This year marks the 75th anniversary of the BMW 328 Roadster, and BMW Classic is celebrating by entering 12 original cars in the Mille Miglia race in Italy. In case you’re not familiar with the 328, allow us to recap the famed sports car’s history.
Despite the similar monikers, this car has little in common with the modern BMW 328i. The 328 Roadster debuted at the International Eifel Race at Germany’s Nürburgring in 1936. With a normally aspirated, 2.0-liter inline-six engine, the 328 set a new ‘Ring lap record, handily outperforming its supercharged competition. The engine produced somewhere between 80 and 90 hp, but a low weight of 1716 pounds meant the 328 shocked spectators and competitors with its performance.
The genesis of the 328 was the work of BMW engineers Rudolf Schleicher and Fritz Fiedler, the former a talented engine designer and the latter an expert in body and chassis design. They focused on building a strong, lightweight chassis with a tubular-frame construction that would keep its mass low, and thus improve handling. For the engine, BMW modified the 50-hp unit from the earlier 326 to produce 80 hp at 4500 rpm. In testing, the engine produced as much as 136 hp at 6000 rpm, staggering numbers for a non-supercharged engine of the era.
After a series of delays, BMW delivered road-going versions of the 328 to customers starting in 1937, touting it in advertisements as a “powerful everyday car for travel and sport.” When it came to sport, the 328 continued to find success in a variety of racing venues, but by 1938 it was clear the design needed improvement. Rivals were building more-powerful engines, and the 328’s poor aerodynamics — due primarily to the open design and curved fenders — meant the BMW was slower than its competitors on fast tracks.
BMW contracted Italian coachbuilder Carrozzeria Touring to build an enclosed version, dubbed the 328 Touring Coupé, in 1938. Its racing debut came at Le Mans in 1939, where the 328 coupe won the two-liter class and came in fifth place overall. Its success was thanks in part to a more streamlined, aerodynamic body and reduced overall weight.
Satisfied with the results, BMW set about building its own 328 coupe in 1940, called the 328 Kamm Coupé (featured in the video below.)With a magnesium-alloy space frame and aluminum body, the Kamm was lighter and significantly more aerodynamic than its predecessor. Top speed tests (on public roads between Munich and Salzburg, Germany) showed the car could reach 143 mph, making it the fastest BMW of the time. BMW built a replica for the car’s 70th anniversary and entered it in the 2010 Mille Miglia race.
A collection of BMW 328s had already proved themselves in the 1938 and 1940 Mille Miglia races. A 1000-mile blast through the Italian countryside, the Mille Miglia was an all-out test of both vehicle performance and reliability. In 1938, BMW 328s placed eight, 10th, 11th, and 12th overall. In the 1940 race, a 328 Touring Coupé finished more than 15 minutes ahead of the second-place Alfa Romeo — a German car had beaten an Italian car on its home turf.
The BMW 328 continued racing into the 1950s. Just 464 copies of the 328 were ever built, and BMW says that about 200 remain intact today — and 150 of those are in Germany. To celebrate the car’s 75th anniversary, BMW Classic has entered 12 328s in this week’s Mille Miglia race in Italy. In addition, four private teams will run 328s in Italy. It’s an impressive continuation of the legacy of one of BMW’s most beautiful and groundbreaking sports cars.