- ‘TAKE TWO’ / #BMW-E21 / #BMW-E21-M52 / #BMW-3-Series / #1982 #BMW-316-E21 / #BMW-316
BMW E21 - E21s look great as standard – they look even better dropped over a set of Rotas and packing a 2.8 M52 lump! Mark Brown’s first foray into BMW E21 ownership ended in a fiery, frustrating mess, so he set out to go one better with his second example – we think he might just have managed it! Words: Jarkle. Photos: Rick Davy.
BMW can stake a fairly watertight claim to have invented the concept of the big-power family saloon with their original 2002 Turbo, a car that paved the way for all manner of M-power Munich legends like the E30, E36 and the even larger 5 and 7 series cars. The fact that #BMW has long prided itself on producing a range of potent straight six, V8 and even V12 motors has created a somewhat unexpected upside though, and that’s that these motors can, with a bit of thought and a lot of elbow grease, be transplanted into cars lower down the range. Fitting more modern M engines into base spec BMWs isn’t exactly a new practice but it is something that never ceases to amaze, particularly when you lift the bonnet and see a relatively new motor transplanted into a car that rolled off the line when the Cold War was still raging.
Mark Brown knows a thing or two about squeezing modern powerplants into retro BMWs, with this car being the second E21 to have benefited from his spannering skills. The first one, an orange E21 that eventually found itself running E36 power, sadly went up in flames in spectacular fashion about three years ago, an experience that must’ve been made all the more sickening for it happening on his drive.
“It’d always been a fairly temperamental car and had suffered from electrical gremlins in the past, but I never expected it to do that,” he explains with a grimace. “I’d started it and doubled back to my house to get something, then turned round to find my neighbour frantically pointing at the flames. It burnt out very quickly.”
Evidently not one to mope around or drag his heels, Mark opted to cure the pain of losing his beloved E21 by throwing himself headlong into another Munich-flavoured project, the one that eventually culminated in the car you see here. Bought by an Australian in Spain (hence the right hand drive layout), the car slowly made its way north under the ownership of various individuals, spending time in the Channel Islands before finally finding itself in Scotland. It was still there when Mark came knocking and before long the beige car was in bits, totally stripped and prepared for shot-blasting. It was only then that Mark could truly appreciate the gem of a car he’d stumbled upon; it was totally rot free, had covered a mere 50,000 miles and was rock solid in every respect. The perfect project in other words.
“The whole thing was made much easier thanks to help from my friend Mick Rogers of Pristine Bodyworks. He’s a bit of a BMW specialist and has owned E21s himself, so it did make finding parts a little easier and problem solving that much swifter – two heads are better than one.”
At this point Mark was fairly certain he wanted to repaint the car in some kind of orange hue, with the vibrant ‘Fire Orange’ supplied on the limited edition three series GTS being the most likely candidate. Actually tracking down the paint in any volume proved trickier than expected though, and when the trial paint reacted badly with the engine bay, well, then it was time for a rethink.
“I pretty much decided to paint it in Laguna Seca Blue there and then, it was a spur of the moment call and one that I think went really well.” We’re inclined to agree with him. Mick’s contacts in the BMW world eventually unearthed the powerplant now found under the bonnet of Mark’s E21, the M52 six-pot from a 2.8 E36. All manner of BMW engines have been stuffed into the bay of the E21 over the years but we think Mark’s done the right thing by sticking to a six cylinder. For starters it’s the engine that’s best associated with fast BMWs and one that delivers a very handy 228bhp to the rear wheels, plus there’s the fact that getting an E36 motor into one of these isn’t a process that requires extensive surgery, it simply drops in using the mounts from the 323. It can also be used in conjunction with the E20 E36 gearbox, though Mark admits that he used custom mounts to get it sitting exactly where
“I was considering the bigger S50 M3 engine for the 282bhp it’d bring, but in the end it made more sense to stick with the 2.8. For starters it was a known, low mileage engine, plus there’s the fact that the half-shafts are a known weak spot and start throwing in the towel over 250bhp.”
Not that Mark’s in any danger of being stranded by a transmission failure any time soon, not with the E21 now running the tough as nails differential from an E12 535i, a unit that’s so far proved more than up to the task of dealing with anything thrown its way. Discussing the build with Mark you’re struck by just how easy it all sounds, something that the man himself is keen to highlight. “The engine conversion went really smoothly, and the bodywork was simple because it was pretty much perfect at the start,” he laughs. “In fact the only really tricky bit was sorting the brake servo out and making it work in a reliable manner.”
BMW might have a reputation for engineering excellence nowadays but back in the 70s when the E21 was first penned things were apparently a little more relaxed, and when it came to producing a right hand drive version it’d probably be fair to say that they cut a few corners. A spaghetti-like maze of cables, junctions and wires transferred braking force from the servo mounted on a piece of iron at the front of the engine bay to the bulkhead, and though this arrangement worked very well three decades ago, by the time Mark got the car it’d begun to show its age.
“Finding the correct remote servo to use with a dual servo brake setup proved to be one of the toughest aspects of the whole project, mainly as actually tracking one down was an utter nightmare! In the end we rebuilt and serviced one to cut down on delivery time, but we still had to redesign the whole brake system.” With the bulk of the head-scratching work done and dusted, Mark turned his attention to other, less pressing aspects of the build.
The standard 13in steels BMW bolted to the hubs in the mid 70s were entirely typical for the period but didn’t look quite right once the car had been lowered on coilovers all round, hence the decision to swap for Rotas in 9x15in flavour. The idea to paint them in black with a gold overlay was actually drawn from one of Magnus Walker’s Porsche 911s and is, we think, one of the standout aspects of the whole build. Rotas aren’t exactly a rare wheel in the old car world (and for good reason), but the ones on Mark’s car look utterly different thanks to their interesting finish.
Then there’s the interior, an area where the age old adage of ‘less is more’ rings true. It isn’t stripped out to bare metal, dozens of glaring gauges don’t litter the place and you won’t find an insane, FIA-pleasing cage encroaching on the front seats. What you will find are a pair of natty Recaro buckets formerly housed in an Audi (and bought for a very reasonable sum), a small race wheel, oil pressure and temperature gauges discreetly tucked away and a subtle rear cage with the carpets modified to fit. It’s the perfect blend of parts for a car like this, one which will spend the majority of its time on roads, not race tracks.
The car finally came together a number of months ago and was immediately pressed into service, Mark using it regularly throughout the summer and taking the time to appreciate and enjoy the fruits of his and Mick’s handiwork. He then made the painful decision to sell it on and move to something else, specifically a bright red E30 M3. Mark makes no qualms about it being a fraught call and certainly not one he took lightly, but the fact that, in his words, he’ll never be able to afford an E30 M3 ever again, sealed the deal. The E21 has since gone on to delight its new owner and Mark, with his E21 itch well and truly scratched (for now at least), has moved onto BMW pastures new.
“The engine conversion went really smoothly, and the bodywork was simple because it was pretty much perfect at the start.”
Not a lot of weight, and over 220bhp means that tail-out antics are only ever a twitch of the foot away.
M52 engine was a surprisingly simple swap – helped no doubt by being fitted into an immaculate engine bay.
TECH DATA Specification / #BMW-M52 / #M52B28
ENGINE: #M52 2.8 inline six cylinder with custom engine mounts, #USDM M Power coil pack cover, custom alloy radiator from AH Fabrications, modified six branch E36 exhaust manifold and 323 type twin silence system, remapped ECU, 228bhp.
TRANSMISSION: #Getrag-M20 / #Getrag five-speed, uprated clutch and lightened flywheel, custom propshaft, E12 M535 LSD conversion including dual billet ‘’dog bone’’
SUSPENSION: Front: LEDA coilovers rebuilt by #GAZ UK, polybushes, #F&R strut-brace Rear: Ford Escort coilovers modifed to fit and rebuilt by #Gaz-UK , polybushes.
BRAKES: Front: #WMS billet four-pot brake calipers and Hawk fast road pads, braided hoses, SMC Remote servo install with whole braking system redesigned and rebuilt. Rear: E30 rear calipers, Hawk fast road pads, braided hoses.
WHEELS AND TYRES: 9x15in Rota alloys painted in gold and black, 205/50x15in (front) and 215/50x15in (rear) Marangoni tyres.
INTERIOR: #Recaro seats on custom mounts, Safety Devices harnesses, dash mounted panel for additional STACK gauges, #MOMO Prototipo wheel, Storm billet gear knob, rear half cage, new carpets cut to fit, custom concealed fuse box.
EXTERIOR: 1982 316 BMW E21 non sunroof repainted E46 M3 Laguna Seca Blue, modified wheel arches with subtle flair, single wiper Conversion.
THANKS: Thanks to Mick Rodgers @ Pristine Bodyworks, Joe Geach @ ARM BMW, Lars @ AH Fabrication, Claire (for her being extremely patient & understanding), Kyle Clinton for re-making and improving the quick rack and Kevin ‘’I’ll sort that bodged exhaust’’
“I pretty much decided to paint it in Laguna Seca Blue there and then, it was a spur of the moment call and one that I think went really well.”
Resisting the temptation to do this whenever you set off must be difficult!
Half cage and Audi-sourced Recaros live in a largely (and understandably) standard interior.
With its baby ‘shark-nosed’ profile it’s still an imposing saloon.