Appearances can be a terrible thing. Often you can be blinded by them, your rational emotions momentarily grinding to a halt, judgements and conclusions get concocted on the basis of how something looks rather than how it performs. The reason I say this is because the
2002 Turbo sitting in front of me is one of the best-looking cars I’ve ever seen.
I’m starting to wonder whether I’ve already made up my mind about this car - I don’t even have to turn the key to know that I really like it. There is something so right about the styling that words don’t do it justice.
Lairy side stripes, back-to-front writing on a flat front spoiler, bolt-on wheel arches, a black rubber spoiler - it doesn’t sound that great. But if you are lucky enough to stand next to one in the July sunshine – there are no more than a dozen in the UK – you realise it is a car that stands out like few others.
The 2002 Turbo is a trouble-maker, its history littered with controversy and outrage, and partly because of this just 1672 were ever made. Firstly BMW thought it wise to for its press cars to have ‘2002’ and ‘turbo’ written in reverse script on the front spoiler so that the car in front would know exactly what had suddenly appeared behind.
But journalists had a field day with this, saying the German firm was irresponsible and ultimately this forced it to drop the script. It didn’t mean the dealers couldn’t sell the decals to Turbo buyers, so most ended up with it anyway.
Then BMW found out the hard way that selling Europe’s first turbocharged production car in an era affectionately known as the ‘seventies oil crisis’ was a hiding to nothing. After just two years of production the last ’02 Turbo rolled off the production line.
But this untimely demise made the car a cult: an ultra-rare, ultra-fast predecessor to the 3 Series – calling it the first M3 perhaps wouldn’t be that wide of the mark. BMW had showcased its early attempt at turbocharging in the gull-wing M10 concept, which never made it to production.
After this it set to work on the 130bhp ’02 Tii, bolting on a KKK
with 0.55 overpressure that was sufficient to add another 40bhp. Bigger brakes were added behind wider 13” wheels, which lurked behind those screwed on arches, and a Limited Slip Differential was thrown in for good measure.
Now check out the performance figures: 0-60mph in 6.9 seconds and 130mph, in a small saloon, in the early seventies. No wonder the car scared the general public. But it wasn’t just the fun police who were being unsettled by this creation – those who drove it were getting a dose of the heebie-jeebies too.
So savage was the turbo lag that a millimetre of pedal travel could mean the difference between exiting a roundabout forwards or backwards. Suffice to say that there aren’t many ’02 Turbos left – around 500 would be a reasonable estimate.
All this is helping me to appreciate number 0386, that is sitting in London’s Canary Wharf today, from the outside rather than from behind the wheel. It looks great. Just ask any one of the passers by who refuse it a moment’s peace. ‘I’ve never seen one of those before,’ says one. ‘That is a proper BMW,’ says another. Even those who clearly have never looked at a car before in their life stand and stare at it.
This particular car has been loaned to me by Richard Stern, a nice chap who runs www.bmw2002.co.uk, and he understandably lives and breathes this car. No pressure then. Incidentally Stern also owns the very last Turbo – number 1672 – which he is restoring. We chat for a while and fend off questions from intrigued city folk circulating the car, before he chucks me the keys.
It’s a rare dog-leg first gear-box, the one to have for a turbo apparently, and this particular car came from Italy. The wheels are sought after Italian-market Gotti magnesium items, the buckets are tight but supportive - everything is original. I try to put to one side the car’s fearsome reputation and pull away (in second according to Stern).
The ride is nowhere near as harsh as I thought it would be, it feels taught but at the same time the car resists crashing through bumps and potholes. The steering feels light at low speeds and the gearbox takes a bit of nurturing to find the right ratio.
There is a boost gauge sitting on top of the dashboard but around town there is little indication of the turbine spinning up. But as I pull out on to a short stretch of road away from the city I could have sworn someone has just hit me up the back, in an SUV. The turbo comes in like a sledgehammer and the thump comes accompanied by possibly the loudest whoosh and hiss I’ve heard this side of a Fast and Furious DVD.
The car surges forward, piling on speed at such an increased rate that my brain struggles to work out what has just happened. By the time it does I’m heading into a roundabout - fast. The best advise at these moments is to make sure the car is on or off-boost, not teetering somewhere in between, and if you get this right you’d be surprised at how composed it feels.
After a while I realise the '02 Turbo is perhaps not the lunatic that I thought it would be. If you come into a bend sanely the first thing that will happen is the steering will weight-up considerably, immediately giving you a true sense of what is happening at the front.
The rear of the car squats down and you have that classic BMW chassis balance – the car doesn’t have loads of grip from its original-style tyres but it is neutral, letting you know what is going on at each corner.
I don’t want to underestimate the power of a lightweight turbocharged rear-drive BMW but there is a lot of fun to be had without having a seizure as you tank-slap into oblivion. You get some tyre squeal as the car scrabbles with the power but there is such intimacy through the controls that you can, in the dry at least, push the limits.
Ultimately what the car gives you is a tremendous sense of satisfaction and achievement, rewarding you when you get it right and letting you know in its own special way when you don’t. I didn’t realise that it would be quite so fast and so much fun. It is hard to get your head around the fact that this is a 35-year-old car – it is comfortable, fun to drive and quick even by today’s standards. I’m just glad that beauty isn’t always just skin deep.