Peter Anderson | Jul 13, 2012

It's hard to believe, but BMW's 3 Series is approaching its 40th birthday. To get us in the mood for the big event in 2015, BMW has released a video chronicling the 3's 38 years.

The 3 was born in 1975, replacing BMW's Neue Klasse (New Class) cars that had begun with the 1500 in 1962, and ended in 1976 when the last of the iconic 2002 range rolled off the line.

The first 3 was the E21, intended as a replacement for the slightly larger 2002. It was launched as a two-door coupe, and a cabriolet was built by coachbuilder Baur.

Three models were available - the 316, 318 and 320, the top model having four headlights to distinguish it from the other two.

In 1977, the 320 was replaced with the 320/6, powered by a 2.0 litre six-cylinder and the 323i debuted with 105kW from its 2.3 litre M20. The 323i could be had with an optional close-ratio five-speed manual and limited-slip differential.

After an engine shuffle in 1979, a new 315 was introduced with a 55kW 1.6 litre M10.

The E30 was launched in 1982, this time with four doors. The E30 range would be expanded over its twelve-year lifespan, including a convertible, touring and coupe.

The E30 came with a big price increase, but it also had more power and the curious 325 ETA six-cylinder with 90kW and an impressive 233Nm.

While down on power, the ETA passed strict emissions regulations and had more than enough torque to bowl along at speed.

In 1985, the 325i and 325is were unleashed. The 2.5 litre straight six may have lost out on the ETA's torque figure, but gained 35kW to punch out 125kW.

It also had a more rev-happy nature and a redline like a "normal" petrol engine at 6500rpm, to the ETA's diesel-like 5000rpm.

The E30 also brought us the left-hand-drive only 325ix all-wheel drive in 1987. All-wheel drive 3 Series' remain left-hand drive only, due to clashes with steering and drivetrain equipment.

Diesel power came to the range in 1985 with the six-cylinder 324td, with an asthmatic 63kW, and later 85kW.

In 1989, the world was rocked by the introduction of the M3. The S14 straight four featured a 16-valve head, Bosch fuel injection and 143kW (147kW if it didn't have a catalytic converter).

Regarded as the essence of M3 by many BMW purists, the model shared only bonnet, roof and sunroof with the standard E30.

During the 80s, the M3 raced in the Australian Touring Car Championship under Group A rules, its 2.5 litre engine producing 190kW. BMW took the title in 1987.

bmw 3 series history 12
Globally, almost 2.4 million E30s were sold over 12 years, the 325i accounting for over 310,000 across the multiple two and four door variants. The ETA engined 325e sold almost 200,000 over five years.

The E36 arrived in 1990 and overlapped with the end of E30 production. The car proved enormously successful and the range expanded over the next four years, with coupe, cabriolet, Touring and Compact.

The Compact was a hybrid of the E36 front end and E30 mechanicals at the rear, but set the scene for the 1 Series to follow in 2004.

The E36 had a range of petrol fours and sixes as well as two diesels, a 318tds and 325td/tds.

The 1992 M3's straight six was the first six cylinder M3. It was also the first four-door M3, introduced to plug the gap left in the range by the end of the E34 M5.

The E36 M3 debuted with a five-speed manual. It would later take on the single-clutch semi-automatic SMG clutchless manual and six-speed manual.

The E46 began production in 1998, in a now-familiar pattern starting with the four-door sedan and spreading out into coupe, cabriolet, compact and touring versions over a few years.

The E46 also introduced Steptronic automatic transmissions and over the lifetime of the range sported a number of engine options from the 316i's 77kW 1.9 litre petrol to the 256kW M3 straight six.

The depth of the E46 range was underscored by the introduction of powerful and frugal turbodiesel engines, including the 330d's 135kW/390Nm straight six turbo, an engine that would gain another 14kW and 20Nm of torque in 2004.

The E46's overall success was impressive. In 2002, 561,249 3 Series were sold worldwide, 115,000 in the US alone.

In 2005, the E90/E91 was released in Sedan and Touring, while with the Coupe (E92) and hard-top Convertible (E93) following in 2006.

The new models were comprehensively re-engineered from the E46 and, as with every model before, grew in almost every dimension.

The range stretched from the 316i through to the M3, with almost as many petrol as diesel options.

The M3 arrived in 2007 and was available in all body styles, with the exception of the touring. The 309kW V8 replaced the straight sixes of the E36 and E46 and the single clutch SMG was replaced by the new dual-clutch M-DCT.

In 2007, the 335i was introduced with a twin-turbo straight six, and the 330d was joined in 2006 by a twin-turbo 335d, which had a tyre-shredding 580Nm of torque - more than either the M3's V8 or M5's V10.

The sixth-generation F30 was unveiled in Munich in October 2011 and went on sale in 2012.

The F30 has brought with it a new range of down-sized turbo-charged fours, a long-expected change signalled by even BMW's most powerful cars moving to smaller capacities and forced induction.

bmw 3 series history 23
The 328i, associated with a six-cylinder engine since its debut in the E36, became a 180kW turbocharged four, leaving the 3.0 litre turbo petrol six alone at the top of the range in the 335i.

The F30 launched internationally with three petrol engines and five diesels, another sign of the continually growing importance of diesel.

Since 1975, the 3 has grown from 4.35m in length to 4.62m, with commensurate jumps in width and height to compare with the first 5 series, the E12 of 1972. The E87 1 Series was just millimetres shorter than the E21.

The 3 series has evolved from a small family car into a worldwide phenomenon, and has been the financial and image cornerstone of the BMW range.

It may be the most conservatively-styled BMW, escaping even the wildest of Bangle-era flourishes, but it's a formula that has worked for nigh on four decades.

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