Classic Race Cars

BMW 328 in motorsport

October 19, 2011

BMW 328 Mille Miglia Roadster 1940_03The BMW 328 was the most successful sports car of the 1930’s racing scene. At the time when powerful supercharged “Kompressor” machines ruled the racing roost, the BMW 328 Roadster – weighing just 780 kilograms and developing a modest 80 horsepower in series production form – was a genuine sensation. The success of the BMW 328 lay in the sum of its parts: rigorously applied lightweight design, ideal weight distribution, aerodynamic lines, the perfect engine and a meticulously tuned chassis delivering flawless roadholding. All of which allowed it to underpin a fresh understanding of what a car could be, one which saw the engine’s output teaming up with the optimum interplay of all the car’s component parts – and complemented by maximum efficiency – to achieve success. These qualities enabled the BMW 328 to embody the values that still underpin the BMW brand today: dynamics, aesthetic appeal and a high degree of innovation.

First race

BMW 328 made its debut at the race track in June 14th, 1936. 34 runners were listed in the sports car category of the International Eifel Race. Seven of these were entered in the 2-litre class, and five were BMWs. Four were “Typ 319/1” cars, the other Ernst Jakob Henne’s snow-white Roadster. The car stood out from the crowd, its body boasting far more flowing forms, a curved front end with a pair of slim, kidney-shaped air intakes similar to those of the BMW 326 presented at the Berlin Motor Show that spring, headlights integrated into the front wings, a low, sloping windscreen and a bulbous rear end. Out of sight, yet most certainly not out of mind after the car’s lap times in practice, was the new engine lurking beneath the bonnet. The sound rumbling to the surface through the bonnet’s two leather securing belts indicated the presence of a six-cylinder unit producing maybe 80 or even 90 horsepower.

As forecast, the pleasant conditions of practice day were usurped by rain and mist on Sunday. But that didn’t deter 250,000 enthusiastic fans from flocking to the circuit to witness the most exciting race of the season. The new BMW 328 promptly put its rivals – some of them with much higher-output engines – to the sword, breaking the Nürburgring lap record for sports cars in the process. “For undiluted, top-class racing the International Eifel Race at the Nürburgring was the place to be,” trumpeted the daily press. “One of the most impressive results of the day was the victory of world record-breaking motorcycle rider Ernst Jakob Henne in the non-supercharged sports car class up to two litres. He even man-aged to set the fastest lap time of any sports car!” reported one paper. “Henne squeezed incredible performance out of his new 2-litre car,” added a stunned ‘Die Motorwelt’. “What magnificent acceleration! (…) this sports car is quicker than all its supercharged rivals! Henne takes the victory by a clear margin.”

Henne’s dream race and the premiere of the BMW 328 have gone down in Nürburgring folklore. But that wasn’t the end of the story: the victory of the new sports car, whose internal designation “Baumuster 328” did not appear in any of the gushing race reports, marked the start of a legend.

Continuous success

And so the BMW 328 had taken its maiden victory in its debut outing at the Nürburgring. The win was to be followed by more than 200 others over a lifespan that lasted into the 1950s. It was a run of success unparalleled by any other model in its class; few other cars have left such an enduring impression on the company’s motor sport history as the BMW 328 with its 2.0-litre straight-six engine.

After the triumph at the Nürburgring BMW set about conquering race tracks far and wide with a trio of BMW 328 prototypes. The universally positive reaction to the maiden victory of the new BMW sports car at the Nürburgring had sparked high expectations. There were some initial problems under sustained loads in the French Grand Prix at the high-speed Montlhéry circuit, but the flow of fastest laps and victories soon resumed. As early as August that year British BMW im-porter H. J. Aldington swept to glory in the Schleißheimer Dreiecksrennen race at the wheel of a BMW 328. And it was Aldington who urged the BMW top brass to enter another race outside Germany. A triumvirate of prototypes in green Frazer-Nash-BMW livery lined up for the Tourist Trophy in Ireland – and promptly sealed a clean sweep of the top three places.

Reports of victories continued to rain into Munich from every corner of Europe. And it wasn’t only class wins that the car was amassing so effortlessly, as much more powerfully-engined cars also succumbed to its irresistible will. The small 2-litre sports car was building a handsome collection of overall victories over once superior rivals. Sports car racing was fast being redefined, the BMW 328 giving the 2-litre class a powerful new contender.

Various racing body shapes

Since its maiden outing in the 1936 Eifel Race, the BMW 328 had quickly established an iron grip over Europe’s race tracks. For the engineers in Munich, however, this was no reason to take their foot off the gas. Instead, they worked flat out on increasing the car’s original output of 80 hp. Rival manufacturers had already boosted their engines to something around 110 hp, but a significant rise above that level was not expected. There was certainly little scope to further reduce the weight of what was already a lightweight car in standard production form. At that stage, reducing drag seemed like the only way to increase its speed. The curvaceous form of the 328, with its prominent front wings, may have been a masterstroke of engineering and design, but it was less than ideal aerodynamically. And so the BMW engineers set about designing a totally new body based on the latest knowledge from aerodynamics research. The Roadster was followed by a Touring Coupe and Kamm Coupe racing cars.

The post-war period

The BMW 328 continued to enjoy success in international competition into the 1950s. This makes it one of the most successful racing cars in BMW’s long history in motorsport. Car races were far from a regular event in post-war Germany, but when they did happen, a handful of BMW 328 always featured prominently in the starting field. Many drivers carried out modifications to the aerodynamics and engine of their cars, and some even employed their own teams of mechanics. Indeed, independent drivers were now enriching the racing scene as designers, creating racing machines brimming with imagination and improvisation. Into the 1950s, more than 10 years after its introduction, the BMW 328 and its offspring from various body manufacturers were still dominating the 2-litre class.