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The tale of two 1600s

BMW claim to make the ‘Ultimate Driving Machine’, a claim I have backed up by further by insisting that the E30 is the foundation that underpins their DNA, which continues in their line up to this day.

However, as sublime as the E30 may be, it is but half the story. You see, before the E30 there was the 2002, itself a 2.0-litre version of a 1.6-litre entry-level car called the 1600-2 and introduced in 1966 by the Bavarian carmaker. That 1600-2 is actual genesis, when BMW said let there be intuitive handling and balance. Everything else since has been built on that principle.

The BMW 1600 was the lightest BMW on your pockets at the time and on the scale as well, possibly on account of not coming with creature comforts typical of a luxury marque. This made it fast and predictable when you pointed it towards a corner.

Two designers on the project each individually and coincidentally shoehorned a 2.0-litre engine into their company issued 1600-2s. Upon discovering the coincidence, they set upon the BMW board with many enthusiastically presented facts. After that meeting, the iconic 2002 was born.

The E30, even to this day, matches well with a business suit, because it’s a businessman sorta-car. The 2002, on the other hand, is cooler than a pair of shades on a sunny day. It has the swagger of an eccentric artist. Getting your hands on a 2002 today is an arduous task, impossible even.

But don’t fret if you are classically inclined because there is an oriental alternative as a few months after the BMW 1600 hit the streets, the Datsun 1600 promptly followed. Sticking to the BMW 1600 formula, albeit at a more accessible blue-collar budget.

Stat for stat it matched the little Beemer. Like the BMW it had a front-mounted four cylinder 1.6-litre engine with two valves per cylinder sending about the same amount of power to the rear wheels via a 4-speed manual transmission.

It had similar proportions, a similar power output, and both weighed a smidge under a tonne. Built to Japanese simplicity and reliability, the Datsun 1600 was soon dubbed the poor man’s BMW. Most importantly, it maintained the vim and vigour that the Beemer moved with.

A few years back I was painfully pondering the pros and cons of two similarly priced cars; a 1970 baby-blue, moderately rusty, filler-filled Datsun 1600 SSS (Super Sport Saloon), and a white 94’ Suzuki Vitara JLX. Both were coupes.

After deciding I couldn’t be bothered to fix the bodywork of the Datsun, I settled on the pristine Suzuki. Many epic off-road adventures were had as a result, but to date I still wonder what would have been. I suppose it’s a bit like when a guy has to decide which girl to marry.

Even though he is happy with his wife, it’s quite natural to think fondly of the one who got away. Whenever one makes the decision to buy a new car, there is always a compelling alternative that one doesn’t take. That was the 1600 SSS for me.

First things first, the sharp bodylines based on the timeless three box design principle is classic from every angle. Get a clean example and it looks like it just rolled off the assembly line five minutes ago. The 1600 SSS was fitted with a different camshaft and two side-draft carburetors, adding up to 109hp.

Independent suspension all round made for stable comfortable driving on the highway and responsiveness on the curves. Tipping the scales at 965 kg made it easy to drive and soon racers realized that it would make a great rally car.

It became a dominating force, on the world’s rally stages and to date you will find the Datsuns still going strong five decades later. The Datsun 1600S SS won in both the overall team categories at the 18th East-African Safari Rally in 1970.

The Datsun 1600 was BMW performance for pocket change and this saw it fly off the shelves, moving 1.5 million units in five years. Today the 1600 is still a rare car and even if you come across one, it has quite likely been abused on rally stages, or filled with filler and rust.

The clean examples will demand a prince’s ransom and a gently used kidney. The only reasonable alternative then is to keep our fingers crossed for its second coming, the Nissan IDX concept unveiled in 2013 that is for all intents and purposes, a 1600 from the future.

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