In 1975, BMW largely phased out its celebrated “Neue Klasse” cars and introduced a new entry-level model, the 3 Series. The Neue Klasse cars — especially the 2002 — had long been popular in U.S. enthusiast circles, but once the 3 Series came along, the brand really began to take off. Brilliantly pitched to the American public by then-BMW marketing executive Bob Lutz under the company’s new tagline, “The Ultimate Driving Machine,” the 3 Series struck a chord with another 1970s creation: the yuppie. For legions of young professionals who demanded the best, had money to burn (but maybe not enough for that Porsche 911), and didn’t want to follow in the footsteps of their father’s Cadillac-Lincoln loyalties, the 3 Series seemed to be the answer to their prayers.
And with good cause. It was brilliantly engineered, sporty, luxurious, great to drive, and a status symbol without being ostentatious — which made it unlike anything else on the market. It’s no accident that even 40 years later, whenever a new entry-level premium sedan comes to market it’s dubbed a “3 Series-fighter.” BMW’s entry-level car simply has the market cornered, and no matter how strong the competition is right now with the Mercedes C-Class, Cadillac ATS, Jaguar XE, Audi A4, and Lexus IS, it looks like things will stay that way for a long time.
With each successive generation of 3 Series, there’s the fear that BMW will somehow screw up the formula, but to BMW’s competitors, its formula has remained maddeningly consistent. Now entering its fifth decade, the 3 Series is as versatile a car as there is on the roads. The current car ticks the same boxes to modern-day yuppies that the original car did way back when, while late-model cars are attractive buys on the used car market, and older cars have become catnip to young-timer classic car lovers and boy racers alike. For a better look at BMW’s golden boy, here (listed by their internal designation names), is a brief history of the BMW 3 Series.