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.
That said, the E90 generation has yet to find itself a place in the affections of the diehard 3 Series fan and has been under attack from the lithe 1 Series, which is, in effect, the E30 3 Series reborn in a new body.
But that apathy should be taken as a major result by us fans of used car bargains: look around and there are some great-value models to go for.
With just £4400 to play with, you can get a proper 320i SE from 2008. You may reasonably expect an M Sport car to take you towards a five-figure sum, so a 2008 3.0 325i M Sport doesn’t seem bad value at below £5k.
E46 (1998-2006), from £4500
For some, including me, this is the last time that the 3 Series looked right, and there are loads of lovely things to choose from here.
The big-engined petrol models are the place to be. The 2002 330Ci with an electric roof and a low mileage is yours for £4500. With a roof, a 330Ci Sport Coupé is the same money with a full history. Swap over to an M3 from the same year and that’s £7995 or so, and a 2004 facelift blips the price up to £9995. The competition package CS can start at £15k, and that has to be a tip for the future, but lower-milers are £23k-plus.
E36 (1990-1999), from £4000
Early examples of the E36 weren’t that great when it came to build quality, but it got better and ended up being what most people think a 3 Series should be.This generation became the most abused of the lot when the cars trickled down to all the wrong owners.
Plus there is a whole heap of M3s to choose from, in coupé, convertible and saloon forms. This is the eye-opener, because you can climb on board an M3 coupé for £4k. However, you would be far better off paying something closer to £8k-£9k.
It is, though, becoming difficult to find the M3 saloon, and I would tip that as the E36 model most likely to be a future collectable.
E30 (1982-1994), from £3000
The classic 3 Series that is modern enough to still be taken seriously as a proper driving machine. But which one? As with the E21 generation, it is worth finding standard cars that haven’t been mucked about with. Six-cylinder models are worth the effort and the 320i is underrated.
There are some ‘one family owner’ examples out there, but also some real rubbish. Restorations below £1000 are not worth it, but £3000-£5000 gets a decent car and that has to be underpriced for a six-cylinder car.
The sleeper remains the 318iS, the BMW idea of a hot hatch that you can now get for £3500. M3s are pulling away from us now into the stratosphere; your starter will be £35k if you’re lucky.
E21 (1975-1981), from £2000
If I can give would-be buyers one piece of advice, it is that they shouldn’t forget about the original. Many do, and that’s a mistake.
Here is the 3 Series in its purest form. I would heartily recommend a 316 on steel wheels to anyone that will listen. At least it won’t kill you, whereas a 323i can have you facing the wrong way on a roundabout.
Rust has been killing all early 3 Series cars for some time, and that’s what you need to worry about. You can get parts but they are pricey. So an unfussy 316i in tidy condition starts at £2000 to £2500.
It doesn’t take long to get into five figures, because immaculate 323is start to skim £10k and a concours example is on its way past £14k.
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