BMW Dixi

This is an old car. Not just the oldest BMW at the weekend Cars & Coffee get-together, either; this one is simply the oldest BMW. This 1930 BMW 3/15 DA2 cabriolet is the oldest known BMW in the United States, maybe North America—and probably a few other countries, too.

Colleen Sheehan sits in her 3/15 DA2 in her family-owned shop.

Part of the intrigue of this 92-year-old BMW is that it is owned by what might have been (and still is?) the youngest classic-BMW owner; 29-year-old Southern California resident Colleen Sheehan has been the owner of this car since she was eight years old.

How old were you when you learned to drive with a manual transmission? And was it in an 80-year-old car?

If you’re wondering about the car and why it doesn’t quite look like the forebears of your G20 3 Series or X3 SAV, you aren’t alone. “I’ve had people argue with me that it was not a BMW,” Sheehan laughs. But it is a BMW, the first BMW model after the company acquired the Dixi works. Since the car is almost a century old, we can excuse some folks if their history is not as clear as it is in many of the books Sheehan has about the car.

Sheehan displays one of her books with the history of the 3/15 DA2.

For those who have already been mumbling “Dixi” upon seeing these pictures, you’re onto something. Borrowing a bit from Jackie Jouret and her book Genesis, and from Sheehan: In 1928, BMW absorbed the Dixi nameplate when it acquired Fahrzeugfabrik Eisenach shortly after they had licensed construction of the Austin Seven, which begat the 3/15 DA2.

The 1930 model year ushered in an electric starter, but the car still retained a front-mounted crank.

Model-naming was certainly easier when BMW had fewer models—like one model. The 3 in 3/15 DA2 might suggest that it was actually the first 3 Series, but here, 3 means that it was a three-speed. And the 15? Fifteen horsepower. Pretty simple.

Any argument about kidney grilles here?

Sheehan might take the prize for being one of the youngest to learn how to drive a three-speed manual—and she could most certainly claim any prize for best learning scenario. “We drove it on the Tour d’Elegance as part of the 2003 Pebble Beach Concours,” Sheehan recalls. “We finished the 70-mile drive as the very last car while people were winding up their lunches. It was still pretty amazing to have this little 35-mph-top-speed, 80-year-old car putting around the roads.”

Colleen and Mick Sheehan drive Sputter up to the podium at the 2003 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance to receive their Third In Class award. [Photo credit unknown.]

“My dad drove it, but since it was my car, it was entered in my name,” she continues. “A judge approached my dad and asked, ‘So that car, that’s your kid’s? If the car won an award, could she bring it across the podium?’ My dad replied, ‘Of course,’ and then turned to my twin brother and me and said, ‘Kids, you’re getting driving lessons!’ So there at Pebble Beach was my first foray into driving—at eleven years old, and in a brutal non-synchro three-speed manual!”

Sheehan learned on proper, if not finicky, pedals.

Sheehan knows how fortunate she is to have Sputter, as the car is affectionately named. “I got the car when I was around eight, and probably didn’t have as great an understanding then what the car meant and what it would mean to me in the future,” she says. “I was fortunate to have grown up around cars; my dad would sometimes take me to school in a McLaren F1! But at Pebble Beach that year, it really hit how much this car would mean to me.”

She appreciates its history, too. “It’s such a fun little car, a piece of history, a piece of my life, a piece of world history,” she continues. “It survived the war—and the model was even made into tanks! I get to drive fancy cars all day, so the thrill I get isn’t always going fast. This car can be more thrilling to drive near its top end of 30 mph; you feel like you’re being bounced off the road into the next dimension.”

It’s not the fastest, but it might just be the most fun.

Sheehan occasionally gets the car out for some exercise, but this cabriolet is understandably not the most comfortable or easiest to drive. “As long as there aren’t any freeways, we don’t mind driving it,” she notes. “Generally, no one really questions why we’re going slowly, and they aren’t mad that they’re stuck behind me. We did drive it to our friend’s house for Easter a few years back, and it died on the way there. I’m on the side of the road in heels while my husband and I start pushing the car. I suppose that when people see a couple of twenty-somethings all dressed up pushing a unique car like this, it gets some attention. Someone stopped to help and actually got a trailer and helped us tow the car that day!”

Sheehan and her husband, Robert, took the car to Flight Legacy Cars and Coffee in Tustin, California. [Photo courtesy Clement Kwong.]

Beyond shows and these periodic drives, what do you do with a finicky 92-year-old historic car? You find its near-twin! The Sheehans’ DA2 family has actually grown. They now have two, although Sputter’s slightly younger brother sits by patiently, looking a little less road-worthy, still a few years and several parts away from joining in the family fun.

Perhaps the only BMW in the U.S. almost as old as Sheehan’s 3/15 is… her other one! 

That fun has included a trip to Monterey Car Week, a podium at Legends Of The Autobahn, and a stay at the BMW CCA Foundation’s “Genesis” exhibit.

See? It did have air conditioning!

The improvements that BMW made to the DA2 in 1930s made it more drivable than the Dixi DA1. The DA2 received brakes at all four wheels. The car also features windows that could be cranked up and down, and a pop-out windshield. It was the first year of the electric starter, but the car still retained its grille-mounted crank. Its convertible top could also be lowered in about the time it takes me to perform the same feat on my E30 convertible.

Owning the oldest BMW in the country should grant you automatic BMW-enthusiast status, but Sheehan’s is real. In keeping with the small-car theme (the 3/15 DA2 cabriolet weighs approximately 1,000 pounds), her family also has an Isetta 300. “BMW in general is fun, but I like the odd ones,” she says. “I also appreciate BMWs like the 328 and the 507, but I do like the X6 M. But it won’t fit all my dogs, so that’s a no-go for me. Besides, the passion for me is the classics.”

At 748 cc, this inline four-cylinder engine produces fifteen horsepower at 3,000 rpm.

Do not hold your breath if you’re so fired up by the 3/15 that you want to buy it. “I’m never getting rid of it,” Sheehan says emphatically. “It’s the first car I learned to drive in, and it’s the car I will teach my kids to drive in. I don’t really know what it’s worth, because there aren’t a lot of comparables. The only one we know of is sitting beside it now.”

Sheehan takes the wheel for some top-down motoring—or photographing.

If you were to hope for a proper caretaker for such a unique vehicle, Colleen Sheehan is that person. Approachable, engaging, enthusiastic, and humble, she works as the sales manager for the family business, Ferraris Online, in Costa Mesa. She will be posting more about this fantastic piece of BMW history on her YouTube channel, also named Ferraris Online.—Kyle van Hoften

[Photos courtesy Kyle van Hoften unless otherwise stated.]

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