BMW 2500 and 2800

The 1968 E3 saloons represented the beginning of second phase of BMWs post-war rebirth. Extensively market researched but just three years in the making they marked the return of BMW to the big car class after a gap of five years. In the meantime the Bavarian Motor Works had reinvented itself as Europe’s foremost purveyor of sporty rationalism for the middle classes and there was no longer a place for the bulk and pomposity that had characterised the long defunct Baroque Angel saloons that had sold in such modest volumes.
The 1970s where fast approaching with a whole new set of expectations and challenges. This was to be an athlete of a car for increasingly busy and fast moving roads of Europe and the last BMW to be built by the engineers, now in their late fifties and early sixties, who had been the architects of the firm’s resurgence since the end of the war. Any new luxury BMW had to reflect the youthful vigour of this fast growing company while still being an engineering-led design and the most fun to drive car in its class with, as Patrick Bedard of Car and Driver commented in 1968 ‘An air of precision shared by no other sedan in the world.’
Here was a luxury saloon that could at last square-up to arch rival Mercedes. With its 4 cylinder saloons it almost seemed as if the Bavarians had directly avoided taking on Daimler Benz if at all possible and even the 2500/2800 cars seemed to straddle a careful middle ground between the large and medium sized Benz saloons. the relatively compact E3 body was eight inches longer overall than the 2000 saloon with a 6 inches longer in its wheelbase. In its dimensions shadowed the ‘new generation’ W114 Mercedes introduced at the beginning of 1968, yet in their luxury and performance aspirations they seemed more closely aligned with the bigger V8 engined cars from Stuttgart.
BMW sold 36,000 E3 units in the first full year of production, proving that formula was right and causing Mercedes to look to its rather pedestrian image. Now in its 41st year the E3 saloons defined an approach to building big saloons that is still embodied in the current 7-Series even if an original 2500 or 2800 saloon – weighing in at a mere 3000Ibs and measuring just 185 inches long – would be dwarfed by the current flagship Beemer.
Although they successfully translated the lively character of the 4 cylinder cars into a bigger more luxurious 5 seater body the E3 sedans were more than just up-rated new class saloons. The engineering formula was similar but the reworked and refined to make a range of big cars – roomier, quieter and faster than their four cylinder brethren – that were easily amongst the best available, particularly if you favoured driver appeal over the ultimate in refinement. Some even called it the best saloon in the world among a whole raft of hopeful new Euro luxury cars that appeared in the late sixties; brave but slow-selling efforts from the likes of Fiat and Opel in the form of the 130 and Diplomat showed how buyers were unwilling to embrace mass market badges on their luxury cars no matter how well contrived the product. The Jaguar XJ was perhaps the nearest rival, a quieter softer car than the BMW that was a gracefully feline in appearance as the BMW was a classically angular European modernist with its tall glass house assertive quad headlamp nose.
The shape, with its Corvair-like belt line and high seating position, is attributed to Wilhelm Hoftmeister who managed to capture the flavour of the smaller cars in a more handsome and broad shouldered saloon with a fairly short bonnet, large doors and a deep and usefully shaped boot. The E3 was the first BMW to feature the tool kit mounted on the inside of the boot lid, an idea attributed to North American importer Max Hoffman.
The E3 still looked contemporary nine years later when the first 7-Series replaced it .The E3 set the styling agenda for the 5-Series and seemed to defy all attempts at up-dating it; apart from waist trim, blacked out nose grilles and the option of a longer wheelbase the 2500/2800/3.0/3.3 body changed very little through to 1977 and must be deemed a more enduring design than the slab-sided 7-Series.
The bonnet hinged forward to reveal a handsome detailed new power house running on twin Zenith carburettors. It was Alex Von Falkenhausen’s single overhead camshaft straight six engine – code named M52 – that gave the E3 sedans the edge over their rivals. For their size these were extraordinarily potent and clean running engines (important with new American emissions laws in the offing) but also very refined. There was no better ‘six’ in the world and the M52 in its various forms had a 20 year career ahead of it.
Canted over 30 degrees to keep the bonnet line low their free and efficient top-end breathing, thanks to tri spherical combustion chambers, was perfectly matched to a well balanced bottom end with 7 main bearings and 12 counterweights on the crank. They revved so freely and smoothly that a rev limiter was fitted in the distributor cap. The 150bhp 2500 was good for 118mph in manual form, the 170bhp 2800 124mph but driven sanely both versions were utterly docile and flexible, not to mention thrifty to the tune of 25mpg.  They were based around the architecture of the 4 cylinder engines but shared no major components.
Similarly while the design of the suspension had a familiar ring to it – classically BMW Macpherson struts at the front, semi trailing arms and coils at the rear – there were detail refinements like anti- dive geometry and Macpherson type spring/damper units on the back rather than separate coils and shock absorbers. These were the first BMWs with four wheel disc brakes all round (by ATE with dual servos)  although the rotors were solid not vented – they didn’t arrive until the 3 litre E3s of the early seventies – and the first to offer the option of factory power steering, although tinkering with castor angles had produced manual steering that was acceptably light.
The E3 saloons sold in healthy numbers in the UK despite huge prices but they now seem to be approaching extinction, particularly the early cars like the 2800 saloon pictured here, kindly provided by BMW Mobile Tradition. In fact the 2800 was always quite rare in the UK because E3 sales didn’t get into their stride until the arrival of the 3 litre models in 1971, the bigger engined car usurping the 2800 in the UK although it continued in Europe where cars under 2.8 litres tended to pay much lower road tax.
Handsome on its optional alloy wheels (as fitted as standard to the E9 CS Coupes)  and fragrant inside with its soft leather seats (a rare option – cloth or plastic was more usual) the thing that strikes you about the 2800 E3 when you climb inside is the commanding driving position and then the refreshing airy feel of the cabin with those deep windows and slim roof pillars. The doors, with modest manual windows, feel light and easy to close. Everything about the cabin is neatly finished; perhaps clinical but certainly well wrought in its choice of tasteful materials and clear, rational design. The handsome instrument binnacle was as modern as it got in 1968 and marked the beginning of BMWs obsession with well planned ergonomics yet the facia doesn’t bombard you with information or confuse you with the number of buttons and switches. Most of what you need is on column stalks.
Forging out into Munich traffic from the airport the 2800 saloon feels instantly authoritative. It seems substantial but not large, solid but by no means heavy, supple in its ride but reassuringly firm with no rattles from its body. It is a cliché to say that the engine is jewel – but it is. It can go from discreet limousine to throaty sports car at the flick of a wrist and the drop of a foot, mixing refined and creamy flexibility with the ability to surge round to its rev limiter at 6500rpm with a turbine hum of expensive sophistication.
The acceleration remains commanding, particularly from 3000rpm upwards, as the 2800 squats on its semi trailing arms and sprints away. I’ve never been a big fan of automatic BMWs and the ZF three speed used in the early E3s was not the best; but luckily this 2800 was a manual. The ZF gearbox is a delight to slice around its gate and has ratios just right for making the most of the acceleration although top is a bit on the low side for the ultimate in relaxed cruising; a five speed gearbox was a rare option.
The large slim rimmed steering wheel is pleasant to the touch though unnecessarily large but that does not disguise the fact that the 2800 goes where you point it accurately and with relatively little understeer and not much roll. There were geometry compromises in the semi trailing arm rear suspension so that those who looking for lurid power slides will find them quite readily – as they would in almost any 1970s BMW-  but otherwise the 2800 is alert, gentlemanly and well groomed in all it does.
While I can understand the appeal of a 2002 and am a devoted fan of the CS Coupes with their gorgeous looks and detailing I think it’s a shame the big six cylinder saloons, once the best cars of their type in the world, have been so over looked. I’ve owned two of them in my time and passed on the opportunity a couple of years ago of rescuing a sound 3.0Si, the fuel injected E3 poster boy. I’m still feeling guilty but if another one comes up I promise I’ll save it. Somebody has to.

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