Retrospective: BMW 3 Series car history and auto shows
Five generations fo the 3-Series. Photo: BMW. Click image to enlarge

by Paul Williams

Time flies when you’re having success. It’s been 30-years since the first BMW 3 Series car was introduced, and during that time the model has become one of the world’s most desirable cars. The fifth generation is set for release in June, 2005, as a 2006 model (see Autos’s First-Drive report), carefully updated for the 21st century.

Originally released in 1975 in Europe, the 3 Series has become bigger and more powerful through the years, but has retained its original purpose of bringing sporting performance to drivers in a practical package. Here’s a retrospective of the 3 Series from a Canadian perspective.

Retrospective: BMW 3 Series car history and auto shows
1977 BMW 320i. Photo: BMW. Click image to enlarge

Canadians received the first generation 3 Series in 1977 in the form of the 1978 320i, powered with a 2.0L, 110-h.p. (U.S. spec.), four-cylinder engine. Mostly forgotten now is the fact that like all first generation 3 Series vehicles (designated E21 models by BMW), it was exclusively a 2-door car. Measuring 4,355 millimetres in length it had what was then a decided wedge profile, but looking at pictures of the car now, its shape is no longer at all controversial. The kidney grille seems tiny in comparison with later versions, and was much the same as that found on the BMW 2002, the four-cylinder car that was still selling here until 1976. Standard wheels were 13″ in diameter.

A quick glance through Autotrader.ca advertisements reveals only one early 320i available in Canada at the time of this writing, a white 1979. Most have disappeared from the roads.

Retrospective: BMW 3 Series car history and auto shows
1983 BMW 318i. Photo: BMW. Click image to enlarge

The second generation 3 Series was launched in 1982, internally designated as an E30. Although the car gained 40-mm of interior length, the vehicle overall was 30-mm shorter than its predecessor, and 30 kilograms lighter. For a while, there was an overlap as first-generation 320i models were sold off, to be replaced by the newly styled 318i with its 1.8L engine which was introduced late in 1983. This car was joined by the 325e for 1984, the first time North Americans received a 3 Series with a six-cylinder engine (2.7L, 121 h.p.).

The big news in 1985 was the introduction of four-door version of the 3 Series in both the four and six-cylinder models, followed in 1987 with the first convertibles. By this time, anti-lock brakes were standard on all BMWs, and a BMW engineer in Germany had quietly set about converting his personal 3 Series sedan into a station wagon in his garage. After cutting open the entire car, he moved the C-pillar to the back, added a centrepiece, extended the rear lid down to the taillights and used the existing rear window in a fabricated rear door.

Then after only six months, he presented the car to his superiors at BMW. They knew a good thing when they saw it, and promptly announced the 3 Series Touring, the wagon that was introduced in 1988. Also in 1988, the first M3 variant (apparently not created by an engineer in his garage) debuted. A high-performance version of the 3 Series two-door, its 2.3L twin-cam motor was rated at 192 h.p. and featured uprated suspension, seats, wheels, tires and an 8,000 r.p.m. tachometer. Standard wheels were 14″ for the 3 Series; with 15″ wheels on the M3.

A check on Autotrader identifies a handful of these second generation cars still available, including an all-wheel drive Touring, a limited edition Alpina model and a convertible.

The third generation 3 Series, designated as an E36, was introduced in 1990 in Europe, but 1992 was the changeover year in Canada (reaching showrooms in late 1991). The straight-lined, somewhat boxy shape of the earlier cars was replaced with a much smoother, longer design. Length was up to 4,433mm, but the redesign was so thorough that it completely dated the earlier models. Check the picture and you’ll see the front overhang on these cars is extremely short, and the wedge styling is now obvious, even by current standards. Another notable feature is the introduction of the wrap-around gauge cluster, with its centre stack angled toward the driver.

The first 3 Series Coupe entered the market in 1992, and rather than being simply a two-door variant of the sedan, it was actually a different car sharing only a few common parts. It was 30-mm lower and 80-mm longer than the sedan, and the roof was shorter, as was the decklid. You have to look closely for these differences, but they serve to give each variant its particular identity.

The corresponding M3 debuted in 1994, now with 240 h.p., 225 lb.-ft. torque, and also available as a convertible (although horsepower on the Eurpoean M3 was up to 286, North American models had a different head, restricting power). Standard wheels on the 318i, 320i and 325i were up to 15″. Glass plates covered the dual headlamps and the kidney grill continued to widen.

Retrospective: BMW 3 Series car history and auto shows
1996 BMW 328i. Photo: BMW

Retrospective: BMW 3 Series car history and auto shows
2002 BMW 330Ci. Photo: BMW

Retrospective: BMW 3 Series car history and auto shows
2006 BMW 330i. Photo: Paul Williams. Click images to enlarge

The year 1994 was also the first time we saw the 318ti, BMW’s sub-$30,000 two-door hatchback (sub-$20,000 in the U.S. at that time). Although the model was available from 1995-1999, and was comparatively inexpensive, it never caught on in North America. These command very low prices on the used car market and offer good value if you can get over the stubby rear end.

In 1998 the fourth generation 3 Series, designated E46, entered the market, with the top model initially being the 328i (followed in 2001 by the 330i). Generating 193 h.p., its top speed was 240 km/h. Like the other six-cylinder 3 Series cars of this generation, it used the double-VANOS system, adapted from the M3, to adjust the intake and outlet camshaft, increase the torque and reduce emissions.

Another growth spurt saw these cars increase by 40-mm in length and width; now 120-mm longer than the first generation car. The M3 of this generation packed 333 h.p.

For 2006, the fifth generation 3 Series, designated as an E90, again increases in size and is now 4,526 mm in length. Horsepower is up to 215 in the 325i and 255 in the 330i. Both cars use a 3.0L inline six cylinder engine (about which Autos has received queries, but we assure you this is the North American specification) and arrive with six-speed manual or automatic transmisions. The standard wheels are 16″ for the 325i and 17″ for the 330i.

Now representing 40% of BMW’s vehicle output, the 3 Series has emerged as the most significant of BMW’s products, and an aspirational vehicle for automotive consumers worldwide. Look for future variations (convertible, M3) in the next model year.

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