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.