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Driving BMW's legendary 3 Series cult cars

Published May 31, 2018


Johannesburg - When BMW’s marketing mavens labelled their 3 Series retrospective tour ‘Legends of Rosslyn’, we don’t think they realised how right they were.

The first-generation E30 two-door 3 Series, assembled for the South African market at the Rosslyn plant north of Pretoria from 1983 onwards, has earned itself a cult following in the townships and suburbs of South Africa - even among a generation that was born after they were made.

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It was light and compact, it was sporty, it was relatively affordable (especially second-hand) and, above all, in a world of front-wheel drive hatchbacks it was rear-wheel drive, which made it ideal for the brand-new sport of drifting.

And that status was boosted early on by two South Africa-only special editions with serious performance credentials, made in very limited numbers, whose reputations echo to this day in their township nickname ‘Gusheshe’ - which has been variously translated as ‘very fast’, ‘doughnut king’ or, even more evocatively, ‘panty dropper’. 

BMW heritage cult cars in downtown Parkhurst. Picture: Dave Abrahams

The first was an essentially private venture by the petrolheads at Rosslyn; when it became obvious in 1985 that the red-hot M3 was not going to be built in right-hand drive and thus would not be available in South Africa, they came up with the idea of stuffing the big 3.2-litre straight six from the 733i into an E30 bodyshell.

The first question was, would it fit? The short answer was, almost but not quite. With the big lump in place, the engine bay was so full the standard radiator wouldn’t fit, so they McGyvered a special mounting that recessed the radiator forward into the front cross-member, and fitted an Alpina inlet manifold and remote air-filter housing to avoid having to ‘power-bulge’ the bonnet.

Then they added an oddball five-speed close-ratio manual ‘box with first gear doglegged, Lancia style, down and to the left, a limited-slip differential, Alpina dual ventilated front disc brakes and 16 inch Alpina wheels shod with 195/50 Pirellis, and voila! - the BMW 333i was born.

OK, you had to choose between power-steering and air conditioning - there simply wasn’t space for both - but it had 143kW and 285Nm on tap, could hit 100km/h off the line in 7.4 seconds and disposed of a standing kilometre in 27, accompanied by a howling six-cylinder engine note that still raises goosebumps, three decades later.

Just 210 were made, of which 204 were sold to the public, assuring the 333i’s cult status before it even spoke in anger.

The second SA-only performance derivative, launched late in 1990, was better planned and more successful - a homologation special for Group N racing using the later, more compact 2.5 (later 2.7) litre Alpina-tuned straight six, a conventional five-speed manual ‘box, limited-slip differential, M Sport suspension with Bilstein struts, and a distinctive aero kit.

With relatively spartan interior trim, the resulting 325iS weighed in at 1147kg ready to go; the 2.5-litre Evo 1 was good for 145kW, Evo 2 (2.7) versions for 155kW at 5800 revs and 265Nm at 4000rpm, launching them to 100km/h in 7.2 seconds and on to 225km/h.

It worked; an Evo 2 won the 1993 SA Group N title and, in the hands of Robbi Smith and Geoff Goddard, the season-ending Nine Hour endurance race.

A total of 508 (including both versions) were made; an unmolested example in near-mint condition is worth upwards of R1 million today.

Which made it all the more remarkable that the Legends tour included not only number 1,191,604 - the last 3 Series built at Rosslyn - and the first X3 off the production line, but also Rosslyn’s painstakingly-restored 333i and 325iS.

And the media were allowed to drive them - not in a closed test-track environment, but in downtown Jozi traffic, and crowded mid-morning Soweto streets, where the E30 is still king and the two Gusheshes sparked a near-riot of whistles, cheers, fist-waving and shouted pleas to rev them to the limit.

And then it was off to the West Rand, and the opportunity to stretch the legs of the two star cars on the freeway. How would they stand the test of time, we wondered.

Changing drivers near the Cradle of Humankind at Maropeng. Picture: Dave Abrahams

The 333i, which we drove first, took a bit of getting used to; it had a clutch like a light-switch, a notchy, whiney, difficult gearbox with the loudest synchromesh rings I have ever heard, and suspension that was firm to the point of harshness. In true diva fashion, it demanded your full attention around town - but as soon as we hit the on-ramp and let it off the leash, that big muscular straight-six let out a howl of pure enjoyment and the car came alive.

Its performance was raw and visceral, with colossal mid-range right there under your foot all the time. Missing downshifts was all too easy, but the throttle was absolutely perfect both in weight and response, the power steering just right for the weight of the car (albeit vague around the centre point) and there was no discernable body roll, even when punching it out of slow corners hard enough to break the rear end loose, township style.

The resulting slides were predictable and easily controlled, even on 33-year-old suspension, the car impressively composed even on nasty little bumps. The only respect in which this car was not up to today's standards was its brakes, which suffered from excessive pedal travel and lack of bite. But as a driving tool this automotive dinosaur was sheer joy, engaging to a degree that today’s cars would not be allowed to emulate, and in just a few minutes we came to understand why this model's cult status has stood the test of time.

I would never commute in it - it’s just too much work - but I cannot think of a new car on the market right now that is so much fun as a Sunday morning hooligan tool.

The BMW techs obligingly opened the bonnet at the first car swop, showing us just how tightly the big six fills the E30’s engine bay, and how neatly this slightly amateurish engine swop was accomplished. Respect to the whitecoats at Rosslyn who put this thing together, 33 years ago.

Crowded engine bay of the BMW 333i. Picture: Dave Abrahams

The 325iS, by contrast, was a much more refined piece of kit with a butter-smooth six that revved like a superbike - and needed it for best performance - a responsive clutch and a sweet, easy-to-use gearshift action. It was a surprisingly quiet and civilised, with minimal wind roar at freeway speeds and a more comfortable ride, albeit not as surefooted as the 333i on bumpy corners.

Build quality was also better than the earlier car, which exhibited a few annoying interior-trim rattles under pressure - but that well have been due to the fact that the 333i has decent mileage on it whereas Rosslyn’s freshly-restored 325iS has barely 66 000km on its odometer and looks almost new.

But perhaps the truest measure of this car’s status amongst real drivers came from an elderly gentleman who followed us to a driver-change stop and invited us to follow him to his home in Kempton Park where his son would be waiting for us with a suitcase full of cash; he was visibly disappointed when we told him that this 325iS bolonged to BMW and wasn’t for sale at any price.

In 35 years of production the 3 Series has forged a proudly South African heritage that will take some beating by the X3 models that have succeeded it at Rosslyn. Perhaps shoving a 4.4-litre biturbo V8 under the bonnet would do it; how about it, BMW?

Old-school journos with old-school performance car - Dave Abrahams and Egmont Sippel with the BMW 325iS.

IOL Motoring

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