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The E21: The Runt of the BMW 3 Series

The classic BMW 2002 was the sport sedan that first put BMW on the map in the U.S. Meanwhile, the E30-chassis BMW 3 Series was the epitome of the 1980’s yuppie car — and the model that started the company down the road of luxury sports sedans that has proven so successful to this day. But the E30 was not the first 3 Series. Instead, that distinction goes to the E21 chassis, sold here from 1977 to 1983. Though not a popular model, even glossed over by BMW itself at times, the E21 is the proverbial missing link between the original 2002 and the 3 Series as we know it today.

The BMW 2002 was the ultimate evolution of BMW’s “Neue Klasse” sedans. This vehicle was first introduced in 1962, and BMW was running a bit long in the tooth by the mid-1970s, despite a 1974 update to try to modernize them. It was time for a new platform for BMW’s compact sport sedan, one that would help the brand move upscale as the larger E12 5 Series had already done.

The old model-numbering scheme was dropped, and the new model would be known as the 3 Series; enthusiasts know it by the “E21” BMW chassis code. It gained a brand new, modern-for-the-1970s interior, which had been strongly influenced by the 5 Series. Vast swaths of black plastic replaced the woodgrain dashboard of the 2002. All controls were labeled in English, rather than the previous mix of English and German, for the U.S. market. The outside of the car was conservatively restyled, with four round headlights replacing the twin lights of the 2002 — a piece of styling that has remained with the 3 Series to this day.

But under the fresh skin, the E21 3 Series bore a striking resemblance to the 2002 it replaced. Four-cylinder models used the same M10 4-cylinder engine as the 2002, though with the addition of Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection. It had the same 4-speed manual transmission, and the same wheels — only slightly wider. The suspension was the same general design, with MacPherson struts in front and semi-trailing arms in back. But in keeping with its goal of becoming a more upscale car, the suspension was softer than the 2002 with far greater travel. This provided a more comfortable ride at the expense of body roll.

Europe saw numerous versions of the 3 Series, ranging from the entry-level 315 economy car through the 323i, featuring the first inline six engine of the 3 Series. But the U.S. only got one model: The 320i. This featured the 2.0-liter version of the M10 engine producing 125 horsepower. This may not seem like much today, but keep in mind that this was the late 1970s, when even the Chevrolet Corvette struggled to make 200 hp.

BMW was quick to update the 320i in 1980. Most notably, the 2.0-liter engine was gone for emissions reasons, replaced by a 1.8-liter engine that barely made 100 hp. To make up for it, a 5-speed manual transmission was added. Despite the power reduction, none of the car’s acceleration performance was lost. Although with the smaller engine this car should have been called the 318i, it carried on as the 320i.

Another change notable to enthusiasts was the 320is model, which started the tradition of upgraded “sport” models. Power remained the same, but the car gained numerous improvements in other areas, such as a rear anti-sway bar, a larger front bar, a limited-slip differential, distinctive “basket weave” wheels and extremely supportive Recaro seats. These seats would become an extremely popular bolt-in upgrade for the 2002.

My first project car was a 1983 BMW 320i that I bought through the Boston Chapter BMW Car Club of America classifieds. It wasn’t fast, but it was the first “driver’s car” I’ve ever owned, and I enjoyed it immensely. I became quite active in the club’s autocross series. I added the Recaro seats from a 320is, as well as its rear anti-sway bar, until I realized that it actually hurt the car’s performance without the limited-slip differential to match it.

When I tried my Saturn SC2 at autocross and my first track days, I discovered that it was actually faster than the BMW — despite being an economy car. But in its time, the 320i was the car to beat. Even today I clearly remember the ads with a big picture of a 320i that said, “BMW. One of the few car companies not making imitation BMWs.” When Ford designed the top-of-the-line Mustang SVO, it was gunning for the European sports sedans, and the 320i was squarely in Ford’s crosshairs.

But the most unexpected aspect of owning this car was the prestige that came with it. People would see or hear that I owned a BMW and immediately be in awe of me having such a nice car. But the joke was on them. I only paid $1,000 for this car, a tiny fraction of what they probably paid for their boring econoboxes.

In 1984, the E30 BMW 3 Series replaced the E21. Yet even then, the E21’s drivetrain lived on in the 318i, now renamed to accurately represent its engine size. The 325 and 325e would introduce 6-cylinder engines to BMW’s smallest car, but it wouldn’t be until 1987 with the introduction of the 325i to the U.S. that BMW would really hit its stride. But the E30 would not have had the success that it did without the E21 that came before it.

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  1. If you are reading this article thinking about getting an E21 because 2002’s are too spendy, get one. I bought an 82 and it has so much of the feel and vibe of the 2002 I had way back, it is great.  Tall open greenhouse, same M10 engine. Not fast but really fun to drive. Wonderfully devoid of high tech. Even the EFI is simple. Manual steering feels awesome. Way more classic feel than an E30. Prices are crazy low with cars than need some work but are OK, very restorable cars going for $3,000 or less. A 2002tii just sold for $102,000. E21’s will start appreciating soon. Get one.   

  2. I own a 78 320i and it is a great car.  I swapped the 4 speed for a 5 speed which makes the car much more capable at highway speeds.  I have a few other performance mods but without forced induction, you really can’t get over 150hp, but that is plenty for a 2,000lbs car.  With how much rusted out e30’s are going for, and e21 is such a better bargain, entry-level driver’s car (not named a Miata).

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