BMW E21: The Forgotten 3 Series

Vintage BMW fans love the 2002, and for good reason. It’s the car that invented the sports sedan. BMW hit a home run in the 80s with the E30, particularly in 1987 when the 325i hit US shores for the first time. Since then the 3 Series has been the benchmark that others strive to become. But between the 2002 and the E30 was the original 3 Series – the E21.

Like the Jeffersons, BMW was movin’ on up in the 1970s. The upscale E9 coupes had been extremely successful, both in sales and in racing. The E12 5 Series was already out, and the E23 7 Series would replace the Bavaria in 1977. The 2002 and its “New Class” siblings were aging a bit, and didn’t reflect the more upscale image BMW was going for. BMW introduced the first 3 Series, the E21, in 1975, with US sales starting in 1977. Though technically a new model, it was more like a 2002 in a suit than a brand new design. The E21 was only available as a two-door. It was powered by the same M10 four cylinder motor as the 2002. European models gained the option of the M20 six cylinder in 1977, but only the fuel injected M10 was available in the US due to emission laws. All US models got the now familiar treatment of four round headlights, like the E9 and E12, but lower end European models like the 316 kept the large dual headlight look of the 2002. The strong resemblance is quite obvious in these models.

Euro E21 316
Photo credit: Luc106 / Wikipedia

The E21 was slightly larger in all dimensions than the 2002, but only a little. It grew quite a bit in weight, though, particularly in the six cylinder versions. The suspension was also softened to provide a more comfortable ride suitable for an entry level luxury car, rather than the sports car with a back seat that was the 2002.

The E30 that replaced it was certainly a better car, but its boxy appearance lost the style of the E21. Its aggressive shark nose was a remnant of the 2002. The E21 was rounded where the E30 had sharp edges. The curves came back with the E46, but they were modern curves that still look fresh rather than the retro ’70s styling of the E21. Having been built in the ’70s myself, I like that.

E21 interior with AC
Photo credit: Drive-my.com

The interior saw the most dramatic transformation from the 2002. Gone was the classic wood grained dashboard panel, replaced with a modern black dashboard similar to the E12. Even the newest BMWs, with far more advanced displays and technology, haven’t changed very much from this basic appearance. The E21 also had the first BMW dashboard that curved toward the driver, another design aspect that would remain in BMW interiors for years. One interior design element that did not continue, fortunately, was the optional air conditioning unit taking up the entire center console area, forcing the stereo to be mounted vertically in front of it. Not only was this awkward to look at and operate, it would also be a problem for the CD players of the future that weren’t designed to work when mounted this way. Not that engineers of the 1970s could be expected to predict this, of course.

Igor, my E21 320i

Though the least popular of the 3 Series cars, I have a bit of a soft spot for the E21. I’m extremely biased – I used to own this one. My 1983 320i was my first legitimate project car, something I could tinker and play with and not have to rely on it to get me to work the next day. It’s also the car that taught me to check in with my significant other before buying a project car, but that’s another story. It was the first rear wheel drive car I ever owned, as well as the first manual transmission. I used to laugh all the time when people’s eyes lit up with admiration and envy when I told them I drove a BMW. The joke was on them – at $1,000, it’s actually one of the cheapest cars I’ve ever bought.

BMW E21 adI autocrossed it with the Boston Chapter BMW CCA. In fact, it was a classified ad in the Bimmer that led me to that car – a newsletter that I would eventually write for, then manage myself. I installed an intake for the sound and illusion of more power. I installed a pair of factory Recaro seats from a 320iS, which to this day are the best car seats I’ve ever owned. I installed a rear sway bar from a 320iS, then removed it after realizing it lifted the inside rear wheel in the turns, and the resulting one-tire-fire actually made me slower around the autocross course. I made a ton of rookie mistakes with this car, both in my driving and in my modifications. But making mistakes is how you learn, and I’m not ashamed to admit those mistakes now.

Eventually I upgraded my daily driver to a Saturn SC2. When the 320i had several simultaneous mechanical failures (it got jealous when I pondered selling it and getting a 2002 instead), I found that the Saturn was much faster around the autocross course and the track. The 2002 got away, and I ended up fixing the 320i, then selling it to a friend who appreciated it as much as I did.

BMW 3 Series family
Photo credit: BMW Blog

For a while, BMW’s “family portrait” photos of the 3 Series – usually done whenever a new version is introduced – only went back as far as the E30, skipping the first 3 Series entirely. That always made me sad, because although the E21 can’t match its younger brothers’ performance or luxury, it’s where it all started. But later, as BMW extended these family trees all the way back to the 2002, they couldn’t ignore the E21. It’s literally the missing link, the transition between the old “New Class” cars and the modern BMWs of today. Sure, it’s a little awkward, and didn’t succeed in the performance or luxury departments as well as the other models. But it’s still a BMW, through and through. I’m glad to see the E21 finally getting the recognition it deserves as the start of the highly successful 3 Series.

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