The Panther of Bavaria

The hunt for quality: where does the perception of goodness reside in this car? 

1992 BMW 3-series E30.

Editor’s note: Since we are currently evaluating the E30 3 Series BMW, it seemed germane to re-run this piece by Richard Herriott, considering some of the finer points. First published on DTW – 21 May 2017.

Recently the opportunity afforded itself for me to take a lot of photos of a car Clarkson called an over-priced Escort, a chance to hunt for quality. What did I find? This is a close look at the car:

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On the inside we see where the potential Sierra customer was most tempted:

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The interior is composed of premium plastics and top-quality upholstery (bolster-wear notwithstanding). Once inside the car, the customer observed well-fitted and noticeably robust materials. Colour, materials, finish (CMF) is a branch of design that emerged from the car industry. It was in products like the E30 that the power of material and finish (if not colour) to persuade customers was refined. This car positively glows with a sense of refined durability that alternatives from Ford and Opel lacked, even at the top of the price hierarchy.

On the outside, the E30 then is a symphony of small refinements and some eye-catching embellishments. On the inside, the customer is seduced by a sense of well-being. The geometry of the shapes is calm; the dashboard puts the driver in charge but the way it is put together seals the deal.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

22 thoughts on “The Panther of Bavaria”

  1. Good morning, Eóin. I agree with what Richard wrote here, but part of the appeal is under the bonnet, when you have the in-line-six. It produces a sound I have never gotten tired of.

  2. This car is still hanging around the district where I photographed it. That said, I don´t see many of them around now, or put another way they are as numerous as the cars they competed with, or very slightly more. That´s quite a surprise as the evident quality is higher than same-priced offerings from the mass-manufacturers of the day (though they had raised their game by that point). Interestingly, the successor to today´s car is a rarity now. I remember seeing my first one in Dublin (on Merrion Square, like seeing Elvis) and that made a big impression. Further acquaintance down the years left me less and less impressed with it, except in its two-door form. At that point it was not a two-door saloon but more of a coupé. Sic transit gloria mundi.

    1. Not surprising at all given many were raced, drifted, crashed and modified. It’s a great and desirable platform for learning the ways of rwd, much more than the 190 for example. Recent spike in prices, especially of 6cyl examples have turned that type of buyers more towards the e36 and e46.

    2. Mobile.de has about 800 E30s. Many of them have tasteless modifications but there are some low mileage original condition cars (if true) at astonishing prices. There’s even a 320 iS, the Italian M3 with standard optics for 30,000 Euros.

  3. Interior colors; In the late 1970s I worked at one of the largest BMW dealerships in America, and as a result of the 2nd fuel crisis, we were swamped with buyers. At the time BMW offered cars with 3 interior colors; Black, gray, and brown.

    As it took months to order a car from Germany, our sales staff would get a bit creative to sell cars to upscale customers who wanted specific options and colors. So we began switching interiors, as that generally meant changing the seat assemblies and door cards only. This resulted in the interior color not matching the window specification label on new cars for sale. So the sales manager came up with an additional small window card that implied the car had a “special color interior” at no extra charge!

  4. Funnily enough, in the ‘Second Division’ article published yesterday, there’s a picture of the 3 Series’ dashboard next to the Sierra’s and I spent some time comparing them.

    With the Sierra, although they’ve made an attempt to angle the dashboard towards the driver, it’s really just a series of rectangular bins with some generic instruments and controls in them.

    In contrast, in the BMW, the main instruments are placed higher, with the console stretching over them in an arch. Then there’s things like the typefaces used, and the shape of the BMW’s clock – it’s not just a round shape; someone had fun designing that.

    As a test, take a quick (5 second) look at each dashboard. Now try to describe how you’d change the airflow and temperature in each.

    There’s similar evidence of manufacturers taking care with design in other cars – not just German ones. One of the charms of the Citroën Visa is that it may not have been expensive, but someone really bothered at the design stage.

    1. Charles,

      I’m struggling to think of a better dashboard design than the BMW E30’s. Probably another 1980s BMW.

      I always wondered how easy it was to use the Sierra’s airflow and heater sliders that were mounted vertically at the end of the instrument binnacle. Could you flick them, or did you have to grasp them? A few years later and manufacturers seemed to do away with sliders altogether and converge on the optimum triple knobs setup. At least until the scourge of the touchscreen.

    2. Agreed, Joel. BMW’s 1980s dashboards were delightful in terms of both design and ergonomics. It began to go wrong with the E36 3 Series, which was cheap looking and feeling. The quality might be back in the current models’ dashboards, but they mostly look awful.

    3. Daneil, the quality was back in the E46. The E9x is worse than the E46, but only in terms of materials used.

      The E9x indicator and cruise control stalk got a lot of negative comment, so much so that BMW has dropped the idea. Which is a shame as I prefer their particular arrangement to anything else I’ve used. I’m probably a minority of one. Again.

    4. Funnily enough, more than sixty percent of dashboards for the European industry, particularly the high quality items, are made by a Fiat subsidiary.

      Driver oriented dashboards at BMW started with E23/24, but not with the high quality material of the E30.
      The reasoning behind the E30 was logical.
      In Ingolstadt and Munich it was well known that Mercedes would present a small car and looking at the W123 everybody knew it would be of excellent quality in the interior. BMW had engineering to boast about but Audi had nothing, their only way to go was to set new standards for build and material quality as was shown with the C3 and B3 which were exceptionally well made technical crap.
      BMW knew that and had to follow suit. Look at early E30 or E34 which are of good quality but primitive execution. Plastic inner door handles, no fabric inserts in door cards, E30’s primitive push-pull switchgear – you could see where they had to save the money. As a part compensation you got door locks with umpteen key positions to control all kinds of silly functions of the central locking.

      Over a period of about fifteen years the German Three pushed up product quality with occasional glitches like E36 or W203.
      Now they are reducing it in sync by a shocking degree. An Audi B9 can’t hold a candle to a B6 in terms of build or material quality, it’s a bit better than the shockingly cheaply made B8 but no comparison to a B4 or B6. Even an A8 is of decidedly lower quality than the once exemplary predecessors.
      And that’s before you consider the loss of functional quality caused by the cheap to make electronic switchgear. You get toggle switches everywhere that allow no tactile feedback of the function you selected and can be used only with the eyes taken off the road.
      It’s all because switchgear with mechanical feedback is more expensive than electronic nonsense.
      In my B6 I just had to push the right hand column stalk away from me to activate the rear wiper once. In my B9 I have to push a toggle to activate it and push the same toggle again to deactivate it. Looking at the stalk I cannot tell whether the wiper is on or off.
      If I wanted to set the dual zone climate control so that both sides are controlled by one temperature control I simply had to push on this selector in my B6. In my B9 I have to use a toggle switch to browse through a list of “SYNC – 3 ZONE – SET REAR” which can only be done with the eyes off the road. To direct air to the windscreen I had to ush the topmost of three buttons in the B6, in the B8 I use a toggle to browse to a graphic display of air directions – again with the eye off the road. As a compensation I get instruments barely larger than a watch and fuel and temp gauges that are mere LED strips that are difficult to read. But I get a large ECO display showing me that air condition drives up fuel consumption.

    5. I do wonder if they might have bothered too much. Placing a row of switches where they can only be reached through the steering wheel seems ergonomically suspect to me. I learnt to drive on my mother’s Visa and I got used to the layout soon enough, but that particular detail was never less than awkward.

    6. Dave – that’s an interesting analysis about the E30’s quality. Volkswagen appear to have realised that they have gone too far on the cheapo plastics front and are now improving things, somewhat.

      Jonathan – I’d forgotten about the buttons which were placed all around the steering wheel hub. That was a bit a strange.

  5. A friend of mine’s dad bought one in 1987. Beautiful but very cramped compared to our 1982 Volvo 240. The dash looked very modern although they were poorly specced and options were very expensive. This one had aircon and power steering and little else. They should have been solidly built as the son still have the car 😬

    1. A 240 is a lot bigger, slightly larger than an E28 even, so I don’ think it’s fair to compare an E30 to a 240.

  6. Lovely cars, I should have bought a 325i when they were €3000 ten years ago! nowadays they´re almost collectors cars, watching the prices of a 325i in good condition.
    The dashboard is an ergonomic lesson and it looks great.
    Not the safest cars in their time, both in active and passive safety…

    1. I’m not sure if I agree on the active safety part. My E30 didn’t have ABS, but modulating the brakes was easy. The oversteer issue is made bigger than it is, in my opinion. It’s there for sure, but when you have decent tires with the correct pressure, it’s only on demand.

    2. Freerk, you´re used to drive them, aren´t you? is there a big difference between driving it on dry or wet roads? I´ve always heard than in the wet the E30 was a bit naughty.

      I owned a 328i E36 (in theory a much better chassis) and as soon as the road was wet I noticed it instantanely, and that was with quality tyres in good condition.

    3. Hi Freerk and b234r. Freerk, I agree with your assessment of the E30. My partner and I drove two E30 convertibles, a 320i followed by a 325i, over six years and never noticed them to be ‘tail-happy’ even in the wet. That said, neither of us would have pushed them especially hard to test the limits of the roadholding.

  7. Dave:

    ‘(…)There’s even a 320 iS, the Italian M3 with standard optics for 30,000 Euros’

    Italian… and Portuguese as well.

    We had this for those who where well off, and the true M3 for the very well off 😊

  8. Mine is similar to the one in the post.
    It is Malakite Grau with a ‘caramel’ interior wich is pristine.
    Only a 1988 100hp 316i though…

    But the important bits who make the e30 legend around here are simple:
    1-faultless design: accepting the boxy design language of the time, it is perfect in my view. Stance, proportions, restrained agressivness, elegante.
    2-build integrity: it is all well screwed together, front to bottom. Interior as exterior. Mechanically as ‘bodily’. Generally as in detail.
    It is complete.
    3-homogeneity: besides fragile fabrics on the seats, what is there not to like it? It doesn’t rust much (frase 2), it doesn’t drink much, it has sufficient power for everiday driving, the oily bits are simple and straightforward, parts are available everywhere and usually not expensive.

    You can use it as a daily driver, 40 years after it’s launch. In how many 1982 cars can you do the same?

    It’s a classic

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