In the mid-1970s, BMW defended its reputation in style. Odd that the UK never noticed

There comes a time in the life of many enthusiasts for the BMW 6-Series or 2800CS when family or work commitments demand more space or practicality than a coupé can hope to provide. But finding that essential combination of style, road-holding, performance and reliability in a four-door, five-seater saloon format is a seemingly impossible task.

Yet such a car does exist: the E3-Series BMW 3.3Li, a car so rare in the UK that it largely goes unnoticed. However, there remains a small band of loyal owners who know that they drive a BMW more exclusive than a Mercedes-Benz 450SEL and more reliable than a Jaguar XJ12 – and all for the price of a well-used 316.

The 3.3Li was the ultimate model of BMW's E3 range, originally launched in 1968 (as the 2500 and 2800) as the company's first major post-war attempt at the six-cylinder executive market. BMW's 1500/1800 Neue Klasse models were already wooing potential Daimler-Benz customers away from the 190 "fintail" in the early 1960s, and the 02 series had further broadened the marque's appeal. But it was not until 1965 that BMW hired Bernhard Osswald from Ford of Germany to design a saloon as a rival for the forthcoming Mercedes-Benz S-Class.

The new car would retain the Michelotti-designed body style that had proven such a success with the 1500/1800/2000 range, but the actual body was all new. So was the suspension, independent at all four corners, with McPherson struts at the front and semi-trailing arms in the rear. The 2800 was equipped with the Boge Nivomat self-levelling suspension and a limited-slip differential. BMW anticipated that most would want automatic transmission. From the outset, the E3 range used the new 2.5- and 2.8-litre M30 "big six" engines, designed by Baron Alexander von Falkenhausen, BMW's pre-war racing ace. The result was a unit that lasted until 1993, when it was still available in the 735/735I.

BMW had strong hopes for the E3 in North America. It is difficult to remember that, prior to the late 1960s, BMW was primarily associated in the US with esoteric sporting machinery. The new E3 range would be up against the likes of the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, the Citroë* DS21 Pallas and, in particular, Jaguar's all-new MkX replacement, strongly rumoured to be launching at virtually the same time. And indeed, throughout the E3's career, motoring writers – especially those in the US – favourably compared it to the 1966-72 Mercedes-Benz S-Class, particularly in terms of handling and engine smoothness.

But when Daimler-Benz launched its "new S-class" in 1972, the E3's reputation was threatened – a situation exacerbated by the arrival of the long-wheelbase Jaguar XJ6/12 range the following year. March 1974, in the depths of the oil crisis, was a tough time to launch a new luxury car, but BMW went ahead with the long-wheelbase (LWB) 3.3Li.

The new Li range was BMW's first real attempt at a car for the limousine trade since the "Baroque" 505 some 20 years earlier. The extra length was almost entirely used for rear legroom, like the later 7-Series L models. Initially, the sole LWB E3 was the 3.3Li, but it proved popular enough for it to be extended to the 2.8 and 3.0 E3s in 1975. In 1977, the 3.3Li was replaced by the 7-Series.

As BMW's premier saloon, the 3.3Li was always going to be exclusive: only 3,030 examples were ever built (a figure partly explained by the fact that it was never officially offered in the US, as the 3.3 engine broke the very stringent emissions rules). But it was further destined to be a rare sight on British roads because it had the misfortune to be launched at the same time as the Jaguar XJ6, which in 1969 cost more than £1,000 less than a 2800. A few British police forces used the three-litre models as highly tuned motorway patrol cars. But over the years, the ranks of the 3.3Lis in the UK were further decimated by the dread combination of rampant depreciation and rust. There are now just four 3.3Ls on the BMW Car Club register – three Lis and one especially rare 3.3La, with its carburettor power plant.

Enthusiasts proudly boast of the E3's cabin being very light and airy for a late-1960s design, and there is is enough space for a quintet of briefcase-toting businessmen. The interior fittings are luxurious but low-key. European executive-car buyers were coming to expect more elaborate toys, hence the electric windows, headlamp washers, radio-cassette player, sunroof, front fog lamps, central locking, air conditioning and adjustable steering.

On the road, the 3.3Li constantly reminds the driver of its engine's sheer potency. With the feather-light touch of the brakes and the smooth ZF automatic gearbox, it becomes clear why the model is still in use. The steering is responsive without being over-light, the car hurtles around corners with a minimum of engine noise, and the handling is an encouragement to the bolder driver.

The BMW 3.3Li's lack of success in the UK remains slightly puzzling. Even if the 5-Series attracted some BMW customers who might have otherwise bought a 2500, and allowing for the effect of the fuel crisis, the fact remains that the Jaguar XJ, the principal British offering in the executive marketplace, was notoriously unreliable during the 1970s. The 3.3Li has been described as "a £3,000 car with £40,000 tastes and £50,000 performance" – a phrase that perfectly encapsulates its enduring appeal.

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