Luxury is a lot of things and so is BMW: I tried one of their first decidedly Überklasselimousines and was impressed.
It is hard to categorise this vehicle. It was BMW’s greatest offering of luxury in 1976 and in some ways it competed against the Mercedes S-class from 1972. But the Mercedes was an all new model, specifically designed to be an S-class and hence the best of the best. On the contrary the design pincipals of the BMW were from 1968, where the model bearing the international designation E3 came as a brand new four door model, the natural successor to the huge success founded by the popular “Neue Klasse”. Some called it “Grosse Klasse” but luckily the name didn’t stick.
As with all BMWs, you must not omit to mention the engine. In this E3, the first use of the later legendary M30 six cylinder engine took place, and the first ones were dimensioned 2,5 and 2,8 litres with a 150 and 170 horsepower respectively. Back in the sixties, it was enough to give BMW the sporty edge. The handling and build quality was fine as well and the car was a success right from the beginning: BMW had succeeded in building a sequel on par with the qualitites of the Neue Klasse/02-models and carry them over to a new segment of the market. And as some know, the beautiful E9-coupe was developed on the basis of the engineering of the E3 as well. So with seemingly one stroke BMW were strongly positioned on the market, an upheaval after the impending threat of going broke less than ten years earlier.
That being said, the BMW was no Mercedes, and least of a all an S-class. Was that the purpose? Well, that’s what BMW thought in 1974 when they lengthened the wheelbase. Congruently, they also added displacement to the engine: Meanwhile the very classic three litre M30 saw the light of day in the cars (also in the coupe, as some will remember) but the long limousine got the best of the best. The engine was beefed up to 3.3 litres and when it later had injection added it became what may be the best M30 ever.
And that is the one fitted in this specific car. I wouldn’t say it dominates the car as such – as a rumbling V8 would – but it is very crucial for the perception of the 3,3 Li’s sovereignity. Sovereign might be the best word I can come up with for this big limousine, for once you start the car, you sense having the full staff of BMW engineering department from the sixties and seventies behind you. Actually you feel the quality from the minute you step in: When you open the doors, adjust the seats, turn the knobs. It is good stuff, simply.
Which Mercedes also is, of course. The sense of being imperishable in the two cars is also identical – but the BMW has another trick up its sleeve. The engine in this car does its best to hide the size and and weight of the vehicle and hauling the big bodywork actually seems like a walk in the park for the six. The engine’s behavior with the injecton is exemplary right from idle and when you pour revs on the warm engine, you are at rewarded with tha special turbine-like sound. Stats say 200 horsepower at 5500 revs and a torque of 285 Nm at nearly 4000. But it definitely feels like more.
This even for the 3.3’s automatic transmission – from a period when an automatic transmission came at the expense of performance. But again you do not notice. Speaking from an entirely unscientific bottom sensory impression, the car is just as quick as a 2800 CS coupe and an Alfa Romeo Montreal. The engine note was selfexplanatory, a classic BMW six cylinder, but lovely subdued: Not at all inaudible and probably more present than it is supposed to be in a limo – but everything else would be a shame, considering the engine. It was a stunning piece in creamy delivery and in my opinion the better engine if you compare with the Mercedes 3.5 V8, a more complicated and more expensive way of obtaining less. But BMW doesn’t mean “Bayeriche Motoren Werke” for nothing.
And now I think we have heard enough about the engine!
The rest of the car is also worth a mention because as a classic the 3,3 Li is the top version of the E3 and that says a lot. As a basic model it is an incredibly capable four door limousine even with the 2500 name tag. Upwards of 190.000 of them were made. But again the Li’s exclusivity with only 700 produced made it the rarest and most sought after E3.
The displayed example is even equipped with leather and an automatic transmission and the impression behind the wheel is surely “upper industrial executive”. You don’t really yearn for a chauffeur as this great BMW drives like the lesser ones: Sharp handling dynamics, precise steering, and body movements well under control. Agreed, the seats have no grip which compromises hard turning, as there is only the wheel to hold on to and one hand will inevitably be occupied holding a cigar. In spite of people claiming the E3 drives better than the E9 coupe, it is not a sports car – the body is simply just stiffer.
But when you drive in a straight line the engine can really light things up and you probably won’t experience being late for many an important board meeting in this car. During the journey you will be in a wonderful setting: As mentioned before the cabin signals solidity and inspires confidence and is a delightful place to be. Most E3’s had a fabric interior and in a sense I think it does deliver credo to the softer side of the cars abilities and it’s clear seventiess character. The cream leather in this Li underlines the old school thought and suits the car fine: In 1976 the “Grosse Klasse” saw it’s final call and the year after saw a brand new modern replacement, the 7-series. Which was truly aimed at Mercedes – but that’s a story for another time.
Considering the age and origin from a upper middle class vehicle from the sixties the 3,3 Li punches surprisingly hard and it is hard to get out of it without being a little bit impressed what BMW did manage to extract from the outset in 1968. Curiously both the E3 and the E3 Li today are almost forgotten as classics and the best explanation I can offer is that it suffers from the relative anonymity from its roots. And maybe the fact that it stayed nameless but always had to do only with nomenclature after the engine size. For those with a taste for underdogs this of course gives the E3 a special appeal and I must admit that I am taken with the subdued image compared to the far better known models from Mercedes.
Even more so I was infatuated with the way it drove: A 40 year old car where you sincerely ponder “What else do I need? Power, room, comfort?”. No, it’s all there in a E3.
But is the BMW 3,3 Li then the perfect car with no shortcomings, you may ask? No. Not in my world at least. This is where the veeery discrete design comes in. All E3’s are drawn in a strict german function-dictated style and while the executive on his way to a meeting will certainly appreciate the this the car enthusiast in me lack for something more. Some excess. Some irrationality. Or simply some proper traditional surface prettiness. Like that of the coupe-sibling CS.
In this stringest form the BMW instead excels in beauty under the bonnet. And with it’s ability to do everything well, of course. The last part I really like, and as a classic it is of an unmatched build quality. In the shape of a 3,3 Li that quality comes at a price: Beecause of it’s status as the top tier of it’s model life and not least the rarity in build numbers have seen prices rise rapidly over the last few years. The shown car has recently been put up for sale at RUBRIK, priced at DKK 295.000 (39,700 EURO, 44,600 USD)
That puts the car out of reach for many income brackets. Which I guess it was when it was new already. Which makes it fair after all. For the rest of us, maybe the 2500 or the 2800 will have to do and one of those is definately still on my wish list.
When the time arrives and I buy one I just hope I will have completely forgotten the impression of sovereignity behind the wheel of the 3,3 Li.