- Post is under moderationLITTLE MONSTER TURBO’D E21 320i
With a turbo strapped to its 2.0-litre M10, this E21 makes a healthy 190hp and looks great with it. This little E21 looks fairly unassuming, but that bonnet scoop suggests something a bit tasty underneath. Oh yes, we’ve got a turbo! Words: Iain Curry. Photos: Max Earey.
What is it with BMW and not turbocharging its petrol models? The company basically pioneered turbos on production cars with the beautiful 2002 Turbo in 1974, but what since? Well, there was the rather strange 1980s E23 7 Series with 3.2-litre or 3.5-litre KKK turbo’d engine available (badged 745i for some reason), and er, that’s it. So, is it any wonder we’re seeing more and more private tuners and modifiers producing the forced induction vehicles BMW didn’t?
From our many visits to Scandinavia it has become apparent that the older BMW engines are the easier ones to strap a turbo to. Less electronic nonsense to fuss around with it seems, and these old blocks appear to be practically bulletproof. Seeing E30s with turbocharged M20 or transplanted S38 M5 engines is not uncommon in these Nordic lands, but it is still a rarity to see an E21 with its original M10 or M60 engine boosted.
For that we have had to travel a little further afield than Sweden or Norway, to a dusty mountain road high above Los Angeles. Here I meet a young modding enthusiast named Attila Acs and his 1978 320i. “I never really saw too many E21s that had been turbocharged,” the Californian said, “and I thought it would be different. And also because I want a fast car.”
Okay, so this little E21 isn’t pumping out the sort of crazy horsepower figures we’ve witnessed in Sweden of late, but Attila’s car is a genuine everyday driver. Besides, an estimated 190bhp and 200lb ft of torque at the flywheel is certainly a healthy performance leap over the standard E21 320i. “It’s very hard to pull those kind of performance numbers from such an old car,” Attila continued. “Especially from one with mechanical (K-Jet), and not electronic fuel injection.”
With the help of his father, a mechanic, Attila has stayed pretty true to BMW’s original spec for the 320i. The 2.0-litre fourcylinder M10 engine remains – it just now has a Garrett T3 turbocharger in place that was never offered from the factory. And we all like a bit of forced induction.
You could consider this turbo evolution as a natural progression for Attila’s E21. It was owned from new by a family friend in Hungary, they had it shipped to the US, and then Attila’s parents bought it from them in 1994. On turning 16 Attila was given the car, and he openly admits it wasn’t really his thing at first. “I had contemplated selling it,” he said, “but before long I fell in love with her and started to make small modifications.”
As with most young men, the draw of owning a fast car was irresistible for Attila. Respect to the guy though – instead of selling out and buying a tacky Japanese car for a bit of extra straight-line speed, he stayed true to his much-loved E21 and started talking with his dad about a turbo conversion. A basically brand new T3 turbo had been sitting around at his dad’s garage for some time, and it was just too tempting not to.
“The car was shut down for about nine months,” Attila explained. “Me and my dad would work on the car after work until late, and even come in on Saturdays sometimes. The whole process was not easy by any means, and even after the likes of the turbo and intercooler had been fitted, we found the motor was not getting enough fuel and the timing was way off.”
Once a few problems had been ironed out, and by impressively retaining the almost antique K-Jetronic mechanical fuel injection, the now boosted E21 was a whole new weapon. “We had it running like a bat out of hell,” Attila said. After having a thrill ride along the twisty mountain blacktop I was pretty convinced there was enough power on tap in this little E21 to keep most people honest. It is at that magical point of being a lot of fun without being dangerous. On these roads, it’s a long way down if you lose it.
As well as the T3 turbo (running 14-15psi) and Starion intercooler, a turbo cam, HKS blow-off valve, bigger fuel injectors and high flow fuel pump have all necessarily been added. A custom intake and exhaust have had to be fabricated, while the whole package is that bit sportier with a transplanted five-speed gearbox from another E21, a custom short-shift and 228mm sports clutch.
There’s no sense having all this engine and drivetrain work without considering the chassis as well, and it’s good to report Attila’s E21 had no problems sticking like a limpet through the corners. Eibach Pro Kit springs lower the car suitably, while Bilstein shocks, front strut brace and rear anti-roll bars tighten it all up. Lovely stuff.
It’s pointless trying to stuff mighty wheels under the arches of such a car, and it’s great to see Attila has stayed true to an original #BMW style by fitting 7x15” BBS RA rims. The body sits low enough so the car doesn’t look under-wheeled, while a 15” size ensures there will be no arch rubbing or a loss in handling characteristics.
The standard E21 body is a very attractive shape already, but as Attila has proved, a few upgrades here and there truly make the difference. Notice the BBS front spoiler, Zender skirts, Zender rear apron and nice custom boot spoiler, all working well with the European front and rear bumpers. Some clear lights and headlight eyebrows to work with the gleaming bodywork truly finish things off nicely.
So you may think Attila’s E21 is just a well-looked- after, tastefully modified classic at first glance. Then you notice the bonnet scoop. This is an original Subaru WRX item cut down and moulded to fit into the 320i’s bonnet, allowing cool air to reach the turbo, and let its hot air escape. Not a bad plan, as the temperature coming out of this vent after a quick play would easily melt anything remotely close to that T3 turbo.
So there are certainly enough performance hints to suggest this fine example of BMW’s first 3 Series is a handy little toy. Strapped into the Corbeau CR1 race seat with threepoint harness, staring at Autometer gauges and operating the push-button start, the driver knows this is something special too. The car is a true gem from head to toe, but it’s the fact it is turbocharged that deserves the most respect. Attila stayed faithful to the car he was given, and when the teenage lust for pure performance came knocking, he did what he could with what he had. The rewards he’s reaping from such a quick, tight and beautiful car are rightfully justified.
A twisty mountain road thrill ride convinces you this E21 has power and traction in bucketloads.
DATA FILE #BMW-E21 / #BMW-3-Series / #BMW-3-Series-E21 / #Garrett / #BMW-320i-E21 / #BMW-320i / #BBS / #BMW-320i-Turbo-E21 / #BMW-320i-Turbo /
ENGINE: 2.0-litre fuel injected four-cylinder #BMW-M10 / #M10 / #M10-Turbo engine with #Garrett-T3 turbocharger running 14-15psi, turbo cam, Starion front-mounted intercooler, #HKS SSQV blow-off valve, custom intake, custom exhaust, bigger fuel injectors, high flow fuel pump, 1.8-litre intake manifold on a 2.0-litre block. E21 five-speed transmission conversion, custom shortshift, 228mm sports clutch setup. Standard CIS engine management system upgraded, #MSD #Boost-Timing-Master
PERFORMANCE: 190bhp and 200lb ft torque at the flywheel
CHASSIS: 7x15” #BBS-RA wheels shod in 205/55 Kumho 711 tyres. #Eibach Pro Kit springs, #Bilstein shocks, front strut brace, rear anti-roll bar, vented front brakes
EXTERIOR: BBS front spoiler, #Zender side skirts, Zender rear apron, custom boot spoiler, European bumpers, European indicators, custom headlight eyebrows, H4 headlights, custom bonnet scoop modified from Subaru WRX item
INTERIOR: Corbeau CR1 race seats, Corbeau three-point harnesses, Autometer shift light, Autometer gauges, push-button starter
THANKS: My dad – without him this car would not be at the stage it is. Also my family and Katie for their support, Lee at BMWPlanet.com and the E21 Legion!
An estimated 190bhp and 200lb ft of torque at the flywheel with the turbocharger is certainly a healthy performance leap over the standard E21 320i.
Above: Original E21 M10 engine remains, but benefits from Garrett T3 turbocharger. Result is 190bhp and 200lb ft torque in this little monster.Stream item published successfully. Item will now be visible on your stream.