Beemed back to the wild days of youth
When I was growing up, and it wasn’t that long ago, we had electricity for only three days a week, we drove cars that wouldn’t start, we used rats to take away rubbish, and dead bodies, and a cup of tea was considered a luxury good.
And now we spool forward 30 years to find that round where I live there are women with crisp shirts and nice hair who make a living by decorating other people’s Christmas trees.
Don’t you find that amazing? That someone has persuaded a bank manager that there is a demand for such a thing, let alone such a volume of demand that it would overcome the extremely seasonal nature of the business? I can only presume that they charge £25,000 per tree.
Mind you, £25,000 these days is nothing. I know someone who paid that for a pair of binoculars. And £25,000 for a gun is considered good value. In just 30 years, then, Britain has been transformed from the Old Kent Road into Mayfair, the Community Chest and the entire bank.
And I was there when it all began. The year was 1982 and the place was Fulham. Specifically, Parsons Green, and, even more specifically, my local. The White Horse.
When I started drinking there, it was a painter and decorator’s pub and everyone drank stout. If you’d have strolled in and asked for a vodka, your head would have been kicked in before they’d got the rust off the optics. But then along came the privatisation of British Telecom and all of a sudden everyone had £200.
It was the start. The White Horse was given wooden blinds and leather sofas, and friends of mine started dropping in after a day at work with enough money in their pockets to buy a house. One, a chap called Johnny who had an earring and a Ford Capri, suddenly remembered he was the Earl of Dumfries.
I think in my youth a City bonus was a chicken drumstick or some luxury crackers from Boots. But as Mrs Thatcher ran around privatising the water and the gas and the air, all of a sudden people starting getting enough each Christmas to buy an estate in Scotland. Or a small country in the Caribbean.
They were great times. Exciting times. Times when you felt anything was possible and that all you needed to become a billionaire was an idea. Any idea would do. I started writing about cars for local newspapers. Another mate came up with wheelie-bin cosies. Others bought and sold houses. And as all these businesses flew, it had a profound effect on the cars we all drove.
In the early days of the change, you couldn’t really go to the White Horse unless you had a Golf GTI. Preferably in Lhasa green with a splash of Val d’Isère mud up the side. There is no modern-day equivalent to this phenomenon. You lived in Fulham back then. You had one. It was that simple.
But then, as the bonuses got bigger, people started upgrading to the BMW 323i.
God, it was a good car. With its dainty pillars and uncomplicated styling, it was in many ways indistinguishable from a Ford Cortina. But unlike any Ford of the period, it started, it cost a bloody fortune and it went like stink.
And because it was rear-wheel drive, something with which the GTI brigade was unfamiliar, it was ever so easy to crash. This not only gave you something exciting to talk about in what had now become known as the Sloaney Pony, but it also gave you the opportunity to replace it with a 325i, which was even better.
This cost even more, but the amount of stuff it didn’t come with was astonishing. No, really. There was no radio and you had to wind the windows down by hand. It was just a light body and a big engine. And we all loved it more than we loved our genitals.
Sadly, since then, the 3-series has grown into middle age. It’s become fatter and bigger and slower. Deep down, a modern 3-series is still balanced and wondrous, but the excitement, the fizz, the thrill of those early cars is gone. Buried under a ton and a half of technology and kit.
Of course, because the 3-series became so enormous, BMW was able to launch the 1-series beneath it in the lineup. And that would have been fine but unfortunately it was styled by the same chap who did Corporal Jones’s butcher’s van in Dad’s Army. Even Queen Victoria would call it old-fashioned, with its sit-up-and-beg stance, its almost vertical windscreen and those idiotic swoops on the flanks.
All of this would have been only mildly annoying if it was thrilling to drive and more spacious inside than an art gallery. But it isn’t. The boot is microscopic, the rear legroom is suitable only for people who haven’t been born yet and the big-selling diesel is about as much fun as herpes. If this car were a person, it would be Piers Morgan.
Now, though, BMW has given its baby hatchback a boot to create what it calls the coupé, and frankly that looks like a recipe for even more calamity and disaster. Booted hatchbacks never work. You need only look at what happened when VW turned the Golf into the Jetta to know I’m right.
And then you have only to look at the 1-series coupé to know I’m wrong. It is by no stretch of the imagination a pretty car. But neither is it offensive. Which means it has exactly the same non-styling-driven appeal of the early 1980s 323i.
What’s more, the version I tested came with a big 3 litre twin-turbo six under the bonnet. That’s 306bhp, and that’s good too.
Step inside and it gets better.
You get the bare minimum of kit. Just a big, fat, chunky wheel, a snickety-snick six-speed manual box and, er, a rear-view mirror. I had hope in my heart as I set off; hope that, after 25 years, BMW was back in business making small, fast, simple sports saloons.
It is. Initially the brakes feel too sharp, but after a mile or so you adapt your driving style to suit and then you can sit back and revel in the joy of it all. The ride is perfectly judged; firm but not so taut that it pops your eyes out on every cat’s-eye. And on a motorway it settles down to be nicely on the right side of comfortable. The seats are bang-on, as is the driving position.
But it’s the engine that impresses most of all. It has one small turbo to spin up the instant you apply the power, and then a bigger one that trundles into life later to keep the power coming . . . in bigger and bigger lumps. This, and there’s no other way of saying it, is a great engine. A masterpiece. It doesn’t zing like the BMW straight-sixes of old but there’s so much muscle you don’t notice.
Then you leave the motorway and the road gets twisty and it’s like settling into your favourite armchair. The steering, the feel, the way you can adjust your line through the bend with the throttle. There is no other car made today in this sector of the market that gets even close. If you love driving, this is up there in a class of one.
Of course, a Mitsubishi Evo or a Subaru Impreza will grip more and slingshot you from bend to bend with more urgency, but if you prefer a more flowing style - less grip and more handling – then you would be better off with the little Beemer.
Faults. Well, the rear legroom is a squeeze, and it’s not what you’d call cheap. With no extras at all it squeaks in at under £30,000, but add one or two bits and it’ll shoot up to £34,000. That’s a lot.
Except, of course, it isn’t – not these days when people are spending that, and more, on family holidays and kitchens.
The fact of the matter is this. The 135 coupé is the best car BMW makes. I have no hesitation at all, then, in giving this long-awaited return to form the rare accolade of five stars.
Model BMW 135i
Engine 2979cc, six cylinders
Power 306bhp @ 5800rpm
Torque 295 lb ft @ 1300rpm
Transmission Six-speed manual
Fuel 30.7mpg (combined cycle)
Acceleration 0-62mph: 5.3sec
Top speed 155mph
Verdict BMW’s finest: * * * * *