The only thing people knew more or less for sure about the forthcoming BMW model series in early summer 1975 was its model designation: Following the 5 Series, which had already introduced a new era of model names, the first number was now to be either a “3” or a “4”. And, ultimately, “3” turned out to be correct. Today we know that this model marked the beginning of the most successful BMW model series of all times.
The big event took place right outside BMW’s front door, in the Munich Olympic Stadium, where in July 1975 BMW’s Board of Management presented an entirely new model series in this world-famous sports arena: The frontal view of the new car was proudly dominated by the kidney grille standing out clearly from the radiator cover and continuing back along the engine compartment lid all the way to the windscreen in the form of a slight dome. This alone bore clear testimony to the new car’s resemblance to the BMW 5 Series.
The distinctive wedge shape of the two-door model, on the other hand, was new and characteristic, extending all the way to the unusually high rear end. With a number of critics not feeling too happy about this particular perspective, the rear end was toned down visually a bit later by adding a black plastic trim panel between the tail lights.
Sporting and compact
Even so, everybody was thrilled by the new car. With dimensions making the new BMW 3 Series compact and straightforward in every respect, the car itself was nevertheless fully “grown up” for all practical requirements : Measuring 4,355 millimetres (171.5’’) in length, 1610 millimetres (63.4’’) in width, and 1,380 millimetres (54.3’’) in height, the new 3 Series marked an entirely new dimension in the BMW world. Wheelbase measuring 2,563 millimetres (100.9’’), in turn, ensured short overhangs front and rear, track measuring 1,364 millimetres (53.7’’) at the front and 1,377 millimetres (54.2’’) at the rear gave the car a wide and muscular stance on the road.
The large engine compartment lid extending down at the side over the wheel arches housed a range of updated and revised power unit displacing 1,573, 1,766, and 1,990 cc, respectively. Hence the model designations 316, 318, 320, and 320i.
With fuel being expensive following the first oil price shock, BMW’s engineers had set up the power units for less expensive regular fuel. But this did not mean that the engines’ output and performance was “regular”. On the contrary, right from the start the 316 developed a very substantial 90 bhp which, given the car’s unladen weight of 1,010 kg or 2,227 lb, gave the car that dynamic performance so typical of the brand. Devel oping 98 bhp, the 318 already came very close to the three-digit horsepower range at the time reserved to the luxury performance class, and with maximum output of 109 bhp the 320 was definitely the leader in its class. As if even that was not enough, the BMW 320i with fuel injection offered an even more substantial 125 bhp, albeit on premium grade fuel.
This kind of power, together with the streamlined body design, gave the new cars top speed between 160 and 180 km/h (99 and 112 mph).
And indeed, BMW was speaking the right language: Just one year after its debut, the BMW 320 was voted the best saloon in the world in the category up to two litres by the readers of Europe’s largest car magazine.
The 3 Series as a Genuine Pioneer: the First Six-Cylinder in its Class
Clearly, this success encouraged BMW’s development specialists to keep up their good work: They soon gave the 3 Series a pioneering role, making this the first car in its class with a six-cylinder power unit. So when the two new 320/6 and 323i made their debut at the 1977 Frankfurt Motor Show they were clearly the highlights in the eyes of BMW enthusiasts everywhere. Indeed, this combination of an agile and sporting saloon with a silken-smooth, refined and powerful six-cylinder was quite unique in the market.
In the meantime, however, a gap had developed between the 98-horsepower 318i and the new 320/6 developing a superior 122 bhp maximum output. So in 1979/80 the four-cylinder models moved up: The 1.8-litre power unit was revised and entered the market as a 90-bhp carburettor engine in the 316 and with a 105 bhp fuel injection power unit in the 318i. And since there was now also room for a new entry-level model, the 315i powered by a 75 bhp 1.6-litre made its appearance in 1981.
1982: the Second Generation
In 1982 BMW presented the thoroughly revised and updated second-generation 3 Series. Powered as before by a 90-bhp four-cylinder, the 316, for example, now had a top speed of 175 km/or 109 mph. Featuring mechanical fuel injection, the identical four-cylinder in the 318i developed maximum output of 105 bhp, sufficient for a top speed of 184 km/h or 114 mph. The two six-cylinders, finally, now came with electronically controlled fuel injection giving the power unit in the 323i even more torque and truly outstanding performance, with a top speed of 202 km/h or 125 mph.
The First Variant: the Four-Door 3 Series
After just one year of production, BMW had already built 233,781 new 3 Series. And this was prior to the big surprise in autumn 1983, when the 3 Series made its appearance with four doors. Introducing this four-door model, BMW was indeed responding appropriately to an increasingly frequent request from potential customers looking for more comfortable and convenient access to the rear seats. So now having a family and children was no longer a reason not to buy a 3 Series.
Launching the eta six-cylinder in 1984, BMW, with the support of its engine specialists, presented an entirely new and very different concept. The 2.7-litre six-cylinder power unit of the 325e was optimised without compromises for torque and economy, consuming just 8.4 litres of regular fuel on 100 kilometres (33.6 mpg Imp), despite maximum output of 122 bhp at a low engine speed of 4,250 rpm.
A Trendsetter since 1987: the 3 Series touring
1987 BMW 3 Series touring E30Nobody had ever expected to see a 3 Series with a rear lid in tailgate design. After all, back then estate cars were still regarded as utility or commercial vehicles. But the 3 Series touring was completely different: agile, dynamic, and simply beautiful. Or, to put it in a nutshell, the car had everything to make it a genuine trendsetter. Delivery of BMW’s new five-door thus started in early 1988, initially in the guise of the 320i, 324td, 325i, and 325iX. The 318i joined the group a year later, eventually becoming the best seller in the touring range.
The debut of the touring was accompanied by a discreet update of the Saloon, now also featuring the 115 bhp turbodiesel in the 324td opening up a new era in diesel technology: DDE Digital Diesel Electronics revolutionised the ongoing development of the diesel, masterminding exhaust emissions and fuel consumption, noise emissions and motoring culture much faster and more precisely than a mechanical control system. Clearly, this set the foundation for a unique story of success in the diesel world.
1990: the Third Generation
Travelling down to BMW’s proving grounds in the Southern French town of Miramas in late October 1990, journalists were able to admire the new 3 Series with its long, stretched body in elegant design. Apart from the completely different silhouette, the smooth front end of the new car was a genuine eye-catcher at first sight: On either side, the dual headlights were covered by a glass plate, with the wide kidney grille in between.
Beneath the engine compartment lid there was more than ample power in each category with none of the new models going below the 100 bhp limit: The 1.6-litre “basic” engine in the 316ientered the market with 102 horsepower, developing even more power - 113 bhp - in the 318i.
The two straight-six power units, in turn, churned out a substantial 150 bhp in the 320i and an even more impressive 192 bhp in the 325i.
Really Dynamic: the First 3 Series Coupé
The two-door model entering the market in early 1992 was no longer a Saloon, but rather a very elegant Coupé.
Definitely the most positive point for the customer was the improvement in fuel economy by 0.7 litres in the combined cycle, both the 2.0- and 2.5-litre now making do with just 8.8 litres of premium fuel (32.1 mpg Imp) in the combined cycle. The model range now started with the four-cylinder 318is Coupé , extending on to the two six-cylinder 320i and 325i Coupés, and was joined in autumn 1993 by the 316i Coupé. Another new six-cylinder, by contrast, was initially reserved to the Saloon alone: Launching the 325td with a 2.5-litre diesel now developing and dynamic 115 bhp, BMW successfully continued the great story of the Sports Diesel.
For the Genuine Aficionado: Convertible and M3
Development of the 3 Series continued at this rapid pace, BMW introducing two new highlights based on the new model: The new M3 as of the end of 1992, and the Convertible from spring 1993. Once again, the open-air 3 Series was a genuine fully open car, offering space for four and, thanks to its excellently dampened roof, ideal protection from wind and weather throughout the year. There was also an optional hardtop turning the Convertible into a virtually perfect Coupé very similar in its looks to the “real thing”.
Two Doors plus a Big Tailgate: the compact
The introduction of new models continued in 1994: Overall length of 4.21 metres or 165.7’’, space for 4-5 and/or all kinds of luggage, two doors plus a large tailgate, and an attractive price - those are the highlights of the 3 Series compact introduced in two versions in 1994: the 316i in April and the 318is in autumn.
It was also in autumn 1994 that BMW rounded off the diesel range at the bottom end: The cars introduced in this case were the 318tds Saloon with its four-cylinder turbodiesel featuring intercooler technology and, launched in summer 1995, the 318tds compact, both aiming at motorists demanding the utmost in economy but not wishing to forego superior performance and motoring comfort.
1995: new touring with Many Talents
Long awaited, a genuine trendsetter in the 3 Series entered its second generation in 1995: the 3 Series touring. Derived like its predecessor directly from the Saloon, the touring offered the enthusiast all the technical and optical amenities of the 3 Series. It also came with virtually the same equipment and features as the Saloon, but with the exclusive upholstery and interior colours otherwise available only in the Coupé.
Apart from numerous optional extras, there was now also a rear-seat bench with two integral child seats making allowance for requests from a large number of customers within the car’s target group. The 3 Series touring entered the market initially as the 320i, 328i, 318tds, and 325tds, the 318i and 323i following somewhat later. In 1997, finally, the range of sophisticated estate models was rounded off by the 316i touring.
Launching the new 323ti in 1997, BMW placed a new model right at the top of the compact range so far not available in the compact saloon segment.
The 170 bhp six-cylinder power unit combined with rear-wheel-drive for optimum driving dynamics made the particularly athletic 323ti the new benchmark in this segment. Referring only very discreetly to its athletic power unit, the 323ti stood out from the other compact models mainly through its sports suspension lowering the entire car by 15 millimetres or 0.59’’ as well as the dual tailpipes. Acceleration to 100 km/h was in 7.8 seconds and top speed was 230 km/h or 143 mph, quickly giving the 323ti the image of the “small man’s M3”.
1998: the Fourth Generation
The fourth BMW 3 Series entered the market in May 1998 - initially with the four-door Saloon offering even more motoring comfort, greater safety, and enhanced performance. And indeed, the introduction of the new model marked a genuine “Big Bang”, the 320d making its debut as the first-ever BMW with a direct-injection diesel engine developing 100 kW/136 bhp and top speed of 207 km/h (128 mph) on just 5.7 litres/100 km (49.6 mpg Imp).
The other engines were equally progressive, the “basic” model being the 118 bhp 318i followed by the 150 bhp six-cylinder 320i, the 170 bhp 323i, and, finally, the 193 bhp 328i with a top speed of 240 km/h or 149 mph.
Unique Through and Through: the Coupé
Like an athlete in a pinstripe suit - this is how the second-generation of the BMW 3 Series Coupé entered the market in April 1999. Initially, the Coupé made its appearance as the 323 Ci and 328 Ci followed in summer of the same year in the guise of the 320 Ci and in autumn 1999 as the Frühjahr 2000 318 Ci.
New touring and Power Diesel: the 330d
The next version of the 3 Series entered the market in the very same year: the new touring. The debut of the new estate was in October, with the 318i, 320i, 328i and the 320d all being launched together. The final touch in the initial range then came early in the year 2000 with the introduction of the BMW 330d touring as a genuine Super Diesel. Indeed, this car was so good that it came not only in touring, but also in Saloon, guise. Developing maximum torque of 390 Nm or 287 lb-ft from 1,750 rpm, the six-cylinder diesel was indeed a genuine muscle machine offering unique refinement at the same time.
The enormous power and torque of this model was also borne out by its impressive elasticity, the 330d Saloon accelerating in fourth gear from 80-120 km/h (50-75 mph) in just 6.9 seconds, leaving all its competitors behind. And with average fuel consumption of just 7.0 litres/100 km in the composite test, combined with 135 kW/184 bhp maximum output and top speed of 225 km/h or 140 mph, the term “efficiency” quickly took on a very new dimension.
Just a few weeks before the open-air season in spring 2000, BMW entered the market with the new 3 Series Convertible. This open-air four-seater made its debut in the guise of the 323 Ci featuring a straight-six 125 kW/170 bhp power unit. The new car was obviously a member of the still-young 3 Series, identical with the Coupé from its front bumper all the way to the A-pillar. But at the same time the striking waistline and the powerful rear end gave this open-air newcomer a different, unique character right from the start.
Enhanced Traction: BMW 3 Series with Four-Wheel Drive
A few months later BMW re-arranged the engine capacity designations for the six-cylinder 3 Series, the numbers “325” replacing the former “323”, the “328” becoming the “330”. Developing maximum output of 170 kW/231 bhp, the supreme three-litre straight-six made a great name for itself through its supreme refinement and outstanding power.
Then yet another new version entered the market in June: the BMW 3 Series with four-wheel drive. Featuring permanent power distribution to all four wheels, the first models presented with this new technology were the Saloon and touring powered by the new 3.0-litre straight-six.
The Youngest Member of the Family: the 3 Series compact
The BMW 3 Series entered the year 2001 with the launch of the last variant still “missing”, the compact.
Featuring a new interpretation of BMW’s characteristic dual headlights, the compact once again came with an unmistakable “face”, while round individual tail lights beneath a clear glass cover also underline the car’s individual character from behind.
The new compact entered the market with two engine variants, although admittedly this time the four-cylinder was technologically the more interesting model: The 316ti was the first production car in the world to boast a VALVETRONIC power unit.
To put this in figures, the 1.8-litre benefiting from BMW’s unique gas cycle management develops 115 bhp with maximum torque of 155 Nm or 114 lb-ft, has a top speed of 201 km/h or 125 mph, but consumes only 6.9 litres of premium fuel on 100 kilometres (41.0 mpg Imp). The “other” model is the 325ti boasting BMW’s superior straight-six displacing 2.5 litres and developing maximum output of 192 bhp - which, not surprisingly, is good for a top speed of 235 km/h or 146 mph. And returning just 8.9 litres/100 km (31.7 mpg Imp) on premium fuel, this model is just as impressive in its all-round economy.
Trendsetters: Coupé and Convertible with Diesel Power
Introducing the 330Cd, BMW offered a diesel-powered coupé for the first time in the market.
This 204 bhp power machine - the direct-injection six-cylinder had been enhanced for even more output in the meantime - drives the way you would expect of a BMW coupe, but nevertheless offers all the advantages of a diesel: Maximum torque of 410 Nm or 302 lb-ft at just 1,500 rpm on average fuel consumption of 6.6 litres or 42.8 mpg Imp.
Coming to the end of the year 2000, yet another new model has made its appearance in BMW’s pricelist: In the guise of the BMW 320Cd Convertible, the first open-air BMW with diesel power is now on its way to the customer. The obvious features of this superior Convertible ideal for cruising are superior economy, powerful torque of 330 Nm or 243 lb-ft, and supreme running smoothness.