The three-series was introduced as a replacement for the popular BMW 2002. The first three-series, internally referred to as the E21, rolled off the production line on May 2, 1975 and was an instant success. The first year, BMW's worldwide production of vehicles neared 221,300, an increase of almost 37,000 vehicles from the prior year. In 1977 the three-series was available for sale in the United States, bringing production even higher.
The 320i borrowed many of the style cues from the BMW 2002 such as the distinctive forward-leaning grille. Both were two-door sedans but the 320i had a slightly wider stance and was 1.5 inches longer. Disc brakes were placed on the front while the rear had drums. The suspension was MacPherson struts in the front and trailing arm in the back. Under the hood sat a 2.0-liter Bosch K-Jetronic fuel-injected inline four capable of producing 110 horsepower. The Getrag four-speed manual gearbox was standard but a ZF three-speed automatic was optional.
In 1980, the engine decreased in size to 1.8 liters. To cope with emission regulations, a three-way catalyst was adapted to the vehicle; however, this reduced the horsepower rating to 100.
At the close of 1983 the E21 production ceased to make room for the next-generation 3-series, the E30. The E30 brought with it many improvements in styling and mechanical features, but it also cost nearly twice as much as the vehicle it replaced.
To make the most of aerodynamics, the grille became less angled and the hood sloped slowly from the front of the vehicle to the windshield. The wheelbase and length were nearly identical to its predecessor. The engine was the 1.8-liter fuel-injected four cylinder producing 101 horsepower.
The 318i was a two-door sedan introduced in 1984. The 325e quickly followed bringing with it a 2.7-liter inline six-cylinder engine borrowed from the 528e. With 121 horsepower the vehicle could accelerate from zero to sixty in just under nine seconds and reach the quarter-mile in 16.6 seconds. The vehicle was sporty but it was tailored to the economic conditions at the time. The oil embargo and surging gas prices made the three-series an excellent option. With their potent engines and fuel-efficient gearing, the vehicles were able to comply with the concerns of many motorists.
Four-doors and four-speed automatic transmission options were offered on the three series in 1985. Sales for the 318i were dwindling so the decision was made to remove it from the line-up at the close of 1986. 1986 also saw the addition of antilock four-wheel disc brakes and the two-door 325es.
1987 was a big year for the three-series with the addition of the 325i and 325is models, and a convertible option dubbed the 325ic. The 325is was a true sports model bringing back a heritage that had been last seen in the 2002ti. With 168 horsepower and nearly identical torque, it was the most powerful three-series up to that point. The zero-to-sixty mile-per-hour mark was achieved in just 7.4 seconds and the quarter mile in 15.6 seconds. With the large disc brakes on all four corners and sturdy suspension, the performance was amazing.
In 1988 safety and performance were taken to a whole new level with the introduction of the all-wheel-drive 325ix.
By the close of 1991 a replacement for the 3 Series E30 was needed. The E30 had expanded the model lineup to include sedans, coupes, and convertibles with varying engine and transmission options. Replacing the E30 would be tricky, since the company relied upon it for their 'bread-and-butter'.
The replacement came in the form of the 1992 three-series E36. The E36 was the first major departure from the design, styling, and proportions of the BMW 2002. When comparing the E36 with the E30, it was larger, wider, and slightly bigger in every dimension. The windshield was slightly slanted, rather than the straight-up design of the previous models. The aerodynamics further improved and as a side-benefit, reduced road and wind noise. With the increase in vehicle size, the interior room increased for passengers and the engine compartment could accommodate larger engines. The weight distribution was 50/50, a technique that improves a vehicle performance and handling. The front suspension was still MacPherson strut design but the rear suspension received a new 'Z-axle' featuring a multilink system. The rack-and-pinion steering, disc brakes and ABS were carried over from the E30. Under the hood lurked a new 24-valve dual-overhead-cam aluminum six-cylinder engine capable of producing 189 horsepower. When equipped with a five-speed transmission, the 325i could propel from zero-to-sixty in 6.9 seconds.
In 1996 the 325i and 325is received a new 2.8-liter inline six rated at 190 horsepower. In 1998 the 323i convertible and 323is coupe was outfitted with a 2.5-liter M52 engine that produced 168 horsepower.
In 1999 the E46 3-series was introduced. The first versions offered were the 323i and 328i four-door sedans. The body had undergone moderate changes such as a new front end, a rounder roofline, wider wheel arches, and updated headlights. The vehicles sat atop a wider wheelbase and the length had increased.
BMW stated that the structure of the body had been stiffened by 70 percent and the engine moved back in the chassis to take advantage of better weight distribution. Aluminum had been used in many components such as the suspension and engine to reduce the overall weight. The six-cylinder engine was equipped with an advanced VANOS variable valve timing system. The 2.5-liter version produced 170 horsepower while the 2.8-liter produced 193 horsepower. The rear-seats in the E46 were roomier and side-curtain airbags greatly improved the safety for all passengers.
In 2000 the 323ci and 328ci versions were added to the model lineup. A 323i wagon was big news, the first time a wagon had been offered as a three-series in the United States.
In 2003 a DVD-based navigation became available as optional equipment. It provided many new and exciting features, critics, however, gave it poor ratings on being user-friendly. The vehicles became more comfortable and accommodating with a front, center arm-rest for the 325 and a center headrest for all wagons and sedans.
Throughout the life span, up to this point, the M3 has evolved much like the Porsche 911. Even though the size, style, and shape has changed over the years it still resembles, to some extent, the original design. As the style has changed, so has the technology. It has grown in size but weight saving technology and techniques have been implemented. The car has become safer with larger brakes, improved suspension, air bags, ABS, and much more. The cars are reliable, dependable, and fun to drive. Their continued success gives credit to German Engineering and the legacy that is the three-series.M3
The BMW Motorsport department was tasked with designing and building a powerful, lightweight derivative of the three series. The purpose of the M3 was to compete in the FIA Group A racing. Over five-thousand examples were hand-built by BMW Motorsport.
The first series M3 was based on the E30 platform and was introduced to Europe in 1986 and the United States a year later. The first series stayed into production until 1990 and offered with a variety of motors, including a 238 horsepower engine. In a short amount of time, the E30 M3 scored thousands of victories making it one of the most successful touring machine in history. Under the hood of the M3 lurked a 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine with twin-cam four-valve head with Bosch fuel-injection and rated at 192 horsepower. The 2850 pound vehicle with five-speed manual transmission could go from zero-to-sixty mph in less than seven seconds. The top speed was 140 miles-per-hour.
In 1992 the second generation M3, based on the E36 platform, was introduced at the Paris Auto Show. BMW Motorsports started with the M50TU engine used in various E36 and E34. The bore and stroke was enlarged and the intake was modified to include individual throttle bodies. A new variable valve timing system on the intake camshaft, called VANOS, was adapted to the engine. The engine, dubbed the S50, was capable of producing over 280 horsepower.
The Motorsport department continued the modifications by adapting a new suspension with firmer shocks and springs and larger anti-roll bars. Twelve-inch vented disc brakes provided excellent stopping power, while the M-tuned variable-ratio steering provided instantaneous response.
Aesthetically, the E36 M3 was similar to the regular three series with only a few distinctions. The exterior of the M3 had a front air dam, aerodynamic side mirrors, and deeper side valance panels while the interior had a M shift knob, M instrument cluster, and M sport seats. An M-Technic rear spoiler could be purchased as a dealer option, giving the vehicle a very sportier look.
The E36 M3 did not reach US soil until 1994. Even when it did it was outfitted with a special American version of its potent engine, which was dubbed the S50 B30 USA. Throttle bodies had been removed to lower compression and the continuous VANOS was replaced with a two-stage one. This lowered the cost but also lowered the horsepower, now producing 240.
In 1995, a ZF 5HP18 five-speed automatic transmission was offered on the M3 as optional equipment. During the 1994 to 1995 model year, around 10,000 USA and 18,500 non-USA versions of the M3 were produced.
BMW went a step farther in the performance department with the introduction of the M3 Lightweight introduced in 1995. It was built for competition, having shaved 200 pounds from the standard E36 M3. The inside was void of amenities including air conditioning, rear seat, and radio. Their were only 85 sold in the United States, all were quickly sold.
In 1996 BMW had learned much through its support of the McLaren super car. This translated to a new, larger engine using a Double VANOS system making the intake and exhaust camshafts continuously variable. The engine was called the S50 B32. In Europe the 3.2 liter engine was producing over 320 horsepower while the American version stayed at 240. A Getrag six-speed manual transmission was matted to the engine. The brakes were ventilated discs and 12.4 inches in size. The steering was M-Tuned rack and pinion with variable power assist. Weighing 3150 pounds, the car could accelerate from zero through sixty mph in 5.6 seconds. A four door version was offered.By Daniel Vaughan | Sep 2005