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classic car

1972 BMW Turbo concept.BMW

Posed among the classically beautiful pre-war automotive forms gracing the grounds of Italy's Ville d'Este and its annual Concorso D'Elegance last month was a gullwing-doored German proto-supercar with dynamically angular bodywork that would wedge open the door to its maker's future.

The "modern" styling of the BMW Turbo concept of 1972 may have looked a little out of place on the shoreline of Lake Como amidst the likes of the Coppa D'Oro-winning Alfa Romeo Figoni Coupe, the Avions Voisin Berline Aerodyne or the Delahaye Coupe Chapron. But the techno-look Turbo was a car whose significance far exceeded that of those wonderful confections of the coach makers' era, cars created merely as amusements for the wealthy.

The Turbo was the first concept car created by a BMW that was finally getting its wheels firmly under it again after a couple of difficult decades, and getting ready to explore a brave new world from its just-opened "Vierzylinder" headquarters building in Munich. A world in which technology would eclipse elegance and romance.

The Turbo concept was purely a styling and technology exercise that never made it into production – only two examples were built for BMW by Italian firm Michelotti – but it served as inspiration for BMW's supercar M1 of 1978 and introduced computer-aided design and new safety and other technologies, including turbocharging, that had a direct influence on the company's future production cars.

The Turbo was the creation of new design chief Frenchman Paul Bracq, who had worked for Citroen and Mercedes-Benz and helped design the high-speed TGV trains for France's railway system before joining BMW in 1970. Bracq's first new design for the company was the 5-Series of 1972, followed in 1975 by the 3-Series, cars that would come to (and largely still do) define BMW's place in the automotive cosmos.

The Turbo that Bracq and his team developed explored the twin themes of performance and safety and was equipped with a number of systems we now take for granted, but which in the early 1970s were concept-car-cool.

In styling terms, the Turbo followed the fashionable-at-the-time doorstop theme also employed by the likes of Lotus for its Esprit concept and Maserati with its Boomerang.

But Bracq managed to find space for a version of BMW's traditional twin-kidney in its wide and blunt-edged-wedge nose for ready brand identification.

The front and rear sections of the bodywork also incorporated foam-filled crumple structures that retained their shape after minor crunches mounted on hydraulic shock absorbers. These were the forerunners of more complex "crash boxes" first seen in the 7-Series sedans of the mid-1980s. Lights were also built into the bodywork, with minimizing damage in mind.

Mid-engine designs were trendy at the time and the Turbo's involved transversely mounting a 2.0-litre, single-overhead-camshaft four-cylinder engine borrowed from the then-current and sporty 2002 sedan and a four-speed gearbox on a sub-frame behind the driver.

With only 130 hp on tap (in 2002Tii form), this wouldn't exactly burn up the autobahn – so BMW's engine team turned to a technology the company had developed to boost the power of Second World War aero-engines, the turbocharger. This raised power output to 200 hp, or depending on how tightly they screwed down the boost control, as much as 280 hp. The result was a top speed of 250 km/h and acceleration to 100 km/h took about seven seconds.

A 170-hp version of this engine would appear in the 2002 Turbo of 1973, a model that further confirmed BMW's sporting reputation.

A double-wishbone front suspension was employed with a modified MacPherson system at the rear and ventilated disc brakes fitted all round. The car measured 4,155 mm in length, was just 1,100 mm high and weighed 980 kg.

The two-seater cockpit layout was based on Bracq's driver-first focus, which resulted in his designs evolving from the inside out. Emphasis was placed on good all-round visibility and a dash and control layout that would make the driver's job easier. Interior surfaces were smooth and padded.

Enhancing driver safety was a stiffened "roll-bar" structure extending from the door pillars into the roof and a steering column deformable through three universal joints, an automatically-retracting seat belt system that also wouldn't let you start the car until your belt was buckled and a "safety" steering wheel.

The Turbo was also the first BMW to be equipped with an anti-lock braking system, which was made available as an option on the 1978 7-Series sedan. It was also equipped with a lateral acceleration sensor and warning system which, along with the ABS sensors, were precursors of the stability systems we now enjoy on most vehicles.

One of its more futuristic features was a radar-based distance warning system with a display that indicated how close you were getting to the vehicle ahead and, depending on speed, buzzed a warning if you were getting too close. This was later developed into the active cruise control systems currently in use.

Keeping tabs on the functionality of these new electronic wonders and using advanced-for-the-time fibre optics was a system that evolved into BMW's Check Control system introduced on the 6-Series in 1976. At the push of a button you could check to see if lights were functioning, amd the levels of brake fluid, engine oil and coolant and windshield washer fluid.

The first of the two Turbos spent much of its time on the show circuit, including visits to North America, and the second served as the test mule for the new systems. Both have been preserved as part of BMW's heritage and turn up occasionally at venues such as the Ville d'Este Concorso.

Check out our photo gallery here: In pictures: The 1972 BMW Turbo concept