Four decades and five models later, the compact executive still thrills, says Geraldine Herbert
Margaret Thatcher became the first woman to lead a British political party, Charles Haughey returned from the political wilderness and Jaws was the film everyone was talking about; the year was 1975.
It was also the year that motorists were driving the first-ever BMW 3-Series from car showroom forecourts. Known internally as the E21, the car is celebrating its 40th birthday this year.
In the wake of the oil crisis, the two-door saloon initially only had a four-cylinder engine; the iconic in-line sixes appeared later but all the characteristics of the 3-Series were in place including the double kidney grille, the wide sporty stance and the driver-angled dash. By 1981 BMW had sold one million of them.
The second generation E30, the car generally considered to be the most significant of all 3-Series generations, was launched in 1982. Three years later the M3 was launched with a 200 bhp four-cylinder 16-valve 2.3-litre engine, although it was only available in left hand drive.
Sprinting from a 0-100 km/h in 6.7 seconds and with a top speed of 230 km/h the car was part of a limited run of only 5,000 but such was their success that by the end of 1992, over 17,000 M3s were produced. The launch of the E36 in 1990 was the first time all engines offered in the 3-Series range surpassed the 100bhp mark while the new M3 boasted 286bhp.
Some were seduced by the sound of a six cylinder engine. John Galvin, a publisher remembers his ’93 3-Series in Mauritius Blue with a spoiler. “The six cylinder engine really made a difference to the driving experience,” he recalls.
“I also loved the fact that the BMW was rear wheel drive, giving a much purer driving experience. The Ultimate Driving Machine meant something back in the 90s”.
The E46 hit the road in 1998 and the highlights of this version were the 3.0-litre in-line six-cylinder 330i and 330Ci, plus the last straight-six cylinder M3, but it was the new 50/50 weight distribution that proved irresistible for some.
Shane Daniel, an IT Project Manager from Blessington, Co Wicklow, was the proud owner of 2000 318ci coupe,
“There was a quality feel behind the wheel. It felt solid, handled beautifully and sounded better the harder you pushed it”.
Gareth Soye, an IT salesman from Northern Ireland splashed out on a 1999 318 “I was a single bloke in my late 20s, I wanted something cool,” recalls Gareth. “It was the closest I was ever going to get to an M3”.
For others the car was simply German engineering at its best. Patrick Shaffrey recalls his 2002 316i. “It was probably the most reliable car I had, I drove it twice to the south of France and back as I was working there for two years,” remembers Patrick. “It never once let me down,” he says
But performance, reliability and practicality aside there is also the intangible value of status that comes with owning a BMW. Michelle Herbert, a healthcare professional from Dublin admits she secretly loved “the street cred and perceived status” and how her daughter “skipped to the car with a silent sense of pride as her friends looked on”.
When in 2005 the fifth generation E90, created by BMW’s famous designer Chris Bangle, arrived, it received a mixed response. The complicated infotainment system known as the iDrive system also appeared and was criticised for complicating an interior previously known for its logical simplicity. Critics also bemoaned active steering and run-flat tyres but this is a generation that will be remembered for the turbo six-cylinder 335i closely followed by the 330d diesel.
Replaced in 2011 the E90 was the first generation of the marque not to outsell its predecessor. The F30, the sixth-generation and current version marked a radical departure for BMW. Not only was the “E” suffix dropped but emissions and economy became core considerations.
Today, one out of every four new BMWs sold globally is a 3-Series and with a restyled version in dealerships around the country later this year, BMW are likely to seduce a whole new generation.
Forty years on the kidney grille (although substantially wider) and even the round headlights nod to the original 1975 version. But life is all about perspective and sitting behind the wheel of a BMW brings a whole new outlook but it also bestows the title of “BMW driver”, as ubiquitous these days as the “white van man” on our roads.
Ivan Santry, a Software Engineer from Cork and BMW owner reckons “the title most likely originates from a time when they were a much rarer sight on Irish roads”.
“Today BMWs are driven by all types of people, some of who indicate to change lane, some who do not,” says Ivan with a wry smile.
9th July, 2015
A version of this article was first published in the Sunday Independent