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

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

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.

1934315/1

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

1937 - 327

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

1940 - 328 Mille Miglia

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

1949 - 340

The first post-war BMW.

1954 - 502

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1966 - 1602

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

1968 - E3 New Six

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

1971 - 2002 Tii

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

1971 - E9 3.0 CSi

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

1972 - E9 3.0 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.

These are the components that earned it the Batmobile title.

1973 - E9 3.0 CSL ‘Batmobile’

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

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.

1975 - E3 3.3 Li

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

1976 - E24 633 CSi

The first 6 Series and a truly delightful GT.

Watch: What is the best BMW ever?

1978 - E12 528i

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

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.

1979 - 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

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

1983 - E24 M635 CSi

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

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.

1987 - E30 325i Touring

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

1988 - E34 535i

Most impressive and entertaining standard sports saloon of its era.

1989 - E30 M3

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

1989 - Z1

Worth it for the doors by themselves.

1990 - E36 318i

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

1991 - E30 M3 Evolution 2

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

1991 - 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

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

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

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

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

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

1995 - E38 750i

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

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

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

1998 - E46 320d

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

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

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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Comments
5

30 June 2016
You're right Autocar. The best BMW can't be after 1999.
RIP BMW.

30 June 2016
Having not driven a BMW since owning an E30 325i Convertible for three years in the mid 1990's, I was rather pleased to see Enterprise car hire turn up with one last Friday (to replace my Boxster, while the latter was having an electronics glitch sorted out under warranty). The BMW in question was a 65 registered 320d, X-drive, M-sport,Efficient Dynamics, auto (and breathe!) in metallic black. My first impressions were not positive: the interior was dark and funerial and the leather upholstry looked cheap and felt rather "papery". The only relief to the gloom was some random bright "metal" (it may or may not have been) trim, some of it coloured a lurid shade of blue, apparently to tell me it was an "Efficient Dynamics" model. Externally, the first thing that caught my eye was the wide rubber strip along the top of the door windows, which improves sealing and aerodynamics, I suppose. It was already very marked and looked really cheap. The bootlid felt very light and closed with a clang. On the road, things improved a lot: thd controls and switchgear worked very well, the car was very comfortable and refined, and would doubtless be a perfect companion for anyone who regularly has to travel long distances on motorways. The instrument cluster (which looked pound shop cheap) contained a large gauge giving an instantaneous mpg reading. Guess what? If you press the accelerator, your mpg drops, but if you lift and coast, it rises! Who knew! Seriously, does anybody ever leave their car's electronic display showing instantaneous mpg? No? Then why would you need an instrument dedicated to this. Overall, the car felt competent, comfortable, efficient...and dull. It's no wonder that the 3-series outsells the Mondeo, as it's exactly the same, apart from the aspirational badge. What on earth has happened to the "specialness" that used to distinguish BMWs from the mass market offerings? This is, of course, a purely personal view from someone who used to really like BMWs and was very underwhelmed by five days with a new one. Perhaps it might have grown on me...

30 June 2016
My first encounter with a BMW was a orange 2002tii being towed into the builders garage where I was a apprentice" we fix anything that moved"
and told to fix it, the head had blown.When the engine was running again you cannot imagine the TEST drive that followed, this is something that I can still feel today many years later, I was 19 years old.
The Car that I feel should be truly in the top three is the original 735i, we owned one for many years and at the time was leap years ahead of anything else.
My current car is a M135i, This little pocket rocket still stirs my soul from the minute I press the start button,I just sit there and listen to its glorious engine, apart from the poor seats, this car has brought super car performance, coupled with BMW quality.
I still miss my Impreza though

1 July 2016
I like BMWs always. I like the current model 3 series rest of including the 4WD & SVU. We forgot Bond 3 BMWs Z3 V12 7 series & Z8. Wheeler dealers had fix a few of these Classic BMWs & Sold in good profits.

1 July 2016
I'd like to be able to afford an E28 M5 sooner rather than later as prices are on the rise. Shame Autocar used the picture of an M535i instead..


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