Car enthusiasts can be a pretty sentimental bunch. There's usually one car -usually more than that in fact- that we would do just about anything to go back in time and make ours again. Usually, the closest we get to reliving the past is buying a similar vehicle. In Eric Bernstein’s case, it wasn't a car that was his, but a 1973 BMW 2002 that actually belonged to his father. Growing up around the car left a permanent imprint on Eric's emotional memory.
“When I was very little my father would let me sit in his lap and steer,” Eric says. “Around the age of 14 he would let me drive on backroads and he taught me how to drive a stickshift.” It's not too surprising that Eric would follow in his father's footsteps when it came to appreciating the cars from Bavaria. Eric has owned other a few BMWs, including an E36 M3.
Eric also ended up pursuing the same career as his father, which was that of a doctor. “My father started the first Office of Rural Health in the U.S. the same year he bought the car,” he says. And the '73 2002 was the car that got him to his patients. “He put 275,000 miles on the car all over North Carolina getting to the understand the needs of people in rural areas." Eric went on to become an oncologist, and now lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Eric's father has originally bought the car brand new off the showroom floor from Performance BMW in North Carolina in 1973. Back then, the 2002 was not a common vehicle, and was considered an off-beat choice for daily transport. This was in an era before BMW had become so widely loved and admired in North America. “That was before most people had any real association with the brand,” he says. “I remember going with my father to get the car serviced at Miller & Norburn when I was a kid. They were the Alpina importer at the time and always had cool cars and high performance parts in the shop. Looking through those old Alpina catalogs got me excited about modifying the car.”
In addition to driving it, Eric learned how to work on the 2002 as well. “In high school I worked on the car and replaced the front brakes with 633 brakes, and swapped out the carburetor for a 38/38 Weber. During the last few years of college I got to use the car full time and would drive from Baltimore to the Outer Banks in North Carolina to go windsurfing.”
By the time the early 1990s, the old BMW was pretty worn out and in need of minor accident repair and rust repair. His father didn't see the value in dumping a bunch of money and time into the 2002, so it was sold to a family friend who also owned a 2002 and who needed a parts car.
When Eri's father passed away in 2005, he decided to track the old 2002 down and make it part of his life again. Luckily for him, the search was a success. And even luckier was the fact that the 2002 was still intact, having avoided the rather ignominious fate of a parts car. "The car was out in Colorado and I bought it back for $1500, which was exactly what we had sold it to Jim for ten years earlier,” he says.
Rather than just perform a boring, stock restoration on the 2002, Eric decided to thoroughly modernize the vintage BMW's performance. The project would end up stretching on for four years, during which time it underwent a dramatic transformation, in large part due to the S14 engine from an E30 M3 that was swapped into the chassis. “The original M3 came out when I was in high school,” says Eric. “The car set a new standard, but I thought that the drivetrain would be really spectacular in a 2002 because it is lighter and a bit less ‘boy racer’ looking. I didn’t have the means to do it at the time, but I thought it would be the coolest car ever. 20 years later I still thought it would be the coolest car ever, so I decided to build it.”
The first order o business though was getting the BMW's cosmetics back up to snuff, a task handled by Sports Car Restoration in Connecticut. The company focuses on 2002s and are also familiar with custom work, making them a logical choice. “The fenders were redone to look stock but still accommodate the larger tires with no rubbing,” says Eric. The rest of the BMW remains original with the exception of the earlier 2002 bumper mounts, which position the chrome bumpers closer to the body for a cleaner look. Once the bodywork was repaired and any rusty parts eradicated, the BMW was resprayed in Verona Red.
Kermit Upton of Mountain Auto Sport Racing twas the next go to expert that Eric enlisted to continue the 2002's transformation. In particular, Eric was inspired by a 2002 owned by an enthusiast named Daniel Cooper, for whom Upton had built one of the first 2002s with an S14 engine.
The heart of the motor is an EVO-spec crankshaft that actuates Ireland Engineering connecting rods and VAC 11:1 compression ratio pistons. An MASR camshaft was installed, which has a 284-degree intake duration and 278-degree exhaust duration. Upton built a custom stainless header and exhaust system that exits out of a Borla muffler. “The oil pan is an aluminum Moroso pan that has been modified to accommodate the engine mounts,” adds Eric. Those mounts are pretty special on their own. “Kermit fabricated some outriggers and used E36 M3 hydraulic motor mounts which make for a less buzzy and stronger setup than other S14 conversions that I have seen.” A stock M3 clutch was installed, but a lightweight EVO 3 flywheel frees up horsepower and allows the engine to rev more freely.
The stock M3 ignition system was upgraded with a chip from VAC. Likewise, the fuel system is largely EVO 3 spec. To increase the driving range of the car, Eric bought an OEM 2002 Turbo fuel tank, an upgrade that required the trunk floor to be raised up a few inches. The cooling system consists of a larger radiator that was designed by Mountain Autosport Racing and built by C&R Custom. The radiator is augmented with a 12-inch SPAL fan. An E30 M3 oil cooler was also installed that uses Aeroquip stainless steel fittings. In order to accommodate the stock E30 M3 transmission that was installed, the 2002’s transmission tunnel had to be widened. “The fuel injection makes it very reliable and the thing is a blast to drive,” says Eric.
To keep the BMW under control with its increased power, Eric next turned his attention to improving the performance of the suspension and brakes. “The rear subframe has been modified for adjustability and increased negative camber,” notes Eric. “Fixed negative camber plates are used in the front with Bilstein Heavy Duty shocks and Ireland Engineering Stage 1 springs. We removed 1.5 coils off of the front springs to bring it down a little bit.” There are also urethane bushings wherever possible as well as 22-mm sway bars at the front and rear to reduce bodyroll around corners.
For the proper brakes, Eric turned to Wilwood, installing the company’s 300-mm front rotors and 270-mm rear rotors which are clamped by Wilwood calipers. For normal street used, Eric runs a set of 15-inch Team Dynamics Pro Race 1 wheels that wear Michelin Ecsta tires that measure 205/15-15. Eric has a set of Alpina replica wheels with Bridgestone RE-11 tires when he needs more grip.
Inside, the 2002 has been treated to back seats from an E9 coupe, which are far more stylish that the rather slab-sided stock seats. Up front, a set of M3 seats hold driver and passenger safely in place. An Alpina steering wheel was also installed, and Coco Mats offer a measure of luxury. One of the aspects of the car that Eric is most proud of is the stealth stereo system. “The center console was rebuilt by Innovative Audio in Albuquerque to incorporate a hidden Audison sound system,” he explains. “The iPod serves as a hard drive and information is transferred to a digital to analog converter inside an Audison Voce amp in the trunk. Morel Elate speakers are mounted in the footwells and a subwoofer has been installed under the rear seat. “The stereo is very stealth and sounds pretty good,” says Eric.
Though Eric’s car may look near stock at a glance, the driving experience has been transformed into something that combines the best of two entirely different eras. The E30 M3 driver’s seat offer an ideal place from which to pilot the BMW and the S14 fires without drama, settling down to a smooth idle. No finicky carbs here, just perfectly running fuel injection. The 2002 is far quicker in a straight line than it was when Eric was growing up, rocketing down the road with a rough, guttural howl from the stainless steel exhaust. This engine’s a revver too, sailing around to redline without hesitation as I run it up through the gears on a favorite backroad outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico.
There is a bit of body roll in corners, but overall the 2002 corners with grip to spare. There’s no electronic driving aids at work, so the gas pedal needs to be worked judiciously when exiting corners quickly. On the stopping end of things, the Wilwood brakes do a fantastic job of slowing the car, no doubt aided by the fact that the car is so light to begin with. Overall, the 2002 is an absolute blast to drive, but it’s also got a pretty comfortable and compliant suspension, so it doesn’t beat you up while you’re driving.
In an interesting coincidence, during the restoration of the family 2002 Eric entered a raffle for another 2002 that was being refurbished by the BMW factory in South Carolina. “The car was going to be unveiled at the Eurofest car show,” he says. “I bought a couple of tickets and forgot about it.” Eric received a call on his father’s birthday telling him he had won the car. His dad had passed away by that point, and it struck Eric as pretty amazing that they called to tell him he had won the car on his dad’s birthday, the man who had started his BMW craze in the first place. “I went down to South Carolina to pick it up. It had a wild metallic pearl paint job with red and blue stripes around the hood and down the side.”
While the raffle car was moved on to a new owner since Eric really didn’t have room or a need for it, I think it’s safe to say that his dad’s old 2002 has a permanent place in his home. “I love the car,” he says. “In high school this was what I thought would be the coolest car ever. 25 years later I still think I was right. It’s a blast to drive and a part of the family.”