E21 - The First Generation
Although the BMW 02 models were the predecessors of the 3 Series, the first model carrying the 3 Series badge was launched to the worldwide press at the Olympic Stadium in Munich in July 1975. Using the engineering number E21, the ‘new’ two-door saloon BMW 3 Series measured 4,355mm in length, 1,610mm wide and 1,380mm tall. With its long wheelbase of 2,563mm and consequent short overhangs, the first 3 Series shared its overall proportions with all subsequent generations. The all-four cylinder range started with the 316 that delivered 98bhp but weighed only 1,010kgs and consequently ensured a spirited driving performance from the entry model. The range also included the 318, 320 and the halo model 320i. With 125bhp, the 320i offered near-sports car performance with a top speed of 112mph, aided by an independent spring strut suspension at the front and rear to deliver a truly revolutionary sporting drive.
This innovative combination of handling and performance in a compact car had clearly struck a cord with buyers. This is highlighted by a customer survey from 1980 suggesting that 77 per cent of purchasers brought the 3 Series because of its superior performance, 65 per cent because of its handling and 64 per cent due to the looks of the car. With such success, after only one year of production, sales of the new 3 Series have outperformed the aspirations of even the most optimistic planners, prompting the then Chairman of the Board of BMW Management, Eberhard von Kuenheim, to suggest a "level of success far beyond our own expectations".
Not content with class leading performance and following a DM110 million investment in six-cylinder engine technology, BMW debuted the new 320/6 and 323i at the 1977 Frankfurt Motorshow. Producing 143bhp (for comparison, the same as the 2004-model 318i), the 323i had a top speed of 118mph. The new car also laid a landmark in engine electronics technology, with K-Jetronic fuel injection and transistorised ignition used for the first time. This not only provided class-leading performance but also benefited economy, with the 323i delivering 21.4mpg.
In 1981 and almost exactly six years after the start of production of the 3 Series, the millionth 3 Series model was produced, making it the single most successful BMW to date and by the end of production in 1983, 1,364,039 cars had been built.