Curbside Classic: 1974 BMW Bavaria – The Kinky Shark

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I was driving in Pasadena last Sunday when a 1974 BMW Bavaria caught my eye.  You don’t see these very often anymore, not even at car shows, so I decided to take a closer look.  Before we examine this Cali blue-plate special, how about a refresher course on the big BMW “New Six” (E3) sedan.

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The New Six (E3) was BMW’s new six-cylinder competitor to the famous Mercedes S-Class W108 and the six-cylinder W114s, the 4-door sedans that largely started the German luxury car craze in America.  The E3 debuted in 1969 as two models — the 2.5L “2500” and the 2.8L “2800”.

The 2500 was pretty basic in trim and spec — think German taxi.  The 2800 came loaded with alloys, leather, power windows and a fancy self-leveling rear suspension.

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Sales were not so good.  Part of it was that BMW was still a fairly small brand on our shores with little awareness in the larger luxury segment.  Another problem was the high price and odd packaging.

The 2500 was too stripped, the 2800 too loaded, and there was no in-between.  To get a “must have” feature like power windows (or a decent looking interior) you had to walk up to the 2800 and take everything.  The MSRP on a 1970 2800 was $6,779 which was more than a Cadillac Sedan de Ville at $6,118 and Mercedes 280SE at $6,561.

Perhaps the main reason for the poor sales was dullness — early E3s just didn’t “pop” the way Mercedes did.

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That was a shame because these were terrific cars.  And they shared their front end design and superb six-cylinder engines with one of the most beautiful coupes ever made, the CS or “E9” in BMW parlance.

The 2.5L with Zenith carbs put out 150HP compared to 130HP for the Mercedes 250S.  I believe the “M30” inline-six got BMW’s triple-hemispheric combustion camber design (Dreikugel Wirbelwannenbrennraum) from the get go; the 2002’s inline-four didn’t get that until 1973 if memory serves.

The size seemed right, covering the ground between the Mercedes 250/280 (W114/115) and the 250S/280SE (W108).

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Around 1970 a sportier black grille replaced the boring argent one and started the “shark” theme for BMW.  The black paint gave the front end a gaping, hungry mouth.  Without an open mouth a shark is just a big dolphin!

With this single change I began to associate the E3 more with its sexy sister even though there were few around and I was a small child.  The car finally had the upscale image and aggressive personality it deserved.  All from paint!  (My uncle worked for Vasek Polak, a well-known BMW dealer in LA, and that’s how I got to know the cars.)

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The pricing problem got fixed in 1971 when Max Hoffman, the US importer, convinced BMW to repackage the car into a single model that offered more reasonable equipment steps and a lower starting price — $5,000.

Concurrent with that change the base 2.5L engine was dropped and all models got the chrome trim on the sides which further linked the E3 to the E9 coupe visually.  There was one more important revision:  The miserable ZF   3-speed automatic transmission was replaced with a better performing Borg-Warner unit.  

The name of the new model was “Bavaria”.  In 1972, the Bavaria got the 3.0 six.  And the full-trim model was now called 3.0S.  In 1975, the big six received fuel injection, and the Bavaria name was dropped.  In its last two years (1975-1976) the only E3 sedan sold was then the 3.0Si.  US sales ended after MY 1976, when the all-new 7-Series took its place.

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Though several model names were used during the E3’s long run (including the extended-wheelbase 3.3L and 3.3Li in Europe, above), Bavaria was the one that stuck.  You never hear about Jackie’s 3.0S, it’s always The Bavaria.  It started my lifelong belief that pet names are better than alphanumeric in almost all cases.

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A closer look at the feature car reminds me how special these were and how lucky we are to live in SoCal.  This damn car has original paint!

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It also has a stick, something you could not get on a US-spec W108 in the 70s.  Unlike most modern cars that are only attractive when viewed from afar the E3 had artistic touches and clever details anywhere you cared to look.

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Who can forget the little airfoil on the wiper arm or the grates in the hood?

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Or the overly complex mounting for the front headrests?

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The E3 was the first model to popularize the Hofmeister kink, at least in the US.  Yes I know the 1500 sedan from 1961 had it first but we rarely saw those here.  The kink wasn’t just about styling, it made the rear window easier to roll down fully and “pushed the door’s opening line far back over the wheelhouse, allowing a better entry/exit”, to quote one source.

I always thought the E36 3-series sedan had the kink, but not the coupe.

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My guess is that the owner was at the Whole Paycheck down the street and didn’t want to park in the lot to spare a few door dings.  When you park at the curb there are other things to worry about…  who knew a shark with 5-mph bumpers could be so vulnerable?

Now for the really amazing part.  That faded, vintage “USC” sticker on the rear window stands for University of Southern California.  At first I thought this car belonged to an older dude who bought it new right out of school and kept it all these years as a weekend driver.

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When I walked around front I noticed a Pasadena City College student sticker on the windshield.  Not only is this car in the hands of a young enthusiast, he or she drives it every day!  Or so it would seem.

It’s a small world and I’m hoping the owner will see this Curbside Classic and fill in the blanks on the car’s history and future plans.  Restore it some day?  Drive it until the engine goes and then replace it with a 3.5L + 5-speed from an 80s 535i?  Since this Bavaria is a ’74 there is no need to worry about smog checks, those only apply to ’76 and up in California.