By Stuart Grant and photos from Henrie Snyman
It’s hard to believe that the BMW 3 Series, arguably the epitome of luxury sporting saloon, is 45 years old. While the various M3 versions normally top the desirability pile two South African-developed specials are charging up the global ranks. Enter BMW SA’s 333i and 325iS.
Launched internationally in May 1975, the 3 Series hit the market with big shoes to fill – those of the BMW 2002. Designated internally as the E21, production ran to 1981 and saw both four-cylinder and six-cylinder versions under the hood. It came in two-door coupé form and a brilliant-looking Baur-designed cabriolet of Targa thought. The press raved and a star was born, but sadly very few of these first-generation vehicles made it to South Africa.
Generation 2 hit the world market in 1982 and went on sale locally in 1983. A definite evolution in style, this E30 BMW stamped the firm’s brand firmly in SA. Thanks to its sporting nature and ‘sheer driving pleasure’ it made owners want to really drive, which in some cases earned BMW drivers a bad rap with other users. Even today, the 1980s BMW is highly sought-after and has a cult following amongst the ‘spinning crowd’, thanks to its rear-wheel-drive layout and decent grunt which enable doughnuts at the drop of the clutch. The best E30 for this task is obviously a manual with limited-slip differential, which BMW so kindly gave as standard in the 323i and 325i versions. These antics have earned the drivers fame and BMWs of the 1980s the nickname gusheshe, which translates to… wait for it…’panty dropper’. Added to the two- and four-door sedan styles were a station wagon (titled Touring) and drop-tops, both in full cabriolet and Targa format.
Initially power came from a 1766cc four-cylinder petrol (318i), a 1990cc six-cylinder petrol (320i) or 2316cc six-cylinder petrol (323i) and bodywork was in two-door guise. A four-door version soon went on sale though, and along with facelifts and the move from chrome bumpers to plastic ones, the box-shaped BMW also dabbled in other capacities like 1766cc (316), 1596cc (316i) and 2494cc (325i). A homologation special BMW Motorsport M3 was added to the mix in Europe but never sold in SA. True to form, we had to shoehorn some extra cubes under the E30 hood, but that part of the story will come later.
The third-generation E36 overlapped E30 production a bit, running from 1991 through to 1998. Local fans referred to this as the ‘dolphin’ shape because of the side silhouette’s diving nose. Four-door, coupé, full cabriolet and wagon versions were sold and while the badging by engine capacity continued with four- and six-pot configurations, the six-cylinder did change from the E30’s single-cam layout to a twin-cam unit. This was also the first shape to officially introduce local fans to the M3 – who can forget the tinny exhaust note coming from a Dakar Yellow M3 in the 1990s?
Generation 4 arrived in 1998 and ran through to 2006. In SA this is referred to as the ‘G-string’ because when viewed head-on, the way the bonnet metal splits through the two rounded ‘kidney’ grilles looks like what you’d see if you were walking along the beach behind a lady wearing a very skimpy bikini. It is also the model that makes it confusing in the badge department; it no longer indicates the capacity – a problem for those of us following a Beemer and looking for a dice.
The end of 2005 saw the arrival of the E90 fifth generation, and the current sixth version replaced that in 2012. Both these need a bit of time under their belts to develop into some sort of cult star but what is certain is that they are pushing limits when it comes to economy, safety, technology and performance, continually improving on these but keeping at the sharp end of the performance sedan brigade.
BMW E30 333i (1985-1987)
Introduced in April 1985, the 333i was BMW SA’s substitute for the E30 M3, which we would never officially get. The four-cylinder M3 had been developed as a homologation special to take on the mighty Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.3 16-valve Cosworth – and did so with aplomb. Without the constraints of an international race formula, BMW SA decided to continue in the local tradition of shoehorning and slapped a 3210cc six-cylinder from the BMW 733i into the smaller body.
It wasn’t all local content though, with BMW SA collaborating closely with German tuning firm Alpina. This meant that the Alpina-designed inlet manifold and plenum chamber took centre stage under the bonnet, and the firm also handed over a cast-alloy exhaust manifold and copper radiator and changed the Bosch L-Jetronic fuel injection profile. These amendments didn’t change the power or torque top end figures but flattened out the curve for low-rev range pulling. And pull it does, with a 0-100km/h sprint of 7.2 seconds – if you can get the clutch and pedal action to sync without lighting up the rear tyres. Merc’s 2.3 managed the same in 7.9 seconds and topped out at 226km/h, a tad slower than the 333i with 231km/h.
Power goes to the back wheels via a ZF limited-slip differential and Getrag close-ratio five-speed gearbox featuring a ‘dogleg’ first gear action. First gear is found down and to the left of the gate rather than up top left. The job of finding first gives the 333i and the 325iS (which also features a Getrag) another nickname – isandla semfene. This translates to ‘monkey hand’ because when finding first, your hand assumes the look of an amputated, dried monkey hand found at sangoma and muti markets.
Alpina also influenced the looks of the chrome-bumpered 333i, adding a deep front spoiler, side skirts, lower rear panel, black rubber boot spoiler and the 16-inch 7J Alpina alloy wheels. Inside the cabin the Alpina touches continue: an Alpina-marked gauge cluster that reads to 270km/h and the driver-side portion of the central barrel-shaped air vent that gives way for a digital display reading engine and rear axle oil temperatures, oil pressure and manifold vacuum.
BMW Motorsport seats in leather hug the body and the three-spoke leather-rimmed wheel continues this sporting theme. Despite having a very driver-orientated cockpit, thanks to an angled centre dash fascia, the cabin can be an uncomfy place – but because of engine bay constraints you could opt for either Dunair air conditioning or power-steering – not both. I’d go for the aircon because once rolling it isn’t difficult to steer the 333i – hell, with this much oomph you can steer it with the accelerator!
With motor racing rules moving away from a formula that would have let the 333i compete, the big-engined BMW didn’t really see much race time and therefore isn’t necessarily a homologation special. BMW production figures claim 204 units were made, of which four were factory development cars. But checking on sales figure records in Auto Data Digest shows 38 were sold in 1985 at a cost of R41 300, 126 in 1986 at R56 880 and 46 in 1987 for R65 370 – totalling 210. Again, data capturing when it comes to South African specials continues to be a source of contention. What we do know is that the only colours available were Henna Red, Aero Silver, Ice White and Diamond Black.
Very South African and oh so cool… and even though it loses out to the original M3 by 1kW, it more than makes up for it in the rarity department.
BMW E30 325iS (1990-1991)
The story starts in 1987 and the reveal of the BMW 325i‘S’. ‘S’ standing for ‘Shadowline’, which indicated that the two-door 325i had black window surrounds that looked like shadows. Besides this colour-coded rear wing and lower spoiler addition, there was not much else differentiating the Shadowline from a stock 325i visually. In the engine department the compression was bumped up from the regular 8.8:1 to 9.8:1, which saw the Shadowline gain 6kW to top out with 126kW.
Come 1990 and the local Group N racing series hit an all-time high in competitiveness with the likes of Opel’s Superboss and VW’s Golf GTI hot contenders. BMW SA always saw the benefit of ‘what wins on Sunday sells on Monday’ but with the M3 not coming to our shores, it needed something with a bit more go than the Shadowline to ensure it made its mark on the track. Enter the 325iS in what some call the Evolution I format.
In went a 325-turbodiesel crankshaft that changed the stroke to see a new capacity of 2693cc. Alpina supplied a tuned cylinder head and power output increased to 145kW. In order to achieve the best power-to-weight ratio, aluminium bonnet, door and mudguards were added to the mix and the result was that the 325is galloped to 100km/h in 7.5 seconds and on to top out at 232km/h. Again the ‘dogleg’ Getrag five-speed and an LS diff were used. A large M-Technic spoiler was added to the rear while the front and sides got a lower kit and the bumpers were colour coded. Interestingly, the strain the rear spoiler put on the boot meant that this panel was kept steel and not aluminium.
As a proper track machine, the 325iS got M3 suspension and brakes (including ABS) and this meant the addition of 15-inch five-stud BBS alloys, too. Inside the car one finds the Motorsport seats again, which for the vast majority were decked out in exclusive Uberkaro chequered cloth upholstery, but like the pictured car, leather was an option. The only other option was an electric sunroof. Thankfully, aircon and power steering could both be found in this car.
Despite costing 30% more than a stock 325i, enough of them were sold to the wealthy enthusiasts to go production car racing. And race they did. Rather well in fact. Look at any early 1990s grid and one, two, three or more of these will be in the front of the shot. Logistical problems and a few warranty claims saw the 325iS Evolution I drop the aluminium in March 1991, after only one year of manufacture, resulting in the heavier 325iS Evolution II. To compensate for the extra kilos, BMW SA increased the power to 155kW by employing throttle bodies from the 535i, Alpina pistons and slightly longer duration camshaft. Performance stayed in the 7.5-second range.
With the arrival of new E36 ‘dolphin’ 3 Series and the SATCAR (South African Touring Car) racing on the horizon which only allowed for four-cylinder units, the BMW SA motorsport focus shifted and E30s faded into the past. In total (so both Evo I and II format) 508 325iS are said to have been made by BMW SA.
325iS or 333i – both these South African beauties are up there with the coolest factory-built BMW 3 Series in the world. In this case local is lekker for sure.
Pictured cars supplied by https://sportsandgtclassics.com/