the 328s built—229 of 464, to be exact—this car was originally white, probably over red leather upholstery. It rolled off the line in May 1937 and was delivered to the Berlin BMW dealer known as “Dr. Brenner,” but after that its provenance is uknown though it’s known to have spent time in Poland.

The car was in rough condition when BMW Classic (then Mobile Tradition) got it in 1995, and in 2002 it was restored by the legendary Feierabend GmbH of Würzburg, a few hours north of Munich. Thanks to today’s higher-octane fuel and better metallurgy, Feierabend was able to build this car’s M328 six-cylinder to put out 120 hp rather than the stock 80 hp. That’s a 50% difference, and it gives this 328 sterling performance.

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The car only weighs 1,716 lbs., which means it has one horsepower for every 14.3 lbs. When new, the 80-hp 328 needed about ten seconds to reach 100 km/h or 62 mph; with 120 hp and a 30% improvement in its power-to-weight ratio, it’s probably more like seven seconds. That’s plenty quick, especially for a 75-year-old!

It’s also what this car would have done if it had been one of BMW’s factory race cars back in the day. It wasn’t, and BMW’s historians are certain it was never raced at all.

A fun car, full of sensation

Today, the 328 starts right up with a press of the button, and it shifts easily through all the gears once you learn how to engage reverse. Early 328s (up to chassis number 85281, which was built in the summer of 1938) were equipped with a ZF AK-S15 four-speed mated to a 3.88:1 final drive; like all of the cars in the BMW Classic fleet, 85061 has since been fitted with a Hurth four-speed like those used on the later 328s. The floor-mounted shift lever is long, and so are the throws that move it from gear to gear. But the engagement is precise and firm, and the clutch is smooth and easy to modulate, too.

Reaching it is another story, however. 328s have fixed-position seats, and 85061 is set for a tall driver whose legs are much longer than mine. Fortunately, I’ve planned for this: Before I left California, I bought two lumbar cushions, and I’m using both to “move” the seat forward. I’m a little closer to the steering wheel than I’d like, but being unable to reach the pedals properly is worse.

Close to the wheel or not, the steering on this 328 is a revelation. It’s a rack and pinion arrangement with no hydraulic assist, which isn’t necessary anyway in a short-wheelbase car that weighs 1,716 lbs. and rides on skinny tires. Its Michelin radials measure 5.5 inches wide, or 140 mm, which sounds absurdly narrow but is really a perfect match for the chassis. It may have been revolutionary for its day, but the 328’s tube frame is essentially a platform on which the drivetrain and bodywork rest, and it doesn’t provide modern levels of structural rigidity. Too much rubber and you’d twist the thing into knots.

Once we’re out of the Munich suburbs and onto the Bavarian backroads, the 328 is delightful to drive. Testing a new 328 back in July 16, 1937, The Autocar reported, “The car seems to be alive, and responsive to a driver’s ability to treat it as it should be treated.” That’s true to this day, although treating it as one should means respecting its age and value, now around half-a million dollars instead of the RM7,400 ($2,984) that a 328 cost new. I’m having plenty of fun swinging this little black beauty through the bends, but I don’t want to do anything stupid in trying to find “the limit.”

Even in a 75-year-old car, a public road is no place for that, anyway. This 328 remains more than capable of exceeding a recommended cornering speed in perfect safety, but don’t crash it: It has no seat belts, and the wooden frame that holds up the sheet metal would crumple like a birdcage on impact.

It’s full of sensation all the while: tactile feedback through the steering wheel, seat and pedals, and aural feedback from the engine and exhaust. I’m sure the engine can go safely to 4,500 rpm, the original power peak, but I only do that a couple of times before I start shifting at just below 4,000 instead. The M328 is distinctly mechanical, but it’s also smooth and torquey, and it feels very much of a continuum with every BMW six I’ve ever experienced.

Beyond the power, the engine delivers one thing above all that makes this 328 so much fun: a raspy exhaust note that sounds like a prewar echo of the E46 M3. I don’t know whether the guys who designed the S54 six had the 328 in mind when they gave it that scratchy voice, but they created a sonic link to its spiritual predecessor when they did. Like the M3, this 1937 328 was built for the backroads but could also win races with the right driver on board. Its dual-purpose character is the basis for BMW’s brand DNA, and it’s been there through peace and prosperity, wartime and deprivation. The 328 may represent its prewar zenith, but the dynamic tradition was only beginning.

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