BMW type 328 - Fifty years ago.

In 1934 and 1935 the BMW firm was producing a neat and compact little two-seater sports car in the shape of the 319. It first came to the notice of the British sporting world when it beat the all-conquering Frazer Nash cars in the 1 1/2 litre class of the Alpine Rally in 1934. The head of the Frazer Nash firm was quick to see the possibilities for the BMW sports car and before the year was out he was importing them into Great Britain, with a contract with BMW to market them in right-hand steering form as Frazer Nash-BMW. The Munich firm soon produced a more powerful model, with 2-litre engine, and the BMW sports cars were leaders of the class.

The 319 sports car was following the design concepts laid down in 1932 by Fritz Fiedler and Rudolf Schleicher, on which they had laid the foundations of the rise of BMW in the automotive world. The chassis frame was tubular and very stiff, there was independent suspension of the front wheels by a transverse leaf spring and lower wishbones, the engine was a very smooth six-cylinder with vertical valves operated by pushrods and rockers, triple carburetters were used, the four-speed gearbox attached to the rear of the engine was neat and compact, rear suspension was by half-elliptic leaf springs and the body styling was right up to the minute, if not ahead. Great attention was paid to weight-saving, not by cheese-paring, but in the basic design, and the end product was a very lively little 1 1/2-litre car, sold in saloon, coupe, cabriolet or sports form, and even the staid family saloons could out-perform and out-handle many sports cars of the day.

The BMW firm, with its research and development and racing department in Munich, within the aircraft engine complex, and its automobile manufacturing facility in Eisenach some 200 miles north, was pursuing a very active competition programme, which is why there was a works team in the 1934 Alpine Rally Power output from the 2-litre engine with its vertical overhead valves was limited by breathing, so Schleicher and his team looked into ways of improving this, while Fiedler concentrated on the chassis. The result was a new BMW model that was to set a standard for something like 30 years, and even 50 years later can hardly be described as “old fashioned”

The obvious competition development line in those days was to go to twin overhead camshafts, which allowed a hemispherical combustion chamber, and to supercharging in the search for more power, but neither concept fitted into the BMW philosophy. Any development had to fit into production lines and no radical changes from the production cars could be accepted. The engine research came up with a new cylinder head design which transformed the 2-litre six-cylinder engine without making any major production changes. The first breakthrough was the use of aluminium-alloy for the cylinder head casting, and this was allied to an ingenious valve gear that gave all the advantages of twin overhead camshafts without the complication of gears, shafts or chains to connect the valve gear to the crankshaft. Some new concepts on port design were also incorporated and the resultant engine pushed the production power output up from 55 bhp to 80 bhp at one move.

This new cylinder head fitted onto the standard production cast-iron cylinder block / crankcase and used the normal single camshaft located low-down on the left side of the engine, it being driven by a short chain and sprockets. Whereas the 12 pushrods of the original engine operated 12 rockers on a single shaft, to actuate the 12 vertical valves, the new head was cast with two rocker shaft galleries and the valves at 100 from each other, the inlets on the left and the exhaust on the right, to all intents and purposes like a conventional twin overhead camshaft layout. From the base-mounted camshaft six pushrods went up to small rockers on the left-hand shaft which operated the six inlet valves, and the other six went up to six more rockers which operated short pushrods running across the head in alloy tubes. These pushrods operated another set of rockers on the right-hand shaft, which in turn actuated the exhaust valves. The final innovation was that the inlet ports were cast into the head vertically instead of the more usual horizontal layout for a hemispherical head. This permitted longer inlet tracts and the use of three downdraught carburetters.

If all this sounds like the description of a Bristol cylinder head as produced in England in 1946 it is no surprise, for the Bristol engine was an anglicised version of the pre-war BMW engine. While the BMW engine people were developing this new cylinder head, and enlarging the bore from 65 mm to 66 mm to give 1,971 cc with the same 96 mm stroke as the 319 engine, the chassis people were honing the basic 319 car, improving the brakes, the shock-absorbing, the gearbox and the rear axle to take advantage of the increase in horsepower and the whole thing was clothed in an entirely new 2-seater body complying with International sports car regulations. While most racing sports cars complied with the bodywork regulations in spirit only, bearing no relation to the firms production cars, the BMW philosophy was one of complete integration. The new body, like that on the earlier 319 cars, was complete in all respects and the mudguarding was designed into the basic shape, rather than tacked on as a regulation afterthought: the cockpit interior, windscreen, hood and sidescreen were all intended to be used for everyday motoring. This new model introduced the radiator cowling with the two long thin openings that were to become a BMW characteristic and which are still retained symbolically to this day on production BMW cars.

The first of these new cars, which was chassis number 85.001. was ready for its debut in June 1936, exactly 50 years ago this month. It was entered in the 2-litre sports car class of the Eifelrennen meeting on June 14th 1936 driven by the BMW World Record motorcyclist Ernst Henne. With all the top-brass of BMW present Henne did not dissappoint them, and the new prototype sports car had a fairy-tale win on the prestigious 14-mile Nurburgring. Thus was born the BMW Type 328.

By the end of the month two more prototypes had been completed, 85.002 being similar to the first car, and 85.003 being the first Type 328 with righthand steering, destined for Great Britain. By this time the principals of AFN Limited, the concessionaires for the United Kingdom, were on excellent terms with the Munich firm, both H. J Aldington and A. F. P. Fane being very competent racing drivers, doing much to spread the BMW word in the competition world. On June 28th the French Grand Prix was held on the Montlhery track, run for sports cars rather than Grand Prix cars, and BMW entered its team of prototype 328 cars, the third one being painted green for Aldington and Fane to drive. The two white factory entries were driven by a mixture of German and Swiss drivers, but the success of the Eifelrennen was not to be repeated. All three cars retired, two with trouble with the engine mountings and the third went out with a broken oil pipe. While it was not an auspicious debut outside of Germany. the cars made a deep impression on the sporting world, for they ran smoothly and quietly and made most of the opposition look “vintage”.

The next appearance of the 328 cars was in the RAC Tourist Trophy run over the Ards circuit outside Belfast and for this event all three cars were painted green, as AFN Limited had made an entry and nominated the drivers. Prince Bira drove 85.001, the Eifelrennen car, Fane drove 85.002 and “Aldy” drove the RHD Frazer Nash-BMW 85.003. In spite of appalling weather conditions and some hairy moments on the slippery roads, the cars finished 1st, 2nd and 3rd in the 2-litre class, and 3rd, 7th and 9th overall, in the order Cane, Bira, Aldington. This more than made up for the French debacle and it established the 328 as the sports car of the moment. While the two works cars went back to Munich, 85.003 went to Isleworth, to the Frazer Nash works, where it remained as H. J. Aldington’s own personal car and demonstrator. On its way back from Northern Ireland 85.003 was entered tor the Shelsley Walsh hilIclimb, driven by Fane, and he won the award for the fastest Tourist Trophy type of car. Before the end of the season “Aldy” drove it in the One Hour High Speed Trial at the MCC Brooklands meeting, and on the banked track he put 98.52 miles into the hour, running in full road-going condition.

In Germany the 328 model was about logo Into full production on the Eisenach assembly lines, and 85.004 was prepared for the Berlin Motor Show to production specification. The design was now settled in detail and this car had two doors, a vee-windscreen which could be folded flat, the spare wheel let into the curved tail, a rear-mounted petrol tank, full instrumentation, a glove-compartment on the instrument panel and very luxurious seats. There were many other mechanical refinements which allowed the 328 to become a fully-fledged production model, rather than the prototypes which had been seen up to this point. In London AFN Limited exhibited its prototype car, now painted white, at the all-in price of £695 with delivery promised early in 1937.

As put into production the 328 engine developed 80 bhp which gave the car an honest 95 mph, the smooth bodywork and complete undershields adding much to the speed. With very little effort the power output could be raised to 100 bhp. which pushed the maximum speed up to 100 mph; by 1938 power had risen to 110 bhp and at the end of 1939 the factory engines were giving over 130 bhp in racing form.

Once launched, the 328 was the Munich factory’s competition weapon, and it carried out a very thorough programme of racing and mountain hill-climbs, while in England AFN Limited waved the Munich flag with much vigour, most of its customers using their 328s for competition purposes, even though the cars were very civilised road-going touring cars if needs be. To establish the 328 on the English market H. J. Aldington organised a very impressive display of speed and reliability for the car in April 1937, shortly before the first batch of right-hand steering cars were due for delivery. He drove his prototype car, 85.003, down to the Brooklands Track and with no special preparation he got S. C. H. (Sammy) Davis, then the sports editor of The Autocar, to drive it round the track for one hour under official RAC observed Time Keeping. Davis covered 102.12 miles in the hour, holding a constant 4,900 rpm with the water temperature at 70 C and the oil pressure at 55-60 psi. The car was then driven back to Isleworth. The following year, with the same car, Aldington put 107.1 miles into the hour, at the MCC meeting, and in 1939 Mrs Jill Thomas drove her production 328, chassis 85.270, from her home in Hampshire to the Brooklands Track, covered 101 miles in an officially observed hour’s run, and then drove home again. The 328 was setting speed and reliability standards that were hard to beat, even by cars of more than 2-litres capacity.

The 328 was in production at Eisenach during 1937, 1938 and up to August 1939, when war caused BMW to make other things. In all over 450 cars were built, the last chassis number being 85.464, some being missed out and some duplicated. It set a standard in modern sports cars that was not surpassed until the 1950s and not outmoded until 10 years later. Even today, 50 years after its first appearance it is not a car that looks ‘dated’, while its performance is still remarkable tor an old car.

The complete history of the Frazer Nash-BMW 328 cars is kept in the Archives of AFN Limited, now the Porsche Centre in Isleworth, Middlesex, and the company has available an excellent video of the early days of the 328 made from original film taken at the Nurburgring, Montlhery and the Ards in 1936, as well as later events. In Germany a book by Dipl lng Rainer Simons is due out shortly which deals with the design and development of the Type 328 BMW, and includes a vast amount of material never before released from the BMW archives and other sources in Germany.

1986 is undoubtedly the year of the 328 and numerous gatherings are being held in Germany to celebrate its 50th birthday, while plans are afoot in England to celebrate next year the 102.12 miles in the hour recorded by “Sammy” Davis in 85.003 in April 1937 on the 50th anniversary of that landmark in sports car history. The object being to repeat the performance, probably at the MIRA proving ground, with a production Frazer Nash-BMW 328 that will be 50 years old next year. D S J