BMWs used to be so great. What happened, man? Present-day BMW have a plethoric range, with a bunch more numerical nameplates than the tried and trusted 3-/5-/7-Series range of the late 20th Century. Where before all they had was E-numbers and the odd Z-car, they now have X-cars and i-cars with numbers that don’t mean anything. And a bad case of hypertrophied kidneys, but that’s another matter. Fortunately, once in a beige moon, a nice survivor from the time when BMWs made sense and looked beautiful – the blessed time of the old E-numbers – materializes and begs for a photo session. How could one fail to oblige?
The holy trinity of the BMW range, i.e. the Series 3, 5 and 7 system, is a product of the ‘70s. The baby Bimmer role was the purview of the -02 cars initially, but with the advent of the new system, the beautiful but aging direct heirs of the Neue Klasse had to be reborn as the 3-Series, codenamed E21.
Now, I do love me a good old -02 – I caught a terrific orange one not too long ago. But the E21 really took the baby BMW concept forward aesthetically. This design is credited to Paul Bracq and he outdid himself. It’s one thing to design a large car masterfully, as he did with the E12 (5-Series, 1972-81), but taking that design down to a compact size takes some doing.
The sharknose front is perhaps not the trickiest part of the design to scale down, but it was expertly rendered all the same. This car has quad headlights, but many (most?) E21s had fewer than that. Possibly less than three. The lack of 5mph bumpers is key to making this front end work, lest the shark look like it has a pronounced underbite.
Monsieur Bracq’s art takes its full stride with the rear end treatment. So clean, so exquisitely proportioned and cleverly resolved. Linking the rectangular taillight clusters together with that strip of black plastic trim visually widens the car’s rear end – a great trick that Bracq used for the 3-Series exclusively, as the 5- and the 7-Series did not need it.
Just like the -02 that it replaced, the E12, in many markets, came with a variety of 4-cyl. engines: a base 1.6, a 1.8 and a 2-litre. Unlike the -02, the E12 added a 2-litre and a 2.3 litre 6-cyl. to the mix, giving the baby BMW a lot more high-end appeal. Our CC is a modest 318i, meaning it has the fuel-injected version of the 1.8, replacing the carbureted 1.8 in the last weeks of 1979.
Curiously, these were sold in the US as the 320i from MY 1980. The rest of the world got the correct badging, but because it replaced the 2-litre in BMW’s North American lineup, they pulled the old number switcheroo on their hapless customers. The US-spec cars also provided only 101hp, whereas Euro-spec ones had 105hp to play with, so they also robbed American customers of a few ponies.
One of the big advantages of the 1980-82 318i/320i was that they came standard with a 5-speed manual that was celebrated as a great improvement over its predecessor. Our CC, however, has the optional ZF 3-speed automatic – just the thing you’d expect to find in Japan, I guess. There are also signs of wear on the upholstery, which would be forgivable on a 40-plus year old 3-Series in any other country but this one.
The back seat is much neater. Doesn’t look like anyone sat there in the past decade or so. Which is a pity, because the space is not overly generous, but still acceptable. The greenhouse provides a decent enough amount of headroom without resorting to the “formal” roofline that plagued so many cars of the ‘80s. There are so many tones of beige here that it boggles the mind. Who knew such variety was available with that hue?
The E21 used to be ubiquitous, but this is the first one I’ve seen in the wild in many years. Granted, I’ve not been hanging about Bavaria in the past few years – presumably, the concentration of classic BMWs ought to be greater there than any other place on Earth. But given how popular these were, it’s puzzling to see that there must be ten -02s for every E21 still on the road. I pulled this number straight out of the proverbial tailpipe, but it feels like this sort of ball-park.
The -02s have loads of charisma and variety (remember those Touring hatchbacks? Why did the E21 never get those, I wonder), as well as an avid following. For its part, the E30 is still relatively easy to find, at least in my neck of the woods, and also boasts a wide variety of body styles. The E21 is a bit lost as an E-number with only the 2-door saloon to its name – and the rare Baur drop-top, but nothing the other two can’t match. But that just makes the E21 even more attractive, in a way. Everybody likes an underdog. Especially a beige one.
Curbside Classic: 1977-83 BMW 320i (E21) – The Ur-Ultimate Driving Machine, by Robert Kim
Vintage Road Test: BMW 320i 5-Speed E21, by Yohai71
CC On The Go Outtake: BMW 323i (E21) – The One We Were Sadly Deprived Of, by PN
Cohort Sighting: E21 Alpina – Malaise Era Redemption, by Perry Shoar
“remember those Touring hatchbacks? Why did the E21 never get those, I wonder”
Simply put, they didn’t sell. It took four model years (1971-1974) to move 21,752 units before enough was enough. Apparently the visibly utilitarian image of the touring was a bridge too far in the wrong direction from what buyers wanted from the brand; BMW handily sold more fuel injected sedan tii’s than all the touring models combined. I wouldn’t fret too much, because six cylinder E21’s were very much a product of that particular lesson for BMW.
Nice condition and from when BMW built cars that were worth owning and driving
The E21 doesnt get enough love in the style department, the similar E30s get all the love with their upgraded power but the sharknose was blunted and the taillights embiggened to the point of looking like a really expensive J car. Still better than anything BMW peddles today at least, but I’d dare to be different with an E21 over its predecessor and successor today, they’re all slow by todays standards anyway.
I miss when German car styling was subdued and distinct like these, Audi and VW still do the subdued well but they’re pretty bland compared to BMWs sharknose. Today the ever more grotesque twin kidneys are all designers seem to be able to come up with to make them stand out, even the Hoffmiester kink has been ditched on some models, losing even more distinction, and every series number has an even numbered companion, which at least the odd even numbered models of the past were dedicated 2 door coupes, but now they’re essentially the same car as their odd numbered counterparts but with slightly different styling, I can tell a 3 series sedan apart from a 4 series sedan but ask me to tell you which one is which and it’s a flip of the coin.
Now this is a real BMW, to me.
BMW (and Mercedes) have made the same mistake Packard made in the thirties, and Cadillac somewhat later. In seeking higher production numbers and sales, they have lost the exclusivity which contributed in part to their earlier popularity. Rather then being purely a prestige car respected for their roadability and engineering, in chasing mainstream sales numbers they have lost part of what made them popular. Now the ever-fickle status-chasers are ready to move on to the next big thing – Tesla?
Product-wise, BMW (and Mercedes, and Audi) now seem to be throwing everything at the market to see what sells.
Beautiful, thank you Tatra!
Fascinatingly, the very earliest E21s came without the black plastic trim piece between the tail lights. I wonder what made BMW change their mind this early in the model cycle. Gives the car quite a different character !
Looks exactly like the one my mother had except for the bumpers.
Nice find and tribute to a good car