BMW 3 Series celebrates its 40th anniversary

Trio of E36 BMWs
A look back at different variants of the venerable third generation BMW 3 Series.

Not 10. Not 20. Not even 30, but 40 years. That’s how long the BMW 3 Series, now in its sixth generation, has been around, the car that has turned into the brand’s best seller and global ambassador. Let’s take a trip down memory lane and revisit the highlights of each decade, beginning with the vehicle’s creation in 1975.

E21 BMW 3 Series


The 3 Series debuted in 1975, at the International Motor Show in Frankfurt, Germany. It had one simple task: to serve as the spiritual successor to the legendary BMW 2002. In order to do that, the company had to make something that was sporty looking, could handle well, embrace new technology, all while maintaining a level of luxury customers expected. Originally packaged with a 2.0-litre, four-cylinder engine making 110 horsepower, a six cylinder mill was soon added.

E30 BMW 3 Series


The second generation 3 rolled out in 1982, which brought with it a slew of different body configurations. Popularly called the E30 by enthusiasts in reference to its chassis code, this model, like the first gen, came out first as a coupe. That was later followed by two-door convertible, sedan and wagon offerings. This period was also when the world was first introduced to the first all-wheel drive BMW, as well as a factory performance-enhanced version of the car, the M3.

E36 BMW 3 Series


By the time the third iteration of the 3 Series arrived, BMW had started to take bold steps in design. The car was wider, lower and featured sharper body lines. The once humble kidney grill was stretched out to fill the space between the familiar round headlights, now encased behind panes of glass. Engine choices were becoming as robust as form factors, and in 1993 the company unveiled a motor with variable valve timing, dubbed VANOS (VAriable NOckenwellenSteuerung)

F30 BMW 3 Series


In the new millennium, the story has stayed pretty much the same. Popularity remains at an all-time high, and the vehicle continues to get bigger, faster and more innovative. Twin turbos, horsepower figures north of 300 and V8s have all become a reality, and ConnectedDrive allows the 3 Series to become plugged into the world of mobile devices and the Internet. The lineup actually has recently shrunk since 2013, when it was announced that all two-door variants would be replaced by the new 4 Series coupes.

Posted by Benjamin Yong

Benjamin Yong is a freelance journalist and communications professional living in Richmond, B.C. He is often found writing about cars and the auto industry, amongst other things, or driving around in his work-in-progress 1990 Mazda MX-5. Twitter: @b_yong Instagram: @popuplights