What links Jim Morrison, a three legged dog, and a 2002 turbo?
It is late summer, 2009. I’ve been the proud owner of Munich Legends for a matter of weeks, and as part of my world-conquering marketing strategy, I’d booked us into the Maresfield Village Fair. I’d never been, so I didn’t know what to expect, but I suppose I’d imagined there would be more than two elderly ladies and a three-legged dog. At least having no great expectations, it meant that by the time the heavens opened we were more relieved than disappointed at having to pack up early and head back to the showroom. I made the mistake of looking at the 2002 turbo we’d bought with us and remarking that I’d never driven one. Someone threw me the keys. ‘Fill your boots’ they smirked, as I slid into the driver’s seat, just as three of my colleagues jumped in with me. So, off we go, four up, in the pouring rain. ‘You might want to go easy, they’re a bit wild’ suggested Stuart – ‘and don’t forget it’s a dogleg’. Nobody wants to look a total wuss in these situations, but driving an ’02 turbo, left hand drive, dogleg box, massive turbo lag and starting pistol boost, in the pouring rain, four up – well, let’s just say things were pretty tight in the seating area. Nonetheless, I got busy, and right there began my ongoing love affair with ’02 turbos.
I’m going to throw you into a wave of regretful nostalgia by ending that first chapter by telling you that we ended up selling that particular car – which had been nut and bolt restored by the way – for less than twenty grand. Yes, I know, I should have. My wife reminds me often. But over the years I’ve watched them become rarer, more expensive, and to my eyes even more lovely.
2002 turbos come from a very special place. Back in the day, BMW had only just set up the Motorsport division, and the ‘02 turbo was basically the first M car, just without the famous letter. As a statement of intent, it was fabulously showy – that reverse ‘obrut’ decal on the front spoiler designed purely to intimidate the car in front into moving aside, the flashy tri-colour stripes and, of course, that magic badge – turbo. Remember, this is nearly a decade away from Renault’s brilliant 5 turbo, way before it became every boy’s dream five letters. And well before it became something that just made a diesel engine palatable. The ‘02 was in fact Europe’s first production turbo-powered car, and what an impact it made. Production was limited to 1672 – they say due to the oil crisis, but that’s probably a smoke screen for the fact that very few people understood what it was, what it meant or what on earth BMW thought they were doing with the price tag.
But for the few drivers that knew, the ‘02 turbo was a game changer. Early turbos always feel faster than they are. Your brain ignores the lag, which in fact can be up to ten minutes, instead focussing on the dopamine rush-like feel of the turbo catapulting you towards the horizon, the boost gauge, with its simplistic whoosh symbol flicking upwards just out of the corner of your eye. It is immediately addictive, and I dare anyone to drive an ‘02 turbo up the mile straight outside Munich Legends and not burst out laughing at the sheer lunacy of the thing.
So, today, I had the job of road testing a 2002 turbo that has just come into stock – the first one for some while. It’s a compact car, and I’m quite tall, but it feels and looks the perfect size and shape – all stocky and planted, bulging in just the right places. You know right away it’s a special thing. With the engine idling it sounds grunty and purposeful, despite having a little M10 four pot under the bonnet, and the whole experience of rolling out toward the road immediately has your stomach doing summersaults. I had a dry road ahead of me, and I’d got the engine nice and warm. Sitting there in that wonderfully simple cockpit, gripping that perfect-sized steering wheel, I remembered back to that first drive on the way back from Maresfield, and felt a little like a Spitfire pilot may have felt waiting for clearance to fly.
My current daily is an M6 Gran Coupe comp pack, with 600 smooth horses at my command, and enough wizardry, control systems and adjustable settings to put it directly in to supercar territory. But like most modern M cars, it stands accused of being simply to fast, the power pretty well unusable. And if you ever wanted to ram this point home with a sledgehammer, go drive an 02 turbo. With only 170hp, it has less power on paper than a diesel Golf. But the 02 immediately challenges you, accusing you of being a coward. Go on! It screams at you. Drive me properly! You swallow hard, change down into the corner, get it right on boost and bury the throttle. The back-end twitches, sending signals directly to your brain – you feather the loud pedal to bring back the grip and back on the power you go, haring up the straight, whistling up through the gears, each change bringing on that intense surge of pure early turbo magic. You don’t need to look at the dials – you’re probably not going that fast anyway – and there’s nothing to adjust. The 02 turbo tells you to adjust, because the car is perfect as it is. And I remember, straight away – it all comes flooding back. I need to learn to drive this thing – I’ve become lazy, desensitised, almost arrogant.
Because here’s the thing. What we’re after, really, isn’t about speed for speed’s sake, is it? What really gives us the rush is the type of telepathy that links all that mechanical alchemy to our hands, feet, brain and heart. The feel of a car performing perfectly, right up there on the edge. Pushing that boundary to the limit, but keeping control. That’s you, harnessing all that brutal energy into something akin to a dance, just a very high energy sort of dance. Think punk rock – think mosh pit. Modern cars are wonders of science, and the M6 GC certainly qualifies, but you’ve got to push it so hard to be in that sweet spot – out there on the perimeter, as Jim Morrison said – that you’d have to have a death wish. The 2002 turbo isn’t as fluid or predictable as an E30 M3, but it is raw, it is challenging, and my god it is rewarding. You can have more laughs at 65 mph on a country lane in the turbo than you can in an M6 at flat chat, because in the latter you simply run out of road – and quite possibly talent.
So, if you’re looking for a way to reconnect to the true spirit of sporty driving, and want something pretty, rare, and downright dirty, they don’t come better than a 2002 turbo. Its just a shame you weren’t at the Maresfield Village Fair, back in ’09. Unless that was your three-legged dog?
Dan Norris, Straight Six Magazine by BMW Car Club GB (February 2023 issue)