Black tie cabriolet

Chosen for the illustrious field at Pebble Beach in 2013, Stephen Norman’s 1938 327 cabriolet is a study in elegance and a pleasure to drive.

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April 9, 2014

It’s one thing for a vintage two-tone touring car to look like it’s moving when it’s standing still. It’s another for it to feel like a much more modern vehicle at speed.

“This 1938 BMW drives nothing like I imagined it would,” I think to myself as I wield the large diameter, thin-rimmed steering wheel around a sharp curve.

The corner is taken easily, with an assurance that’s surprising for a 75-year-old vehicle. When the road opens up and I select third gear, the 327 cabriolet’s steering and independent front/live axle rear suspension settle into a steady groove. Even more impressively, acceleration proves brisk enough to merge with modern traffic.

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The four-speed synchromesh transmission and 1,971cc inline six-cylinder engine prove very well matched. Power peaks at 4,500 rpm, quite high for a car built in 1938 and perfect for a fast, sporty touring car. The clutch is light to actuate and easy to engage. The ride is compliant, the chassis tight and noise-free. The leather seats feel luxurious, and they offer just enough bolster support to keep me in place. The only thing that gives the mechanical age away are hydraulic brakes that feel wooden by current standards, but which provide enough bite to bring the 2,420-lb. cabriolet to a quick and complete stop.

There’s something magical about piloting this pre-war 327 cabriolet. The view past the sculpted dash, with its white gauges and front-opening windscreen frame, speaks of elegant outings. The car seems to surge forward at every prod of the accelerator, eager to reach a fine establishment. It’s as if this BMW is letting you know that your arrival will be a special occasion. True enough: When my test drive ends, it’s hard to let go of the moment.

The origins of Premium

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As BMW’s high-end prewar cabriolet, the 327 would seem, numerically, to have been a further development of the 326, the all-new model introduced in 1936 in three body styles: a closed-cockpit four-door, drop-top four-door and two-door cabriolet. The 326 was the first to get BMW’s new box-frame chassis, which it soon shared with the 320 and 321. Those cars, unlike their elder sibling, employed a leaf-spring rear axle, lower ride height and shorter wheelbase (by 4.7 inches, though it still measured around 108 inches) for more agile handling. The 327 used this shorter, sportier version rather than that of the larger 326, and it borrowed the 320/321’s sleeker, more elegant roofline, as well. As England’s The Motor reported in 1938, it also had equal track widths front and rear, “unusual in the BMW range,” plus independent front suspension.

All of the models in question, as well as the 328 roadster, use a variation on BMW’s 1,971cc six-cylinder engine of 1936 to 1939. Depending on application, the six was designated as M326, M320, M327 or M328, in which forms it put out 50, 45, 55 or 80 hp, respectively, thanks to variations in compression ratio, carburetion, etc.

One particularly interesting BMW of the era, the 327/28, marries the 327’s elegant body and chassis with the more powerful M328 engine from the race-ready 328 roadster. With a compression ratio of 8.6:1, the M328 needed to run “super” gasoline through its trio of Solex 30 JF carburetors, but it put out a rewarding 80 hp and 96 lb-ft in return. Although the 327/28 was a heavier car than the 328, the high-performance motor gave its owners a sportier driving experience than was available from the stock 327 with just 55 hp/83 lb-ft, especially with the lighter convertible body.

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According to BMW’s official histories, the company sold 1,301 examples of the standard 327, of which 93 were coupes and 1,208 cabriolets, drop-tops having been far more popular when the cars were new. Some 571 examples of the more powerful 327/28 were sold, of which 86 were coupes and the rest cabriolets. (Those numbers are derived from extrapolations from various sources, and they are issued with some caveat, as sources differ on the breakdown of these models.)

Regardless of which engine or body style it had, the 327 was effectively BMW’s first “premium” offering. A high-end car with a long, low hood, short overhangs and a rear-set greenhouse, it established the template for BMW coupes and cabriolets that the company follows even today.

Married to its Munich-built engine at BMW’s Eisenach plant, the 327 was sent to Darmstadt to receive its body at coachbuilder Autenrieth, which consulted with BMW on the design. By the standards of any era, it would be judged a success, with flowing lines that lead the eye gracefully rearward from the large kidney grille past the sweeping fenders to the gently sloping tail. The Art Deco influence spilled over onto the beautifully crafted interior, which employed elegant functionality instead of opulence.

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Most 327s and 327/28s were finished in two-tone paint. The upper body, fenders and interior wore the darker finish, while the lower body section was lighter to set off its elegant curves.

Striking and sophisticated

The 327 seen here, chassis number 73272, wears black and ivory paint over brown upholstery because those colors suited its owner, Stephen Norman of Edmonds, Washington. We have to commend the choice—it’s both striking and sophisticated, and it suits the car perfectly.

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Norman has had the car since 1996, but he doesn’t know what color it wore from the factory. (A Certificate from BMW Mobile Tradition would clear that up, of course, but Norman hasn’t gotten one.) It’s Norman’s second 327: After selling his first, a 327 cabriolet brought back to life by John Kane Restorations in Pennsylvania in the early ‘90s, Norman was looking for a more powerful M328-powered 327/28 when he found this car being offered for sale by Fritz Gechter of Seattle in driveable but worn condition.

Gechter, now an associate professor of music at Texas A&M International University in Laredo, had bought the car six years earlier, planning to restore it, and his sale of the BMW seems to have coincided with his departure for Texas.

Gechter had owned the car for about six years at that point, having acquired it from Chester R. Lewis of Pennsylvania. Lewis had been a dealer for Massey-Harris tractors since 1939, and his business not only gave him enough disposable income to buy the cars he liked, it put him onto the farms where old cars were often stored in barns.

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Lewis’ son Chip tells the story of how his dad found this particular BMW.

“Dad came to know a Colonel Edward R. Ott after he moved to Pennsylvania from Louisiana,” Chip says. “At the time, Colonel Ott was employed at the University of Delaware, eventually serving as Dean of Admissions at the school in the early 1960s. Dad gave me a metal parking permit tag from the U of D, dated 1957-1958, which he said came off the BMW. My father purchased the BMW from Colonel Ott for something like $300 in 1959, after the Colonel had problems keeping it running.”

Ott told Lewis that he had brought the cabriolet into the U.S. from Germany after World War II. Rumor had it that the car was bought new by a high-ranking Nazi officer, but that hasn’t yet been established with any certainty. It wouldn’t be unusual, however: Most civilian vehicles in Germany were eventually appropriated by the military during the war, and few civilians could buy gasoline in the conflict’s later stages anyway.)

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The car was then painted what Lewis called a “gray-blue” color, at least until his father had it resprayed in pale yellow. “Later, I remember seeing some traces of green under the hood insulation,” Chip recalls. “The brown interior it had when it was sold was original, to the best of my knowledge.”

The engine, in all likelihood, was not. The identification plate for BMW 327 number 73272 notes its output as “Brems PS 55,” or 55 brake horsepower, which indicates it left the Eisenach factory with the standard M327 engine rather than the M328 it has today. It isn’t known when it received the more powerful 80 hp version of BMW’s 1,971cc inline six, but Chip Lewis says was in the car when his father bought it, and it was still there when he sold it to Gechter, having been only lightly used during Lewis’ tenure.

“After buying the BMW, I don’t think he drove it much,” Chip says. “Living as he did in a somewhat rural section of Pennsylvania, there weren’t a lot of qualified mechanics around, and I think he was afraid of breaking something on the car and not being able to get spare parts.”

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Road-trip cabriolet

Its current owner, Steve Norman, had no such fears. He bought the car intending to drive it, and to enjoy the extra power from its M328 engine. It didn’t hurt that he was a principal in the BMW Seattle dealership and thus had access to dealership technicians who could help keep it running.

His mechanics massaged it into roadworthy condition, and Norman and his wife, Anne, spent the next nine years touring the West in the convertible. One trip to California saw them drive for weeks without putting the top up, only to return one day to a water-filled tonneau cover. On their return trip, the gas cap was mislaid, so they had to fabricate a new one out of tin foil. They still laugh at that carefree journey.

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In 2005, nine years after he’d bought it from Lewis, Norman was informed by his good friend Dave Beddows that the driver’s door was about to fall off. Norman asked Beddows to enlist a body shop capable of repairing the rotten wood hinge posts, but further investigation determined that a more extensive restoration would be required on the now-67-year-old BMW.

Norman had sold his interest in BMW Seattle by then, and he figured the 327 would make a good project to undertake in retirement. In 2008, on the recommendation of friends in Vancouver—augmented by references from previous customers—Norman commissioned Jellybean AutoCrafters of Surrey, British Columbia to oversee a frame-off restoration. Predictably, wooden parts like the original frame required extensive refurbishing, and the project required an extensive amount of metalwork, as well. Since factory pieces were no longer available, the hood, firewall, lower side sections, 30% of the front fenders, and 80% of the rear fenders were fabricated from scratch. Essential to this process was Robert Maynard, now of RWM & Co, based in Boundary Bay, B.C.

“Maynard’s metalworking was remarkable,” says Norman.

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More than just a panel beater, the English-born Maynard also rebuilt the M328 engine with a new cylinder head and new pistons, after which the motor registered 116 hp on the dynamometer. An overdrive with trigger actuation under the shift knob was added to the four-speed transmission, and the clutch was replaced. All other mechanicals were restored without compromise.

The interior received the same attention to detail. In addition, various trim, knobs, instruments and bushings were remanufactured, the rewiring overseen by Beddows. The dash, wood detailing, brown leather upholstery and fabric top are new, completing the spotless presentation. Unmarked white switches for wipers, lighting and indicators decorate the glossy black metal dash. The final touch was a complete repaint in show quality two-tone black and ivory at Norman’s direction.

Showtime for the 327

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Once the restored ‘38 BMW cabriolet was delivered, Norman wasted no time in entering it into several shows. It proceeded to win People’s Choice at the 2011 Kirkland Concours d’Elegance in Washington, the Chairman’s and Palmetto Awards at the 2011 Hilton Head Concours d’Elegance in South Carolina, first in class at the 2012 Classic Car Club of America Concours and People’s Choice at the 2012 BMW Car Club of America show in Seattle.

For anyone who owns an old car, however, all of that pales against an entry to Pebble Beach, which this BMW was granted in 2013. Only the best of the best are allowed onto the Pebble Beach lawn, and selection to such an august field is a huge honor.

“We decided to enter the BMW for consideration after we had entered several events and received very positive results,” Norman recalls. “I had grown confident that our car would win everything. I was way overconfident!”

Lovely as it is, the 327 didn’t win any prizes at Pebble—Best In Show went to the 1934 Packard 1108 Twelve Dietrich Convertible Victoria owned by Joseph and Margie Cassini III of West Orange, New Jersey—but that hardly matters. Just making the field at Pebble Beach is a big deal in the vintage car world, and it’s a testament to the quality of the car and the restoration that Norman’s 327 made the grade.

And he’s not done trying. Steve and Anne Norman will continue to show it on occasion, and they might return it to long-distance touring duty, maybe even a rally or two. It’s certainly proven to be a reliable automobile with ample performance. Luggage space is limited to the rear seats and a small compartment behind, but it does have a spare tire that occupies the entire body rear section, accessible under the BMW roundel. This 327 also has the requisite spare spark plugs and hand tools readily available under the front hood, and then there is a pedal-operated, one-shot chassis lubricator to keep things running smoothly.

“It really is a practical and fast touring BMW wrapped up in an attractive package,” Norman says. “You can cruise at 70 mph on the freeway or amble along at 2,000 rpm in town without issue. It has an oil radiator up front, and most of the weight is low in the car, so it handles great and the motor never gets hot.”

Norman’s assessment backs up my own experience with this BMW. Its mechanicals inspire confidence, its interior is sumptuously comfortable and its sophisticated exterior is sleek. Some may think it antiquated, but this vintage two-tone 327 remains one of the most elegant BMWs on the road. Roundel editor Satch Carlson dubbed this “The Tuxedo Car,” and that’s an apropos nickname. It’s the one to wear when you want to travel fast and arrive in classic style.

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