There's a satisfying lightness to this classic that's rarely found in today's cars, says Sean O'Grady

One of the nicest things about the BMW 2002, a car that went out of production three decades ago, is that you can see out of the back of it. You see, many years ago, before everyone got paranoid about car safety, manufacturers wanted to make their cars light and airy. That was usually bad for durability, because thing cheap sheet metal tended to corrode too easily. It was, however, usually good for driveability, because less bulk made for a more responsive car that was easier on fuel.

In the 1960s the fashion was also for slim, almost delicate roof and windscreen pillars. That was good for safety as well. Why, well, while those big, thick chunks of metal on the rear three-quarters of a modern car will do their bit to stop you being too badly injured in a crash, they don't do much to prevent you getting in one in the first place, because you can't actually see out of the rear windows when you flick your head back to change lane on a motorway, for example.

So it was quite a revelation for me to look over my shoulder on the M1 and instead of seeing a big lump of grey plastic where a window should be I could see clearly anything behind me, even a motorbike.

This lightness of line perfectly complements the rest of the BMW's looks. Sharp, without being to aggressive, but definitely purposeful. Shark-like, definitely. I must say the looks never really worked for me, but now, having not seen, let alone driven one for a very long time, they are refreshingly characterful, and classy.

The image is also subtly different from that enjoyed by a contemporary BMW. The BMW 2002 was the car you had in the late 1960s or early 1970s because you knew about cars and you weren't afraid of being just a little bit different. Now the 2002's spiritual successor, the BMW 3-series, outsells the Ford Mondeo and is rightly thought of as the default car for those with money but little interest in or even liking for cars, and it is common as muck. Its drivers are also thought of as - well, you can fill in the rest for yourself.

The Classic Car Club, a timeshare arrangement for fans of old cars, lent me its 2002, one of its latest acquisitions, for the purposes of this article. It was an honest old thing, with everything original and where it should be and, unlike so many 2002s, a relatively unmolested example.

This BMW is quite a favourite of tuners and tinkerers, especially in its fuel-injected persona. The 2002 Automatic made do with carburation instead, and was none the worse for it. It was perfectly well able to keep up with the modern stuff on the motorway, quite a tribute to its engineering.

Indeed, it pulled very well - a pointed reminder that, while cars have undoubtedly become more powerful over the years, they have become much heavier as well. I know that I wrote last week about the Ford Capri and how it proved that manufacturers have come a very long way in 20 years; this 30-year-old BMW reminds you that there are one of two auto-engineering principles - such as maximising the power-to-weight ratio and visibility from the driving seat - that have been all too conveniently forgotten since that time.

It's also fascinating to sit in the car - one of them at any rate, that rescued BMW as a going concern and launched it into its present state of preeminence.

Before the modern "new class" models of 1961, BMW was, believe it or not, reduced to making an odd mix of bubble cars, big old-fashioned saloons and the odd pretty roadster. Then things changed, and the company, guided then as now by the substantial shareholding enjoyed by the Quandt family, decided to get real. It devoted itself to designing and manufacturing quality sporting saloons and coupés. It's what almost every maker aspires to today, and indeed most succeed in that aim. But it was BMW that really moved in on the concept and the market that went with it with the determination of a hungry shark after its prey.

At that time the closest comparisons were with the Italian makes of Alfa Romeo and Lancia and the British Triumphs and Rovers. While those marques have their devotees and you can happily argue the toss about whether a Dolomite Sprint was a better car than a 2002 or an Alfa Giulia, the brutal truth is that BMW is still proudly independent and highly profitable while its rivals are not. The Bavarians, sorry to say, got it all dead right.

When you hop into a 2002 you can see why. The '02 models followed the New Class series in 1966, and with the succession sorted out, BMW has pretty much just stuck to its knitting ever since then. Today's BMWs stick true to the original formula of front engines and rear-wheel drive, even on the "small" 1-series (which dwarfs the 2002), and the famous styling cues such as the twin kidney radiator grille and the kink in the rear window frame make any BMW saloon instantly recognisable as such.

There are few if any other makers - Mercedes included - which can claim such consistency of principle.

Similarly, the interior of a BMW should be classy and simple. So it is on the '02. The dash is laid out simply and thoughtfully, with a certain amount of ergonomic consideration. It's all very clear, too. The instruments are logically laid out and the instruments easily legible.

The four-spoke padded steering wheel with little buttons for the horn looks fairly modern. The plastics are what we now come to expect, and don't feel that bad by modern standards. Besides, Bakelite, or whatever close relative you find on the 2002's controls, actually feels pleasant , and is light and solid.

Yes the seat was a little tired, the automatic gearbox a bit sticky and the steering strangely weighted, but you pretty much forgive those things when you see just how spirited this old timer can be. Four cylinders and two litres could be more than sufficient in such a machine.

So the BMW won me over. It is a lovely car, once you get used to the worm and roller steering, which feels as if there is too much play in the system (or maybe there was just too much play...).

I know that the odd CSL is made with extra-light materials and that BMW is as devoted to high performance as it ever was. But I just wonder whether one day it might consider making something as bright and breezy as its 2002.

Search for used cars