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.
Vintage Road Test: BMW 320i 5-Speed E21, by Yohai71
Cohort Sighting: E21 Alpina – Malaise Era Redemption, by Perry Shoar