Classic Review: 1985 BMW 333i

Classic Review: 1985 BMW 333i

Triumphant laughter fills the cabin as we edge down the Krugersdorp highway. My colleague and I are processing the gravitas of the occasion. In our minds the year is 1985, and we are swashbuckling mavericks, cruising through the province in a thoroughly pedigreed performance compact.

Sobering is the thought that our situation would have been far less empowering had the calendar really been flipped back 31 years.

Luckily, it is 2016, and things are slightly better for most.

Ask any motoring enthusiast and they will tell you that the fruits of yesteryear are far sweeter. And from behind the wheel of an immaculate BMW 333i, being overwhelmed by automotive nostalgia is easy.

BMW South Africa refurbished this example of the 3-Series (E30) as well as the M1 (E26) for its global centenary celebrations.

We felt the former warranted closer inspection: it is an indisputable local icon, regarded by many as the zenith of the 3-Series lineage. Among everything else, the model has become a representative for the fascinating spinning sub-culture and more recently, ambitious advertisers on Gumtree. But peddling one might give perspective on why the manufacturer became known as a purveyor of machines for those who enjoy driving.

BMW 333i

First, a history lesson. And this is just a formality — because you certainly know the origins already. Our market did not receive the first generation M3, but the 333i and the 325iS (a story for another day) could be considered as equivalents. The boffins from BMW, BMW Motorsport GmbH and Alpina took the 3210cc, six-cylinder unit from the 733i and transplanted it into the bay of the E30.

The suspension and brakes were fettled to work harmoniously with the output of 146kW and 285Nm. “The engine mountings had to be fabricated from scratch, a special radiator had to be developed to fit,” said Danie Human, one of the engineers on the project and a South African authority on BMW.

Unlike the 325iS, this was not equipped with a limited-slip differential. According to Human, cars of similar ilk during that time included the Alfa Romeo GTV6 and Ford Cortina XR6 Interceptor.

Only 200 units of the 333i were built.

Buyers had to pick between air-conditioning or power steering. Both could not be had, because of the limited space in the engine compartment.

Our unit lacked cold ventilation, although it featured (optional) anti-lock brakes.

BMW 333i

Settling into the pristine Perlbeige upholstery, one takes delight in novelties such as the standard radio with cassette player and fully analogue instrumentation — plus the “dog-leg” shifter. First gear is to the bottom-left of the gate.

It goes without saying: the inner fanboy is bound to be thrilled by the joy of driving a naturally aspirated BMW with a sextet of cylinders. The tachometer needle climbs so happily to higher digits and the accompanying sound is crisp and zesty.

For a car that is three decades old, the engine has respectable strength. But I am imbued with the impression that this car is best enjoyed as a cool Sunday cruiser rather than trying to extract the dynamic abilities it might have held when it was new.

The 333i proves sprightly and getting into a brisk rhythm of negotiating the twisty bits is truly exhilarating, in the knowledge that there are no electronic safety nets.

Now allow me to make a blasphemous assertion: the tautness of a showroom-fresh, entry-level 1-Series will probably embarrass it today. This is to be expected — new products will inevitably shine a light on the deficiencies of predecessors. Perhaps this exposes my millennial sensibilities.

BMW 333i

But a person cannot overlook that the 333i was among the foremost contenders in the fast-car battleground of the era. A more circumspect approach needs to be held when taking stock of the BMW M1, because this is where everything began. I feel unqualified to level criticism of any sort at this genesis.

Anoraks will disagree that it was the first of the Motorsport-branded road-cars. And they would be right. Models such as the 530 Motorsport Limited Edition (MLE) may have preceded it, but ended up relegated to the arcane corners of the BMW archives.

Arguments aside, piloting the wedge-shaped wonder was remarkably special. This was not diminished by the awkward pedal position, recalcitrant shifter and clutch or left-hand steering. Apart from the immersion it offers and the balance ensured by its layout, what had me in awe was the power source.


If BMW history is your thing, the M88 engine code is something to revere. This 3453cc heart lays claim to starring in hits such as the 3.0CSi (E9), as well as serving as the foundation for the unit subsequently used in the M5 (E34) and M635CSi (E24). For application in the M1 it produced 204kW and 330Nm. The sound at full tilt conjures up all those wonderful ideas about classic performance motoring.

While the claimed top speed of 262km/h might not sound dazzling in 2016, be assured that the M1 had no issue in warding off obstinate hot hatchback drivers on the freeway. Especially when further encouraged by our use of the pop-up headlamps.

•Owned by BMW South Africa, this 1985 333i is valued at R500 000 while the 1979 M1 is worth R7.7-million. Neither are for sale. – Brenwin Naidu