BMW presented the first generation BMW 3 Series in 1975. Although the two-door Sedan displayed distinctive characteristics emphasising its relationship with the BMW 5 Series unveiled three years earlier, the compact and sporting model that eventually made its debut on the market was a totally new car.
The design of the body followed the new approach already applied to the BMW 5 Series by head designer Paul Bracq and was distinguished by a clear use of forms. The front end was dominated by the striking BMW kidney grille and circular lights, the latter featured in twin-headlight form in the top-of-the-line models with 2.0-litre engine. Other distinctive elements included the coupe-like side window graphic including the Hofmeister kink at its trailing edge and the “power dome” contouring of the bonnet.
Its new proportions made the BMW 3 Series look significantly larger at first glance than its predecessor, although the 4,355-millimetre-long, 1,610-millimetre-wide and 1,380-millimetre-tall two-door was actually only a few centimetres larger in each respect than the BMW 02. Track widths of 1,364 millimetres at the front and 1,377 millimetres at the rear gave the new kid on the block a powerful stance.
The interior of the BMW 3 Series witnessed the debut of the now familiar driver-focused cockpit design. The vertically stacked controls in the centre of the dashboard were angled clearly towards the driver, making them easier to reach and read. This new development helped to optimise ergonomics and remains a signature feature of BMW models to this day.
The model range included the BMW 316, BMW 318 and BMW 320 variants from launch. Their model designations were derived from the size of their engine displacement: 1,573cc, 1,766cc and 1,990cc respectively. The sophisticated four-cylinder carburettor engines combined sporting performance characteristics with very reasonable fuel economy. Even the 66 kW/90 hp entry-level engine in the BMW 316, which weighed just 1,010 kilograms, allowed customers to experience smile-inducing agility and a top speed of 160 km/h (99 mph).
The engine line-up blossomed in spectacular style in 1977, as the lower mid-range welcomed the arrival of six-cylinder engines for the first time. The 2.0-litre engine for the BMW 320 and 2.3-litre unit bestowed on the BMW 323i were designed specially for the BMW 3 Series. The straight-six powering the BMW 323i included features such as electronically controlled engine management and transistor ignition, generated 105 kW/143 hp and accelerated the two-door car from 0 to 100 km/h (62 mph) in just 9.0 seconds.
The engine’s task of fast-tracking the 3 Series to sporting eminence in the mid-size segment was shared by independent suspension featuring control arms and spring struts at the front axle and semi-trailing arms/spring struts at the rear. The front axle control arms had a MacPherson construction using anti-roll bars, creating the perfect platform for excellent steering precision. The 3 Series also gave an all-new design feature its BMW premiere: elastically mounted rack-and-pinion steering.
The BMW 315, powered by a 1.6-litre engine developing 55 kW/75 hp, joined the fray in 1981 as the new entry-level model in the line-up. The same year, BMW 3 Series sales reached the one-million mark. That meant the new model range had outstripped the figure recorded by its predecessor after just six years in production to become the most successful model in the company’s history.
A total of 1,364,039 units of the BMW 3 Series were sold up to 1983, of which 4,595 were in “Topcabriolet” trim. This take on the 3 Series recipe was the work of Stuttgart-based coachbuilder Baur, whom customers could commission to conjure any engine variant of the 3 Series into an open-top four-seater with a suitably burly rollover bar.