Curbside Classic: 1983 BMW 323i Baur Convertible – A Coachbuilt Curiousity

BMW E30 cars are not exactly rare, and I’m no fan of M3-inspired bodykits, but this car made me look twice.  Something about it was… different.  It was a convertible, but were those doorframes I saw?  Yes, and this is no ordinary BMW.  It’s a Baur Topcabriolet, the coachbuilt convertible that preceded BMW’s own droptop.  Never sold in North America, this car warranted a closer look in a way that few other E30s would.

To understand how this curious convertible fit into BMW’s evolution, let’s take a quick trip back to the mid 1970s.  When BMW replaced its legendary 2002 for 1975 (1977 in North America), the company attempted one of the toughest tasks in the automotive world – following up on a legend.  Yet BMW largely succeeded with its E21 (commonly known as the 3-series), rightfully claiming that they raised the bar for sports sedans, even though purists bemoaned the loss of its lightweight, tossable predecessor.  While the E21 hasn’t become a cult classic quite like the 2002, it further cemented BMW’s reputation as the purveyor of high-quality driver’s cars.

Throughout its lifespan, the E21 was offered only as a coupe, with no convertible version.  Not directly, anyway… and that’s where the Baur Topcabriolet fits in.  Starting in 1978, European customers could walk into a BMW dealership and order a convertible.  Only it wasn’t made by BMW itself; instead, the company contracted with the well-known Stuttgart firm of Karosserie Baur.

Baur had a long and impressive history as a coachbuilder.  Founded in 1910 by Karl Baur, the company customized cars of numerous German manufacturers (such as DKW above), and eventually became closely associated with BMW, and more specifically, BMW convertible conversions.

Before the E21 debuted, Baur had designed and produced cabriolet versions of BMW’s 700, 1600 and 2002 models.  The 2002 above shows a theme that would continue through the next two decades of Baur cabriolets – instead of a completely open car, these Baurs featured full B- and C-pillars, as well as roof rails.

The resulting convertible (called the Topcabriolet, or TC for short) kept the coupe’s general silhouette, and even featured the characteristic rear quarter-window Hofmeister kink.  Despite its thick C-pillar, and chunky, black B-pillar, the Cabriolet’s top-up appearance was pleasing, and the large (plastic) rear window helped maintain an airy look.  With the top down and the targa roof panel removed, though, this didn’t look or feel like a typical convertible.  While not quite a trend-setting concept, these quasi-convertibles did hold some benefits… namely structural integrity.

Most convertibles have heavy under-skin reinforcements to keep the cars from bending and twisting due to the loss of body stiffness that the roof provided.  But in these Baurs, the reinforcements are visible – sort of like scaffolding.

Such cars were not unheard-of in the 1970s and ’80s… Lancia’s Zagato and Jaguar’s XJ-SC featured similar set-ups, however given that none of these models sold in large numbers indicates that customers worldwide tended to shrug these cars off with disinterest.

Regardless, the Baur found somewhat of a niche for itself.  Between 1978 and 1981, about 4,500 E21 Baurs were produced, and the concept had enough merit to warrant an updated model for the next 3-series BMW.

The E21 was superseded by the E30 in 1983 – similar styling and market placement ensured this was a smooth transition.  Excellent handling and build quality remained hallmarks of the BMW brand; during the E30’s tenure BMW raked in heaps of new customers.

In the early 1980s when the E30 debuted, convertibles were re-emerging in many manufacturers’ visions, but BMW took a characteristically cautious route.  Given the previous Topcabriolet’s modest success, BMW elected to keep its relationship with Baur going, even as the Bavarian automaker began development of a fully in-house convertible.  Our featured car represents the first year of the E30 Baur’s production.  Known as the Baur TC2, this updated model retained its predecessor’s most distinctive characteristic — its convertible top arrangement.

BMW’s own stylistic changes between the E21 and E30 are readily apparent, in the form of a less angular, and somewhat more generic design.  However, the Baur-modified portions of the car remained rather consistent – the most visible improvements being a slimmer B-pillar and larger rear quarter windows.

Customers could order a Baur convertible in any 3-series trim level, from the frugal 316 to the speedy 323i.  Our featured car was built as the latter, making this a double-surprise in North America, since neither the Baur nor the 323i were sold on this side of the Atlantic.  Introduced to Europeans in 1977, the 323i was somewhat of a hot-rod for its day, and was a mighty frustration for North American BMW enthusiasts, who were offered only four-cylinder 3-series cars until 1985.  Featuring a 2.3-liter six-cylinder, 148-hp fuel injected engine, this car combined sport and comfort in a way that other 3-series owners could only dream of.  It was eventually replaced in BMW’s lineup by the 325i.

Our featured car’s interior is quintessential 1980s BMW… a serious and businesslike driving environment, with the center console controls angled toward the driver.  Nothing says “no-nonsense” like a black BMW interior, and if there’s anything frivolous here, I haven’t spotted it yet.  This particular car is actually somewhat tarted-up, featuring M Sport-style leather seats and steering wheel, though those may not have been factory issued.

One of the Baur’s strongest attributes was that it was sold through BMW dealers, and importantly carried a full factory warranty.  Baur convertibles were occasionally featured in BMW factory literature, as shown by the above excerpt from a Dutch E30 brochure.  It’s no joke that Baurs were officially sanctioned BMWs.

Well, sometimes it was a joke.  BMW UK’s unique tradition (that continues to this day) of running annual April Fools’ Day ads featured a Baur in 1981.  This well-executed ruse – which didn’t, incidentally, mention Baur by name – claimed that BMW engineers fit the cabriolet with air ducts at the top of the windshield that would shoot out jets of air… thus keeping out rain.  No, Baurs did not come equipped with air jets, though in a testament to the quality of this ad, it’s not unusual to find internet commenters who believe this to be true.

Back in the real world, ordering a Baur was easy.  A customer could simply walk into a BMW dealership and specify Option Code #829A (Preparation for Convertible Conversion).  A car would then be plucked from BMW’s assembly line and sent off to Stuttgart without the side and rear glass, headliner, and other things it would not need in its next life.  In this way, the Topcabriolet was not unlike many American cars of the era, whose bodies were shipped off to companies such as ASC or Cars & Concepts for similarly “approved” convertible conversions.

Once at the coachworks, Baur removed the coupe’s roof and welded its galvanized cabriolet exoskeleton in its place.  Baur’s facility carried a reputation for exacting craftsmanship… and exclusivity.  These were not the only cars of the 1970s and 1980s built there; some of the most memorable German low-production cars, such as BMW’s M1, Z1 and Audi’s Sport Quattro were also assembled by Baur at Stuttgart.

Baur advertised its product as being four cars in one – which was true, though few drivers likely used the targa or landaulet arrangements.  Used as a coupe, the Baurs were very pleasant, since the combination of structural rigidity, the hard targa panel, and the fully-pillared doors made them feel like regular coupes when driving with the top raised.  Plus, the targa panel could be tilted up like a sunroof.

To achieve the full open-air feeling, a Baur’s driver needs to perform a two-step routine.  The canvas-covered fiberglass one-piece targa is fairly lightweight, and can be removed by one person and stored in the trunk (Baurs are equipped with rails in the trunk that hold the targa panel just below the trunklid, so it interferes minimally with luggage capacity).  The softtop portion of the car’s roof folds (manually) behind the rear seat, coming to rest above the trunkline.

As one would expect, the convertible conversion wasn’t cheap – the option added about 30-40% to the price of a standard 3-series.  Though the price fluctuated over the decade, this was somewhere in the range of DM7,500 or £2,500.  A handful of Baurs were imported privately to the United States and Canada when new, but BMW had no part in these grey market imports.  Most of the Baurs in the US now are more recent imports, as this car most likely was as well.

In total, about 14,000 Baur TC2 convertibles were produced between 1982 and 1991 – just short of 11,000 in Stuttgart and then an additional 3,000 in South Africa.

The Baur convertible’s status as the only way to get a BMW droptop ended in 1986 when BMW began building full convertible E30s.  This did not, however, spell the end for Baur production, as customers were still able to special-order Baurs either through BMW or privately.  Though Baurs cost considerably more than the readily-available BMW cabrios, those who liked the roof frame and/or the exclusivity that Baurs provided continued to order them.  Several hundred Baurs were built in the late 1980s and early 1990s until the E30 coupe’s eventual departure in 1991.

Being able to examine one of these cars up close gave me an appreciation for a rare car that I’d never encountered before.  Unlike many convertible conversions that looked awkward or of questionable quality, this custom-built cabrio looked great, and well-built, when sitting top-up in a parking lot.  And although I have usually been somewhat ambivalent about convertibles that retained basket-handles or roof frames, this car has really grown on me.  For some reason, I keep picturing myself owning one and driving it around as a landaulet…


Photographed in Fairfax, Virginia in March 2019.


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For lots more pictures of BMW Baur models, visit the Baurspotting blog.