But it set the template. Other cars might have made the market for what would eventually be known as the compact executive saloon. One was Alfa Romeo’s 1962 Giulia saloon, another the 1971 Triumph Dolomite, but their makers failed to fully capitalise, leaving BMW to develop the compact, sporty two-door saloon that was the E21 3 Series of 1975.
It offered much the same formula as before, but with the deeply appealing option of a smooth spinning six-cylinder engine packaged into a modern, beautifully crafted and sporting package. This despite the E21 spinning almost as easily in rain as its straight six did on fuel. Semi-trailing arm rear suspension, and its grip-altering camber changes, was the cause.
But perhaps the real significance of the E21, and common to every 3 Series since (almost), is that it combined grown-up, tasteful sportiness with an aura of precision quality. In its day, the robustness of the bodyshell, the panel gaps (including those of the complicated cantilevering bonnet), the calibre of the soft-feel dashboard, the solid click of its switches and the durability of the upholstery set new standards. Mercedes were also well-made, but less stylish, more stolid.
The 1982 E30 extended the theme, with a four-door, a convertible and (after an employee privately built a one-off, instantly commandeered as a prototype) a Touring estate. That BMW was onto something was confirmed by Mercedes-Benz, which spent years developing a rival, if of less sporting demeanour, with the 1982 W201 190E. The trend gathered pace. BMW even fixed the 3 Series’ slippery back axle with 1990’s Mk3, whose improved weight distribution and more aerodynamic form were a real step forward, even if the finish of early examples fell backwards.
After this, there’s almost no need to say more. Each of the subsequent four generations of 3 Series has improved incrementally across most fronts, sometimes substantially so, while the M3 has quickened, if not always as entertainingly as the original. There are now many imitators, though only the C-Class and Audi A4 are successful. The struggling copyists include Lexus, Jaguar, Infiniti, Volvo, Mazda (Xedos, anyone?) and Cadillac. Alfa’s new Giulia is close, but commercially it’s as far off as Pluto.