Breakthrough (Part One)

Forty years ago, BMW launched a car that would help to propel the company into the automotive stratosphere.


Automotive historians often identify two models as seminal in the history of the storied Bavarian automaker. The first is the BMW 700, a modest car that quite literally saved the company from bankruptcy after it plunged to a huge DM 15 million loss in 1959, mainly thanks to its misadventure with the beautiful but financially ruinous 507 roadster.

Launched in the same year, the 700 was a small rear-engined model available in two-door saloon, coupé and convertible variants. Styled by Giovanni Michelotti, it was an attractive and contemporary looking car that was well received and sold strongly from the off, bringing desperately needed income and stability to the company. The 700’s success encouraged the Quandt family to reject a takeover bid from Daimler-Benz and instead recapitalise the company.

The second car that is rightly cited as transformational for the company is the 1961 BMW 1500 Neue Klasse saloon. The 1500 would set the template, both stylistically and in engineering terms, for generations of models to follow. It was a four-door mid-sized saloon, styled by Wilhelm Hofmeister with input from Michelotti. The 1500 was a quietly handsome car, with styling elements such as the double-kidney grille and ‘Hofmeister Kink’ in the C-pillar that would become emblematic for the marque. It was also dynamically accomplished and helped to establish BMW’s reputation for producing cars with a sporting mien.

The following two decades saw BMW produce a series of cars that were well regarded by the automotive cognoscenti, but remained something of a left-field choice for the wider motoring world. That would all change following the launch of the E30 generation 3 Series in 1982, a car that would transform both the perception and fortunes of the company. The E30 was not the first 3 Series: it was preceded in 1975 by the E21 original. That car, although exemplifying typical BMW qualities, was limited by being confined to a single bodystyle(1), a two-door saloon. This ruled it out for many buyers who needed the versatility of four doors or an estate.

The E30 development programme commenced in July 1976. It was styled by Boyke Boyer under the supervision of Chief Designer Claus Luthe, who was at the same time also overseeing the development of the E28 second-generation 5 Series, itself a cautious update to the 1972 E12 original. Both E28 and E30 shared a number of similar design elements but the smaller car had a shallower, upright front grille, eschewing a former BMW styling trope, the forward-sloping ‘shark’s nose’.

While the styling was cautious and evolutionary, the E30 was an undeniably handsome car, and beautifully built. The doors closed with a satisfying ‘thunk’ sound and the engineering of the bonnet hinges was a delight to behold, although confusing for those unfamiliar with its operation(2). The drag coefficient for the E30 was quoted as 0.39, which was nothing to write home about, even if it was a significant improvement over the woeful 0.45 of its predecessor.


The dimensions were only fractionally increased over the E21, with a wheelbase of 2,570mm (101¼”) and overall length of 4,325mm (170¼”). Within these constraints, BMW still managed to eke out some additional rear seat legroom, a weakness of the E21. The interior featured an evolution of BMW’s driver-focused dashboard, featuring white-on-black instruments of exemplary clarity with classy red lighting at night and a centre console angled towards the driver. The rest of the interior was austere in the best Germanic tradition, but constructed of high quality materials.

The mechanical package was overseen by BMW chief engineer, Dr Karlheinz Radermacher. The classic RWD configuration was retained, with a carry-over engine range comprising a 1.8-litre straight four, a 2.0-litre straight-six and a 2.3-litre straight six. The 1.8-litre unit was available in both carburettor and fuel-injected forms, the former rather confusingly badged 316 to differentiate it more obviously from the 318i. The six-cylinder models, now both fuel-injected, were logically badged 320i and 323i. The fuel-injection equipment fitted was Bosch’s L-Jetronic system.

Transmissions were either a four or five-speed manual or optional ZF three-speed automatic. The E21’s MacPherson strut front and semi-trailing arm rear suspension were retained, but significantly modified to improve handling and, in particular, rear grip on slippery roads, a notable weakness of the E21(3).

Car Magazine’s Georg Kacher had the opportunity to drive pre-production examples of the E30 and reported his findings in the December 1982 issue of the magazine. Kacher was underwhelmed by the car’s styling, describing it as “Familiar old Three Series. Old Three Series.” He opined that “The new model’s shape will likely look dated long before its replacement is due. Look at the already ageing [E28] Five Series.” He also disliked the new car’s high-tailed stance and the tail light clusters, which he thought “looked cheap.”


There was better news to report with the interior, with much improved heating and ventilation and a properly integrated optional air-conditioning system. Thanks to more effective sound-deadening, the new 3 Series was “a very quiet car, and it remains quiet even over rough surfaces or at high engine speeds.” Performance was impressive and even the 105bhp (78kW) 318i was described as “lively”, achieving a 0 to 60mph (97km/h) time of 11.2 seconds and a top speed of 115mph (185km/h). The comparative figures for the 125bhp (93kW) 320i were 10.4 seconds and 123mph (198km/h) and for the 139bhp (104kW) 323i were 9.2 seconds and 126mph (203km/h).

It was the E30’s handling, however, that distinguished it most significantly from its predecessor. The multitude of changes are described thus: “In front there are now lightweight, sickle-shaped suspension arms that allow more precise tuning, and the steering has near-zero scrub radius to counteract wheel fight and to improve steering sensitivity. At the rear, a ‘revised semi-trailing arm configuration has ‘minimised’ camber changes which is meant to reduce bump steer. To improve the suspension’s reaction to sudden ridges and grooves, the spring and damper units are replaced by separate springs and shock absorbers.”

The combined effect of these revisions was transformational, eliminating “the poor roadholding and rapid breakaway of the superseded model.” However, Kacher thought that “BMW engineers may have overshot the mark by converting notorious oversteer into uninspiring and quite pronounced understeer!”


That said, there were noticeable differences in this regard between the six pre-production test cars, suggesting that there was still some fettling required to achieve the ideal set-up. In any event, in general the test cars “remained neutral a lot longer than the old Threes” and “The rear end simply stuck to its line; it took a determined push with the right foot to stabilise things and push the car into shallow oversteer, which was always controllable by steering or throttle.” Hence, BMW had eliminated the only significant dynamic flaw in the old 3 Series, snap oversteer.

The E30 was launched in November 1982 in two-door saloon form like its predecessor, but BMW had more ambitious plans for the new model: a four-door saloon variant would follow a year later, a convertible(4) in 1985 and a five-door Touring estate in 1987.

The launch of the E30 was serendipitous in that it coincided with the emergence of a 1980s phenomenon, the Yuppie. These so-called young urban upwardly-mobile professionals were in part a product of the liberalisation in financial markets and consequent boom in asset prices including property. Yuppies were characterised (or at least, caricatured) as ruthlessly ambitious, obsessed with career progression and financial success, and the material possessions such success could buy.


The E30 was absolutely the right car at the right time. The BMW roundel was increasingly regarded as aspirational and the availability of a compact model for little more in company car monthly leasing costs than a smartly equipped Sierra or Cavalier made it an immediate success. Of course, the 3 Series was sparsely equipped in base 316 form, but was visually indistinguishable from more upmarket variants as long as one specified alloy wheels and ticked the delete option for the boot lid model designation badge. It quickly became the ‘junior executive’ chariot of choice and would leave its most direct competitor, the Mercedes-Benz W201 190E, although a fine car in its own right, looking rather staid by comparison.

In Part Two of this series, we will examine how the E30 fared in the market and how it was developed over its lifetime.

(1) There was a rather ungainly prototype E21 three-door model, intended to replace the 1602/2002 Touring, but it was (probably wisely) never approved for production.

(2) When one pulled the interior lever, the front end of the bonnet popped up and moved forward. Contrary to expectations, the bonnet was hinged at the front and this movement allowed it to clear the nose of the car while opening up to a near-vertical position, allowing excellent access to the engine bay.

(3) The E21 had a reputation for suddenly losing rear grip if the driver pushed it too hard into a bend on a wet road. An acquaintance of mine unfortunately experienced this trait first-hand, which caused a crash that wrote off the other car involved and caused major damage to the front of his brand-new 3 Series.

(4) As with the previous generation car, there was a Baur cabriolet version with a roll-over bar to maintain body rigidity, but this would effectively be made redundant by the launch of the factory-built convertible, although it remained in small-scale production.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

29 thoughts on “Breakthrough (Part One)”

  1. Good morning, Daniel. I absolutely love the E30. My dad had two E30’s and it was my first car as well, a 1989 318i Touring. I kept it for nine years and I wish I still had it every now and then.

    I wouldn’t mind a driving a 2 door 325i E30 with sport seats, ABS and preferably air conditioning today. But most of these cars have been driven hard or ended up as drift cars or something similar. Good ones are hard to find in my area. And you’ll pay for it too.

    If only BMW made something like this today. Looking forward to the next installment.

    1. The E30 was the first BMW that became a victim of the tuning brigade – the E36 suffered even more badly.
      Lowered nearly to the bump stops with wheels protruding from the wheelarches and drainpipe sized exhaust, covered in flip flop paint these cars are ruined. It is extremely difficult to find one that has not suffered from such backyard tinkering and resurrecting a modified example is not worth the money.

  2. Aerodynamics was not a BMW strong point at this time. The 02 not only had an awful Cd, it also had incredible loud wind noise from its frameless door windows, something BMW hoped to address with the framed windows of the E21 which were only partly successful.
    A couple of days before the official launch of the E30 I was following a red example with dealer plates which was driving at permanently varying speed. The car sopped (and so did I), the driver got out and started to peel off the driver door seal around the A post-to-roof area to stick some white chewing-gum like substance in and refit the seal. He told me that the car still had loud wind noise at this point and they wanted to make sure that at least the cars used for the presentation didn’t suffer from excessive wind noise because they wanted to highlight this as a particular point of progress over the E21 in their marketing campaign.

    Over the E30’s production run BMW constantly tinkered around with its aero kit. There are several versions of the black plastic strip under the front valance which started as a rounded item and became a chin spoiler later

    The soft top and estate versions were not part of the original product plan but were possible because of the unexpected sales success of the E30. As a result the soft top was quite wobbly and the estate had its rear lights sitting right in the corners of the boot opening, severely restricting access.

    The 323i started life with an official 100 kW/136 PS. Production quality was so good that most examples had closer to 150 PS which made the German equivalent to the DVLA step on BMW’s toes for exceeding the official numbers by more than the permitted five percent. In the end BMW changed the official power figures to 110 kW/150 PS and to make sure these figures were met the engine got an exhaust downpipe with three branches instead of the former two.

    Somebody from my family was IT manager at BMW’s Dingolfing factory and he had a whole string of E30s as company cars – this was before the invention of today’s company car schemes where cars are kept for two or three years, he got a new E30 every couple of months. His cars always were a bit special because he insisted on driving cars without power steering because he wanted the better steering precision and feedback of a non-PAS car. Now driving a 325i without power steering is a very individual acquired taste. The best E30s he had were the various M3 versions, from the earliest one to a late Evo special edition. One of these M3s was taken on a holiday to Corsica just for driving it on those marvellous roads.

  3. Surely not a line – or a shut line – out of place, the E30 still looks “right” after all these years.

    1. One part of the E30 that never looked right before the facelift was below the front bumper. they didn’t paint it partially black to disguise the height of this part without reason. Only after the facelift did this look right – but then the facelifted cars had oddly outsize rear lights.

    2. The E30 restyling taillights always seemed so ugly to me…I didn´t understand why they changed the originals. The M3 kept them.

    3. I think Kacher got his judgement of the appearance very wrong. It is a timeless bit of industrial design. Very few cars since have looked as well made as this one, at any price. I am not talking about the luxuriousness, but the inherent quality. There´s a segment from TopClarkson where he protests about how ordinary the cars are.

    4. I see what Kacher wanted to say, the E30 and the E28 were very cautious evolutions over their predecessors, in a time when the Audi 100 C3 and the Sierra began to appear in the streets. Perhaps, next to them, it seemed old fashioned. But I agree that, after these years, the car has became timeless.

      I remember CAR´s Russell Bulgin naming the E30 as “those German Cortinas”…

  4. Good morning all. I was and remain a huge fan of the E30. I was lucky enough to have had two examples as company cars back in the 1990s. This retrospective series will conclude with a report on those cars. As Mervyn says, they were perfectly drawn cars, and stand as a silent rebuke to BMW’s current styling woes.

  5. Hi Daniel, thanks for this nice article about a car that somehow indeed seems totally fit for purpose and (as a consequence?) looks just perfect. Fun fact may be that the particular bonnet arrangement was already used by Saab as of the 1960s onwards i thing (re. Saabs 96, 99, 90 and original 900). A perfectly safe solution 😉

    1. There were a lot of cars that used this hinged bonnets: Alfasud, Triumph Herald, Jaguar E-type, Lamborghini Espada, Volvo 340. The earliest I can think of is the C1 Corvette, but I don’t know if that was the first.

      The arrangement where the bonnet moves forward first and then tilts, like the E30, was probably first used on the Saab 900, but I don’t know that for certain either.

      Anyway I miss the front hinged bonnet. The idea was abandoned as the headlights were blocked by the open bonnet. Jaguar still uses it on the F-type as far as I know.

    2. The front hinged bonnet was chosen by BMW to make sure the bonnet wasn’t pushed through the windscreen in case of an accident. BMW’s bonnets had a sturdy hook mechanism that orevented them from being pushed backwards. As soon as BMW had discovered a hinge mechanism that could serve the same purpose they used alligator-type bonnets which are much more practical in use because they allow access to the engine from three sides and oyu don’t have to lean over the wings to reach for the radiator or the front of the engine.
      All old Alfas had front hinged bonnets but without the sliding mechanism that served to engage said safety hook used by Saab and BMW. Same went for many old Fiats and Simcas.

  6. Isn’t the E30 just a re-skin of the E21? Much of the body hardpoints are the same but with a new outer skin? Except for the rear which is more horizontal than the slope of the E21. And it’s the more upright rear that makes all the difference. The canopy is slightly altered but to my knowledge the DLO is identical? It may not look like it at a first glance, but put the two cars together and you’ll see the DLO is identical. The question is if they are interchangeable?

    1. Hi Ingvar. Not so. While it shared the same basic mechanical layout, albeit with revisions to the rear suspension, the E30 body shares nothing with the E21 and the glasshouse is markedly different:

      Note the B-pillar treatment, depth of the windows and slope of windscreen and rear glass.

    2. Well, colour me surprised! Yeah I can see the differences, but to me they look like they’re millimeters apart. I still wonder if the bodyshell is completely unique in all regards or if there’s some E21 still left there? I mean, the packaging is identical, but the lines have been nipped and tucked with a millimeter here and a millimeter there.

  7. Another question is it’s relation to the 5-series, something I’ve never seemed mention? The first generation 02-body was made by shortening the wheelbase of the Neue Klasse with 5 cm, and shortening the rear deck with another 20 cm making the two door 25 cm shorter in total. But the chassis is much th same? So how much did the E12 have in common with the E21?

    1. There is not much commonality between E12 and E21. For example the E12 had its fuel tank under the boot floor in the crumple zone, hence the filler flap between rear number plate and rear light. The E21 was the first rear wheel drive car with its fuel tank under the rear seat (as pioneered by the NSU K70) with the propshaft passing through the tank. The cars shared some suspension components like quickly deteriorating rear mounting points for the differential carrier and of course their drivetrains.

  8. I’ve never been crazy about the E30, finding it’s proportions not as well resolved as it’s 5 Series brother, but it is vastly superior to their current offerings.

    There is a very late example near me that is in excellent condition despite living next to the main road and being the onwners daily drive. It would have been six years old when I first came across it 22 years ago and it looks exactly as it always had. The rear badges have been removed but doesn’t appear to be a ‘special’ model, rather a fairly standard car that has been loved and looked after.

    I admire the car and owner greatly, there is something really satisfying about seeing someone buy, keep and maintain their daily car to such a high standard over a long period of time when the tendency is to move on to bigger and newer things.

  9. „and would leave its most direct competitor, the Mercedes-Benz W201 190E, although a fine car in its own right, looking rather staid by comparison“

    eerm, no. The opposite is true. The W201 was a crisp, decidedly modern and forward looking break from the old Mercedes design language, verging on futuristic in the public eye (plastic wheelcaps! no chrome! sacrilege!). The E30 otoh was, just like the E28 a careful and very cautious evolution of BMW’s early 60‘s design language and from the day of its release looked indeed very much old hat against against the bold leap of faith the W201 was for Mercedes. Let alone other contemporary designs like Giugiaro‘s super-neat Renault 21, Pininfarina‘s lovely Peugeot 405, the blobby aero Audi B3 or even the Sierra. BMW finally caught up with the E36.

    I do understand the appeal of the E30 – though I think it is mainly a thing of its brand equity/ yuppie must-have / boy-racer of the 90’s image and to a far, far lesser extent, the driving experience! Was it a nice motor? Yes, probably. But I would always prefer the W201. It is by far the better design and by far the better car.

    1. Hi one more time. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that, in the eyes of most potential buyers, the W201 was perceived to be a rather more ‘mature’ car than the E30. That was certainly the case amongst my investment banking colleagues at the time, who were surprised I chose the Benz over the BMW. I was a huge fan of Stuttgart’s fantastic engineering and Sacco’s peerless design:

      Living with a Mercedes-Benz 190E

      The 19oE was replaced by an E30 320i convertible, which was in turn replaced by an E30 325i convertible, so I guess I was becoming progressively more immature as I grew older… some might say that has continued to the present day! 😁

    2. P.S. Your nom de plume isn’t a reference to Daft Punk, by any chance? (Most of the musical references on DTW go way over my head.)

    3. Yes, the E30 is very traditional. In 4 door guise it looked- to my mind- older than the E21, which is somehow more “Dynamic” looking than the E30. I saw an E30 the other day and found myself wondering what stopped it looking like a 1960’s car. I concluded that it came down to plastic parts and curved side glass. Take those details away and it’s not that far removed visually from say, a Hillman Hunter. Maybe this is why it’s E36 successor appeared to be such a great leap forward visually. I still love it’s shape though.

      The Mercedes W201 is a different beast though, pitched similar but looking bigger. Significantly entry level 190’s still looked classy- 316’s looked a bit tightwad in comparison.

  10. Here’s a video about the car’s design and production. I was surprised by how much manual labour was involved, especially in constructing the body – I think I’ve forgotten how things used to be. Rather incongruously, the film contains cartoons, which suggests that the producers felt that they needed to add some ‘humour’; I don’t think that they work.

  11. Besides the usual accolades it carries, the E30 can be celebrated as a car that sacrificed sheer beauty for
    personality – and the secluded art of discreetly
    standing-out while still being elegant.

    Whilst undeniably a well-resolved styling, it suffered from two minor flaws, which apparently gave it much more
    visual Caracter (and hence aided its commercial success),
    than they hindered its sleek looks:

    1. The glasshouse & DLO is an ~inch too high, in relation
    to the body visual mass.

    2. The rearmost part of the DLO (the H.Kink) is a tad too long and slightly covers the vertical projection of the rear axle

    (unlike the E21, which has both of the above aspects
    perfectly matched).

    This seems to remind us of a rather overlooked topic in automotive styling – the methodology of making too sleek designs stand out in the parking lots – a.k.a. Curb Appeal.

    On another note: where BMW missed out, IMHO, as they anyway decided to offer the E30 in so many body versions,
    is the omission to make a 3-dr longroof shooting break
    (where the length of the glasshouse would balance
    out its relative height issue). With a view to the success
    the E30 had, that would probably create another category altogether, helping to create a more vivid automotive landscape in the years to come (not unlike their Z3 Coupe
    experiment, which was less succesful simply due to the
    compromises of the Z platform).

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