It would have been a lot easier to keep a new car project under wraps back in the Thirties, when carmakers didn't have to worry about an internet ‘leak' or spy photographers snapping a test mule.
No wonder then that motorsport enthusiasts, including journalists, were left dumbfounded when they saw BMW's "Typ 328" for the first time at the International Eifel Race at the Nürburgring on June 14, 1936.
By holding back any info on the development and specifications of the new car, BMW had successfully managed to keep the weight of expectations low; so low that no one was expecting anything above the ordinary. Before the staggered spectators could assimilate the real importance of what was unfolding in front of their eyes, world-record-breaking motorbike rider Ernst Jakob Henne drove the 80 horsepower 2.0-litre sportscar to a decisive victory over rivals with more powerful supercharged engines.
A legend was born, and news of the dream debut went viral with enquiries about a production version pouring in from across the world. While private customers had to wait till April the next year to lay their hands on a road version, the three pre-production prototypes dominated races in and outside Europe.
What made the BMW 328 one of the most important cars in motorsport history was its essential simplicity. When they started off on the project in the early Thirties, Rudolf Schleicher and Fritz Fiedler had no clue of the glorious heights that this car would soar to over the decades. What they came up with was a simple blend of a decent drivetrain, lightweight body and a brilliant chassis.
Although based on the BMW 326's 50-horsepower engine, in the 328, the 2.0-litre cast iron block got a new aluminium alloy cylinder head and gained 30 more horses. This upgraded drivetrain was amply aided by Fiedler's tubular frame construction, which helped keep the 328's weight down to an amazingly low 780kg. And the 328 repeatedly proved wrong the general belief back then that heavier cars possessed better roadholding abilities.
When series production started in 1937, the engineers had rectified whatever glitches they came across in the prototypes. These sported slightly different looks to the racing prototypes with the single-piece windscreen replaced by a two-piece one, with individually foldable halves. It also had Kronprinz disc wheels with 5.25x16 tyres and 280mm drum brakes. The most prominent exterior feature was the pair of leather belts that were strapped over the bonnet.
Between 1936 and 1939, 464 units of the sportscar were made and it had recorded hundreds of victories in races held across the continent, including the biggest victory of them all; the 1940 Mille Miglia.
With a line-up consisting of special roadsters and coupés built by Carrozzeria Touring of Milan, BMW scooped the team prize alongside the overall victory for the Touring Coupé driven by Huschke von Hanstein, who did the 1,000 miles at an average speed of 166.7kph and setting a lap record of 174.1kph.
This great triumph sealed the BMW 328's position as one of the most successful sportscars ever developed by BMW and also set the direction for the Munich carmaker's future development activities.