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.