In May 1975, BMW retooled their Munich factory for the 02 Series replacement which they named the 3 Series. Positioned below the 5 Series launched three years prior, the compact executive would become BMW's best selling product line and the benchmark in its class.
We celebrate its 40 year birthday by taking at how the 3 Series emerged as the class leading and class defining model in the compact executive class.
Development for the 1602/2002 replacement began in the wake of the 1973 oil crisis. The new compact sedan was bigger than the 02 Series and the first BMW to have its center console oriented towards the driver. It was also the first compact sedan BMW mated to a six cylinder with the 320/6 and the later 323i. By the end of its life cycle, BMW had sold 1,364,039 units and lay the foundation for the 3 Series story.
By the 80's, the 3 Series had expanded into a 4 door, a convertible and a wagon model called the Touring. The E30 was also had the first 16 valve 4 cylinder motor with the M42B18 which went to the US market and was badged as a 318is in Europe. It was also the first to receive a diesel engine as well as all wheel drive with the 325ix. Another set of interesting features which were uncommon in the 80's were automatic transmissions with sport mode, height adjustable headlights and a glass moonroof. In 1985, exactly 30 years ago, BMW launched the first M3 as a 1986 model. It went on to win numerous touring car championships and become a legend in its own right. In its long production run, BMW shifted 2,339,520 units and to this day, is still a highly sought after car by enthusiasts worldwide.
Upon entering the 90's, BMW showed the world what their cars of the 90's will look like. It broke tradition by having its signature round lights enclosed in a glass cover, as well as a wider grill. With a rakish, aerodynamic exterior, the E36 soon became known as the dolphin shape 3 Series among enthusiast circles. It also came with all new six cylinder engines and in 1992, the introduction of VANOS, BMW's variable valve timing system. The E36 chassis also shared its basic structure with the Z3 roadster and coupe. It was also the first M3 to get a sedan variant. All in all, 3,042,396 E36's were sold (including Z3's) worldwide and was built in various countries. It's also worth mentioning the E36 being the first 3 Series officially sold in the Philippines with 2,135 SKD units built here. It would be the only 3 Series made in the Philippines.
Riding on the success of the E36, the E46 was evolutionary in styling instead of revolutionary and taking styling cues from its big brother, the E39 5 Series. For the E46, engineers focused on rigidity and handling and marked the return of the all wheel drive models which was absent in the previous model. By this time, BMW had embraced diesels and came out with the critically acclaimed 330d. According to contemporary critics, it was an astonishing blend of performance and economy. It could perhaps be said that the E46 330d showed the world guiltless performance is possible. With numerous awards and BMW expanding their horizons even further, the company sold over 3,400,000 units as the 3 Series continued winning the hearts of critics and enthusiasts alike.
After the E65 7 Series and E60 5 Series, the 3 Series was next in line for the Chris Bangle treatment. The E90 wasn't as radically styled as its bigger brothers but still a significant departure from the E46. The soft curves and subtle creases of the previous model were replaced by bold lines and acute angles. Just like the 7 and 5 Series, the E90 saw the introduction of iDrive which was available on models equipped with satellite navigation. The E90 also ushered in BMW's TwinPower Turbo engine with the N54 in the 335i. In its 7 years in production, the E90 was the best selling compact executive sedan in the US and Canada.
We now arrive at the latest model, the F30. In its history, it's the first time the 3 Series comes with a full turbocharged engine lineup. Replacing the old non turbo six cylinder is an all new turbocharged 4 cylinder called the N20. It may have less cylinders than the old non-turbo 3.0 liter but gains in power and torque. The whole range also gets iDrive standard even for models without navigation systems. Also new for the 3 Series is the electromechanical gear selector for automatic models as well as an electronic power system. Also for the first time in history, the coupe and convertible models have separated itself from the 3 series lineup to form the 4 Series.
For the past 40 years, the BMW 3 series has been the company's best selling model. In a 2010 report by BMW Group, the 3 Series accounted around 30% of their sales worldwide. What started out as a mere replacement for the 02 Series became BMW's crowning glory. With its success on track, on the road and in the sales charts, the 3 Series continues to be the car every manufacturer wants to beat and it appears it will be that way in the coming decades.
Happy Birthday 3 Series. Here's to 40 more years of motoring.