Launched in 1975, the BMW 3 Series changed the shape of the compact executive sector. Since then, some 14 million units have been built, making it one of the best selling cars of all time.
To mark the launch of the all-new seventh generation G20 3 Series at the 2018 Paris Motor Show, we take a look back at 43 years of the world’s best selling premium executive saloon.
The BMW 3 Series: this is your life.
No history of the BMW 3 Series would be complete without first mentioning the BMW 2002. Introduced in the late 1960s, the 2002 laid the foundations for the 3 Series by forging a reputation for reliability and sharp dynamics. The BMW 3 Series couldn’t have asked for better parentage.
BMW 5 Series (E12)
The first 3 Series was designed to look like a smaller version of the BMW 5 Series, which had been launched three years earlier in 1972. Codenamed the E21, the first 5 Series would remain in production until 1984, by which time nearly 700,000 cars had been built.
1975: BMW 3 Series (E21)
Developed over a five-year period and at a cost of 35 million Deutschmarks, the BMW 3 Series – codenamed E21 – was unveiled in July 1975. It featured four different four-cylinder engines and was launched in the UK in October 1975. It was the smallest BMW ever developed and, at the time, the most comprehensively engineered.
The BMW 3 Series and Mercedes-Benz C-Class would go on to become fierce rivals, but in launching the E21, BMW drew first blood. In fact, the Bavarians could afford not to offer a four-door version until 1983, by which time the Mercedes-Benz 190 (forerunner to the C-Class) was only just being unveiled.
1977: BMW 3 Series convertible
In 1977, the first left-hand-drive BMW 3 Series convertible was launched in the form of the E21 Baur convertible. It harked back to the effortlessly pretty 2002 Baur convertible (as shown here).
BMW 323i of 1977
In the early days, prospective BMW owners could choose from the entry-level 316, the 318, the 320 and the range-topping 320i, with the ‘i’ denoting fuel injection. But in 1977, BMW unveiled a new range of six-cylinder engines for the 3 Series, the ultimate of which was the 323i, complete with a fuel-injected 2.3-litre engine.
Motorsport debut 1977 – BMW Junior Team
The 3 Series made its motorsport debut in 1977 when BMW Motorsport entered a BMW Junior Team in the 1977 German Championship. Although early days, BMW – and in particular the 3 Series – would go on to develop a strong relationship with the track.
1982: BMW 3 Series (E30)
BMW sold 1.36 million E21s, making it a phenomenally successful car. But that’s nothing compared to the E30 3 Series of 1982. If ever a car put a company on the map, the E30 did for BMW. A stalwart of the 1980s, the E30 would shift 2.22 million units, helped in part by its Swiss Army Knife levels of versatility.
BMW 3 Series: optional extras
As it developed, the E30 would offer a bewildering array of options and accessories. Who else could offer a front-engined, rear-wheel-drive compact saloon powered by anything from a lowly diesel engine to a high-powered M3 version? The E30 would also cement BMW’s relationship for being – how should we put it – a tad miserly with the spec sheet. A competitive screen price may have lured the punters in to the showroom, but they soon found that many extras would need to be paid for.
BMW 3 Series: four-door arrives
In 1983, BMW launched the first four-door version of the 3 Series, a version that would be critical to the model’s long-term success. The B-pillar was pushed eight inches forward to make room for the extra door.
The 3 Series gained a new flagship in September 1985 with the launch of the new 325i. Thanks to its 2.5-litre engine, the 325i offered performance levels comparable to the likes of the Volkswagen Scirocco, Toyota Supra and Porsche 944, but in a more conservative and practical body.
At the opposite end of the spectrum was the 324d, the first diesel-powered BMW 3 Series. A turbocharged version – the 324td – would arrive two years later.
BMW E30 Touring
The original 3 Series Touring – or estate – wasn’t developed by BMW at all. Well, not as such. It was the work of Max Reisbock, a BMW engineer, who found the saloon version wasn’t practical enough for his growing family. So he bought a wrecked 323i and converted the car himself. BMW liked the design so much, a factory version was built with only minimal changes to Max’s original design.
BMW E30 M3
The E30 M3 is quite simply one of the greatest performance cars of all time. Launched at the 1985 Frankfurt Motor Show, the first M3s would be unleashed in a cloud of tyre smoke a year later. An output of 200hp may not seem like a great deal in an age when a hot hatch won’t get out of bed for less, but the M3 had rear-wheel drive and 50:50 weight distribution on its side.
BMW E30 M3 Touring Car
Of course, the E30 M3 road car was developed for homologation purposes, allowing BMW Motorsport to go racing. And go racing it did, competing with great success in the British, French, Italian and German Touring Car Championships, as well as at the Nürburgring 24-Hour. BMW needed to build 5,000 road cars. It actually built nearly 18,000. Enough said.
BMW 3 Series and the rise of the yuppies
Yuppies: young, upwardly mobile professionals. In the 1980s, no aspirational and wealthy Londoner would be seen without a mobile telephone, big hair and an appropriate set of wheels. For many, the BMW 3 Series was the vehicle of choice. Sales rocketed, but the 3 Series would develop an unfortunate image that would take years to shake off.
The E30 3 Series also spawned one of the most striking sports cars of the era: the delightful BMW Z1. It used the E30’s platform and the 2.5-litre engine from the 325i, plus it and featured a pair of trick doors, which ‘disappeared’ into the door sills. It was the first BMW Z car.
1990: BMW E36 3 Series
As the 1980s gave way to the 1990s, BMW launched the third generation 3 Series, otherwise known as the E36. It was a case of out with the old and in with the new as the E36 shared virtually nothing with its predecessor. Noticeably bigger than before, the new 3 Series also featured a pair of double headlights, now sat behind glass covers.
Like the E30 before it, the E36 spawned a sports car of its own, this time in the form of the BMW Z3. This was the first BMW to be built in the United States and it was propelled into the public eye by its appearance in the 1995 film, Goldeneye.
Although far less glamorous than James Bond or a two-seat roadster, the BMW 318tds of 1994 represents another milestone in the model’s history. It was the first four-cylinder diesel engine to be fitted to a BMW 3 Series.
BMW E36 M3
But we don’t want to give you a four-cylinder diesel. Not when you can have a firecracker of a BMW M3. The E36 is rarely ranked alongside the best of the M3s, but the M3 Coupe remains a thing of beauty. And the 3.0-litre straight-six engine represented a new era for the badge. Saloon and convertible versions would follow and BMW would shift over 71,000 units, making it hugely successful.
1993: BMW 3 Series Compact
The purists weren’t impressed with the BMW 3 Series Compact of 1993, but there’s no doubting the business case for it. Essentially it was a smaller, hatchback version of the E36 and it helped BMW reach an entirely new audience. Think of it as a forerunner to the current 1 Series.
1998: BMW E46 3 Series
Fast forward to 1998 and the launch of the fourth generation (E46) BMW 3 Series. From a sales perspective, the new 3 Series picked up where the old car left off, breaking the three million units mark for the first time. In total, 3.27 million E46s were built.
BMW E46 M3
If the E36 M3 was a little soft for some people, the E46 M3 was a welcome return to form. Its 3.2-litre six-cylinder engine would propel the M3 to a top speed of 150mph, sprinting past 62mph in just 5.2 seconds. It was good. Like, really good. But it will forever live in the shadow of the ultimate E46 M3…
BMW E46 M3 CSL
The legendary E46 M3 CSL. By shedding 110kg of weight and upping the power, BMW created a performance icon. The 0-62mph time now slipped under the five-second mark. The M3 CSL was quite simply one of the most driver-focused cars of its day. If you get the chance, you must drive one.
BMW 320Cd Convertible
For those who prefer boulevard cruising to kissing the apex, this is perhaps more suitable. The BMW 320Cd Convertible of 2004 was the first open-top BMW to feature a diesel engine. Yes, we know, we’d prefer a CSL, too.
2005: BMW E90 3 Series
We’re getting rather close to the modern era now with the E90 3 Series of 2005. Barely 13 years old, the E90 is still a familiar sight on Britain’s roads, especially on motorways and in office car parks. The World Car of the Year judges clearly liked it, as it won the award in 2006. To confuse matters, the E90 was a saloon, E91 a Touring, E92 a coupe and E93 a convertible. Remember the days when BMW codenames and models were simple?
BMW E90 / E92 M3
Breaking with tradition, the M3 now featured a V8 engine. Talk about the end of an era. Sadly, despite the 4.0-litre V8 engine, the new M3 weighed in at 1,655kg, so it was hardly the featherlight CSL of yesteryear. Still, it did spawn some tasty special editions, including the last-of-the-line M3 Coupe. It’s rather orange.
2012: BMW F30 3 Series
And so to the current era and the outgoing sixth generation BMW 3 Series. Codenamed the F30, the 3 Series was unveiled in 2011 and launched in 2012. You’ll probably remember it from the 2012 London Olympics, where it was the most widely used support vehicle.
BMW F30 M3
Right, bear with us on this, because you can no longer buy an M3 Coupe. But you can still buy an M3. Just only in four-door guise. If you want an M4 Coupe, you’ll need to buy the M4. Got that? In both cases, the V8 has been ditched, with BMW now favouring the 3.0-litre twin-turbocharged six-cylinder unit. It’s a welcome return to form for the iconic badge.
BMW F32 4 Series
The four-door 3 Series is no more. If you want one, you’ll have to buy a new BMW 4 Series instead…
BMW 3 Series Gran Turismo
Or, if you fancy something slightly different, you can opt for the BMW 3 Series Gran Turismo. It’s more practical than a 3 Series Touring and offers more rear legroom than a 5 Series. And yes, despite us telling you otherwise, it is a BMW 3 Series with four doors…
BMW 3 Series ActiveHybrid 3
The BMW 3 Series ActiveHybrid 3 was a thoroughly modern interpretation of the classic 3 Series recipe, featuring as it did, a hybrid powertrain. That said, at £42,000 it was very expensive and you’d probably be far better off with a cheaper, diesel-engined 3 Series. The more recent BMW 3 Series iPerformance is no longer available to order.
Alternatively you could opt for the incredibly popular BMW X3. These things offer rock-solid residual values and further proof that the 3 Series platform remains as versatile as ever.
BMW 3 Series: British Touring Car Championship
A change in focus here, because racing cars will always be more exciting than SUVs and crossovers. The BMW 3 Series has enjoyed great success in the British Touring Car Championship (BTCC), especially in the 1980s and 1990s. Frank Sytner, Will Hoy, Tim Harvey, Joachim Winkelhock and Colin Turkington all drove to the Championship at the wheel of a 3 Series. And Steve Soper (seen here) was a track legend.
BMW 3 Series: German and World Touring Car Championship
The BMW 3 Series was also successful in both the German and World Touring Car Championships. Indeed, the Briton, Andy Priaulx, performed heroics at the wheel of a BMW 320, winning the World Touring Car Championship in 2005, 2006 and 2007. He also won the European Touring Car Championship in 2004.
BMW 3 Series: European Car of the Year?
Strangely, for all its success, the BMW 3 Series has never won the European Car of the Year trophy. The closest it came was a second place in 1976, when it was sandwiched between the Simca 1307-1308 and Renault 30 TS.
BMW 3 Series: production figures
But neither of those cars have had quite the same level of success. In fact, the BMW 3 Series is the most successful premium car of all time, shifting 14 million units in 43 years. That’s more than the Vauxhall Corsa. BMW deserves credit for managing to balance exclusivity and popularity. Must be all that practice with the acclaimed 50:50 weight distribution…
2019: BMW 3 Series (G20)
The new 2019 BMW 3 Series was unveiled at the 2018 Paris Motor Show, before going on sale early next year in Europe. The new car is 10mm lower than its predecessor, as much as 55kg lighter and features the most powerful 4-cylinder engine ever fitted in a BMW production model. The automotive world is holding its breath to get behind the wheel…