BMW 328

The BMW 328 was a wonder of its age - fabulous to look at, and with performance to shame its bulkier rivals. Brian Sewell reports
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Few cars of the 1930s were wholly unencumbered by the horseless carriage antecedence of the industry. Size was as much a requisite as ever, if impressions of wealth, power and good taste were to be made. Size played its part, too, in performance - for if a two-ton chunk of sybaritic grandeur were to move at the pace implied by its appearance, under the bonnet had to be a multi-cylinder engine of five, six or seven litres.

Few cars of the 1930s were wholly unencumbered by the horseless carriage antecedence of the industry. Size was as much a requisite as ever, if impressions of wealth, power and good taste were to be made. Size played its part, too, in performance - for if a two-ton chunk of sybaritic grandeur were to move at the pace implied by its appearance, under the bonnet had to be a multi-cylinder engine of five, six or seven litres.

These monsters may have had superchargers and a multiplicity of carburettors to increase their power by a mite, but nothing, most engineers believed, could be as effective as another half-litre in the cubic capacity of every cylinder.

A few manufacturers bucked that trend and two were German - Volkswagen, whose Beetle did not go into proper production until after the Second World War, and BMW, whose "3'' series would have been a more than effective rival for any Riley or Rover of the 1950s. Both VW and BMW were new in the 1930s, and as neither was obliged to a past that might influence how its cars should look and perform, both started with clean sheets on which to draw designs.

The very first BMW of October 1928 was an Austin Seven made under license until March 1932, when BMW cancelled the agreement having decided to move upmarket. Within a year the company had developed and was manufacturing a neat little six-cylinder car of only 1,173cc - the Type 303.

The chassis was of tubular steel, the front suspension was independent (then rare), and the brakes were hydraulic. With these features it set the pattern for all other cars in the "3'' series, and was the first to use the double-kidney radiator cowl that still survives on current BMWs. With a variety of upright but by no means sporting bodies it was able to exceed 60 mph - much the same as the VW Beetle of similar capacity two decades later.

In 1934 the 303 engine was bored out to 1,490cc and dubbed the 315. In standard tune it developed 34bhp, but with three carburettors it gave 40bhp. Capable of 75mph, the 315 brought high-performance thrills to many young men who could not afforded a sporting Mercedes, and was brilliantly successful on the Nurburgring and in Alpine Rallies.

The 315 was swiftly followed by the 1,911cc 319, and, in 1937, with the cylinders bored out by just 1mm, the 1,971cc 320.

In standard form it produced 50bhp and a top speed of over 70mph, even when hauling a full four-door family saloon. But in 328 trim it had hemispherical combustion chambers, twin overhead cams, triple carburettors and produced 80bhp. In this version, the open two-seater designed by BMW could easily reach 90mph but the 328 was often tuned to give more power - one circled Brooklands for an hour and covered 102 miles, and some, with engines still further modified, reached speeds just short of 120 mph. Such performance would have been extraordinary for engines of over twice the size later in the 1930s.

That is the point about the 328 - BMW recognised that a car did not have to be large and powerful to win a race or cross a continent.

Pitched against the Mercedes, Delahaye or Bugatti of its day, this minnow among leviathans would not have been shamed by its performance. And were you to have parked this factory-made sprinter among the coach-built fantasies that lent the greater marques such magic, it would be the small car that would catch and hold the eye.

It depends on simplicity for its effect. The 328 has a sloping snout, the headlamps fared between it and the wings, a curvaceous Art Deco leading edge beneath all three not concealed by any bumper. Its lines lead to cut-away doors for drivers who like to have their elbows in the wind, and then to a humped boot above rear wings with spats that are easily removed for competition. The screen is in V-form, the glass flat and rimless. Indeed, BMW's current two- seaters seem still to echo the 328.

There were echoes, too, in the post-War Bristol, a car around 30 per cent heavier than the 328 that used the same engine in triple carburettor form, increasing its weight by five cwt. Even when the Bristol's co-designer, Frits Fiedler (who was drafted into the company as part of War reparations) bored it out to 2.2-litres, its then 125bhp was not enough.

But it was not only the engine that made the 328 so remarkable; its streamlined body helped when most of its rivals thought wind resistance meant clenching the sphincter, and underneath that body the tubular-steel chassis contributed to an unmatched power-to-weight ratio that gave the car its outstanding qualities of ride and handling.

Only 462 standard 328 two-seaters were made between 1937 and 1939. No accurate count of survivors is known, but the car is now very rare. The engine, however, is to be found in some 327 and 329 chassis, with either a factory-built four-door saloon (also marketed as a Fraser-Nash BMW) or a cabriolet. The handsome coach-built bodies concurrently fitted by Autonrieth and others on the 326 and 327 chassis (some 1971 ccs engine block, but only 50 bhp) were rare on the 328 and none may survive.

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