BMW group photo
From left: BMW 323i (1982), BMW 320i (1983), BMW 323i (1996), BMW 320i (1999), BMW 330i (2005). Photos: BMW. Click image to enlarge

Not too many automobiles make it much beyond two or three model cycles. Times and tastes change, and often an automaker that enjoys great success with a new model finds that sales droop after a couple of upgrades or so. Put simply, some models just don’t have the staying power, and the manufacturer soon drops the line and launches something with wider customer appeal.

This common-enough scenario makes it all the more worthwhile to celebrate 30 years of production for the BMW 3 Series. The Canadian debut of the latest 3 Series took place at the recent Pacific International Auto Show in Vancouver, scooping other Canadian shows. Not only did the 3 Series help to get a then-struggling BMW back on its feet three decades ago, but sales of the model have never been stronger than they are today.

It could be argued that the 3 Series actually jump-started the sports sedan market back in 1975; for those historic 30 years, it’s been the benchmark in one of the hottest classes in the entire auto industry. A brief list of rivals anxious to knock it off its perch would include the Audi A4, Acura TL, Cadillac CTS, Infiniti G35, Jaguar X-Type, Lexus IS 300, Mercedes C-Class, Saab 9-3, and Volvo S60. Though many have come very close, no automaker has so far really threatened to edge out BMW in this most challenging of all markets.

The first 3 Series was a pretty simple automobile compared to today’s extensively-computerized models, and perhaps that simplicity was part of its charm. The vehicle had its origins in BMW’s 2 Series cars, which made their debut in 1966 and were produced in one form or another until the 3 Series models came on the scene in 1975. The new 3 Series was a great success right from the start, but owed much to the remarkable qualities of the pioneering 1968 “2002” model, which basically set the standard for sports coupes in the years ahead, regardless of which manufacturer was to build them. BMW 2002s are prized by collectors these days, and for good reason. A restored example I drove a while back felt as tight and responsive as a new car.

BMW 3 Series, 1975
BMW 3 Series, 1975

BMW 3 Series convertible, 1987
BMW 3 Series convertible, 1987

BMW 318i, 1983
BMW 318i, 1983

BMW 320i Touring, 1995
BMW 320i Touring, 1995

BMW M3 Coupe, 1994
BMW M3 Coupe, 1994

The original 1975-1983 3 Series was the epitome of a “three box” sedan. It was bereft of any kind of styling gimmickry and followed the simplest lines possible in a four-door sedan. Many would argue that it still looks good today, but tastes have changed and today’s styling efforts in this class are characterized by swoopy lines and compound curves. Back in the mid-1970s, boxy shapes were very much in vogue with products like the Alfa Romeo Giulia four-door and Datsun 510, another sporty sedan looked back on with reverence by auto enthusiasts.

The second-generation 3 Series, from 1982 to 1994, basically followed the styling cues of the first car, but in 1990, the car was dramatically restyled and the look we’re familiar with today took over. Another model cycle debuted in 1998; that series endured until the 2006 3 Series debuted at the Geneva auto show in late February of this year.

Of course, technology enhancements arrived on a continual basis with the 3 Series, and performance M3 versions were developed to remarkable levels. All kinds of powerplants have been used in 3 Series models over the years, from very basic four-cylinder units to the silky-smooth and technically sophisticated inline sixes BMW has long been famous for. In markets outside North America, diesel-powered 3 Series variants have been very popular, but there’s no indication they’ll ever be marketed here. While the four-door sedan has always been at the heart of the 3 Series lineup, the company has produced two-door coupes, station wagons, convertibles and the aforementioned “M” performance models. While visiting a BMW motorsport facility, I spotted a pickup truck used around the plant that was converted from an M3 coupe, proving that even those serious engineers in Bavaria can have a little fun now and again with their work.

It’s quite an achievement for BMW to stay on top of the sports sedan/entry level luxury segment for so long and an endorsement of the fact that creative engineering and styling, coupled with high quality and marketing savvy, can pay dividends. Probably the greatest achievement of the 3 Series as far as car buyers go is that it prompted rival automakers to pull out all the stops and develop models to match BMW’s levels of performance and quality. Buyers in this competitive class have some great choices from Europe, Japan, Sweden, the U.K. and the U.S.

So after many generations, we have an all-new 3 Series sedan for 2006. The big question most shoppers in the entry-level luxury segment are asking is, “How on earth can BMW make the new car better than the old one?” Many automotive journalists, myself included, thought the old model was as good as a car in this segment could get, but of course, BMW has made the new one better while retaining all the great features of the superseded model.

There’s little reason to doubt that with its new 3 Series, BMW will continue to preserve the much-heralded traditions of the past 30 years while embracing all that modern automotive technology has to offer.
The history of the 3 Series is both lengthy and complex and a column like this can only scratch the surface. There’s a very detailed book on the subject by Hans-Hermann Braess with the rather ponderous title of “BMW Dimensions – The Original. BMW 3 Series: Concept, Technology, Design.” It’s published (in English) by BMW Group Mobile Tradition and may be available from booksellers like Wilkinson’s Automobilia in Vancouver.

Will the 3 Series still be around after another 30 years have slipped by? I think you pretty well can count on it.

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