Our 10 Favorite Milestones In The History Of The BMW 3 Series
It’s difficult to write about the history of the BMW 3 Series simply because there’s so much of it. It defined not only a genre of car but, in many ways, entire generations of drivers who gravitated toward this little sporting machine. And that’s just it: from its introduction at the 1975 Frankfurt International Auto Show, the 3 Series in nearly any configuration is going to be among the sportiest offered in the class.
But what, exactly, sets the car apart? Here some milestones in this history of the venerable 3 Series.
1. It was one of the first modern cars that you could truly order however you wanted
You’ll run out of fingers before running out of BMW 3 Series body styles. Do you want a wagon, coupé, convertible, hatchback, sedan…? Four-cylinder engine, inline-6…V8? Inside and out, the 3 Series has pretty much always offered buyers with tons of choice—no matter if you wanted a DTM car for the road or a comfortable diesel wagon for a family trip.
2. It introduced the world to how a “Premium” European car should feel
In 1975, another premium, mid-sized, rear-drive sedan debuted: the Ford Granada. But you’d never mistake that car for being premium, even though it offered lots of choice in engines, body styles, and was reasonably efficient for its time.
But it wasn’t premium. BMW built its mid-sized car around its inline 4-cylinder engine, which endowed the car with roadholding unmatched among mid-sized cars.
3. It has always been proven in the crucible of competition
Rally? Touring Cars? GT racing? Yeah, the 3 Series has won just about everywhere, raced in stock form or in heavily-modified fashion. As they say, “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday,” but at least with BMW, motorsport parts often had a habit of being eventually offered to customers, albeit detuned.
4. “The Flying Brick” race car car
BMW Motorsport stuffed a ~300 horsepower Formula 2 engine in an E21 Group 5 race car, giving the world a race car that somehow managed to look both like a commuter car and a transforming robot. Between its massive rear wing, box flared fenders, flame-spitting side exhaust—and numerous on-track successes—the car served as a useful halo car to show enthusiasts just how far the basic 3 Series could be pushed.
In this case, BMW Motorsport pushed it far enough to harass Porsche 911s in the late ’70s.
5. It brought refined European styling cues, aka, “The Kink” to the masses
Not in a Fifty Shades sort of way, but a Wilhelm Hofmeister, BMW’s former director of design sort of way. Yes, the little forward kick at the base of the C-pillar had been in use by BMW for years, but the 3 Series’ meteoric rise in popularity meant that this stylish little styling cue has been spread across the world.
6. It proved that efficiency doesn’t have to mean “slow,” “terrible,” or “boring”
Efficiency is not just about being fuel efficient. The 3 Series is a small mid-sized car because the world had just gone through a huge fuel crisis, and it was realized that when the entire car is built in an efficient, sparse manner, BMW could boast about its fuel efficiency and strong performance.
In other words, without huge engines to rely on, BMW engineers were forced to design a more efficient series of car, in every sense of the word.
7. It’s always pushed advanced technology into the mainstream
Fuel injection, lightweight parts—including carbon fibre—and various other technical improvements often found a way onto the 3 Series before its rivals figured out how to get them into production. Early models were notable for their precise steering, strong brakes, and good roadholding—even though, if it had followed its rivals, BMW could have left all that “Ultimate Driving Machine” stuff on the shop floor.
8. The E30 M3
The only excuse for not knowing what the E30 M3 is? Today is your first day on the internet. If so, welcome, you’ve got some catching up to do. Best start with the E30 M3. Car and Driver said on its introduction, “This is not a car for yuppies, this is a car for us.”
9. It’s still evolving today
Within months of its debut, the 3 Series was unanimously praised as a driver’s car, a tradition it’s continued ever since. But as the years pass, BMW is one of the few marques to stick with rear-drive, something that may go unnoticed by some drivers but is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the car.
More importantly, the current 3 Series is from an unbroken line of racing successes, real-world trials, and lessons learned that stretch back to 1975. The world may be in a state of constant change, but for the last 40 years at least, the 3 Series has been changing with it.
10. Now and then they’ll inspire passion across generations
It’s a monumental achievement to continue a model line across four decades. The 3 Series is not your typical car, but its longevity and success is due to the countless numbers of families, friends, relatives, racers, and anyone else who has sat behind the wheel of this car.
To bring together generations and people from all walks of life simply because BMW just wanted to make a nice, efficient car back in the mid-’70s is special. Beyond praises from the press, technical achievements, and its role in history, we have a feeling that your favorite 3 Series milestone is most likely a personal memory, anecdote, or drive—just as it should be.
Editor’s note: it is with great pleasure that we’re able to showcase the work of BMW’s photographers who’ve carefully captured the essence of what it means to be a life-long fan of the marque. It recently tracked down families around they world who have been living with BMW products for decades. Using some of our favorite photographers, this enduring passion was captured by recreating iconic scenes from their lives. Please enjoy the gallery below.
Photographers and Models from top to bottom: Frederic Schlosser (Instagram: @FredericSchlosser), George Williams (Instagram: @GFWilliams), John Zhang (Instagram: @1013MM), Ashlan Gorse Cousteau (Instagram: @Ashlancousteau), Lianne Sanderson (Instagram: @liannesanderson10) Timo Gerlitz (Instagram: @SportFahrer)