Chris Graham spotlights the BMW E21 3 Series; a model that spawned tremendous success for BMW and a new class of car for the popular motoring world. Buy yourself a slice of history using our full guide E21 3-Series.
ICONIC THREE Buying guide: E21 3 Series We spotlight a model that spawned success for BMW plus a new class of car for the popular motoring world…
It’s hard to believe that BMW’s introduction of the first 3 Series – the neatly-styled and trend-setting E21 – occurred a whopping 43 years ago. I can remember friends of my parents having brand new examples of the car and so, apart from everything else, that reminder makes me feel very old!
The new model was launched in the summer of ’1975, just after the UK had voted, by a significant majority, to stay in the EEC. Inflation was running out of control, ambulance crews in the Midlands were taking industrial action and 10CC topped the charts singing ‘I’m not in love’. Times were tough.
Things were rather more buoyant over in Munich, though. Production at BMW was booming, with the company needing to take on more production staff to help meet the growing demand for its vehicles. The launch of the new 3 Series was to spike that sales success even further and, although they can’t have known it at the time, was also set to introduce a whole new dimension to the motoring world. The E21 3 Series created a new class of car that quickly became fashionable to own, and the buying public simply loved it.
Outwardly looking clean and modern, especially compared to the 2002 that it succeeded (a tough act to follow), the E21 was more modern and visually very appealing. It was a cut above other new introductions of the time, too, including the Ford Escort MkII, Chrysler Alpine, British Leyland Princess and the Mk1 Vauxhall Cavalier. But it was the interior that really raised the bar; it was ‘driver-focused’ in a way that the competition simply wasn’t, and the quality of design (with all the important controls within easy reach) proved something of a revelation.
Nevertheless, despite hitting the spot on the design front, reaction to the way the new model performed was decidedly lukewarm from some sections of the motoring press. The car was criticised for having lost its sporting edge when compared to the 2002, and yet the public bought the new model in droves, and BMW sold over 130,000 in the first year of production. Ultimately, the E21 was to go on to become BMW’s first model to sell over one million units; testament, indeed, to the quality and fantastically broad appeal of its design.
The E21 was a tremendous success from the outset, managing to attract both enthusiast drivers and more mainstream buyers at the same time; something that the 3 Series has continued to do incredibly well ever since.
The new two-door, compact saloon was bigger in every respect than the 2002; its longer and wider bodyshell provided more interior and boot space. However, with the larger dimension came more weight, which meant that despite the use of re-worked and more powerful engines from the ‘02 range, there was no real improvement in overall performance.
The entry-level 316 was powered by a four-cylinder, 1,575cc M10 engine with a single, Solex carburettor, which produced 90hp. This was sufficient to propel the car to 62mph in a sedate 13 seconds, and on to a top speed of 100mph. The 318 version used a 1,766cc version of the M10, also with a single Solex carburettor, that produced a marginally more exciting 98hp and could sprint to 62mph a second quicker.
The smart-looking, four-headlight 320 model was more popular, with its 109hp from a 1,990cc, carburettor-fed engine, and 11.5-second 0-62mph time. Strangely, though, the range-topping 320i version, with its Bosch K Jetronic-equipped, fuel-injected 125hp engine, didn’t really fly off the forecourts.
The model was taken on again – especially in the eyes of the road testers – when, in 1977, BMW replaced the 320i model with the 320/6, powered by a smooth-running, six-cylinder M20 engine, equipped with a four-barrel, downdraught Solex carburettor. Although on-road acceleration was actually marginally worse that the outgoing model’s, the level of refinement that the new engine brought offered another step-change in the E21’s appeal.
Once again, though, the relative lack of performance was criticised so, a year later, BMW reacted by introducing the 323i. This version produced a much more healthy 143hp, which dropped the 0-62mph time below 10 seconds for the first time.
Under the surface it was all relatively straightforward, engineering fayre. The E21 was a rear-wheel drive vehicle running on semi-trailing arm-type independent suspension at the rear, and MacPherson struts at the front. Sharp, rack-and-pinion steering enhanced generally precise handling characteristics, although ‘snap oversteer’ was something that some new owners of the high-power models were surprised by.
Another indicator of the overall success of the E21 as a model range was that there were virtually no changes made to it during the eight-year production run. The only significant model option made available was a rather quirky-looking, open-topped version built by Baur. This incorporated a targa roof panel and a separate rear hood section, both of which anchored to a permanent ‘roll bar’-like crossbeam. Launched in 1978 as the Baur TopCabriolet, the model wasn’t a great success (it was both expensive and heavy), with only about 4,500 models being sold before E21 production as a whole came to an end in 1982.
Of course, one of the first choices to be made by any prospective E21 buyer is whether you’re going for a four- or a six-cylinder car. This really is a matter of personal preference although, as you might imagine, it’s the six-cylinder cars that have become the more sought-after choice as the years have rolled by.
In overall production terms, the four-cylinder models outnumbered the sixes by a ratio of about 2:1 but, as time has passed, it’s been the six-cylinder versions that have been more cherished, so a disproportionate number survive today. Having said that, don’t expect to find the classified listings awash with E21s, because they’re not. It’s a model that, for whatever reason, is extremely thin on the ground nowadays.
It’s probably fair to assume that the majority, once their values dribbled away to next to nothing during the late 1980s and 1990s, sadly ended their days in the crusher. This is such a shame as the model itself isn’t known as a terrible sufferer with rust, so many of them could, I’m sure, have been saved. Unfortunately, though, there’s no arguing with the harsh reality of low residuals, so many owners simply cut their losses and moved on.
As a consequence, there isn’t a great deal of choice available to would-be E21 buyers today and, in reality, anyone purchasing a car has to budget for a certain amount of renovation work. On the plus side, though, the car’s straightforward construction and mechanicals mean that putting things right isn’t nearly as complicated or expensive as it is on, for example, a tired old E24 6 Series.
With regard to rust, you need to be sure to check the front inner and outer wings, the sills, the bottoms of the doors, the rear wheel arches and the boot floor. Ideally, you’ll want to get the car up on a ramp to have a good look underneath, as well – the front chassis rails are particularly prone to corrosion. Also, while you’re under there, cast an eye over the fuel tank at the back (replacements are expensive), check the dampers for fluid leaks and assess the condition of the brake pipes (both metal and flexible rubber sections).
Externally, check all the usuals like panel gap evenness and paint colour consistency, and pay special attention to the condition of the shiny exterior trim. These parts are now rare and expensive to replace – especially the bumpers – so factor that in as a useful bargaining point if bits are missing or scuffed.
The front spring strut mounting points should be checked carefully for signs of corrosion, as should the rear suspension turrets. The latter rust in the same way that they did on the 2002.
Inside, the good news is that the E21’s interior is pretty durable and, in some cases, will be found to have actually lasted better than the newer, E30 equivalents. Nevertheless, check seat covers carefully for obvious rips and tears. The optional Recaro front seats are very desirable, so if you come across a car fitted with these, then that’s a real plus point.
Equipment levels are minimalistic by modern standards, nevertheless, it’s worth taking the time to check that what switchgear there is, works as it should. The hazard light switch, for example, has a tendency to fall apart. Dashboard tops can suffer with cracking, too, especially in cars that have lived their lives outside.
With only two engines having been fitted to the E21, the good news is that there isn’t a massive check list of things to worry about. The M10, four-cylinder is an incredibly robust motor although this, in a way, can be a good and a bad thing. The durability of the motor meant that owners often took advantage of its inherent strength, neglecting maintenance. So, if possible, check the service history of the vehicle, as regular oil and filter changes are important. Skimping on maintenance isn’t a good sign.
If you’re looking at a carburetor-equipped 316, make sure that the engine runs cleanly; the Solex carburettor can be problematic if not correctly set up. A split carburettor base gasket will cause poor starting and rough running.
If you’ve found one of the rare, fuel- injected, four-cylinder 320is, then take care to note how the engine runs. The Bosch K Jetronic system can be awkward to set-up correctly.
Six-cylinder models, using the M60 straight-six engine (which later became known as the M20), are more prone to problems, so potential purchases will need more careful checking. One of the main dangers is that it doesn’t like to be run hot and, if this happens, a cracked or warped cylinder head can be the unfortunate result.
So always check for any signs of overheating under the bonnet, and watch out for coolant/oil mixing, which could be a sign of a breached head gasket. Any running problems with this engine will usually be carburettor- or fuel-injection system-related. The six-cylinder 320/6 was fitted with a four-barrel Solex carburettor, which is notoriously difficult to set-up properly. The 323i (like the four-cylinder 320) makes use of Bosch K Jetronic so, once again, if it’s hard to start, then the injection system is probably at fault.
|Torque (lb ft)||90||105||105||116||127||118||140|
BELT AND BRACES
The M60 uses a cambelt, unlike the ultrareliable chain-drive favoured on the M10. The best advice is that the belt should be replaced every 30,000 miles (or every three years), so check the service history to see when this important measure was last taken. If you buy a car that hasn’t been used much, then it would be sensible to get this belt changed anyway, rather than risk it snapping when the vehicle is put back into more regular use. If you go down this route, then get the water pump changed at the same time, as it’s so easy to do this with the cambelt removed.
It also makes a lot of sense on cars that haven’t been driven much in recent years, to replace all the coolant hoses. These have a tendency to harden and crack with age and inactivity, and the last thing you want to do is risk the engine overheating for the sake of a perished rubber hose. As far as the running gear is concerned, it’s likely that most E21s nowadays will require damper replacement, unless there’s proof that this has already been done. These are easy to fit and shouldn’t cost a fortune. While on the test drive, listen for tell-tale knocks and clonks but, generally, the suspension on these cars is simple and reliable, and so shouldn’t throw up any nasty problems.
Brakes are straightforward, too, with all but the 323i having a straightforward disc/drum combination (the top-of-the-range model getting discs all round).
There’s no ABS to complicate matters, so checks in this department can be limited to an assessment of disc wear and pipe condition. Incidentally, on little-used cars, it makes sense to replace the front brake flexi pipes, as old ones have a tendency to collapse internally; something that isn’t apparent from the outside.
As far as the transmission is concerned, options on the E21 were limited to either a Getrag four- or five-speed manual gearbox, or a ZF three-speed automatic. The latter is actually not a bad ‘box, and was still quite a new unit when used on this application. So, assuming these have been adequately cared for (oil and filter changed every 25,000 miles), performance should remain smooth and reliable.
The four-speed manual ‘box is similarly durable so should be generally reliable (worn synchros can be an issue in some cases). There were two different five-speed units found on the E21; a very functional overdrive ‘box on four-cylinder variants (originally optional, latterly standard), and either the same ‘box or a ‘dog-leg’ sports version on the six-cylinder cars. However, popular wisdom suggests that the latter is best avoided, as it’s never been much admired.
As far as pre-purchase checks go, however, that’s about it. The E21 is a relatively simple car to buy, assuming you can find a decent example in the first place. The fact that there are now so few around does mean that prices are all over the place. Low mileage examples are almost unheard of these days and when they do ocassionally pop up, then the asking price can be very high.
You shouldn’t be put off the option of a four-cylinder car just because it doesn’t have quite the desirability level of a sixpotter. These models tend to offer better value for money nowadays, and will be a little cheaper to run and live with than their bigger-engined cousins. What’s more, they remain perfectly usable on today’s roads, and will deliver exactly the same cleancut, pleasingly retro, yet utterly practical ownership proposition.
In short, the E21 3 Series is a car for anyone looking to buy an interesting and influential, practical classic; a model that’s been stuck in the shadow of the more popular E30, but now thoroughly deserves some time in the sun.
OWNER’S VIEW: RICHARD LOWRY
“My father owned an E24 635CSi and an E21 316 when I was a child, so I have very fond memories of both those models. More recently, while attending various car shows, I started spotting E21s that reminded me just how much I liked the model. Then the 316 I have now happened to pop up on eBay at a very attractive price, and I couldn’t resist!
“Although the car itself wasn’t in great condition, the mileage was low and it seemed straight and completely original. So, after a bit of bargaining with the seller, we agreed a price and the deal was done.
“I was aware that there were problems with the bodywork, and that a few problems had been disguised here and there. So I got the car booked into a bodyshop that had been recommended to me (Gavin Pink at The Paint Shop, atthepaintshop.com), where the necessary welding was done, followed by an excellent respray in the original Henna red.
“I back-ordered a lot of new chrome parts from BMW, including bumpers and window rubbers (I’m still waiting for the new kidney grilles). I’ve also got the single light grille panels coming as I want to take the car back to that spec because I think it gives it more of a road presence. I’ve also been toying with the idea of Recaro front seats and new carpets. “I’ve had the car back on the road since last summer, and am really pleased with both how it drives and the positive attention is generates. Wherever I stop, I tend to get people coming up to me with stories of models they used to own; I’m really enjoying the fact that it’s such a rare sight nowadays.
“The engine smokes a little bit so I think I need to get the valve stem seals replaced. I’ve also bought a twin Weber carburettor kit for it and am looking forward to getting that fitted. As things are, the engine is in standard trim and pulls really well, I think. It had been off the road for three or four years before I got it, but all I’ve done so far is have a new clutch fitted, plus an oil and filter change, and it seems to be fi ne. The brake discs and pads have been renewed, and I also splashed-out on a custom-made sports exhaust.
“My plan is to keep the car long-term, and to continue improving it as and when I can. If I get the Recaro front seats, then I’ll probably get the rear seat re-trimmed in leather to match. I’m also planning to install a better stereo in due course, as the original leaves a little to be desired! I also intend to enter the car into a few shows as well, especially events organised for vehicles fitted with air-lift suspension, which this one now has.”
BMW E21 3 SERIES TIMELINE
1975 Four-cylinder 3 Series launched (316, 318, 320, 320i); two-litre cars had four headlights
1977 Six-cylinder 320/6 launched, powered by the M20 engine
1978 Six-cylinder 323i launched, as well as Baur convertible model
1981 318 gains fuel-injection
1982 E21 3 Series production ends
It was the interior that really raised the bar; it was ‘driver-focused’
The E21 3 Series is a car for anyone looking to buy an interesting and influential, practical classic
The new two-door, compact saloon was bigger in every respect than the 2002
Replacing the by-then aged 2002, the E21 brought a breath of fresh air to the market. When compared to the likes of the MkII Escort and the MkI Cavalier, it was chalk and cheese…
The E21 3 Series handled well; sharp steering, decent body control and good brakes ensured it was fun to drive, although not the fastest to begin with.
The E21 3 Series was available with either a four-cylinder, M10 engine (as here), or a smooth-running M20 straight-six.
There were intentional echoes of the E12 5 Series in the E21, as the BMW design team strove to create an impression of quality for their new small saloon.
Interior styling was something of a revelation in the E21, with quality and design of the highest order. Of course, it all seems pretty sparse by today’s standards!
The BMW design department opted to fit a black trim panel between the rear lights, to accentuate the model’s width.
Most ‘small-engined’ E21s were fitted with single headlamps; the twin set-up was reserved for top-of-the-range, six-cylinder variants.
The E21 3 Series defined a class of car that the model has dominated ever since.