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BMW 3 Series

Published: 13th Nov 2013 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

BMW 3 Series
BMW 3 Series
BMW 3 Series
BMW 3 Series
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The BMW 3 Series became more than just a car; it also acted as a mobile CV for its Yuppie owners, plus changed our buying tastes for ever. But, is this Beemer a victim of its own success, asks Alan Anderson?

Chances are that you own, or would like to own, a nice BMW 3 Series. It’s the most popular hit on used car websites, after all, and you can buy one for the price of a normal family hack, even brand new.

But, it wasn’t always so, and that’s arguably the way BMW really wanted to keep it. Back in the 1970s, thanks to the strength of the Deutsche mark and UK import duties levied, prestige German marques – including Audi and VW – were extremely expensive for their sectors of the market, meaning you had to be doing very nicely indeed to afford even a basic BMW or Mercedes.

As a consequence, this set the cars – and their owners – apart from the rest of us, which in turn built up the brand’s image. How times have changed!


Launched in late ‘75, the 3 Series was the logical addition to a new breed of Beemers (as they sadly came to be known) which started with the 5 Series in 1972. It was still very ‘three-box’ shaped, but there was a crispness about the new body. Known as the E21, the 1602/2002 replacement was a twodoor and initially came in 1.6 (316) and 2-litre guises (320), both carry-overs from the ‘02. The latter (identified by quad headlamp treatment) could also be had with optional fuel injection, yielding 125bhp against the normal 109bhp.

This last pair only lasted until 1977, until a new M60 six-cylinder engine was installed. The carb-fed 320 was good for 122bhp, while the new 323i (2.3- litres) had over 140bhp, to become the successor to the late lamented 2002Tii.

To bridge the gap between the 1.6 and the 320, a 1.8 engine was introduced, although the car was still badged the 316, strangely.

It was the start of a confusing game of numbers for BMW models and, as a result, their ensuing status among 3 Series owners and, indeed, the world.

By the time that the E21 gave way to the face-lifted E30 in 1983, nearly a million had been sold, so obviously BMW had got the formula right, even though the UK prices were over-infl ated. Now, apart from a revised mechanical spec that included a heavily revised chassis to counter poor handling on the faster models, four-door versions also came on stream, as did a lifestyle, if pokey, Touring estate and a factory-built convertible. The 323i morphed into the 325i, with a 2.5-litre engine, and the fl agship model was the iconic M3 that set the tone for all modern high performance BMWs.

Now in full cry and unable, seemingly, to do any wrong, BMW replaced the range with the E36 generation, complete with a new smoother, sleeker look and even more sophistication.


BMW may have aimed the 3 Series at the sophisticated go-getter, but it was the Yuppies that really put the car on the map in the UK. Now that they were more affordable, everybody seemingly wanted a 3 Series, and the beauty of having one was that the name required no further explanation in the wine bar, even though you may actually have owned a poverty-stricken 316.

The resultant brash, fl ash Beemer image, and the loud owners that still exist, remains something BMW surely could have done without?

The change of image was the result of the changing buying base. BMW had self-induced this, due to the car becoming better value for money, as import duties were relaxed and rivals raised their game. Like many other foreign prestige makes, you paid dearly to own a BMW in the mid-1970s. In ‘76, for example, a base (and none too luxurious) 316 cost a whopping £3429 – and for £200 less you could have had an RS1800 Escort! Also, for a similar outlay, a Dolomite Sprint or even an Alfa GTV were all better value, as well as providing considerably more performance than the tepid (0-60mpg 13 seconds) 90bhp 316 could muster. Two years on, a 316 was ticketed at £4249, and for that you could own an Alfasud Sprint with change for a holiday – plus a serious course of rustproofing, of course. And, how about a new VW Golf GTi (albeit in original LHD form) at just £3986? A 320 cost a bloated £4039 in 1976, incidentally.

By the time the E30 came on stream, a 316 had rocketed to £6775 against an XR3’s showroom price of £6150. However, a Golf GTi now cost £6808, so you can see that the gap was closing. Today, a dealer will relieve you of £23,000 for a base 3 Series which is roughly the same as a mid-range diesel Mondeo.

Now, Mondeo cites a good case example of our changing buying tastes, because, as the popularity of the 3 Series grew, (almost 13 million sales to date!) sales of ‘ordinary’ cars suffered accordingly to the point where, amazingly, less Mondeos are now being bought by private owners than the German compact exec! So, if it’s exclusivity you want – and that was the allure of the original 3 Series, remember – it’s simple: Buy a Mondeo!


So, the 3 Series was a pretty special car, then, to gain such adulation? Well, yes and no. Highly pleasant was how the car was initially viewed, but the moderate performance and economy of the 316 was remarked upon, as was its high refinement levels to be fair. Motor called the 320 a “very good car” but the “marked performance superiority over the 316 also taxes handling and roadholding, so it can be skittish”.

Indeed, that’s being kind because the 323i’s tail wagging antics could be bad to the point of dangerous, in the wrong hands – immense fun in the right ones, however.

“More upmarket Cortina than exalted sports saloon” is how Car summed up the range, although it judged the concept to be the car of the future – how right thatmonthly was back in late 1975. By 1983, just before the E21 was replaced by the E30, the publication concluded the range to be “a far better car now”.

The E30 really put the car on the map, but perhaps for the wrong reasons, with Car, again as perceptive as ever by proclaiming it was a, “Sauve performance saloon with unfortunate yuppie image” in its 1987 report. Now, tellingly, the testers split the range in two, feeling that the four-cylinder versions were an “ad exec’s special” more than anything else. How true, but by now the 3 Series wasn’t just a car, it was a statement of your social standing, your mindset, and few others in the price range (a base 316 now costs the same as a mid-range Cavalier-ed) said so much about you and your aspirations!


Now available as a four-door, as well as an estate, there was no reason why an average family guy couldn’t live the dream, either by squeezing all the brood into a very cramped saloon, or hopelessly tiny estate, but crucially impress neighbours at the same time. Any 3 Series could do that, even a 316, which appealed more to motorists who wanted a badge and the ignition key to a new lifestyle more, rather than merely a car. Was this why BMW made it a no-cost dealer option to delete the model’s body badges? Few removed their 320i ones…

Of course, the 3 Series is now a piece of automotive history, and rightly so. It invented the modern executive saloon, which every other car maker has had to emulate to survive, meaning that ordinary motorists don’t ever have to put up with a boring car with a low rent badge ever again.

And, with so many independent specialists around to contain costs to Ford levels, they don’t have to, either.

Filofax carrying Yuppies may have come and gone, but our love affair with the BMW 3 Series continues unabated. The thick end of 13 million sold proves this, even though the whole point of actually owning one has arguably been long lost along the way.


When The Car Was The Star

The current 3 Series is the star of the 2013 movie ‘Now you see me’. It’s a fl ick about an FBI agent, and an Interpol detective, who are after a team of illusionists that pull off bank raids during their performances. A 3 Series also appeared in Only Fools and Horses, the choice transport of that appropiately Yuppie posh bird Cassandra, who dated and then married Rodney Trotter – which resulted in them trading down to a Mk2 Golf. The car has also been seen in various other roles, usually driven by some rather wide boys – art imitating real life?

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