Driving the BMW 328, the car that silenced the critics

What makes the 328 so special? We get behind the wheel of the road and race star that was fundamental to establishing the German brand’s core values

Hard to believe when now as BMW’s niche-filling empire goes from strength to strength, but the brand was not always the successful automotive giant we know today. Several times in its history it has been precariously close to bankruptcy, and several times it has made significant errors of judgement.

At the beginning, BMW concentrated on motorcycles and aviation engines. It added cars to its portfolio only when it acquired Fahrzeugfabrik Eisenach, which at the time was building Austin Seven cars under licence from Britain under the name Dixi.

At first BMW developed the Dixi while simultaneously looking for ways to enter the top tier of the auto market with its own, original vehicles. This was because its production facilities were too small to plan the production of cheap cars en masse, so the management decided to pursue higher-profit models. It did so with the 303 platform that underpinned the 315 and 319 roadsters, and with the later 326 and 327.

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Still, among German carmakers, BMW was treated as an upstart newcomer. Quietly, its engineers worked diligently in 1934 and 1935 to create a model that would silence all the critics. A car that you could drive on public roads to a race meeting, win, and drive home afterwards. So far only Bugatti could produce such machines consistently, and these were hardly affordable.

BMW managed to keep its newcomer under wraps until the very end. That’s no real surprise in the secret-obsessed Third Reich, but it emphasises how serious the Bavarians were about their new sports car. The press knew nothing and wrote nothing. Only a handful of select customers received a skimpy booklet, informing them about the advent of a new sport roadster – code-named 328 – and not much else. No power-output claims, no top speed, nothing.

Saturday, June 13, 1936, Nürburgring. The whole secretive BMW team is ready to crack under pressure. The decision was taken long before to debut the brand’s breakthrough car – with its efficient engineering, just enough power, light weight and finely honed chassis – not on a motor show stand, but during one of the hardest races on the planet: the Eifelrennen. And the weather forecast for Sunday mentions rain. Lots of rain.

Mechanics unobtrusively dry their sweaty palms on their smudged overalls. The engineers, Rudolf Schleicher and Fritz Fiedler, pretend not to be concerned – but they are. The only person who appears unmoved is the driver, former BMW motorcycle champion Ernst Jakob Henne, with his characteristic nose shaped like an eagle’s beak.

‘We are used to that at the ’Ring. A Sunday without rain is not a proper Ring Sunday,’ he drawls calmly. His stoic manner acts like a tonic, and the team regains its confidence. In practice the prototype ran like clockwork, and Henne is sure it will be fine on Sunday. The daily press notice the car differs from other BMWs, with its streamlining and what sounds like a powerful six under the long hood held down with two leather straps.

Sunday, June 14, 1936, Nürburgring. In the sports car class 34 contenders are ready to start the race, seven of them in the 2-litre category, five of these BMWs. Four can be recognised as 319/1 models, while the fifth is different. People who chose not to see Saturday practice notice that the snow-white car looks like no other BMW, although the twin kidney-shaped grille openings are similar to those introduced earlier on the 326.

As predicted, the kind Saturday weather has given way to a typical Ring Sunday, with plenty of rain and fog. Yet 250,000 spectators are not discouraged, nor are they disappointed: Henne in his white prototype not only beats most of the more powerful, supercharged competitors, but he also smashes the lap record in the sports car class. In a ‘Baumuster 328’ handbuilt prototype. In rain and fog.

Soon after Henne’s class win, three BMW 328 prototypes contested numerous other races all over Europe in the hands of different drivers. The initial problems with sustained high-speed running were overcome after the French GP at Montlhéry, and the trio of cars steadily collected race wins.

The English BMW importer HJ Aldington won the Schleißheimer Dreiecksrennen in Germany in a 328, and soon thereafter brought the three cars, painted green and entered under the Frazer-Nash-BMW name, to the Tourist Trophy in Ireland.

The three development machines came in first, second and third. Private customers were screaming at BMW to be sold cars they could race themselves. However, the production was ramped up very slowly, with the first series cars being made in April 1937, and the first customers being able to race these almost exactly a year after Henne’s success.

In 1937 at the Eifelrennen no fewer than nine 328s showed up, and these took most of the top places. In 1939 a Mrs Jill Thomas drove her production 328, chassis 85.270, from her home in Hampshire in England to the Brooklands race track, covered 101 miles in an officially observed hour’s run, and then drove home again.

Up until the war, no model was built in Germany, or anywhere else, that could worry the racing 328 in the 2-litre category. The BMW wasn’t cheap – at 7400 Reichsmark, it cost as much as the brand’s highly qualified technicians could earn in three years. But there were plenty of moneyed racers in Germany and across Europe who could afford to buy these cars and experience them on the open road.

And on public roads the 328 was a revelation. At a time when most people believed heavier cars hugged the road better, and offered safer handling, BMW showed everyone that a harmoniously engineered vehicle, weighing only 780kg and powered by an engine producing only 80bhp, could equal or better anything with wheels when shown a series of fast corners.

Less inertia and centrifugal force meant a new level of subtlety in control. Once a good driver tried it, he was sure to be enamoured of the new sports car and its handling. But how did BMW accomplish that engineering feat? It’s quite a long story.

As Rudolf Schleicher and Fritz Fiedler started to think about a car that would later become the 328, they had no idea they were designing an automotive milestone. Schleicher was an engine specialist, and Fiedler more of a chassis engineer, but both were hugely experienced and they worked together in a complementary manner.

At that time BMW had no marketing department, no design studio, no wind tunnel and, of course, no computers. The two engineers drew lines on paper, and the lines came alive as handmade metal parts.

They created a masterpiece of harmony, with no innovative highlights and no excessive power. Rarely for the period, the 328’s strength lay not in one particular area but rather in the way in which the driveline, bodywork and suspension gelled together, creating an outstanding, complete package. At first Schleicher and Fiedler worked in Eisenach with only 20 technicians, but the team grew with time.

The BMW had its roots in the 319/1. Since there was no money available to develop a completely new engine, the 50bhp motor from the 326 was chosen as a development base, and was subsequently modified.

The 2-litre cast-iron block got an aluminium-alloy cylinder head with the spark plug exactly in the middle of the roof of the hemispherical combustion chamber. The valves, arranged in a V, were driven by a camshaft located on the side of the engine via a complex chain and pushrod arrangement.

The engine could breathe better, and in street trim it easily developed 80bhp at 4500rpm. Because the car had already started racing in prototype form, lessons were quickly learned and applied before the first examples were built for paying customers.

For instance, the Hurth gearbox – which also saw service in the 315 with half the engine power – had to be uprated, and so did the rear axle. During the 328’s race development, strengthened cranks were made with nine counterweights, and a similar solution was used in BMW’s first post-war car, the 501 – but that’s a different story.

Key to the 328’s low kerbweight was not some exotic material, but mainly the light and robust frame, designed by Fritz Fiedler. It had two tubular longerons with a circular section that converged towards the front of the car in an A-shape, culminating in a section that mimicked the width of the engine. They were joined laterally by square-section members.

The front part of the frame supported not only the engine, but also the front suspension with its lower transverse links and one transverse leaf spring. Meanwhile, the rear of the frame supported the semi-elliptic leaf springs and the live axle. The tubular longeron diameter was gradually reduced towards the rear of the car to reduce weight, but without sacrificing torsional stiffness.

This resulted in a more direct, more positive driving feel. Old-style, U-shaped longitudinal chassis members would have weighed much more. Centre-lock, specially designed wheels were an interesting feature, as well as hydraulic four-wheel drum brakes (280mm diameter) at a time when most competitors still preferred to use cable-operated, mechanical systems.

It cost 445,000 Reichsmark to prepare for production of the 328, compared with 1.4 million for the 320, and 2.3 million for the 326 Limousine. Virtually no money was spent on what we today describe as marketing and PR, but until production ceased in 1940 BMW still managed to build and sell 464 cars. The fact that those machines continued to win races into the 1950s is less important than the part the 328 played in BMW’s transition into a car manufacturer.

Wilhelm Kaiser, a specialist in the field of bodywork engineering, who’d joined the team in 1936, took over the bodywork-engineering department once the whole establishment was moved to Munich. He soon found that resources were insufficient, and on September 1, 1938, a new department was created directly under Fiedler: it was called ‘Künstlerische Gestaltung or ‘Artistic Layout’.

This was a real design studio in which, following the American example, designers styled models out of Plasticine. Nobody called it a styling studio at the time, but it was one de facto. The bright artists working under Fiedler’s leadership were responsible for the look of BMW’s 330, 335 and 332 models, and additionally that of the Mille-Miglia Roadster and the Kamm-Rennlimousine (in which the improved engine developed more than 130bhp).

When I drove the original 328, I instantly recognised the source of BMW DNA so accurately described by the old slogan ‘Freude am Fahren’ (the joy of driving). This innate harmony of chassis tuning, engine flexibility (not blunt, outright power), lightness and finely judged control weighting remained at the core of BMW engineering until the dawn of the current, emissions-driven turbo era, which sacrifices driveability on the altar of legal compliance, substituting it with brute power. That’s exactly opposite to what Schleicher and Fiedler had in mind.

Their creation ranks among the more civilised pre-war competition cars. In fact, save for the meagre stopping power of its drum brakes, the 328 feels positively modern. No wonder it could still win races in the ’50s, while its engine helped Bristol Cars rise to fame in the same period. It was utterly ahead of its time – like an Apple iPhone in an era of crank-operated Bakelite landline telephones.

The steering feels thoroughly precise, highlighting just how vague other 1930s cars can be in that department. Because the tubular steel chassis is so torsionally stiff, and the aluminium bodywork so light, the car follows steering-wheel commands immediately. Minute trajectory corrections require a mere flick of the wrist once decent steerage speed is attained.

But what really stands out is the engine’s flexibility. Today’s motors, with all their emissions wizardry, need a lot of tricks to feel as this one does, with its short but straight inlet ducts and three downdraft Solex carbs. Get carried away on a twisty Alpine road, forget to downshift and stay in fourth, and the engine will pull you through, saving embarrassment. And it does so in a classy way, virtually without vibration. In terms of subtlety, it scores 11 on a scale of ten.

The gearshift needs a gentle and firm touch, however, as the Hurth ’box is carried over from the much less powerful BMW 315. It has synchromesh on third and fourth, but heel-and-toe, perfectly performed, is required to prevent damage during every shift. Gears slot in precisely, yet the ’box can be easily damaged by a clumsy driver who is tempted to treat it like its 21st century counterparts.

On some 328s that are regularly driven today, the gearbox is replaced with a Volvo unit that not only takes more abuse in its stride, but also costs peanuts. However, it lacks the feel of the original one, and it’s too easy to master.

Since 2013, luckily, BMW Classic has offered new-build 328 boxes, made in collaboration with ZF, which had bought the assets of Hurth Getriebe und Zahnräder GmbH. No excuse, then, for the use of a Volvo unit, and for the failure to learn what the Germans call ‘Zwischengas’.

BMW’s pre-war masterpiece satisfies itself with no more than 15 litres of gasoline per 100km, and with between 0.1 and 0.2 litres of engine oil per 100km. It was the second car in Germany to feature one-shot central lubrication for the chassis, making it extremely easy to service in relation to the performance it offered. In standard trim the base engine developed 80bhp and 130Nm of torque, and propelled the lightweight car to its top speed of around 155-160km/h (100mph).

In today’s traffic a well driven 328 easily holds its own against modern cars, and is by no means a moving vintage chicane. The drum brakes offer about half of the deceleration we are used to with new vehicles, but they are reliable and far superior to the mechanically actuated brakes of a 319, or, for that matter, of many British cars built 20 years later.

Tyres of 5.25 x 16 size, mounted on those centre-lock disc wheels, may look perturbingly narrow, but they are perfectly matched to the lateral flex of the suspension components and to the alignment changes under load. A bigger rubber contact patch would destroy the car’s delicate, dainty balance, and alternative tyre sizes must be avoided.

In the dry the 328 grips tenaciously and drifts to the outside of corners in an enjoyably progressive manner due to its nearly perfect weight distribution. This invariably brings up the question, if Fiedler could get it so right just using an abacus, pencil and sheet of paper, why do so many companies today get it all wrong while using supercomputers, lasers and whatnot?

The correct technique to going fast up and down a mountain road in a perfectly maintained 328 is as follows. One, drive as clean a line as you possibly can, carrying the maximum possible speed through a corner. This is not today’s point-and-squirt hot hatch. Two, brake earlier than you would in a modern car, more progressively. Don’t ride the brake, as it will overheat and cause a lot of grief; no need to trailbrake at all.

Three, learn to turn using the steering in concert with the throttle pedal. Once the car is turned in, with less pressure on the gas pedal and more weight over the front wheels, unwind the steering lock at exactly the same rate as you push down on the accelerator, and if the car understeers too much, give it more gas.

In period, nobody expected a car to compensate for a driver’s shortcomings by using programmed chassis elastokinematics, so try to get a feel for the body roll, the tyre-sidewall deflection, and look for a sweet spot. Balance the car with the throttle mid-corner, and use only the steering to introduce corrections.

Four, watch the revs, as over-revving the engine will kill it. No ECU limiter on this one. Five, enjoy the kind of driving experience very few cars can hope to match; Freude am Fahren indeed.

As an original BMW 328 will set you back at least half a million dollars at auction, and top examples with a documented history have reached over 800,000 recently, very few people use them as intended by the original creators. That is most regrettable, as this car is fundamental in anyone’s quest to understand the core values of the BMW brand.

Values that were briefly forgotten in the ’50s after the war and the production of pots and pans, and revived so well with the birth of the Neue Klasse, the first 3 Series and other cars that altered the way the world looked at road-legal performance cars.

Building a quick racer, given unlimited funds, is one of the easiest things on Earth, and many people over time have built one and been promptly forgotten afterwards. What Schleicher and Fiedler managed to achieve was a race car that did exceptionally well on public roads and was a joy to live with. A true daddy of the E30 M3.

Images: BMW archive, Bernhard Limberger

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