Subtle upgrades make this BMW 1600 sing

Photography by Zachary Mayne

John Lorio admits to being a Datsun fan through and through. “I’m usually restoring Datsuns,” he quips.

He ain’t kidding, either. Parked next to this 1968 BMW 1600 is the bare frame of a 1969 Datsun 2000 roadster. He’s painstakingly reassembling and installing newly restored suspension and brake components on it in his New Mexico garage.

Once the car is restored, the open-top Datsun will join another roadster in Lorio’s fleet–a 1968 1600–as well as a 1967 411 SSS sedan and a 1965 410 coupe. Those last two are particularly rare and eclectic examples of the Datsun breed. The two brands may seem quite different, but Lorio finds a lot of parallels between his vintage machines of the same era.

[Roughing it in the rare Datsun 411 SSS]

I think there’s a kindred spirit in 1960s Datsuns and BMWs,” he explains. “My 410 and 411 were designed by Pininfarina, so there’s even a styling link. They look very European.”

He also points out that Mr. K. of Datsun fame derived plenty of inspiration from the BMW 1600 when he was envisioning the 411 SSS and later 510s.

The cars didn’t only compete in the showrooms. In the early ’70s, Datsun, BMW and their Italian rival, Alfa Romeo, went head to head in the SCCA’s popular and entertaining 2.5 Challenge.

An Early Impression

Why the 1600? “I’ve always wanted one of these BMWs,” Lorio replies. “The first time I saw one was when I was in elementary school and my friend’s aunt drove up in a beige one. This was in the late ’60s in Louisiana, where almost everyone drove Ramblers.”

His friend’s family owned a used car dealership, and his relatives were always driving some type of exotic or rare automobile. The young and impressionable Lorio was fascinated by the relatively unadorned, Teutonic compact car and immediately began firing off questions about it.

His friend’s aunt explained that it was a German car, more specifically a BMW. Later, while in junior high, Lorio experienced BMW ownership on a much smaller scale when he carefully assembled a Revell model of one.

Bavarian Dream

Although the 2002 gets the lion’s share of credit when it comes to establishing the BMW brand in the hearts and minds of American enthusiasts, that run really began with the 1600–similar looks but less power. Car and Driver raved that the spunky little 1600 was the “best $2500 sedan Car and Driver ever tested.” In reality, prices were closer to $3500 at the time, but that was still a heck of a lot of car for the money.

The 1600 and later 2002 were smaller offerings from the brand’s Neue Klasse series of cars that saved the BMW car company from financial ruin. Thanks to its sturdy M10 four-cylinder engine bolted into a state-of-the-art chassis fitted with independent suspension and front disc brakes, the 1600 formed a smaller but still very formidable sports coupe.

Around 2015, Lorio finally decided that it was time to park one of those boxy marvels in his garage. An inveterate tinkerer, he knew he didn’t want to just buy an example that was ready to go. He wanted to restore one–to actually get his hands on, in and around it.

Lorio began inquiring at the local Saturday morning cars-and-coffee gatherings: Did anyone know of a 1600 or even a 2002 for sale locally? He was open to either model, but it had to be an early example, one with the round taillights and chrome bumpers.

He eventually turned up a solid lead that brought him to a 1968 1600–early enough to have the desired bumpers and taillights. “It was extremely clean underneath, and almost rust-free,” he recounts. The fact that it was a rarer and more unusual 1600 rather than a 2002 only added to its appeal.

“The 1600s were more basic than the 2002–only one horn rather than twin horns, and servo brakes rather than power brakes,” he explains. “Radios were dealer-installed options–usually a Blaupunkt but sometimes a Telefunken–so the car was very basic, which made it a rather hard sell in 1968.” In many ways, the stripped-down 1600 had a lot in common with the basic sedans and coupes on offer at the time from Datsun. It was a natural ˚ t with Lorio’s automotive sensibilities.

“The fellow I bought it from had totally restored the suspension, and the underbody was pristine,” Lorio continues. “It was a good, solid, running car when I bought it.”

Of course, “good,” “solid” and “running” merely described a suitable starting point for what Lorio had in mind. Three years later, the old 1600 looks as good as new, a convincing time machine that transports him to an era when the Apollo mission circled the moon and “Hey Jude” was the number-one song.

And at the time, far from the global domination that it now enjoys, Bavarian Motor Works was just a small, somewhat eccentric car maker located halfway around the world from the United States.

Down to Bare Metal

Aesthetically, the 1600 in its current state resembles how it looked when it left the factory, meaning that Lorio retained the original Chamonix White paint and Marine Blue interior color scheme. But mechanically, performance is upgraded. “I wanted to build a fun car that looked very stock on the outside,” Lorio explains.

First, though, he had to finish the bodywork. For this part of the project he enlisted Manny Cordova, owner of Southwest Collision Craftsmen in Albuquerque. While the shop isn’t necessarily a restoration-focused operation–it mainly handles insurance work–Lorio trusted his choice in large part because Cordova owns a 2002 as well and is a longtime BMW paint and body specialist.

“They completely disassembled the car, removed the glass, doors and trunk lid and all of the interior,” Lorio adds. Then the body was stripped to bare metal so any rusted areas could be ferreted out.

“As far as I know, it was always an Albuquerque car, which accounts for its dry body,” he says. Luckily the rust was limited to a small bit ahead of the driver-side rear wheel and another spot on the right rocker panel. “At some point it was hit on the right-front, so we replaced the right-front frame rail,” adds Lorio. The body was then primed and thoroughly block-sanded before its repaint.

Then reassembly could begin. “Parts support for these cars is fantastic,” he says, “especially compared to Datsun. I was able to buy door glass and door cards direct from the dealer, for instance.”

With safety in mind, the original seats were replaced with later 2002 units–which incorporate headrests–and paired with retracting seat belts. The front and rear seats were redone with fresh blue vinyl over the correct horsehair-padded cushions and installed on new blue carpeting with the correct “salt and pepper” look. Finishing off the interior, Just Dashes restored and recovered the dashboard.

Prepare for Takeoff

Where more than a few restorations run into issues involving bodywork, this one was held up due to mechanical problems. The original plan was simple: Swap out the original 1600cc engine for a 2.0-liter M10 sourced from a 2002.

“I had purchased a bargain engine, transmission and carbs off the internet thinking I had a good, rebuilt engine,” Lorio recalls. After 500 miles, the engine died due to a shattered exhaust rocker arm. Removing the head raised some questions about the engine’s overall health, so he decided to start fresh. “My bargain engine turned out to be anything but,” he recalls. “The issues added about eight to 10 months to the build.”

Lorio enlisted Matt Rose of Ronin BMW in Fullerton, California, to tackle the next engine. “He did a fantastic job of building a new short block and reusing what we could from the first engine,” adds Lorio. Rose started with a fresh 2.0-liter bottom end. The stock crank, pistons and rods were left as is, but an Ireland Engineering 292-degree cam provides a more engaging powerband.

The head was rebuilt to stock specs, although racing valve lockers from Ireland Engineering were installed for additional durability. Dual 40 DCOE Weber carbs now feed fresh air through a custom-fabricated air cleaner. “I also installed a 123 Ignition, which allows you to program the advance curve from an iPhone,” Lorio adds, since the Webers lack the port necessary for the distributor’s vacuum advance.

A three-core radiator and electric fan conversion were installed as well. “These cars tended to overheat with stock radiators, and I didn’t want to have any issues,” he says. “The car runs cool, and the electric fan arrangement works great.”

More subtle modifications: Originally the 1600 came with a four-speed box, but in the interest of making the car more usable, Lorio opted for a Getrag 245 five-speed–“which is such a common swap the factory service manual tells you how to do it,” he says. “We also had to install a new pedal box with a hydraulic clutch to work with this transmission.” The swap also involved the use of a custom Top End Performance rear transmission mount. “The shortened driveshaft came from Ireland Engineering and meets up with a shorter limited-slip differential with new CV boots.”

Lorio notes that the five-speed conversion transforms the driving experience. “It gives the car very long legs,” he says. “I run about 2500 rpm at 70 mph on the interstate, and the car just wants to take off and go. Usually in town I use fourth as the top gear.”

Lorio finished the project in the middle of 2018, just in time to put it on a trailer and take it out to Monterey for the summer festivities. “I attended Legends of the Autobahn with the BMW CCA on Friday,” he recalls, “but Saturday was my favorite event: historic racing at Laguna Seca. As I was pulling into the parking lot, I was flagged over.” The BMW CCA wanted the pristinely restored 1600 front and center inside the display area of the hospitality tent. “I was beaming to be included with the cars in the display area.”

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wspohn SuperDork
4/28/20 1:12 p.m.

The one everyone always forgets is the BMW 1800, which a friend successfully slalomed in the early 1970s. My next door neighbours also owned a Karmann bodied 2000 CS, which was a rather decent looking car.

These early BMWs have become quite collectable today.

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
4/29/20 1:25 p.m.

In reply to wspohn :

Very true about the 1800.

3/6/21 6:44 p.m.

By 1968 I was getting pretty tired of my first car, a 1963 VW bug with 40 hp. I loved the BMW 1800, but they were pretty rare and expensive. Then the 2002 and 1600 were introduced. I subscribed to Car & Driver at the time, and read that road test. 2002s were popular, and selling for just about list price, well beyond my college-student means. But the 1600 was seen by customers as the stripper version--at least in the snobby NYC suburbs of Long Island--and dealers were discounting them to about $2100. Problem was, in order to buy one I had to get my father father to co-sign for a loan or lend me a good chunk of the money, and he wouldn't do either.

I ended up with a used cherry-red 1966 Buick Gran Sport convertible with a "Wildcat 445 nailhead and four-speed. Nobody knew what that was, so the dealer was having trouble moving it. That Buick was scary-fast in a staight line, great at burning rubber, but couldn't turn or stop. Just not the same. . . .

peter890 New Reader
3/9/21 8:41 p.m.

nice car - but I am in two minds about the 'subtle' engine mods - subtle they are not. I also wonder if the tyre (tire) size and rims are right for this car - I could be wrong as my 1971 1602  with round tail lights (bought new, collected from Munich, still own it)  was built for Australian design requirements. Might also explain why my car never over heats even during the Aussie summer (except twice during the past 50 years when the water pump failed) - perhaps it was fitted with a larger radiator ? I played with some mods (primarily suspension as I hated the inside tyre spinning in corners when driven hard) but over the past 3 years its been semi-restored back to full original spec.


agree with wspohn re the 2000 CS - in my case I had the follow-on (3.0 CS) and I bitterly regret selling it 40 years ago !

7aull New Reader
5/20/21 7:11 p.m.

Great story about a very neat little coupe. Kudos to owner Lorio's vision for the car and the Love he has laid over it. Heck, I want a story about his DATSUNS too!! I owned (and sold, with Life-long regret) a 70 Mazda R100 coupe, the first rotary "peoples" car from Mazda, with a similar legacy: unknown but leading the way for generations of rotary sports cars. I satisfied my longing for it with a 1980 RX7 which I own to this day, with great pleasure.

Thanks for sharing, John!

Stu A

Sedona, AZ


3/22/22 10:07 a.m.

Beautiful car.  I had a black 1968 1600 that I bought for $125 in 1979.  It was super rusted and beyond restoration as I lived in Michigan at the time and the salt ate the car.  It did however run great and I did a lot of upgrade work to make it a fun driver.  The cars came with a 410 rear end so it was actually faster then the 1970 2002 I acquired a few years later.  It also averaged 30 mpg which for a college student was a great bonus.  I always wished for a body that could have been restored.  

One concern I always had on these cars (and the 2002's) was the fuel tank-  it was the exact same design as the Ford Pinto hatchback.  They were dropped into the bottom of the trunk and formed part of the trunk floor pan.  Any minor rear impact would cause the rest of the trunk floor pan to split the tank open like a grape being cut with scissors.  Has anyone found an upgrade to this very dangerous design?  

Thanks for sharing such a beautiful restoration.  


Dallas, TX

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