Curbside Classic: 1985 BMW 318i – Teutonic Respite At The Tail End Of The Great Brougham Epoch

It’s September 1984, and you just made partner at Smith, Johanson and Olafson, C.P.A. in Minnetonka, Minnesota. You’ve been driving your tried and true 1972 318-and-TorqueFlite equipped Plymouth Valiant sedan for eight years now, and while it’s been a fine little car indeed, those Minnesota winters have been hard on it. Perhaps your new bump in salary means it’s time for a new car.

You aren’t sure what you want, so you decide to stop at a local Big Three dealership. The salesman spots you right off the bat. “Why sir, come look at this fine Lancaster Coupe de Brougham Special Edition! It has floating-pillow, button-tufted puce velour; the finest maple laminate woodgraining surrounds the two gauges (speedometer and gas, what else do you need?); and TRIPLE-band whitewall tires. It’s the finest car you’ll ever see!”

Yes, it was tough for Brougham-averse Americans to find the right car from a domestic manufacturer. But there were other options…

The BMW 318i (designated internally as the E30) replaced the similar-looking E21 3-Series in 1982. Like its E21 and 2002 predecessors, the new E30 offered BMW ownership to folks desiring a well-engineered, tight handling small sedan with a dash of Germanic efficiency.

With an overall length of 176.8 inches and a 101.2″ wheelbase, the 318i was a very competent compact sedan. Improving on the E21 320i, the 318i (and its 316, 320i, 323i and 325i siblings sold in other parts of the world) received a new yet familiar look, both inside and out. With the 318i, BMW addressed criticism of the E21’s tendency to oversteer by jiggering the rear trailing arm suspension. It helped, but its tendencies to feel a bit light in the rear under certain circumstances was still there.

Under the hood resided the “M10” 1,766 cc (107.8 cu in) inline four found in the cheaper 316 model, but with an important distinction: Bosch L-Jetronic fuel injection. U.S.-bound 318is were good for 101 horsepower at 5,800 rpm, and 103 lb-ft of torque. If that doesn’t sound like a whole lot, keep in mind the little sedan weighed just over 2,400 pounds. And if you wanted more power, you were out of luck, at least in the first year (1983). The Ultimate Driving Machine 3 Series topped out with the 318i and 101 hp.

This cruel joke on Americans had been going on since 1979, when the brilliant new M20 sohc six appeared in 3 Series everywhere else, in both 2.0 and 2.3 liter for. The 323i (above), with 145 hp, was the hot compact car, as enthusiastically embraced and loved as the first VW Golf GTI, which also was withheld from Americans. A BMW truly worthy of its blue-white badge. “Not for you pathetic Amerikaner!”

The consolation prize was the 325e, which puttered on the scene in 1984, with its low-rev, high-torque 2.7 L eta engine (CC here). It drove like a little Brougham-era V8; out of breath at 4000 rpm. Maybe that’s why they made it for us. But the Ultimate Revving Machine it wasn’t. It wasn’t until the E30’s 1987 refresh that the echter McCoy 2.5 L six arrived, and then only on the top-line 325i/325iS. With 168 hp, genuine performance was finally on tap, with a 130 mph top speed and a 0-60 time of some 7.5 seconds. It was a long, cruel wait; BMW’s policies in the eighties were a bit hard to fathom. But since the 3 Series had become the yuppie mobile of first choice, sales didn’t exactly suffer as a consequence.

The five-speed manual transmission sported by our featured CC was standard equipment, but an automatic was optional for the shiftless. Other factory options included an AM/FM stereo cassette radio, metallic paint, a limited-slip differential, power windows, central locking, leather upholstery and a manual steel sunroof. The standard interior was perforated leatherette, shown here in Parchment. It seems to have held up just as nicely as Mercedes’ M-B Tex and Pontiac’s Morrokide upholstery, both of which are well-known for durability.

Yes, the BMW interior was a model of efficiency. As stated in the 1983 318i brochure:

“One of the few interiors not left to the whim of a decorator…just as the exterior is uncluttered by fanciful air scoops and the instrument panel is free of mysterious trivialities, there is nothing here that does not contribute meaningfully to performance, safety and comfort.”

That went for the back seat as well. You have a seatbelt, armrest, door handle and power window switch. The rear legroom looks rather lacking here, but the driver’s seat did appear to be in its rearmost position. Remember, this is a compact car. And BMW made sure to increase legroom in every future version of the 3. Which means that today’s 3 is bigger than the 5 Series was during this time.

I spotted this 318i in downtown East Moline a couple of weeks ago.  Aside from a convertible or two, E30s are becoming rather scarce around here. This one is in fine shape, and it’s for sale. As a 1985 model, it sports the “diving board” front and rear bumpers that were added to North American E30s from 1984-1987. In 1988, the 3-Series got a mild refresh and much better-integrated bumpers.

I like these mid-’80s BMWs. All of them, really. They were built with purpose and thoughtfulness. I especially like the clean lines and loads of glass area that are in stark contrast with today’s 3-Series. Seeing this car on a gray Sunday morning made me wish I could drive a stick. Someday…

Yes, automotive design and engineering departments had different ideas of comfort and luxury: Proximity to Highland Park or Munich apparently was a big factor. Just compare these two! Could any two 1985-model cars look any different? Well, maybe a Chevrolet Sprint and a Lamborghini Countach. But I digress…

The interiors are also a study in contrasts. One is a leather-upholstered living room with a steering wheel. Lateral support? What’s that? The other one is more of a place of business–and also of fun, should you run across a particularly twisty road. You can begin to grasp why so many new-car buyers didn’t cross-shop Chrysler and BMW, Cadillac and Mercedes, Lincoln and Audi.

So, which car type would you go for? This Balticbleu-metallic, alloy-wheeled driving machine, or a cushy and comfy, but wallowy, Fifth Avenue, Fleetwood or Town Car? Personally, I think both have their merits.