BMW 333i Thami drive 1

So I recently took a sho’t left around Gauteng, headed out of Midrand, joined the N1 north, took the N14 and eventually stopped right outside Maropeng, the Cradle of Humankind. Which was quite appropriate actually, because it is the place said to house some of the oldest remains of human beings ever found. And here I was, arriving in a BMW 333i, a forefather of the genre so rare that nobody even has one to sell.

BMW produced 204 examples of the 333i between 1985 and 1987, with a handful plucked out of that batch for racing purposes. Germany did not allocate us an E36 M3, so a plan had to be made. Perhaps this was the first sign that Mzansi was on its way to becoming one of the top BMW M markets in the world, with a demand and enthusiast base that surpasses larger economies. I don’t know how this car was received in Mzansi suburbs, but in the townships where I lived, it was welcomed, discussed and treated by fans like the godfather of attainable performance cars; respected and revered, but not wildly celebrated like its successor, the 325iS.

IN4RIDE BMW 333i Thami Masemola drive near Maropeng Cradle of Humankind.

Some of these fans will know that it featured a 3.2-litre straight six engine sourced from the bigger 733i, and that motor produced 146kW and 285Nm, mated to a sporty 5-speed manual gearbox. Believe it or not, that engine began life way back in 1976. Of course the whole thing sent power and torque to the rear wheels, exactly how true sports cars are built.

As I familiarise myself with the car’s exceptionally clean, driver-focused cockpit, I realise that the 333i I’m driving doesn’t have air conditioning and on this rather warm winter day in Jozi, I am forced to wind down the electric windows from the centrally-located buttons. Apparently because the engine was so large and not originally planned for this body, buyers had a choice between aircon and power steering. I have power steering. I’m not complaining actually, because the steering is exceptional; it is precise, pointy and feels like any modern rack and pinion system.

I remark to my passenger that if I were to hypothetically close my eyes while negotiating light daytime M1 traffic, I could very well be driving a new BMW. Not only is this a reflection on the excellent work done by the restoration team, but it is also a testament to how good the 333i was in the first place. Naturally aspirated BMWs gave a distinct exhaust tailpipe sound that tickled the ears and raised baby goose bumps. At full flight, revving at close to 6 000rpm, this thing is pure comedy. Brand new it would do the 0 – 100km/h sprint in 7.4 seconds, topping off at around 228km/h. I tested neither figure, but I did feel I could take on one or two of the popular new hot hatches and walk away proud.

In my dreams, special cars like the BMW 333i would not just be restored; they would be rebuilt from scratch for discerning customers who not only feel nostalgic, but are true driving enthusiasts. Sure it would be highly expensive, but it would also not be for everyone. The 333i reminded me of a time when performance demanded extra driver care, when it was not available to just any manufacturer that can churn out a turbo engine.

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