BMW 2002: What to know before you buy

Photograph Courtesy BMW

[Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the November 2014 issue of Classic Motorsports.]

BMW’s 2002 was originally advertised as “the giant-killer” because it could best its larger rivals. That truth stands today, and the 2002 is our first choice for a classic sports car that can truly be driven every day. Besides being practical commuters, they’re well built, easy to restore, welcome at almost any show, and fairly safe, too. 

The 2002 began life as the BMW 1600-2, which debuted at the Geneva Auto Show in 1966. The 1600-2 sported an 85-horsepower, 1573cc engine called the M10. Journalists loved it, but BMW employees didn’t. 

As the legend goes, two separate workers at BMW had 2-liter engines installed in their personal cars. They asked BMW to make a production version, and in 1968 two new models were offered: the 100-horsepower 2002, and the 120-horsepower 2002ti, which had two carburetors and higher compression. In 1969, an automatic transmission became available in addition to the four-speed manual. A close-ratio five-speed gearbox was also available, but they are exceedingly rare.

For 1972, the 2002ti was replaced by the 2002tii, which was the fastest model yet. It had a 130-horsepower, fuel-injected engine, and it’s still revered by enthusiasts everywhere. In 1973, the 2002 Turbo was launched in addition to the tii. Only 1672 were built, but they made 170 horsepower and 180 ft.-lbs. of torque.

In 1974, though, the 2002 received a few additions: New regulations caused the cars to be fitted with giant bumpers and reinforced front and rear sheet metal. The taillights were changed and enlarged, while the engines were slightly strangled by additional emissions equipment. The 2002tii was discontinued after only one year in this new form, while the tamer 2002 soldiered on until 1976 in the U.S. and 1977 in Europe. It was finally replaced by the now-iconic 3 Series.

Today, these relatively inexpensive classics are worthy daily drivers that have great aftermarket, factory and club support. You can even buy the majority of their parts from any BMW dealer.–Tom Suddard

Shopping Advice

For decades, Rennie Bryant of Redline Performance has been maintaining, upgrading and racing BMWs, including lots of 2002s. Roger Greenberg of Roger’s tii is an expert on 2002 parts and restoration. We asked them both what they look for when buying an example of this iconic sports car. Here’s what they had to say:

Like most 40-year-old cars, 2002s have one primary problem: rust, and lots of it. Expect it everywhere, and be sure to check the tops and bottoms of the doors, around the rear windows, the trunk floor, the rocker panels, and the edges of the hood and trunk lid. If there’s one deal-killer, it’s the left-front frame rail. Brake fluid tends to leak out of the master cylinder and rust this frame rail into oblivion. The front nose panel tends to be dinged, bent, rusty, poorly repaired, or all of the above, and it can no longer be purchased new.

Replacement sheet metal is available for nearly every other area and fits well, but make sure you factor its cost into your purchase decision. If you buy an unrestored 2002, we highly suggest learning how to weld.

Pay close attention to the interior of the car, as many of those pieces aren’t available anymore. Other parts of the car are going out of stock at the rate of one or two items per week, so if you know you’ll need something, it’s best to buy it early.

The 2002 was available in other body styles, including a convertible, a hatchback, a partial convertible (called a Baur cabriolet), and a turbocharged model. These are all exceedingly rare, so be prepared to pay top dollar if you find one.

These cars are easy to work on and have durable engines. Don’t be scared of taking a wrench to one yourself. Just be sure to check the transmission: The syncros have a habit of wearing prematurely. A great swap is the overdrive five-speed transmission from a later 320i, which really quiets the car on the highway.

Few 2002s have air conditioning, and original a/c parts are hard to find. Plus, the factory system didn’t work very well even when it was new. Thankfully, today’s aftermarket offers solutions.

2002s only have five-digit odometers, so odds are whatever mileage is displayed is incorrect. The odometer gears are often stripped or broken, too. The bottom line? Don’t judge an example purely by its indicated mileage. Check service records for clues that the odometer has rolled over once or twice–or even three times, like in the case of our 2002.

The small-bumper 2002tiis are the most desirable and the most expensive. There aren’t many left, so most buyers will be forced into a base-model car, a later 2002 with bigger bumpers or, most commonly, a base-model car that also has bigger bumpers. There are still deals out there on small-bumper tiis, but you’ll have to look long and hard to find one. 

Big-bumper cars are mechanically identical to their earlier counterparts, so don’t worry too much about the body style if you’re ambivalent about the looks. Odds are, a later car will have a body that’s in better condition than the average 2002–after all, those big bumpers were there for a reason. The bigger, later taillights are much brighter and safer, too. Later cars can be converted to have the early cars’ small bumpers, but the swap requires new front and rear panels.

There are a few European-market cars in the States, and they can be great bargains. They’re pretty much the same as the U.S.-market cars, just weirder. We’re fans of the later European models, as they have small bumpers and big taillights.

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shadetree30 HalfDork
9/3/22 11:18 a.m.

Sigh. Had a couple of these. Like many of us, I had little or no access to indoor storage and fought the Dreaded Tinworm.

shadetree30 HalfDork
9/3/22 11:51 a.m.

Sigh. Had a couple of these. Like many of us, I had little or no access to indoor storage and fought the Dreaded Tinworm.

bimmerbob New Reader
9/4/22 9:58 a.m.

Hey Tom, great to see informative articles on the iconic 2002! I still have mine, its a keeper. However, it points out a very minor correction to your article: my 2002 Tii is a euro (from Italy) and it is a 1971. It also has a VIN number that would indicate it was the 132nd one produced, though BMW says its records from that era are not accurate. But I do have a BMW historical origin document that identifies it as a 1971. In any case, I love to drive this car, it is light, simple and puts a smile on my face every time I drive it. Stop by Charleston sometime and take it for a drive! Thanks again, I  enjoy your magazine every month. Bob Payne (E30 M3, Tii, Z3, E93, F10GT).

WebFootSTi New Reader
2/27/23 2:11 p.m.

I have my 2002 1971 sitting in my garage.  It's a magor restoration monstor. 

Tomwas1 New Reader
11/13/23 12:01 a.m.

My friend/mechanic down the street restores and owns these icons.. He currently owns three... Has at !east four or five outside his shop that are customers or his additional cars.. Probably three e30 tourings in the mix also, one of them is his.. He swears by his 02s as the best driving cars ever...

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