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Celebrating 100 years of BMW Part 2: Driving the 333i


It might well be a tired old cliché today but the saying “too much of a good thing is ultimately bad” probably didn’t extend to driving a BMW M1 and 333i back-to-back.

In part two of my recent adventure driving what are arguably two of Munich’s most iconic models as part of its centenary celebration this year, the lunch stop at a scenic country hotel deep in the Magaliesburg, also served as the changeover point where the low-slung M1 was swapped for a car South Africans consider to be one of the ultimate BMW’s ever made.

More commonly known at the “box-shape” BMW due to its traditional three box sedan layout, the E30 generation 3-series is perhaps best remembered for spawning the very first M3 back in 1985.

Initially conceived to take on the Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.3 in Group A touring car racing, the M3 became an instant icon on and off the track, with its combination of precise dynamics, powerful (for the time) 2.3-litre S14 engine – later upgraded to 2.5-litres – and of course performance.

While it set about destroying its opponents on the world’s race tracks, before eventually becoming the yardstick all future compact sport sedans had to conform to, it remained forbidden fruit for South Africa due to being a left-hand-drive-only model.

Most likely aware of this and given the vibrant motorsport scene at the time, BMW South Africa, in co-operation with renowned tuner Alpina and BMW Motorsport GmbH, set about creating a model that could capture the spirit of the M3, but with a local flavour. Using the standard two-door model as a base, the 333i received an M3-inspired bodykit, special 16-inch Alpina alloy wheels, a limited slip-diff, ventilated disc brakes, a sport orientated dog-leg five-speed manual gearbox and specific interior trim.

The biggest departure from the M3 though was underneath the bonnet where the S14 four-cylinder made way for a 3.2-litre straight-six, designated M30B32, which developed 145kW/285Nm of torque. With a top speed nudging 230 km/h and just over 200 units seeing the light of day by 1987, the 333i became the definitive 80s BMW sedan everybody wanted one.

Like the M1, this particular 333i had been fully restored from top to bottom without spoiling any of those signature lines or lowered stance. A real blast back to the not too distant past, the interior has also been given the once over but without losing of any of its essential 80s character.

A true analogue beast inspired by a legend, there was a real sense of “here we again” as the key turned and the M30 barked into life for the 100 km or so trip back to Johannesburg. As with the M1, I again opted to ride shotgun for the first leg until taking command at the mid-way point for the final sprint back to the Big Smoke.

In the same vain as a modern 3-series, you can be forgiven for momentarily confusing the 333i for a normal E30 sedan. It rides surprisingly well despite its age, the seats are comfortable and you even have creature comforts such as electric windows and power steering.

Of course, the 333i’s main purpose is to thrill and that it certainly does. Drop a gear and mash your foot into the carpet, the straight-six breaks out into that all too familiar yelp as the revs climb and the speedo nudges past 100 km/h.

Granted, it does not sound as vicious as the M1’s 3.5 litre, but it still is instantly recognisable as a BMW when you go past 3 500 rpm. My senses properly assaulted from the passenger’s side, it was time to take on the final part of an extraordinarily day from the behind the wheel of a legend.

Not wanting to spoil the experience too much, I set about taking the first few kilometres gingerly before grabbing the 333i by the scruff of the neck. Unsurprisingly though, gingerly and 333i are two things not designed to go hand-in-hand, and with little more than a prod of the throttle, the straight-six was signing away as a broader than normal smile appeared on my face.

Unlike the M1, the power assisted steering does not offer the same level of feedback, but it is quick to respond as the 333i danced its way along the windy roads of the Gauteng savanna. 

The only black mark against it was a very soft brake pedal that required a decent amount of stomping on to bring the speed down, or to avoid fellow motorist suddenly cutting in front as the concrete jungle came closer. 

This niggle aside, the 333i performed faultlessly otherwise and lived up to hype of being classified as South Africa’s own E30 M3. Returning to BMW’s head office after a day I will most likely remember for a very long time, I could not help but take a final glance back as the two legends stood nose-to-tail while cooling off.

The principles behind their respective creations might have seemed flawed or impossible at first, but what cannot be ignored is how both re-wrote the rulebook on what can be achieved; the M1 being the first user-friendly mid-engine supercar and M-car, and the 333i being the first locally made Q-car that would eventually spawn another local legend, the 325iS.

Article written by Charl Bosch
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