Currently reading: BMW: greatest cars 1927-1999
From the E34 M5 to the Procar, we run through some of the best BMWs ever created between 1927 and 1999

BMW has created some real game-changers throughout its 100 years. Here are some of its best before the year 1999. 

1927 - 3/15 Dixi

1927 315 Dixi

BMW started life making aero engines, so the Dixi was the first BMW-built car. It wasn’t a BMW but an Austin Seven built under license with British components. Still, we’ve all got to start somewhere.

1933 - 303 saloon

1933 303

Not quite the first proper BMW but easily the most significant of the early cars, introducing as it did both the six-cylinder engine and the kidney grille that is the cornerstone of the marque’s identity to this day.


1934 315


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This was BMW’s first performance roadster: the Z4 of its era and the father of the 328.

1937 - 327

1937 327

An attractive and successful tourer but lacking the sex appeal of the 328.

1940 - 328 Mille Miglia

1940 328 2

It slayed giants on the Mille Miglia outright using just 2.0 litres and a ground-breaking aerodynamic body.

1949 - 340

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The first post-war BMW.

1954 - 502

1954 502

BMW’s first V8, providing genuine 100mph pace in a proper luxury car.

1955 - Isetta

1955 Isetta

Perhaps the best of the bubbles, this BMW-built and powered version of Renzo Rivolta’s classic design helped BMW through its most troubled times.

1956 - 503 Cabriolet

1956 503 Cab

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A more civilised but less striking version of the 503. Lovely, but too heavy and expensive to succeed.

1956 - 507

1956 507

BMW’s answer to the Mercedes-Benz 300SL. 

But despite a bigger engine with more cylinders (a 3.2-litre V8), power and performance were never in the same league as that of the Benz.

Sales were slow, which has made examples of it incredibly valuable today. This is the car that BMW was trying to emulate when it built the Z8.

1957 - 600

1957 600

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A four-seat Isetta that looked good and went well. Had its introduction not coincided with that of Dante Giacosa’s game-changing Fiat 500, it might have fared a whole lot better in the marketplace than it did.

1959 - 700

1959 700

Odd-looking but innovative, the rear-engined monocoque 700 saved BMW when the failures of the 1950s looked likely to bankrupt the company.

1962 - 3200 CS

1962 3200cs

The last of the old-school BMWs. It was attractive but obsolete on its introduction.

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1962 - 1500

1962 1500

The first of the new-school BMWs.

The journey that led to your 3 Series started right here, making this one of the most critically important cars in the company’s history.

Had it failed, few doubt that BMW would have gone down with it. In fact, it was a roaring success.

This is where the Hofmeister kink, that famous rear pillar design element, came from, too.

1964 - 1800 Ti/SA

1964 1800ti

It looked like your gran should drive it, but it could humble Lotus Cortinas on track.

1966 - 1602

1966 1602

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Smaller, lighter and better to drive than the 1500, the two-door 1602 built on its big brother’s success.

1968 - E3 New Six

1968 E3 2

The classic big BMW saloon and a return to silken-smooth six-cylinder engines. ‘E’ numbers started here.

1971 - 2002 Tii

1971 2002 Ti2

BMW’s first small fast saloon and one of its very best.

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1971 - E9 3.0 CSi

1971 E9

Almost as good as a Bat (see below) for a fraction of the money.

1972 - E9 3.0 CSL

1972 30 Csl

The iconic BMW coupé of its era. It was similar to the CSi but had light panels and an aluminium bonnet, bootlid and doors.

Designed to homologate the racing version, it became a cult car in its own right – never more so than when BMW fitted a huge rear wing, deep front spoiler and fins on the bonnet to homologate development parts for the race-going model.

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These are the components that earned it the Batmobile title.

1973 - E9 3.0 CSL ‘Batmobile’

1973 E9 csl

From the 1960s to the 1980s, the European Touring Car Championship was the premier tin-top series in the world. And from 1973 to 1979, the Bat won all but one of them. Enough said.

1974 - 2002 Turbo

1974 2002 Turbo

Comically unreliable, absurd lag from a pioneering turbo motor, ridiculously tricky to drive fast and still utterly loveable. Worth it for the mirrored ‘Turbo’ logo on the front spoiler alone.

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1975 - E3 3.3 Li

1975 E333 li low res

BMW’s best big saloon until the current 7 Series.

1976 - E24 633 CSi

1976 E24

The first 6 Series and a truly delightful GT.

Watch: What is the best BMW ever?

1978 - E12 528i

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1978 E12

Best of the ‘normal’ first-gen 5 Series.

1979 - E21 323i

The 3 Series first entered service in 1975, but it was four years later that the fun really began, right here with the powerful 323i and its hilarious handling.

1979 - E23 745i

1979 E23 low res

A turbocharged 7 Series, sold sadly in left-hand drive markets only because the turbo would have got in the way of the right-hand drive steering box.

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1979 - Procar

1979 M1 procar

The racing M1, used for two seasons as dodgems by Formula 1 drivers as grand prix curtain raisers.

1980 - E12 M535i

The fun starts to get serious: a 3.5-litre engine with a Motorsporttuned chassis.

1981 - E28 520i

1981 E28

This was a slow but super-smooth second-gen 5 Series.

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1983 - E24 M635 CSi

1983 M635i2

One of BMW’s finest: a tuned M1 engine in the brilliant 6 Series chassis. A driving and GT dream.

1984 - 635 CSi DTM

Won the inaugural DTM (German touring car) championship, driven by Volker Strycek.

1985 - E28 M5

1985 E28 m5

Perhaps BMW’s greatest Q-car, a 286bhp missile that looked very little different from a 520i. A world-class wolf in sheep’s clothing.

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1987 - E30 325i Touring

1987 325 Estate

Rubbish as a wagon, but most drivers were too busy having fun to care.

1988 - E34 535i

1988 E34

Most impressive and entertaining standard sports saloon of its era.

1989 - E30 M3

1989 E30 dtm

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Won the DTM with Roberto Ravaglia at the wheel and spawned a limitededition road car.

1989 - Z1

1989 Z1

Worth it for the doors by themselves.

1990 - E36 318i

1990 E36

Improved the lot of the budgetconscious long-distance driver like few before or since.

1991 - E30 M3 Evolution 2

1991 Evo2

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The ultimate original M3 with a 2.5-litre motor. Rare today and deservedly expensive.

1991 - E34 M5

1991 1992 E34 m5

Still rated by many as the best M5, ourselves included. Another close contender for our top five.

1992 - E34 M5 Touring

The original M5 estate, left-hand drive only. A rare pleasure.

1992 - E31 850 CSi

1992 E31

The 8 Series wasn’t great, but this was the best of them.

1991 - E36 318iS 

Owners will tell you it’s a junior M3. And they’d be right.

1993 - E34 540i

1993 54oi

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BMW’s first modern V8 and the first sign the company was weaning itself off the straight six. We thought we might not like it. We thought wrong.

1994 - E36 325tds

1994 325tds

An incredibly important car, because it was the first serious, high-performance diesel to go on sale.

Acceleration and mechanical refinement illuminated a whole new world of possibilities for diesel, most of which we had not even dreamt of until this time.

1994 - E36 318Ti Compact

1994 E36 compact

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Based on BMW’s first proper hatchback, this was an underrated and sparkling thing to drive.

1994 - E36 M3 saloon

Following the E30 act was never going to be easy and despite its six cylinders and additional power, this was a mixed effort. We had to wait for the…

1995 - E36 M3 Evolution

1995 E36 m3 evo

…Evo version to see how it should really have been done all along.

1995 - E38 750i

1995 E38 750i

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The first V12-engined 7 Series, with more computing power than that which took man to the moon.

1998 - E39 M5

1998 E39 m5

Ah, the one with the 5.0-litre V8.

It was so well balanced that we used it for the Sideways Challenge, yet it was a superb long-distance weapon, too.

1998 - Z3 M Coupé

1998 Z3 coupe

The only Z3 we really liked. Because it was mad.

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1998 - E46 320d

1998 320d

The first 320d, which set a new level of ability for four-cylinder diesels.

1999 - Z8

1999 Z8

Rarely has time aged a car better.

car that seemed irritatingly flawed at the time but now seems like the wonderful, stylish, powerful roadster that BMW always intended it to be.

1999 - V12 LMR

1999 V12 lmr

Who now remembers that BMW won Le Mans, with a prototype powered by the same engine as the McLaren F1?

An incredible achievement with a car already lost in the mists of time.

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sarahlorenz 9 August 2022
BMW started life making aero engines, so the Dixi was the first BMW-built car. It wasn’t a BMW but an Austin Seven built under license with British components. Still, we’ve all got to start somewhere.