The pre-war BMW 328: a visionary roadster

Published on Friday, July 27, 2018.
Updated on Friday, October 18, 2019.
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The BMW 328 could have been born in the 50s and it would not have shocked anybody, the car was so far ahead of its time. Moreover, some owners continued in the early 1950s to race their 328s, proof of the revolutionary qualities of this exceptional car, not for any innovative automotive technology, but for the way it was designed and what made it competitive. The BMW 328 left its mark on the automotive world, despite its limited production run due to the start of the war.

In the 30s, BMW was still a young car manufacturer. The diversification away from aircraft engine and motorcycle manufacturing to include automobiles had only begun in 1928 after the purchase of the Dixi factories in Einsenach. It is often forgotten but BMW’s first steps on 4 wheels came with the development of an improved version of the Austin Seven, produced under license by Dixi. Cautiously advancing with baby steps, BMW adopted from the beginning a policy consisting of improving the existing rather than seeking the technical revolution in each model. The first all newly designed BMW, the 303, did not appear on the market until 1933.

It was precisely this policy that allowed the presentation of the exceptional 328 in 1936, only 3 years after the 303. This new car took the best of what this young manufacturer had to give. The tubular chassis, although modified by engineer Fritz Fiedler, came from the BMW 319/1, as did the front transverse leaf spring suspension in combination with single lower wishbones and the live rear axle, sprung with two longitudinal torsion bars. The hydraulic braking system came from the 326, just like the basic design of the in-line 6-cylindre 2 litre engine.

This 6-cylindre received a new cylinder head designed by Rudolf Schleicher, equipped with hemispherical combustion chambers and inclined opposing valves, much evolved compared to the 326, developing 80 hp, quite respectable for a 2-litre engine at the time.

The Coupé by Touring (top) and the « Kamm » (bottom, actually a replica from 2010), the only two closed-body 328

But the real revolution of the roadster 328 was its design: while at the time it was often considered that to hold the road, a car needed to be “heavy » and to have a big engine, BMW decided to do otherwise, privileging balance, power to weight ratio, and aerodynamics. In a way, the Bavarian brand anticipated Colin Chapman’s saying, ‘light is right’. With the 328 roadster, BMW offered a light (only 780 kg), well-powered car with ideal weight distribution and a particularly refined aerodynamic body, the key to exemplary roadholding and first-class performance, with a top speed of 155 km/h.

Aware of the car’s potential, and hoping to strike a blow, BMW presented the 328 at Nurburgring on June 14, 1936, in a special racing version without doors, an all aluminium body and an engine that developed 136 hp. The three ‘prototypes’ set records and won victories in their very first races even before the production of the standard model began. The first 328 series came off the assembly line in Eisenach at the end of the summer of 1936, benefiting from the experience gained from the three racing prototypes.

The tiny development team that worked in secrecy on the 328 probably never imaged how forcefully the 328 would hit and for how long. Despite its limited production (only 464 units) because of the mobilisation of BMW factories for the production of military equipment during the war, the 328 inspired many of the first post-war sportscars and permanently establish the reputation of BMW.

Aware of the aerodynamic limits of a roadster, and to definitively establish the car’s dominance in the 2 litre racing category, in 1938 the engineers at BMW thought to build a coupe version. In 1939, they applied to the Touring bodywork for the development of such a model. Another version developed internally by Wunibald Kamm was presented in 1940, capable of reaching a top speed of 230 km/h. The war however put an end to all development. The coupé « Kamm » model other than the prototype was never pursued.

After the end of the war in 1945, BMW was unable to revive production of the model. The factory in Einsenach lied in the hands of the Soviet occupants, in the area that would become the GDR. This ‘eastern’ factory continued to produce BMWs, without any agreement with BMW, but not the famous 328. An arrangement would eventually be found in 1952, at which time the Einsenach factory took on the name of ‘EMW’ while the logo, still very similar, turned red, no longer blue. In 1955, the soviet company changed its name to AWE, laying the foundation for the Wartburg brand..

In the west, BMW had to wait until 1951 before resuming production in its factories, starting with the 501. Despite the exceptional quality of the 328, the manufacturer preferred to start over from scratch, or almost: the 501 offered a brand new chassis, but used the in-line 6 cylindre, 2 litre engine of the 328, in the form of a sedan. Meanwhile, gentleman drivers continued to shine on the racetrack in 328s, evidence of the model’s ingenious design, exceptional balance and continued competitiveness. BMW had shown that the true ability of an automobile was not limited to pure power and that winning performance was obtained by an equilibrium of power and balance! A powerful engine, a modern transmission and a high performance chassis – all in a light weight package – made it possible to obtain the winning combo: a method that manufacturers would seek to develop in the 1950s.

Today, there are only about 200 examples of the BMW 328 still on the road. Its design and its successful racing history make it particularly sought-after by collectors, that is by those ready to invest the crazy money required to own a car so mythical to so many.

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