BMW Has Been Building The Same Car For 51 Years

BMW has been building the exact same car for 51 years and everyone seems surprised about it.

I am referring to the archetypal BMW, the small, sporty sedan. It started in 1962 as the BMW 1500, the first of the 'Neue Klasse' cars, it evolved into the 2002 in 1968, then the 3 series, and (after a brief detour as the 1 series) it continues today as the 2 series.

What's funny is that car enthusiasts keep forgetting about this amazing consistency, and every 'new' BMW that follows this very simple formula is hailed as a return to classic form. This is because all car enthusiasts suffer from two conditions: New Class Resurrection Syndrome, or NCRS, and Bavarian Brainfart Disorder, or BBD.

BMW Has Been Building The Same Car For 51 Years

Let's start with NCRS. It's a condition that strikes car enthusiasts immediately after the introduction of a new small, sporty, typically two-door sedan from BMW. Take, for instance, the BMW M235i. With its introduction, suddenly all car enthusiasts were praising BMW as a savoir for the car industry, finally making cars that young people want again, giving hope to beleaguered gearheads suffering through a malaise of electric steering, heavy airbags, and traction control that you can't turn off.

These feelings are usually followed with pictures of the car next to a classic BMW 2002, hence the name 'New Class Resurrection Syndrome.' Every new small, sporty, two door sedan from BMW is seen as a surprising return to classic form, when really it's just the same thing it's always been.

BMW Has Been Building The Same Car For 51 Years

Now what about BBD? It's tied to NCRS, and it is the leading contributor to what I call the 'E30ization' of BMWs. BBD is when enthusiasts forget about the last generation of small, sporty BMW sedans and lavish praise on the small, sporty BMW sedans from two generations ago. There's a very simple formula to figure out what BMW will be the main target of BBD at any time:

  • Take the last generation of a BMW line. This car you will now call heavy, complicated, and boring. Today, that car is the BMW E90 3 series.
  • Take the generation before last of a BMW line. This car you will now call light, simple, and exciting. Today, that car is the BMW E46 3 series.

Was the BMW E46 a particularly light car for its time? No. A BMW E46 M3, for instance, weighed about 3,300 pounds, which is about 200 pounds heavier than the 1989 Volvo station wagon I learned to drive stick on. That M3 came with so many electronic controls that when Top Gear reviewed the car at its launch, they turned all of their abbreviations into a tongue twister. Click right here to see hear what I'm talking about, or skip to 1:05 in the video below.

And yet now you hear about the E46 being the last simple, pure BMW, a future classic from an age before computer intervention took over car design. This was not the case in 2001, but in 2013 it is seen as true thanks to BBD.

BMW Has Been Building The Same Car For 51 Years

Of course, BBD is not new, and people have been declaring two-generations-old BMWs to be classics for years now. I call it the 'E30ization' of BMWs because every BMW from two generations ago is seen to be as simple and pure as the E30. You may note that recently the 1M was seen as a return to the E30 form when not much longer before that the E90 M3 got the exact same treatment. If you speak German, you can watch their equivalent of Top Gear make that comparison right here.

BMW Has Been Building The Same Car For 51 Years

A good indication of this lionization is that E30 M3 prices have gone through the roof and continue to climb. In not too long, the E46 M3 will experience a similar rise, and then the 1M will get the same treatment.

Even the E36 will experience this growth, despite the fact that now they are so undesirable that you can only find them being thrashed at autocross events or driven with fake M3 badges by part-time pot dealers. Every so often there's a glimmer of a bright future for them, like this wonderful article and this one too, but that kind of praise is rare.

So when your friend tells you that the new BMW 3 or 2 or (eventually) zero series is a return to form for the brand and that it finally makes you want new cars again, tell them that they've just forgotten about all of the last runs of BMWs just like it.

And when your friend tells you that current BMWs are fat and bloated and worthless, just tell them to wait about five or six years and suddenly the car will be seen as light and sporty and wonderful again.

It appears that BMWs are relative, and that their status as driver's cars isn't just a function of their mechanical or electronic qualities, but by their surroundings in the automotive world. A BMW isn't the sum of its parts, it's the sum of our collective memories.

BMW Has Been Building The Same Car For 51 Years

Photo Credits: BMW, DMAX