The BMW 3 Series saloon celebrates its 40th birthday this month. We study the storied history of the car that turned around the fortunes of its maker

Really, the first BMW 3 Series went on sale in 1966, and had it been called by that name, we’d be celebrating its half-century next year.

The car that set the template for what today remains by far BMW’s most successful and important car was called, according to engine, the 1502, 1602, 1802 or 2002.

It took BMW, which was still recovering from being close to collapse in the 1950s, and set it on the course to becoming the massively respected global player it is today.

It was the 2002 that brought to market a state-of-the-art compact saloon that not only made sense for the family but also appealed to the driver, and it was the 2002 that, with the introduction of the Tii and Turbo, pioneered the concept of the ultra-sporting small BMW saloon.

These, in all but name, were the actual first M cars. History does not recall it as such, but it is the 2002 that was the true hero of this story, but because of a change of naming strategy, it must now prematurely depart the scene.

But not before it had proved the concept and made massively easier the job of designing its successor. It arrived 40 years ago and was known internally as the E21 but to everyone else very simply as the 3 Series.

These cars were all two-door saloons, which sounds like a contradiction in terms these days, but back then that was simply how it was done in that size category.

In mechanical terms, they broke no new ground but were robustly built and engineered and featured an all-new interior with some of the clearest, best-looking instruments ever to be fitted to a road car, elements of whose design can still be found in BMWs today.

The early E21 cars were actually quite clunky, with their four-cylinder, carb-fed motors and limited performance, but they quite quickly got a lot more interesting with the introduction of fuel-injected six-cylinder engines of 2.0-litre and 2.3-litre capacity and the kind of options you just don’t find today, including a limited-slip differential and a close-ratio gearbox.

And the 143bhp 323i needed both, because not only was its engine quite peaky, but its semi-trailing arm rear suspension also made it want to oversteer pretty much everywhere, especially in the wet. It was hugely successful and set BMW thinking that maybe that fast 3 Series idea was a theme worth developing.

By the standards of the day, the E21 didn’t last that long. It was replaced in 1982 by the E30, which was probably the most significant of all 3 Series generations.

Whereas the E21 had been offered as a two-door saloon only (although Baur made convertible versions), closed E30s would in time be offered with two, four and, in Touring form, five doors and the convertible would be brought in- house.

This was the first generation of 3 Series to be fitted with diesel engines and, most significant of all, it was the E30 platform that hosted BMW’s first volume-built M car, the M3 regarded by many to this day as the finest car BMW has ever built.

For those unwilling or unable to go the whole hog, BMW produced other, less powerful yet still superb driving machines on this chassis, including the 325i and still very underrated 318iS, which, with its twin-cam, four-valve 1.8-litre engine, rightly earned the reputation as being an M3 for those who couldn’t afford an M3.

The E30 spent a decade in production and was replaced by the E36 in 1992, a car that will never receive the same plaudits as the E21 or E30 but which was, in fact, probably a finer effort than either. Until then, the 3 Series had always been fun and sufficiently quiet and comfortable to fit into family life, but priorities changed subtly for the E36. 

Although the car remained more dynamic by far than the Mercedes-Benz 190 and the C-Class that would appear during the E36’s lifetime, it also reached a level of sophistication that no previous 3 Series would recognise.

Partly this was due to greater interior space and dramatically improved materials lending the car a new sense of occasion and maturity, but the perhaps bigger yet hidden change was the deletion of semi-trailing arm rear suspension and the adoption of BMW’s multi-link Z axle. True, it meant less oversteer for the drift jockeys, but the seven-league leap in ride quality and stability was of rather greater use.

E36 cars had their detractors, none more so than the M3, which lost its motorsport-focused four-cylinder motor and on-the-limit feel and crispness, but for most people this was not only the best 3 Series yet but also the best small saloon (or coupé, hatch, estate or convertible) in the world.

Which is why the E46 that replaced it in 1998 was entirely evolutionary in approach and, in that respect, the complete antithesis to the clean-sheet design that had been the E36 in 1992. The platform was new but, architecturally, very much informed by that of its predecessor.

No more body configurations were added as BMW focused on optimising the earlier design by improving aerodynamics, reducing weight and increasing torsional rigidity. Few thought the E36 in any need of replacement, so the success of the E46, which was better in all respects that mattered, was assured.

However, it did herald major developments. This was the era in which diesel power went from being a novelty niche performer to a major player and the E46 introduced the 320d, a car capable of close to both 130mph and 50mpg, a combination never seen in a road car before, and the 330d, a diesel car that would hit 62mph in less than 8.0sec and reach more than 140mph, numbers unimaginable for any diesel car just a few years earlier.

This was also the generation in which BMW sought to re-establish the credentials of the M3. Out went the slow-selling saloon version and in came a 3.2-litre motor that hit 8000rpm and developed a stunning 343bhp without a turbo in sight.

There was BMW’s first production SMG paddle-shift transmission (better in theory than practice) and, perhaps most significant of all, the M3 CSL, which dropped 110kg in weight, added a carbonfibre roof, featured stiffer suspension and gained a 16bhp power hike.

Just 1400 were built, although those who missed the boat could get a far more affordable CS that lacked the CSL’s wacky materials and hot engine but retained its steering, brakes and suspension.

By 2005, an entirely new 3 Series was required, but on the basis of not fixing what was clearly not broken, the all-new E90 sought to expand further on the theme of the E36 and E46 without fundamentally changing the formula. The number of bodystyles didn’t change (although the convertible gained a retractable hard-top), but the powertrains offered an ever greater choice of performance and economy options, or blends between the two.

It was the E90 M3 that eschewed the straight six motors of the two previous models for a howling 4.0-litre V8, and it was the E90 that introduced BMW’s most powerful six-cylinder diesel up to that point: the 286bhp 335d, offering as much power from a 3.0-litre diesel as BMW had offered from a 4.4-litre petrol V8 10 years earlier.

And so to the current car, the F30, which in many ways is the most revolutionary 3 Series since the E36. Emissions and economy are now the most important considerations, which is why even a 328i has just four cylinders, sixes being saved for the 335i, 330d, 335d and, of course, the first turbocharged M3, a radical step in its own right.

You can now buy a hybrid 3 Series, a four-wheel-drive 3 Series and a new body shape in the form of the large hatchback 3 Series GT. What you can no longer do, in name at least, is buy a coupé or convertible 3 Series, these now rebadged 4 Series.

The past 40 years have taken the 3 Series on an incredible journey and, en route, provided the bedrock for the success that BMW enjoys today. But although the cars have changed beyond all recognition, the design brief has not.

Then, as now, if you buy a 3 Series, you expect a car that will not only do all the things you require of any everyday compact family car, but also to a standard at least as good as anything else that amount of money will buy. And it will still put a smile on your face, its key USP these past four decades.

While BMW continues to deliver on that promise, it is hard to see the 3 Series doing anything else than continue to be the most coveted car of its kind in the world.

Driving the E30 M3 and F30 320d

Their internal codes may be separated by just one letter, but there’s 30 years between them. In concept, the gulf is perhaps greater still. But that’s precisely what proves the point of those who say the 3 Series was then and is now the greatest car of its kind.

These two are here because, of all the thousands of variants produced over the decades, they are probably our favourites – one a 30-year-old road-going racing car, the other perhaps the most perfectly evolved daily hack there is.

We’re not here with a view to finding a winner because, four-cylinder engines, rear-wheel drive and propellor badging aside, they have remarkably little in common. Except that when you drive the E30 M3, you’ll probably not be out of the car park before becoming infused with a sense of well-being.

It is, of course, partly because you already know that today is going to be one of the better days and that for balance, steering feel and driver involvement, there remains much to be learned from the original M3, even by its modern equivalents. But so, too, are you aware of being in a car that is supremely fit for the purpose for which it was designed. There’s nothing gimmicky about an original M3, nothing there purely for show. It is a product of minds obsessed with engineering excellence first, second and third.

And you can say exactly the same about the diesel F30 saloon. Now, of course, there are any number of 3 – or more likely 4 – Series that can be bought by those more interested in show than go, but while BMW continues to make the staple product, and make it as well as this, we have no problem with that.

A 320d is not flash, but despite all the efforts of Audi and Mercedes over the years, it is the best car in its class, a comment that can be applied to almost all 3 Series for almost all of the 40 years they have been in production, reflecting an ability to stay at the top of its table rivalled perhaps only by the Porsche 911 and Mercedes S-Class.

But although our purpose here is not to compare an E30 M3 with an F30 320d, we can at least use them to shed some light on the progress made in the interim. In 1985, a car designed to homologate a race car made 197bhp from its 2.3-litre engine (86bhp per litre), enough to propel the car to 62mph in 6.7sec and on to 146mph.

In 2015, a car designed to trudge up the motorway has 184bhp from its 2.0-litre diesel engine (92bhp per litre) and will hit 62mph in 7.5sec before reaching the same 146mph. But where the old M3 would do 30mpg at best, the new 320d should do 60mpg with ease.

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Comments
10

23 May 2015
The E36 was launched in 1990, not 1992. Early builds could be a bit dodgy but a well-preserved E36 is still a cracking steer. They should forget these horrid new front-drivers and give us another E36.

23 May 2015
I remember seeing the first pre-production E36 M3 coupes coming out of the BMW Regensburg factory in July 1992 when I was there on a 6 month work placement during my degree course. They were completely debadged apart from the M style alloys and the little 'M' badges on the door bump strips... Very cool to see it..!

23 May 2015
I loved the 1984 323i I had in the mid 90's. My ex-wife spun it backwards into a hedge and it came out with only a few scratches. She stuck to our Metro after that. The BMW got a lot more respect than most 12 year old cars would at the time. However I think that partly due to everyone assuming I was probably a drug dealer. It would make a great practical classic now, just look out for crash damage, oh and maybe bullet holes.

23 May 2015
I follow a rule when drafting a report that if I mention a physical feature it must be shown on a map or plan. Your articles would benefit from a similar rule in my opinion. That is, if you mention some of the finest dials ever fitted to a production car, for example, please include an image of said dials. I just googled the dials and they are generally good except for the speedometer, the use of metric and imperial indices for which appears incongrouously fussy. Any thoughts on the matter?

23 May 2015
I agree with the author of this article that the first generation 3 series had the clearest instruments and best dashboard layout compared to its contemporaries. No doubt a most successful example of German design (think Braun). At the time of E21's launch, Mercedes still had baroque-like decorative dials (although they are surprisingly easy to read). Only with the launch of W201 (190 series), W124, W126 - all designed by Bruno Sacco - that MB instruments & dashboard layout became as clear, precise & logical as those BMWs. Against these superb modernist designs any current BMW or MB interiors would for me be headache inducing.

23 May 2015
That would be the E46 then.......?

Peter Cavellini.

289

23 May 2015
...Wow, this makes me feel old....40 years!
I have had a number of 2002 Tii's over the years and had 3 series from the 6 cylinder models onwards. 323i E21's are soooo entertaining to drive.
I loved the E 30's as well, particularly 325i Tourings of which I had many. End of the E30 was the end of my love affair with BMW and I have been a Mercedes-Benz man ever since.

23 May 2015
I think the best for ever will be the E36.

They sould make NA L6 rather than celebrate it.

The magic doesn't exist anymore...

Sad days...

26 May 2015
Having owned 10 BMWs 6 of them 3 Series and all but 1 having had straight six non-turbocharged petrol engines and having covered over 350K miles in them I cannot grasp why Autocar persists with the idea that a 320d is "best of breed" or "best in class". It simply is not. I have driven the F30 in a number of guises over the last 3 years - 320i, 318d, 328i and 320d. Of all of them by far the worst for Noise Vibration and Harshness is the 320d. I dislike diesels anyway but at least the 318d was (relatively) quiet (within the normal parameters for a diesel - really noisy and rough in other words) and did not shake the dash to pieces with the on/off nonsense at traffic lights. The petrols were equally as bland and anaemic as each other but were quiet. The 328i is in no way a replacement for my current 330i coupe. The petrol versions did at least handle the way a 3 Series should with uncorrupted steering and good balance. The 320d though is rubbish by comparison to the F30 petrol cars and to all E9x, E46, E36, E30 and even E21s. It is like most diesels nose heavy compared to its petrol equivalent, the steering is heavier due to the heavier front end, the balance is wrong and on a good twisty road you get the feeling that the first thing to overcome in driving quickly and smoothly is the car itself. It fights against you rather than working with you. Compared to its rivals the Audi A4 is better made and better finished, the Mercedes-Benz C-Class is quieter (again relatively) and better made but handles nearly as well and the Jaguar XE is a better drive or so I am told (I have driven the A4 and the C-Class as hire cars but not an XE). My pick of the last 40 years of 3 Series (non M) would be the E46 325Ci Coupe in SE trim with 17 inch alloys and sports seats. No silly thick M Sport steering wheel, no 18 inch alloys causing tram lining, no M Sport suspension causing a crash you ride and enough grunt to "make progress" but not enough to cost an arm and a leg to run. Do BMW make anything like it today? No. Will I buy another BMW? Not sure but if I do it will never be a diesel and that was before the Supreme Court ruling.

27 May 2015
"You can now buy a hybrid 3 Series, a four-wheel-drive 3 Series . . " - youve been able to buy a four wheel drive 3 series since 1985, every 3 series has been availbale with it.

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