Daryl Hannah, Topless
The BMW 3 Series (E30) convertible is the culmination of what was deemed desirable in the decade that basked in its own success - before it turned into a bit of an embarrassment.
The 1980s was a decade that’s almost too easy to ridicule. After the 1970s had turned out to be ten years of self-doubt, instability and crumbling certainties, the Darwinist ethos that came to define the succeeding decade fell on fertile breeding ground.
Even though these two periods stood for opposing paradigms, there were certain common strains nonetheless. The ‘80s marked both a backlash and an unexpected evolution of the preceding decade. After more than one winter of discontent, seemingly endless successions of humiliations, the ostentatiousness the booming economy of the ‘80s afforded could be considered a logical consequence.
Of course, despite the Zeitgeist’s vicious turn to the conservative right, too much had been set in motion by that point for the lean ‘70s to fully lose their grip on future proceedings.
In this sense, it’s both surprising and consistent that one of the quintessential yuppie mobiles was, initially at least, a rather sparse creation. BMW’s second-generation 3 series, internally dubbed E30, was certainly less trendy a design than its Paul Bracq-penned predecessor. Despite being the first BMW completely overseen by chief designer, Claus Luthe - who had created no less daring and avant-garde a car than the NSU Ro80 before joining the Bavarian marque -, the E30 was an almost austere product by the standards of a purveyor of Ultimate Driving Machines.
With its boxy outline, outdated tall greenhouse (which could, at best, be considered an homage to the brand’s beloved 2002 model) and low-key detailing, the E30 was hardly a show-stopper; next to Mercedes-Benz’s unashamedly conservative, yet frantically advanced 190E compact saloon, the BMW certainly stood for a far more sedate approach towards this particular class of car.
After its unveiling in 1982, the initial two-door 3 series was soon joined by a slightly ungainly four-door saloon version. In its initial form, the most flattering comments one could level at the E30 are that it’s a sober piece of industrial design that’s been adorned with just enough embellishments (delicate slivers of chrome, expert surfacing that suggests superior quality steel) for it to not appear utterly humdrum. The BMW’s contemporary quasi-competitor, the conceptually similar Maserati Biturbo, was certainly more appealing in terms of stance and proportions, but couldn’t evoke the German saloon’s air of quality, which was emphasised by precise panel gaps and an interior that coupled the rational (large, one-piece components to suggest solidity) with the smart (the ergonomically unsurpassed dashboard that’s angled towards the driver).
It was in the shape of its derivatives though that the E30 eventually gained some proper flair. As Touring estate or Cabriolet versions, the small BMW was unrivalled in the literal sense of the word, as it was without any proper competition in its class - the concept of range expansion certainly being more prevalent at Petuelring than elsewhere in those days, thanks, in no small part, to BMW engineering Wunderkind, Dr Wolfgang Reitzle, an early champion of this concept.
Using the semi-blank canvas the original E30 afforded, Claus Luthe and his men used the opportunity to tinker and turned austerity into class, pragmatism into elegance. This is particularly apparent in the 3 Series convertible.
When the E30 convertible was unveiled in 1985, it was met by a marketplace that had been starving for open-top motoring for more than a decade. Thanks to US legislative plans banning convertibles that were never enacted, one had previously been presented with the choice of exactly one German executive motor of the topless variety: the Mercedes SL.
Said SL had hitherto benefitted from this lack of competition, which goes some way to explaining why it was still considered a most aspirational offering, despite having been in production for more than a decade by then. Yet, next to the aspiring roofless Bavarian, it all of a sudden appeared rather outmoded, what with its apparent 1970s roots, oodles of brightwork (which was on the verge of becoming a big ‘no no’, thanks to the ‘paint it black’ ethos of the ‘80s) and lack of both affordability or, for that matter, usable rear seats.
The BMW answered prayers of all those yuppies who either couldn’t afford an SL or had a family to cart about. It wore the right badge, it was available with BMW’s sublime six cylinder engines, it was both rollover cage and hood bulge-free, and it oozed Qualität, even if it was hardly the last word in terms of outright flamboyance. Its seemingly matter-of-fact Teutonic nature only added to its appeal in those days, actually.
This is arguably more the case today, as the E30 convertible’s clean lines have certainly aged well. It will never be a grand beauty like the last German four-seater convertible before it, the sublime Mercedes W111 cabriolet, but its sober handsomeness has taken on a quality of its own in today’s cacophonous streetscape. The seeds of elegance the E30 convertible has always contained, are therefore blossoming more sumptuously than ever before.
But it wasn’t always thus. After it had ruled the parking lots of tennis clubs all over the western world - much to the detriment of Étienne Aigner-branded VW Gold convertibles -, the E30 was eventually pushed outside, first by the Princess of Wales-approved Audi Cabriolet, then by its own successor, the E36 3 series. Years, if not decades of nights spent in front of petrol stations, embellished with black rear lights, lowered suspension, sports exhausts and iridescent paint jobs beckoned. The beau had turned into an embarrassing has-been, whose strict original attire was utterly at odds with the kind of image and addenda it had gained over the years. That the analogue clock on its dashboard, which could only be more Ulmer Schule if it spoke in a Swabian dialect, would stand right next to multicoloured, metallic effect aftermarket car stereos of the lowest order says it all.
Thanks to this trajectory, unbotched E30s have become a surprisingly rare commodity. But those cars that have made it through have gained a stylistic quality that wasn’t to be expected when the E30 was originally shown in 1982 and failed to impress. Sometimes, the lack of a roof, and quite a few locust years, can make all the difference.
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