#0028 - BMW 328 NSKK Roadster, 1937
Photographed: Radnor Hunt Concours d'Elegance, 2007. Owner: not recorded
More on the Greatness Saga: It's often a habit of the motoring press to jump right to superlatives. Maybe I'll complete a definitive guide to the world's truly greatest cars, with an emphasis on accomplishment and design. That list should be topped by the likes of Miller, Tatra, Lancia, and Voisin, cars that are slowly gathering notice as the speed of information hastens over the nets. As for the traditional choices—the Ferrari 250 GTO or the Talbot-Lago T-150 C SS—these will require scrutineering. Enter the BMW 328, one of the approximately 290 widely acknowledged greatest pre-War sports-racing cars of under 2 litre capacity to have been painted either white, red, or periwinkle blue.
But, to get down to it, the 328 gave some major contributions to the motoring world; these are probably of greater intrinsic value than either its basic design, (which is exceptional), or its accomplishments, (which are contestable). The 328 probably does deserve status on the greatest list, but let's be clear of why.
Porsche: The 328 was among the first—and perhaps the first on such a large stage—to show that you could design and build a small, stout sports-racing car and then develop it to compete against and beat much larger competition. This describes Porsche's early racing development in the 1950s, particularly with the 550 and 718 Spyders, small capacity cars that eventually became quick enough to worry Ferrari. Indeed, the same giant-killer approach hasn't disappeared from Porsche's repertoire, as even in the present day Le Mans series, Porsche's LMP-2 class spyders have been heady competition for Audi's dominant LMP-1 class cars, nearly nipping a 24 Heures du Mans victory from the big 5.5 Litre V-12s.
Denis Jenkinson, (famously Stirling Moss' navigator during the 1955 Mille Miglia), was well aware of this connection, having written extensively on the subject of BMW 328 cars. And he should have known, not merely being an automotive journalist, but a 328 owner and historic racing driver. As he wrote, "During the five years from 1936 to 1940 in which the 328 took part in competitions it recorded a truly impressive number of victories and performed numerous outstanding feats of speed and endurance, not only in the 2-litre category, but against all comers—rather as the modern Porsche from Germany does today." Quite true, even if he did write that bit in 1967.
Yet, in this respect, the blight on the 328's resume is that some degree of its success in challenging bigger, stronger competition came from both the flooding of racing grids with 328 cars, and the simultaneous weakening of the competition. The NSKK, Nationalsozialistischer Kraftfaher Korps, gave a tremendous amount of government funding, and just at the time when France completely withdrew from international motor racing, and at the time when Enzo Ferrari left Alfa Romeo, Germany was throwing as many different versions of the 328 as they could onto the racing grids of prestigious events. Of course, this worked out well in the Gran Premio di Brescia, where an aerodynamic 328 Coupe won the race outright, 15 minutes ahead of Nino Farina's 6C Alfa. But, that's another kettle of fish...
Easy to Race: Back to Denis Jenkinson. "One thing that always impressed was that the 328 was always raced looking very complete and 'touring' at a time when many sports cars were being 'stripped' in order to gain more speed when being raced. The 328 was undoubtedly the most complete car of its day and its performance and road-holding were much in advance of its contemporaries."
Jenkinson's comments speak volumes, particularly as you can look at the design similarities between the 328 and the contemporary Alfa Romeo 8C 2900-A, and note that the former was raced as is, while the latter, though much faster and more effective, was raced with different, dedicated coachwork, (Paris Motor Show coachwork was pulled in favor of cycle fenders and a slender body). As they appear here, both cars have an ala spessa aesthetic—integrating running gear and spares compartments into the main body—but the 328 was ready to go in this form straight from the factory. The only thing you might be prone to do is flip the split veed windscreen down and pop up a smaller Brooklands style plate of glass.
Furthermore, where Alfa Romeo dominated under the guidance of Enzo Ferrari's Scuderia Ferrari, BMW provided all of their factory racing upgrades as options available to the common buyer. Buyers of the more than 400 examples sold could outfit their 328 cars as they wished. And, as we mentioned, this open network of enthusiasts and professionals only strengthened the success of the breed on the racetrack. All the better, as, win or lose, owners always had a sumptuous roadster to drive home afterward. In this sense, the 328 is among the first worldly sports cars, much like the Porsche 911 or Datsun 240-Z—a competitive package that shunned exclusivity in favor of giving the common driver exactly what was desired.
Design: In a while, we'll have posted a piece on the contemporary Jaguar SS-100; that will adequately illustrate just how far advanced was the 328. Until that comparison materializes, let us mention the lithe 315/1 Roadster the preceded the 328, lending its basic profile and proportion to this ultimate version of the BMW pre-War racing car. Kurt Joachimson penned both designs, although his name has largely been absent from the history books until recently; as Joachimson was Jewish, the German government was not keen to promote his accomplishments.
For the mechanicals, BMW made a deliberate departure from the most advanced motor technologies, considering dual overhead cam designs a liability. Instead, they wanted durability and longevity, (which is exactly what they got). But, they also wanted to preserve the advantages of multiple valve technology. The solution was the 328's hemi-head, with a single overhead cam on the intake side and a system of horizontal connecting rods that operate rockers on the exhaust side. This cross con-rod design is odd, but works efficiently. In a standard block of 1,971cc at the start of 1936, 80 horsepower was available at 4,500 rpm. This figure guaranteed the car a top speed of 95 miles per hour thanks to its light weight.
Guaranteed 95 MPH: As Jenkinson relates, "A well known journalist of the time, S.C.H. Davis, was asked to drive the car and under official R.A.C. observation on 15th April 1937, proceeded to cover 102.226 miles in one hour round the Brooklands track. As can be imagined, this demonstration was loudly acclaimed by the sporting world, for at the time there were many supercharged cars that could barely reach 100 m.p.h. in stripped condition, and here was a fully-equipped, luxurious sports two-seater, comfortably exceeding 100 m.p.h. for a whole hour, using an unsupercharged 2-litre engine." He continues, "At the time some people were prepared to dispute this performance, saying that the car was a special factory racing model, much lighter than the production version, but not long after this a private owner with a standard model repeated this performance, putting 101 m.p.h. into one hour's running round the Brooklands track."
So the 328 wasn't the fantastic piece of racing machinery that the 8C Alfa Romeo happened to be. But, it was as fast as almost anything else, it was available, it was affordable (a great value at £695), it offered comprehensive factory support for the gentleman driver, and it looked the cousin of the Paris Motor Show Alfa Romeo. That was an incredible package.
A few intriguing features can be seen as progressive on the 328, (or just plain odd). The bonnet, for example, looks like a center-hinged job like any classic era car, but is actually hinged at the windscreen like a modern car. The bonnet is still held on by leather straps, but these at least do away with traditional buckles in favor of quick release metal latches. The kidney grille screens—now a BMW icon—clip in and are removable for quick access to the cooling system. The split windscreen, as mentioned, folds down to aid aerodynamics, (or, rather, to not impede air flow quite so much). Suspension is independent at the front, with transverse leaf springs and lower wishbones for control arms. Steering is handled by rack and pinion, quite advanced for the time. And rear suspension is a solid axle—sturdy, and not much of an imposition as the car is light and sends a modest amount of power to the rear wheels.
There is great aesthetic variety in the 328 family, even among the factory cars, and so it is important to note a few particular features of this NSKK team car. Most notably, the position of the petrol filler cap has been moved from its original position at the tail, below the spare, up to a perch just behind the passenger seat. The wheels are appropriate pre-War style discs—that is, mostly solid. It was post-War practice to drill these discs to reduce weight, as you may see on many other examples, executed in many different patterns. And the color is German racing white, something Mercedes-Benz had abandoned as early as the W-25 Grand Prix car in favor of bare aluminum. While silver is a common color for 328 cars, it is interesting to note the return to white for the NSKK fleet.
Looking under the bonnet, while the single overhead cam was off-set on top of the block, just as a dual overhead cam configuration would look, (and it can fool at a glance), the three carburetors are mounted on top of the head, giving the motor the look of a narrow degree V. So how many people looking under the bonnet would guess that the motor isn't a dual overhead cam straight 6-cylinder, or even a V-6, but a single overhead cam hemi-head straight 6 with some strange cross con-rod and rocker arm system? Accordingly, inlet ports are vertical, given the downdraft carburetors. The valvetrain is chain driven.
To make a few final comments on the design, I've always been tempted to look at the 328 as the ancestor of the Jaguar XK-120. But, while there's a definite visible similarity that makes one think Sir William Lyons was impressed with these 328 cars, the theories at work are a bit at odds. For instance, BMW shunned the dual overhead cam design, while Jaguar made it universal. The capacity of the motors also differs greatly, with the 328 forever remaining a sub 2-litre proposition, while the XK-120 started above 3-litre capacity and kept going up over the years. So there's a bit of differing opinion about optimal power/weight ratio. And, finally, the XK-120 debuted with a steering box, whereas the 328 was already turning on a rack. All in all, they are very different cars, exemplary of the fact that they were built in different times for different reasons, (even if they came to represent a common motoring spirit).
Longevity: The 328 pulled duty for a long while after World War II. On a continent starved for motor sport, 328 chassis were easy to build up and race. The Veritas story is a prime example, but 328 motors found their way into sporting cars of a wide variety. Bristol licensed the motor and employed it in the 401 Coupe. And because AC contracted with Bristol, they had the chance to use the motor in their Ace, (forerunner of the Cobra). The meanest iteration of Bristol BMW 328 powerplants was probably the Arnolt Roadster. The Arnolt's diminutive stature and aggressive tuning made it surprisingly quick.
Of course, success of these post-War "boutique" 328 cars was limited. By 1954, the emerging Italian marques of Ferrari and Maserati were dropping their 2-litre Formula 2 motors into sports-racing cars, (see the Ferrari 500 Testa Rossa, or the Maserati A6 GCS Berlinetta). And, as mentioned, Porsche will soon take up the banner of giant-killer. All of these cars will easily out-strip the pre-War 328 on the racetrack. But, at the very least, BMW's aim of producing a durable sporting car certainly gave post-War enthusiasts a stable platform to get back on their feet.
It's easy to think that if so many 328 chassis weren't in demand to build or power other cars during the post-War era, then perhaps many more of the original flock would exist today.
"Classic Cars in Profile, Volume 4" Doubleday and Company, Inc. Garden City, New York, 1968, The B.M.W. Type 328 Profile Publications Number 89, Denis Jenkinson
"Auto Legends - Classics of Style and Design" by Michael Zumbrunn and Robert Cumberford, Merrell Publishers Limited, London / New York, 2004, p. 130
Dennis David GP History: Always a good resource.
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