BMW's big-selling 3-Series hits its 40th birthday

In many ways it’s the iconic middle class car that made BMW a market success, but has it also developed a mid-life crisis?

As the BMW 3 Series celebrates its 40th birthday we take the latest incarnation, the 318d, out on the road to see how it measures up against its predecessors. Video: Neil Briscoe

 

It didn’t feel much like an Earth-shattering event. There were no strange lights in the sky, no volcanic rumblings, no-one looking around for a helpful virgin to sacrifice. The BMW 3 Series arrived on the scene almost without fanfare. It’s not as if the idea of a classy, sporty compact saloon hadn’t been around for a while already. Since 1966, BMW had been selling just that very car, badged variously as a 1500, 1602 or 2002. That was the car that pulled BMW’s finances up by their bootstraps (did you know BMW almost went into bankruptcy in 1950?) and began to slowly, slowly turn it into the automotive powerhouse it is today.

So celebrating the 40th birthday of the 3 Series now, in 2015, is factually and calenderally correct. But it’s not quite right. The E21 3 Series, the first car to be badged as such, was indeed launched in 1975, but this is really the equivalent of giving your kid their birthday party on a convenient Saturday, when their actual birthday is the following Wednesday. They’ll get the cake, the party and the presents, but it’s not their real birthday.

For the 3 Series, that ‘following Wednesday’ is actually 1982, when the E30 version was launched. This was the 3 Series as we still think of it – classy and sexy, but in a very lean and pared back kinda way. Six-cylinder engines to the fore, even if all most could actually afford was a stripped-down 318i. The E30 was the first four-door 3 Series, the Touring introduced the world to the idea of a not-very-practical-but-really-quite-sexy estate and the first generation M3 laid the foundations for BMW’s astonishing motorsport successes of the eighties and nineties.

Indeed, you couldn’t look anywhere in popular culture without coming across a 3. They were the transport of city traders and execs who hand’t yet earned a big enough bonus to get a Porsche. They were on the telly every week pounding around the race tracks and rally stages of the world. Mel Gibson even had a car chase in one (in little-seen action comedy Bird On A Wire).

And bit by bit, the 3 Series was changing the world around it. Competitors were launched – Mercedes created its 190E by running an E-Class through a photocopier on 10 per cent reduction, while Audi created an 80 saloon which was pretty but in which space had not been left for an actual boot.

BMW meanwhile, just went from strength to strength. That body, penned by Claus Luthe (who knew a thing or twelve about making a saloon look classy – the NSU Ro80 was also one of his) looked sharp enough to stay in production, with minimail alterations and updates, for a full decade. The cabin, with the centre of the dash angled towards the driver, with those big, clear dials and the dinky little fuel economy meter, set a template for cabin design which many still slavishly follow. It didn’t matter that they were expensive, or that Irish-spec cars came with no standard radio (yes, really) and windy-windows – everyone wanted one.

Selling them must have come easy then, right? Well, yes, pretty much. James Ruppert is a hugely respected author and journalist these days, but he cut his teeth and wore his narrow tie as a seller of BMWs back in the eighties. His hilarious account of these days, The German Car Industry: My Part In Its Victory, is essential reading and he told me that the key to the 3’s appeal was just how different it was from the moribund Morrises and antediluvian Austins of the day.

“The 3 Series looked like the future to me. The present had been assorted rusty Eurotrash and the very rancid cream of the British motor industry that didn’t look nearly as cool, or sharp as this smart German. I mean, the doors ‘gerthunked.’ Nothing came off in your hand, there were no rattles, but there was a Blaupunkt sound system. This was quality product. If there was a six cylinder under the bonnet, then it delivered a turbine whine that was addictive. Yes it drove like the future too. No wonder it was so damned easy to sell.”

Not so damned easy to drive though. E30s were and are notorious for hairy handling, especially if it’s damp out and Ruppert was no stranger to the dark arts of the 3’s swing-arm rear suspension. “I had an E21 323i part exchange. It was red. It looked like fun, I took it home. However on a mildly damp roundabout at no more than 5mph it had me facing the wrong way in the rush hour. Otherwise in the dry they were brilliant. I doubt that I could be done retrospectively for speeding and obviously I am not proud of this, but I did manage 80mph in a London West One post code. That was a blue 323i with a dog leg gearbox and it was a sunny July 1984 at about 8pm and there was a girl who looked like she was out of Bananarama in the passenger seat. Otherwise, I don’t remember much about it.”

Unlike Bananarama, the 3 Series would evolve away from its eighties roots and progress from being a merely successful model sold by a premium car maker and into something rather more epochal. E30 begat E36 (more sophisticated, less obviously-lethal suspension, straight-six for the M3) and then the E46 (slicker by far, diesels to the fore), via E90 (V8 for the M3 now, super-economical 320d previewing BMW’s future as a Co2 champion) to today’s F30.

Along the way, it morphed from being a strong-selling executive car to being a best-seller in its own right. The 3 Series now vastly outsells some supposedly more mainstream models, thanks to a combination of careful marketing which generates latent desire and some very canny finance offers which lean heavily on the model’s strong residual values. In the UK the model has long since overtaken the sales of more mainstream Fords and Vauxhalls, while here at home, it sells (significantly) better than the likes of the Mazda 6 or Peugeot 508, and is knocking on the door of the Opel Insignia and Hyundai i40.

But has it lost its way a touch? I took a spin in a current 318d, and fair enough, this is a car that will shortly be replaced by a refreshed and updated model, but it didn’t seem all that exciting anymore. as with all cars, it’s gotten so much bigger, heavier and more sophisticated than that original E21 or brilliant E30 that the commonality of name is really rather absurd. That is to be expected, but in spite of the still-sharp steering and still-wonderful handling balance, it just seemed to lack the zip and pizzazz of 3 Series of old. Nowadays, perhaps, the mantle of the E30 has actually been passed on to to the smaller, lighter, more agile (yet still enticingly practical) 2 Series Coupe. It can be the fun car, while the bigger 3 gets on with being successfully conservative.

“All generations of cars seem to go Elvis and get worse” says Ruppert. “The 3 Series probably became progressively better. Actually the E39 was lovely. I’m not so keen though on the latest one which does look less than interesting, but BMW is the cleverest car company in the world. It was the 3 Series that got it to where it is now and it was the first to realise that there were niches to be exploited. Incredibly it has done that without harming that brand that I helped to build in the ‘80s when it went from interesting premium sports vehicle maker, to international automotive goliath, with credibility.”

Perhaps it’s inevitable that, as you approach and pass 40, a little of the fun goes out of your life. You become focused on more serious things, and for the 3 Series those are residuals, Co2 emissions, space, comfort and maintaining a solid base for its Guaranteed Future Minimum Value. It may yet be the car that everyone wants, but for me the 3 Series of my dreams remains that youthful E30.

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