Without question, one of the world’s most popular cars of any type, the BMW 3 Series holds the singular distinction of being the model nearly everyone thinks of when they hear the acronym BMW—even though it is the company’s entry-level offering. Predictably, the 3 Series is also BMW’s best selling model, routinely accounting for some 30 percent of the brand’s total car sales.
The first 3 Series BMW (referred to inside the company as the BMW E21), was marketed as the 320i in the U.S. Introduced in Europe in 1975, as a replacement for the BMW 2002, the car was brought to the North American market in 1977. Achieving near instant popularity, one automotive magazine referred to the 320i as the “Rabbit of the rich”, drawing upon a reference to Volkswagen’s readily affordable and intensely popular VW Rabbit entry-level car of the time.
Indeed, in those days it seemed everywhere you looked, despite is rather steep price tag, (comparatively speaking) the BMW 320i’s angular visage could be found transporting well-heeled individuals to exclusive destinations.
The 320i benefited in no small measure from a significant moment in automotive history.
The Arab oil embargo had occurred just before the car was introduced, and people were forced to wait in long lines to purchase gasoline in the U.S. for the first time in history. Shortly after the introduction of the model came another fuel crisis, this one prompting the rationing of fuel for the first time since World War II.
Rationing measures allowed consumers to only purchase fuel every other day, depending upon the last number of their license plate. Thus the phrase odd/even took on new significance. Only cars with odd numbered plates could purchase fuel one day, while even numbered plates had to wait until the next day, and vice-versa.
With the psychological scarring of this trauma fresh in the minds of well-off car buyers, the idea of a premium automobile with a relatively economical four-cylinder engine was highly appealing. The BMW 320i was just such a vehicle, plus it was handsome and fun to drive.
Sales went off the charts and the BMW 3 Series became well established in this market. To date, there have been six generations of BMW 3 Series cars offered in the U.S. This article picks up with the fourth generation of the model; carrying BMW’s internal designation of E46.