A beautiful bronze E21 rocking Ronals, M5 paint and perfect stance. M5 paint, 15” Ronal wheels, individual styling and a stance to die to for; this E21 is without doubt better than when it left the factory 35 years ago. Words & Photos: Michael Burroughs.

    It’s not every day that one can look at a car and honestly say it’s better than the day it rolled off the showroom floor. Nic and Stephanie Foster of Tucson, Arizona, however, can make the claim without hesitation. From E60 M5 paint and Ronal Racing three-piece mag wheels, to a completely custom houndstooth interior, nothing was spared on this car… and that’s just the aesthetics. With an M42 resting under the bonnet and Leda race-spec coilovers suspending the car, there’s little left that remains untouched.

    Most people reach an age where they decide investing hard earned cash into a 30-year-old BMW simply isn’t responsible. It’s not that those who say such things can’t enjoy such cars, but it makes for an easy way to separate them from us. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, you decide. True enthusiasts are a rare breed, and finding someone who prefers to restore the lesser-loved BMWs of the era as opposed to a 3.0 CSL or 2002 Tii is something special.

    Nic Foster, a 29-year-old mechanical engineer, is one such man. Many ask why someone would put so much effort into such a lowly model. “E21s are not necessarily coveted BMWs to own,” suggests Nic. And while he’s right, even when the Hartge and Alpina counterparts do hold some significance and status, there’s little more in the E21 world that brings guys like Nic in. For him, it’s about doing something different. He’s not one to sit back and watch what others are doing – and he’s not alone in that mindset either.

    His wife, Stephanie, has her own ’72 Bavaria. That’s certainly not a car you see hopped-up every day… and with a 3.0-litre with triple side-draft Webers, it certainly fits into that category.

    But back to the E21; its journey began as many others – it was first leased, and then bought in 1981 by Nic’s grandmother. He then received the car as a 17th birthday present from his aunt and uncle 13 years ago. “The car was stock. Regular M10, Polaris metallic paint, sunroof, basic blue interior and automatic,” he recalls. Not one to leave things lackluster, Nic started work with a racer’s mindset: the best coilies he could get his hands on, and an M42 (from the E30 318 – a popular engine swap for 2002s and E21s) were rounded up. After three months of working weekends, Nic’s 320i was finally powered by the 1.8-litre motor and coupled with a five-speed manual transmission.

    The E21 remained like this well into Nic’s adult life. Once the couple married, Steph wondered what the potential for the car might be. While Nic knew that his project wasn’t finished, he didn’t predict that the car they built would one day grace the pages of a magazine and turn the head of every person it passed.

    It wasn’t until ten months ago that Nic’s plan completely changed direction. “From day one it was about autocross. Now I’m more interested in creating a statement. I think cars can tell a story and evoke emotions. What we do with cars is try to make the emotion as strong as possible.” From circuit basher to show stopper, the Fosters decided to bring everything they had to the table and unleash some new life into the E21.

    The most striking part of the car is the paintwork. After a lot thought, they decided on the original colour Steph had suggested; Sepang bronze, sprayed by Photofinish in Tucson. It was the perfect match for the lines of the car. An outstanding change from bright gold to dark bronze and brown reveals itself around the car. But paint isn’t the only thing setting its body off. Nic was quick to get rid of the American bumpers in favour of the slimmer European counterpart, and he also swapped the rear panels and boot floor.

    “My father and I drilled the spot welds that held the floor in and swapped out the floor. It was quite a bit of work, but we got all four pieces swapped over and lead filled some of the common rust areas so the final product was strong,” he says.

    No short cuts have been taken: this 320i is as immaculate as they get. Blacked out bumpers and shadow-line trim, sanded and sprayed by Nic, accentuate the dark tones of the car, something the couple spent a lot of time considering. They went to extraordinary lengths to perfect the trimming on the car, including resealing the windshield with black lock strip instead of painting the factory parts. It’s that level of dedication that separates this E21 from others. Nic explains: “I remember spending hours in the garage with Steph, pulling and replacing the dash and fitting the carpet. She really is an amazing individual – she’s just as dedicated to the car as I am.”

    The mag splits that the E21 sits on are the perfect choice for the car and are an interesting story in their own right. “I found the Ronals for sale and started talking to the seller. It’s not everyday they pop up for sale.

    But when the seller stopped returning my messages, I panicked. I thought they had been sold to another buyer. No matter what I did he didn’t respond. Then, on my birthday, a huge box arrived at my front door. Steph had purchased them for me as a birthday gift – I nearly passed out! How many wheel geeks actually have a wife that buys rare splits for them?”

    Nic and Steph colour-matched the magnesium centers of the Ronals to the body of the car. Widened with Kodiak lips and assembled with custom black hardware, the 8.5x15” and 9x15” Ronals look better than new. Toyo 195/45T1Rs were stretched on to the wheels, matching the custom flaring of the fenders, done by Nic himself with a hammer and dolly. To complete the setup, Nic’s Leda coilovers are wound quite low, with room still left to go. Unavailable in America, Nic opted for the European fourcylinder front end – if only to help let others know that this car isn’t your normal E21.

    Steph’s chance to truly work her magic came when it was time to redo the interior of the car. Originally equipped with blue cloth, the pair agreed to go custom. “Steph is really the one to thank for all the interior goodies in the car,” explains Nic. “She sourced the black door panels and back seat, even the carpet kit. She did every piece of houndstooth on the car by hand, wrapped the sun visors, disassembled the door cards, she even shrouded the rear bootlid in the perfect fabric. Steph also cut and wrapped the A-pillars – I just pressed the gaskets over them.” Now finished, the interior is perfect and I doubt anyone could argue with that. Nic isn’t done yet though. He plans to add a supercharger to get the car in the 200bhp range: more than enough to make it break traction.

    As for immediate plans, it sounds as though Nic and Steph are ready to tackle the Bavaria. Hopefully they’ll build a car of equal caliber but outdoing this E21 will be a serious challenge. A perfect blend of old and new, Nic and Steph Foster’s Euro-converted 320i has redefined the E21 game entirely.

    Not only did Nic’s wife buy the wheels she also helped build it... legend!

    DATA FILE #BMW-E21 / #BMW / #BMW-E21-M42 / #BMW-3-Series-E21 / #BMW-3-Series

    ENGINE: 1.8-litre straight-four #M42 / #BMW-M42 / with #Dinan software, cone filter
    CHASSIS: 8.5x15” and 9x15” #Ronal-Racing magnesium wheels with colour-matched centres, #Kodiak lips and custom black hardware. #Leda coilovers, #Hartge front strut brace, #TEP rear strut brace
    EXTERIOR: Full respray in Sepang bronze, replaced rear sheet metal to Euro-spec including boot floor, European blacked-out bumpers and four-cylinder front end, rear panels and boot floor, shadow-line trim, windshield resealed with black lock strip, flared wheel arches, smoothed rocker
    INTERIOR: Black door panels, rear bench and carpet kit, front Integra seats, retrim in houndstooth fabric including front Integra seats, door cards, sun visors, bootlid and A-pillars, battery relocated to boot, Euro green to red tacho
    THANKS: My wife Stephanie, dad, my aunt and uncle for giving me the car, Photofinish for the respray, stanceworks and the E21 Legion, the Pima Air and Space Museum and Million Air

    An outstanding change from bright gold to dark bronze and brown reveals itself around the car.

    1.8-litre from the E30 fits the E21’s bay perfectly and gives it a bit more oomph.