The 1980s had it all: decent music, hairspray-assisted hairstyles and the BMW 3 Series. I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time and even luckier to get a 316 as my first demonstrator.
That may not sound like much, but back in 1983 no salesmen had them; they were too busy flogging the things. Compared with the British rubbish and assorted Eurotrash I’d been used to, it was a revelation. No wonder everyone wanted one.
It may be hard now to realise just what a giant leap in car technology, brand building and all-round automotive awesomeness the E30-generation 3 Series was. I mean, it actually handled. The doors shut with a reassuring ‘gerthud’. Nothing ever rattled. Sitting in a 3 Series made you feel confident. Driving one turned you into a demigod. Not owning a brand-new 3 Series was not an option, and I was there to help.
The customers came in all shapes and sizes as BMW developed the compact executive car to the point where absolutely everyone wanted a 3 Series. The yuppies may have been the early adopters, but there were also company car buyers who would dump their user-chooser Ford Sierra Ghia in a heartbeat for a chance to pilot a boggo-spec three-door 316 in Henna Red.
The brilliant thing about all German cars was that everything was an extra. What made me smile was ‘radio preparation’; that’s 50 quid. For that, you got a couple of speakers, a few wires and a manual aerial.
Yes, it was all about the extras. That’s because it was all about profit. We were not playing the ‘park ’em deep, discount ’em cheap’ game like Henry Ford. More profit in the deal meant more money in my double-breasted suit. Some dealers did discount, but we never did. It was pretty much a sackable offence. Indeed, it was our job to raise the retail bar and it was relatively easy to get customers to spend comfortably over £20k on their car.
All I needed was a customer with a 323i and a sense of adventure whom I could steer towards a dog-leg, close-ratio gearbox, limited-slip diff, alloy wheels, air-con and all the technical wonders that Bavaria could provide.
But there was more. Much more. We were well ahead of the customisation curve at Park Lane, because we had the facilities to do anything to make your 3 Series look a lot less like the one belonging to your mate on the foreign exchange floor. This may have been a good thing for my bank balance, but it did lead to some aesthetically challenging bodykits, colours and leather trim.
A 3 Series needed the right spec and we always pre-ordered stock with a sunroof and central locking as the bare minimum. I did have one customer who insisted on keeping the solid roof on the grounds that someone would dive through the sunroof and onto his daughter, for whom he was buying the car. I explained that it would knock the resale value for six. He went ahead and ordered a 320i without a sunroof. He needed to worry less about resale and sunroof divers and more about the salesman doing the handover.There was nothing else like the 3 Series around. Nothing. Well, Mercedes-Benz tried with the 190. We got a left-hand-drive, part-exchange car and drove it around the Mayfair block. It was no 3 Series, although clearly accountants would love it. No, the appeal of the 3 Series widened with the introduction of each model: the Baur Convertible, Convertible, Tourer. This is where BMW began to mine multiple niches.
The 1980s marked the birth of the best 3 Series and the rebirth of BMW. These days, it’s possible to sate your 3 Series desire for not a lot of cash. Here’s what to look out for across the first five generations.
E90 (2005-2013), from £4400
This is the ‘Bangle-ised’ one (as in Chris Bangle, former BMW design boss), and is all the more expressive for his sharp-edged input.