The truly iconic small saloon of the 1970’s and early 80’s, the BMW 3-Series cemented the builder’s place in automotive history by combining classic styling with reliability, build quality, ergonomics and performance; traits which have lived on through its descendants.
This car is the reason BMW went from a little-known company which sold primarily in Europe to a major manufacturer with a global influence. The 3-Series came with pretty much every option under the sun, from practical estates to sporty saloons and divine drop-tops. The flexibility and reliability of these machines, as well as their comparatively small size, good performance and efficient engines were a welcome sight in the post-Energy Crisis world. BMW’s bold move to sell these cars in the USA paid off incredibly well and soon the German builder had influence over a market which stretched from Florida to Alaska.
The sheer popularity of these machines means there are still hundreds roaming the roads of the world at incredibly cheap prices. The car is everything you want and is suitable for either the single, the couple or the whole family. It has space, handling, acceleration, functionality, options coming out of its ears and that Teutonic reliability which made the 1980’s the decade of the German auto.
However, the BMW 3-Series, like all cars, is not without its faults.
Perhaps the biggest issue with an old 3-Series is the fact that they are starting to show their age. Many of these machines are well over 30 years old and thus they aren’t as sprightly as they were when they left the factory. Acceleration will likely be sluggish and the top speed very slow when compared to its descendants. Worst of all though is the heroic amounts of oversteer these cars are prone to having, due largely to a lack of weight on the rear wheels. In the rain you need to be especially careful as the 3-Series is a very tail-happy car and thus prone to spinning.
Small wonder these cars were favourites among people who like to drift!
The practicality of these cars can also be a touch suspect as well, particularly on the two-door versions. It has always boggled my mind why manufacturers insist on putting seats in the back of two-door cars when they know as well as anybody that even a Sardine would find it claustrophobic! We’ve seen it on the Ferrari Mondial, the Alfa Romeo GTV, the Ford Mustang and it’s no different on old BMW 3-Series models. This is compounded by the fact that the 3-Series has incredibly large front-seats, so expect anyone unlucky enough to be sat in the back to find their legs being pressed up against their chest!
The biggest problem, however, with the car’s mechanics are the timing belts, which need to be replaced every 3 years or 36,000 miles (whichever comes first). Failure to do this can result in a truly catastrophic break which can break the cylinder heads. To make matters worse, replacement parts for older 3-Series models was discontinued by BMW in 2002, though due to the sheer volume of these cars spare parts are in abundance.
Truth be told though, the most glaring issue when buying an old 3-Series, depending on the model, is finding a stock version. Due to the car’s performance, handling and reliability, the 3-Series was a popular car to modify by disenfranchised youths looking to cause trouble and raise heck. As such, many have been lowered, tuned and mechanically butchered so as to ‘fix’ something that wasn’t even broken!
If you want an example of the problems you can find on unloved BMW 3-Series models, watch Top Gear’s BMW challenge where Clarkson, Hammond and May buy what appear to be identical BMW 3-Series examples. It’s a really interesting watch if you’re someone who believes that every car has a unique story.
However, if you do your research, check the car thoroughly and demand a full service history from the owner, you should be on even footing for a pristine example of the car that put BMW on the map.
- Comfort – 8/10 – Perfect comfort, just like you’d expect on a BMW
- Practicality – 9/10 – Saloons are perfect for either the couple, the budding family or on work-based trips, but estate models trump all when it comes to much needed space
- Reliability – 10/10 – If there are any faults, they won’t be because of BMW
- Speed – 8/10 – Nippy and full of buzz
- Handling – 9/10 – Grips the tarmac like glue
- Looks – 7/10 – Perhaps not the prettiest BMW ever, but certainly holds much of the company’s charm
- Equipment – 8/10 – Not as well-equipped as some on this list, but certainly not lacking in refinements
- Price – 10/10 – Thousands of these cars are still on the go and can be picked up for as little as £500 in some cases!
- Value – 3/10 – You have to be pretty desperate for a quick buck if you’re going to sell a car for £500!
- Total – 72/90 – The car that put BMW on the map, and for good reason.