The face of the BMW 3 Series through changing times


The “face“ of the BMW 3 Series through changing times: dynamic, innovative and always unmistakably BMW. Each new BMW 3 Series is a harmonious combination of BMW tradition and modernity, of classic and innovative elements that constantly interpret the desired family resemblance in a most exciting way.


Munich. During the course of more than three and a  half decades, the face of the BMW 3 Series has constantly evolved.  Designers have always managed to incorporate dynamics, innovation and  aesthetics into a harmonious, modern and future-oriented overall  concept, whilst at the same time preserving traditional values. As a  result, each BMW 3 Series has retained its unmistakable brand identity  and can be identified as a BMW at very first glance. However, the  roots of the BMW Series reach back as far as the 1960s….

As a manufacturer of sporty, elegant sedans, BMW had at that time  already developed a characteristic profile. With a notchback body  design, front-mounted engines and rear-wheel drive, a basic principle  was established back then (BMW 1500/2000) that still prevails to this  very day. With the arrival of the BMW 1600 in 1966, the 2-door 02  Series, which produced such famous models as the 1600ti or the  2002tii, was launched on to the automotive market and eventually  replaced by the BMW 3 Series.

The presentation of the first BMW 3 Series in July 1975 marked the  beginning of one of the most remarkable success stories in BMW model  history. Although the 2-door sedan bore a strong resemblance to the  BMW 5 Series introduced in 1972, the market witnessed the launch of an  entirely new vehicle with compact dimensions and a sporting  character.  The predominant design feature of the front end was  also the brand’s characteristic symbol, which was clearly  identifiable even from a distance – the BMW kidney grille.

BMW History

BMW 1975–1983. The design of the first BMW 3 Series  is characterised by large windows, a distinctive wedge shape and, of  course, BMW’s brand-typical face, the front end being dominated  by the kidney grille vividly protruding from the radiator cover to  continue up slightly scoop-shaped along the bonnet to the windscreen.  With short overhangs and a track width of 1,364 millimetres at the  front, the new sports sedan boasts a rather low-slung appearance.  Vertically mounted indicators flank the large round headlights on each  side. On the occasion of its presentation, BMW gives the new model  best chances of success: “Timeless and without superficial  gallery play, the design of BMW 3 Series will also become a  trendsetter for the next decade.”

BMW 1982–1993. In 1982, the second generation of  the BMW 3 Series presents itself as a worthy successor. As a result of  a sensitively enhanced design and optimised aerodynamics, the new  model has gained significantly in presence. The approx. 35 mm increase  in track width also contributes towards the sedan’s  distinctively powerful look. Finally, on the whole, the body appears  smoother and rounder, the sleek front end being the result of  extensive wind tunnel tests, which is not least underscored by a drag  coefficient of 0.37. The now low-slung front end boasting the flat BMW  kidney grille elongates the entire front end of the vehicle,  particularly as the double headlights now featured on all 3 Series  models are located far on the outside. The smooth transition into all  adjoining body surfaces not only determines the characteristic shape,  but also ensures a good air flow around the vehicle. The low-set  bonnet with its wide scoop rising gently from the front enhances  aerodynamics, its surface not being interrupted by air intake openings.

BMW 1990–1997. In 1990, the time had apparently  come to replace the soberly designed BMW 3 Series with an exceedingly  elegant successor model. It is an entirely newly conceived sports  sedan, the dimensions of which have increased all round, both  surprising and pleasing the public to an equal extent. Besides the  slim silhouette, the smooth front end of the new model is immediately  evident, as the double headlights are now conjointly mounted behind a  glass cover. In addition to dynamic lines and a distinctive wedge  shape, a significantly lower bonnet and a raised rear end, technical  refinements such as windows installed flush with the car body and  targeted diffuser cooling air circulation inside the engine  compartment also contribute towards the outstanding drag coefficient  of 0.29 (316i). This BMW has therefore virtually nothing in common  with its predecessor, but the family resemblance still remains  recognisable. Thanks to typical styling elements such as the kidney  grille and double headlights, it is still obviously a BMW, even though  the dominating design element and symbol of the brand was now flatter  and wider.

BMW 1998–2005. When the fourth generation of the  BMW 3 Series is launched in May 1998, the compact sports sedan is some  40 mm wider and even the track width has increased by 60 mm compared  with its predecessor. At that time, BMW designers describe the styling  of the front end as follows: “On the whole and in essential  details, the front end, the typical BMW face, has been reinterpreted,  but it is still that unmistakable 3 Series face.” The double  kidney grille is integrated into the bonnet and, together with the  dual round headlights located behind clear glass covers, again shapes  the powerful character of the new BMW 3 Series’ face. Compared  with the front ends of the BMW 5 and 7 Series, the lower headlight  surrounds form a distinctive separation: Here, the curvatures of the  reflectors located in the exterior bodywork are finely outlined by a  slight indication of curvatures, resulting in a clearly visible  interruption of the horizontal line above the bumper.

BMW 2005–2011. With the launch of the fifth  generation in the year 2005, BMW brings to the market a BMW 3 Series  that is strong in character and exudes significantly more presence and  power than its predecessor. Only a year after the market launch, the  new styling strategy and the progressive design vocabulary gain the  highest level of recognition, resulting in the BMW 3 Series being  presented with the “World Car of the Year” award in New  York. Members of the creative BMW design team are already convinced of  the value of their work beforehand: “Within the series, the  design has consistently developed in both small and larger steps. The  new 3 Series represents a particularly high level of advancement in  the vehicle’s design history.” Although the car makes only  a proportionally moderate leap compared to the predecessor model, it  does stand out from it significantly and noticeably. With the double  kidney grille and dual headlights curved at the top, it exhibits the  typical front end of a modern BMW – a focused facial expression.

BMW From 2011. The sixth generation of the BMW 3 Series  expresses essential qualities of the sedan such as agility, sportiness  and dynamics in an entirely new way.  Newly interpreted classic  design features find a new lease on life and are reminiscent of the  models of the 1960s. The large, almost seamlessly integrated radiator  cowling with embedded headlights and kidney grille also characterised  the distinctive face of the first BMW 3 Series in 1975.  On the  sports sedan of the year 2011, the modern dual headlights with LED  eyebrows extend as far as the kidney grille frame, also forming a  continuous optical unit spanning an arch to the historical  predecessors in a modern way. The athletically arched bonnet  additionally accentuates the front end, emphasising the car’s  presence and sporting appeal. Instead of a central air intake, the new  BMW 3 Series has two larger air intakes located to the outside below  the headlights. Additional vertical air vents are located on the outer  edge of the air intakes, creating the so-called “air  curtain”. By means of enhanced aerodynamic airflow in the  vicinity of the front wheels it facilitates a reduction in fuel  consumption at high speeds and contributes towards an outstanding drag  coefficient of 0.26.

Although more than 35 years lie between the first generation of 1975  and the current BMW 3 Series, both front ends attest to an  unmistakable brand identity and, in spite of the great difference in  age, are both immediately recognisable as members of the same family.  Then as now, the design bestows the BMW sedan with its styling and  personality, expressing contemporary and trendsetting dynamics,  innovation and aesthetics. Hence, each generation of the compact  sports sedan stands for BMW tradition and modernity alike. And each  model combines classic and innovative elements that interpret this  theme in their very own way.