Raising the saloon bar: Frazer Nash-BMW 326

| 1 Feb 2022
Classic & Sports Car - Raising the Saloon Bar

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Sometimes good things come out of bad situations.

For instance, had Adolf Hitler not imposed tax relief on new German cars in the early 1930s, BMW might never have made the upmarket move that its new 326 saloon represented in 1936.

The Germans had in effect invented the automobile, yet as a society proved surprisingly immune to the charms of mass private-car ownership.

As dangerous and war-mongering as the National Socialists were, they at least aspired to make Germany a nation of motorists and saw the value of a dynamic and technically advanced motor industry.

Classic & Sports Car - Raising the Saloon Bar

The BMW 326 was the brand’s attempt to capture an upmarket audience

This modern six-cylinder saloon, built to storm the freshly laid autobahns of the Third Reich at 70mph, perfectly captured the mood of thrusting technical progress the Nazi regime had strived to foster since taking power.

If the 328 was the leading sports car of its time, then the 326 was certainly one of Europe’s finest saloons. 

A light but roomy five-seater, it had a modern, fully welded all-steel body, a stiff closed box-section chassis – welded to the floor of the body and much more rigid than the previous tubular type – and notably sophisticated suspension arrangements.

In different wheelbase lengths the 326 chassis was the basis of the cheaper 320 and 321 models, and also adapted to the needs of the big 3½-litre 335, production of which never really got into its stride because of the war.

Classic & Sports Car - Raising the Saloon Bar

Penned by Peter Schimanowski, the 326’s swooping lines set the template for BMWs of the future

The 326 was also a good-looking car. Little is known of BMW’s in-house stylist Peter Schimanowski, but the flowing, rounded look he devised for the 326 forged a visual kinship with the wider BMW range.

It also ushered in the new, slimmer version of the corporate ‘kidneys’ (nieren) that established a theme of family identity that has been such a significant part of the BMW success story ever since.

As a close sibling of the dashing 327 and fabulous 328, there’s an argument that says the 326, a volume product that established the template for what BMW would come to represent, was a more significant car even if the two-seaters got all the glory.

Classic & Sports Car - Raising the Saloon Bar
Classic & Sports Car - Raising the Saloon Bar

You can find the 326’s fuel-filler cap tucked neatly into its spare-wheel cover

It was introduced at the Berlin show in February 1936 and was the first BMW product to seriously confront Mercedes-Benz.

Production got under way in June of that year; by the time it was curtailed by the war in 1941, 15,936 examples had been sold, making the 326 BMW’s best seller up to that point.

About 13,000 of those were sold as four-door, six-light five-seaters with hardtop bodies by Ambi-Budd of Berlin.

Classic & Sports Car - Raising the Saloon Bar

Later 326s, such as this car, can be identified by their perforated wheels

Cabriolets by Autenrieth of Darmstadt were also offered in four- and two-door forms, catering to the German taste for large open-topped cars.

In their home market the saloons were priced at 5500 Reichsmarks; the cabriolets, with their beautifully made if rather pram-like hoods, cost 7300RM, or you could buy a chassis for 4450RM.

In all cases the wheelbase was 9ft 6in, with wider tracks front and rear than previous Eisenach-built models.

Classic & Sports Car - Raising the Saloon Bar

This 326’s 1971cc Bristol 85A engine was fitted in September 1948

BMW had long been enthralled by the sweetness and refinement of small-capacity straight-six engines, and the origins of Fritz Fiedler’s long-stroke ‘M78’ unit extended back to the early 1930s.

It was a conventional but well-conceived powerplant that enjoyed a post-war career in the BMW 501 through to 1958, latterly with 2077cc and 72bhp.

For the 326 it was, in effect, a bored-out development of the 1911cc 319 engine: non-crossflow but with overhead valves, a duplex chain driving the side-mounted camshaft and with four main bearings for its dynamically balanced crankshaft.

Classic & Sports Car - Raising the Saloon Bar

The ‘M78’ engine was something of a generational leap, with decent performance and relatively high reliability

It shared that bottom end with the cross-pushrod/hemi-head unit developed for the 328.

While the noisy, rorty character of this sports car engine was not deemed appropriate for a bourgeois saloon, all things considered the 2480lb 326 was not exactly slow by 1936 standards.

With just 50bhp at its disposal, and breathing through a single downdraught Solex carburettor, BMW’s first four-door car could cruise at speeds close to its 80mph maximum with a margin of reliability rarely found in 2-litre engines 80 years ago.

You also got an automatic and non-overrideable freewheel on first and second gears (for clutchless changes in traffic), and there was synchromesh on the third and top ratios of the Hurth gearbox.

Classic & Sports Car - Raising the Saloon Bar

Despite its limited power, the Frazer Nash-BMW 326 was still an engaging car to drive

With 1971cc and a 6:1 compression ratio, the 326 was built for smooth stamina rather than ultimate urge, along with an ability to hold its tune for long periods even when driven hard.

The emphasis was on long-distance cruising on those autobahns, where a carefully driven BMW Type 326 could cover more than 300 miles on one 13½-gallon tank.

But for enthusiastic drivers the real joy of the 326 was in its sensitive rack-and-pinion steering and its supple suspension.

The latter comprised at the rear longitudinal torsion bars – attached to the axle casing via crank levers – and at the front full independence with underslung transverse leaf springs acting as the lower control arms, with integral, double-acting shock absorbers.

Classic & Sports Car - Raising the Saloon Bar

Technologies such as fully hydraulic drum brakes set the 326 apart from previous BMWs

In a world of beam axles and cart springs the 326, with its much-vaunted ‘inter-axle seating’, offered the refined blend of agile handling and a luxurious ride that had thus far been considered to be incompatible aims.

The fully hydraulic drum braking – a first for BMW – was by Lockheed, the six-volt electrics by Bosch.

Inside, rarely seen luxury and convenience details that are taken for granted today – a steering lock, self-cancelling indicators and rake-adjustable front seats – all added to the sense that this was a real connoisseur’s motor car.

Classic & Sports Car - Raising the Saloon Bar

WW2 put a dampener on Frazer Nash-BMW 326 sales

The Aldington family, of Frazer Nash fame, certainly thought so. It had been promoting the BMW name in Great Britain since the mid-’30s.

With the popularity of its classic chain-driven sports cars on the wane, the Falcon Works at Isleworth was keen to make a success of this still-young, ultra-modern German make in the UK, having struck a deal with the friendly Bavarians to import and even assemble the cars – often with locally produced bodywork – and sell them as Frazer Nash-BMWs.

In the face of increasing hostility to all things German, sales of 350 cars up to 1939 has to be deemed a modest success.

Of those, about 60 are thought to have been 326 saloons, the model the Aldingtons saw as a breakthrough car that would have appeal beyond the pure enthusiast market.

Classic & Sports Car - Raising the Saloon Bar

Even by today’s standards, the Frazer Nash-BMW 326 was something of a bargain

‘Glide in dignity down Bond Street,’ ran the advertising copy for the new ‘Big 2 litre’ 326, ‘or sweep in second up Porlock…’

Priced at £475 with cloth seats (£495 with leather), 326s were locally rated at 15.71 RAC horsepower, taxable at £12 15s annually.

Frazer Nash called the 326 ‘The finest Touring Car in the World’ in its dedicated brochure, and sold the cars with factory right-hand drive and ‘imperial’ mph instruments.

With its locking fuel cap, one-shot chassis lubrication and remotely controlled radiator blinds, the 326 was a lot of car for less than £500 even in 1937 – roughly £36,000 in 2022 money. That figure hardly gets you into a battery-powered runabout in the current BMW range.

Classic & Sports Car - Raising the Saloon Bar

Apart from a stint with the RAF, little is known about this classic’s wartime history

CBT 600, chassis number 113302, was one of a batch of three 326s delivered to Isleworth, all unpainted, in June 1939, with the later-style single-blade bumpers and perforated wheels.

It wasn’t registered for the road until November 1941, at which point the then silver BMW saloon was seconded to the RAF.

Nobody seems to know if CBT had a pre-war civilian owner, but it first appears in the Frazer Nash Archive in 1947 when it was owned by a Mr JH Harvey of London SW6.

Classic & Sports Car - Raising the Saloon Bar

Note the centrally mounted ‘imperial’ speedometer in this Frazer Nash-BMW 326

He had the 326 recommissioned but in August 1948 sold the still not 10-year-old saloon to a publisher of technical books called Bernard Babani of Shepherd’s Bush.

The archive service notes indicate that a piston had seized, but Babani was evidently enthusiastic enough about the car to commission Anthony Crook Motors to fit a Bristol 85B engine, complete with gearbox, propshaft and rear axle.

By late September CBT 600 was in the Frazer Nash workshops, where it was found that its new engine was running ‘very badly’, with oil in the radiator. It was also suffering from a severe case of pre-ignition.

Classic & Sports Car - Raising the Saloon Bar

After an extended stay at Bristol’s Filton factory, CBT 600 found its permanent home in the city

Even after a decoke, a tune-up and a set of new valve springs it still wasn’t right, so Tony Crook had the sick car sent down to the Bristol factory at Filton.

There it was fitted with the lower-powered but less troublesome 85A engine it still has to this day.

From that point forward, CBT 600 never left the Bristol area.

Its ’50s history is unknown – maybe someone reading this will clear it up – but by the early ’60s it was earning its keep as a parts delivery vehicle for a local garage.

Classic & Sports Car - Raising the Saloon Bar

Classic & Sports Car - Raising the Saloon Bar
Classic & Sports Car - Raising the Saloon Bar

The psychedelic late ’60s got to CBT 600, too – note its bright vinyl upholstery, googly-eyed front-end and two-tone paint

Between 1967 and ’70 it went through three more changes of ownership in the city, acquiring a set of Lucas P100 headlights along the way – hence its wide-eyed front-end look – and its current two-tone blue paintjob.

Clifford Tuttle, who comes up as the fourth owner in the buff logbook from the early 1970s, sold the 326 to Brislington-based garage owner Ted Chick in the early 1990s.

Chick, who passed away in 2020, had already restored a Bristol 400, but it had been this very 326 that first captured his interest in these locally built cars, having driven it as an apprentice in the early ’60s at the garage in Westbury where it served as the works runabout.

Apart from having the engine rebuilt, and driving it around the block a couple of times, he didn’t do much with the car other than keep it safe, dry and mostly hidden away: few people even knew he owned it.

Classic & Sports Car - Raising the Saloon Bar
Classic & Sports Car - Raising the Saloon Bar

Careful preservation has allowed CBT 600 to defy its age at every step of its journey

Chick was frustrated that he could never get to the bottom of its missing 1950s history, about which Crook remained characteristically tight-lipped. Now the family is selling CBT 600 through SLJ Hackett, epicentre of all things Bristol-related.

For an unrestored 80-year-old vehicle it has survived remarkably well.

Having persuaded a slightly dubious-looking Richard Hackett to let us get the 326 mobile for pictures, we found that it started readily, stopped (sort of) and accelerated through its gears surprisingly briskly.

Though beetle-browed and narrow inside, it generally feels more like a car from the ’50s than one from the ’30s, which is probably why it stayed taxed and on the road so long post-war.

Classic & Sports Car - Raising the Saloon Bar

CBT 600 cruises away to an uncertain future

Who knows what the future might hold for an up-and-together ‘barn-find’ such as this. 

I can see how, having recommissioned the engine and brakes, you might choose to repaint it, then do something about the rather, erm, ‘vibrant’ 1970s vinyl re-trim.

On the other hand, you could always drive CBT 600 aesthetically ‘as is’ in tribute to its history as a survivor car that made it through the war and dodged the prodding screwdrivers of one too many post-war MoT men, before finding sanctuary in a succession of Bristol lock-up garages.

Images: Will Williams

Thanks to: SLJ Hackett


Frazer Nash-BMW 326

  • Sold/number built 1937-‘40/c60
  • Construction steel chassis and body
  • Engine iron-block, alloy-head, cross-pushrod ohv 1971cc ‘six’, triple SUs (85A)
  • Max power 50bhp @ 3750rpm (80bhp with Bristol power)
  • Max torque n/a
  • Transmission four-speed manual, RWD
  • Suspension: front independent, by wishbones, transverse leaf spring rear live axle, torsion bars; telescopic dampers f/r
  • Steering rack and pinion
  • Brakes drums
  • Length 15ft 1in (4597mm)
  • Width 5ft 3in (1600mm)
  • Height 5ft 6in (1676mm)
  • Wheelbase 9ft 6in (2896mm)
  • Weight 2480lb (1125kg)
  • 0-60mph 29 secs
  • Top speed 78mph
  • Mpg 25
  • Price new £475
  • Price now £50,000*

*Price correct at date of original publication


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