BMW’s humble origins as a brand began after the financial restructuring of the aircraft manufacturer Rapp Motorenwerke in 1917. Initially specializing in aircraft engines, BMW shifted to motorcycle production after the end of World War One, but it wasn’t until the late 1920s that the first BMW motorcar was developed. Its design was based off the Austin 7 and licensed from the Austin Motor Company in Birmingham, England.
The early years
For decades afterward, BMW struggled through post-war economic strife, surviving mainly on the sales of motorcycles and microcars like the Isetta. That all changed at the 1961 Frankfurt Auto Show, when BMW introduced the “New Class” 1500, which featured high-spec design elements like disc brakes and four wheel independent suspension, that the automaker began to stake its claim as global manufacture of passenger cars. The 1500 would later evolve into the iconic BMW 2002, a vehicle sought after and enjoyed by sports car enthusiasts to this day. Then, in 1976, BMW introduced the successor to the 2002: The BMW 3 Series.
Dubbed the “E21,” the first 3 Series coupe landed at a very opportune time. The automotive world was in the midst of oil embargos and new, strict government and EPA regulations, which resulted in wallowy American land yachts, anemic econoboxes and very few good options to choose from. With its handsome European styling and the 2002’s legendary sporty driving dynamics, the E21 was an immediate sales success, both in Europe and the United States. It helped to cement BMW’s reputation for building exceptional European sport sedans and coupes.
In 1984, the successor to the E21, called the “E30,” was publicly introduced to great critical acclaim. An evolutionary change from the E21, the E30 continued to mature throughout the course of the 1980s. The E30 really started to come into its own in 1987 with the introduction of the sport-oriented 325i and 325is models, which featured a 168hp version of BMW’s inline 6 cylinder engine, capable of shooting the coupe from 0-60 in a then-jaw dropping 7.4 seconds. But the best E30 was yet to come. The following year, BMW introduced the M3, sporting a 192hp detuned racing motor, hardcore suspension, and braking tweaks from BMW’s performance division, as well as visual enhancements derived from BMW’s FIA Group A racing cars. Upon reviewing the first US-spec M3, Car and Driver declared, “This is not a car for yuppies. This is a car for us.”
In 1992, the E30 was succeeded by the E36, a car which was physically larger in every dimension, but also brought with it a new level of refinement, visual appeal, and performance capability previously unseen from BMW. The 3 Series range continued to expand during this period, adding hatchback and wagon models to the coupes, sedans and convertibles already available. In 1995, BMW unveiled the E36 M3, to great critical acclaim. With impeccable road manners, a beefy 240hp engine and a level of refinement that was simply unavailable from other sports cars at the time, the E36 M3 immediately became a darling amongst both the automotive press and the enthusiast public at large.
In 1999, BMW unveiled the E36’s successor, the E46. The execution of this new 3 series was so universally praised that it’s still considered by many to be the finest 3 Series car to date. Visually, the 3 Series continued its progression toward a more sleek aesthetic, and the model continued to grow beyond the increased physical dimensions of the E36. The E46 M3 also continued BMW’s tradition of world class performance in a refined sport coupe, offering a bespoke model which shared very few components with its lesser 3 series counterparts. Motivated by a stout 3.2 liter inline 6 cylinder engine producing 333 horsepower and a screaming 8000 rpm redline, the E46 M3 is still considered one of the finest sport coupes money can buy.
Succeeding the E46 in the 3 series timeline are separate nomenclatures for the sedan, wagon, coupe and convertible (E90, E91, E92, and E93, respectively). Debuting in 2005, the current 3 Series carries on its predecessor’s tradition of incremental physical growth. While the current generation’s revamped styling has been somewhat controversial, the 3 series continues to be as popular as ever, and the performance-bred E92 M3, much like its predecessors, continues to be a favorite amongst sports car enthusiasts. It employs a highly exotic, high revving V8 for a neck-snapping 414hp, plus cutting edge chassis, suspension and braking technologies that provide the new M3 with supercar levels of performance capability.
The sixth generation of the 3 Series are the F30/31 models, which began production in 2011. The gran coupe, coupe, and convertible models were spun off into their own 4 Series and the M3 version, released in 2014, featured a S55 twin-turbo straight-6 engine. In 2016, the whole line received a facelift, and in addition to replacing the engines in these models, BMW also introduced a plug-in hybrid model to the 3 Series, with the 330e iPerformance.
The 3 Series continues to be the standard by which all other sport coupes and sedans are compared. The legendary refinement that is a BMW hallmark is constantly attempted by many other automobile manufactures, both domestic and abroad, but rarely achieved to the same standard.
BMWs for rent on Turo
R. Kwan’s 1976 BMW 2002 in San Francisco, CA
Daniel’s BMW 3 Series 2007 in Boston, MA
Perle’s BMW 3 Series 2014 in Los Angeles, CA
Valentine’s BMW 3 Series 2015 in Hoboken, NJ