BMW 3 Series 40 Years 19

Nothing warms the heart like nostalgia, and BMW knows this. At the international drive of the facelifted F30 3 Series, BMW brought out the whole family to the parade, all five generations before today’s car: E21, E30, E36, E46 and E90 – it’s hard not to be proud of such ancestry.

The 3 Series formula is a successful one – a compact sedan or coupe (there are wagons and convertibles too, of course) with a sporty flavour, wheels at the corners with minimal overhangs, pushed back cab and rear-wheel drive. All six cars here share this ideal and have provided driving pleasure to countless owners and fans over the decades.

Cars used to be a lot smaller, and the E21 316 looks tiny next to today’s car. The Three of the 70s had just two doors, and the lack of an ‘i’ in the 316 name is because its 1,573 cc four-pot didn’t have fuel injection. BMW offered a four-door E30, but we’re thankful it brought this coupe to the party, a rare 320is.

This is no normal E30 Coupe, but an “Italian M3” in a civilian body. Only 2,540 coupes were ever made (plus 1,205 sedans), specially for the Italian and Portuguese markets which imposed high taxes for engines above two litres. Under the hood is the legendary E30 M3’s S14 engine, with a shortened stroke to make 1,990 cc.

The high-revving four-cylinder unit made 192 hp/210 Nm, and is paired to the M3’s “dogleg” (first gear hangs out like a dog’s leg, push up for second gear) close-ratio Getrag five-speed manual. The 320is may look like a standard E30 Coupe with M Technic styling, but pop the hood and “BMW M Power” greets you from both sides.

As expected, there was a long queue for short test sessions of the classics, and the E30 was the most sought after by both journalists and BMW staffers. Yours truly was fortunate enough to have a go in the 320is, and its rawness and enthusiasm immediately woke me up from the routine of a media drive event.

The buzz from the four-pot as it made the final dash to 7,000 rpm was intoxicating and addictive. The motor likes it high, and you’ll get high from that. Coming in straight from a modern car, it felt unfiltered and uninsulated, contributing greatly to a heightened perception of speed.

Took a bit of getting used to, the dogleg gearbox layout, but all was good after five minutes. As expected, the shift isn’t as short and substantial as today’s sporty cars, but this is a 25-year old car and the everything felt right as it is. I’ve driven Harve’s E30 320i Coupe before, and this one feels sharper and more hunkered down. It was raining and I didn’t want to be eternally blacklisted in Munich, so there wasn’t any RWD hijinks. Hints of a lively tail went unexplored.

I didn’t have time to try the E36, E46 and E90, but did spend five minutes walking around the sleek shape and graceful lines of the E46 328 Ci. It’s a timeless design that remains classy till today.

More 3er pics and more history here. Which is your favourite 3 Series?

BMW E30 320is