(first posted Sept. 3, 2014) The Ultimate Driving Machine. With this famous advertising slogan in its 40th year and the BMW 3-Series entrenched worldwide for an equally long time as the leading small sports sedan, most of the population of the United States cannot remember a time when the 3-Series and BMW’s tagline were not a major force in their automotive landscape. The 320i of 1977-83 was the car that made them what they are in the U.S. today. Nevertheless, the 320i is not a coveted collectible today, as the 2002 had become within a decade after the 320i replaced it. A series of 320i encounters in one week, after many years of not seeing one while spotting 2002s on a regular basis, prompted a look back at this milestone car.
The 320i was not the first subject of the Ultimate Driving Machine advertising campaign. That distinction went to the 2002, the BMW New Class model that put BMW firmly on the map in the U.S. by establishing both BMW’s reputation and the small sports sedan class that the 3-series has led from the late 1970s onward. The Ultimate Driving Machine ads began at the initiative of none other than Bob Lutz, now famous but then a little-known Executive Vice President for sales and marketing at BMW, who hired a small advertising firm named Ammirati & Puris that had established a reputation for clever automobile advertising with a series of Fiat ads.
This 1975 2002 ad was the first of the Ultimate Driving Machine ads, published after Lutz left BMW for Ford in 1974. Ammirati & Puris’ creation did a brilliant job of differentiating BMW from its European competitors such as Mercedes-Benz and Volvo, and it has been part of the core of BMW’s identity in the U.S. ever since.
The start of the Ultimate Driving Machine campaign coincided with the U.S. introductions of the 3-Series, 5-Series, 6-Series, and 7-Series cars in 1975-77, however, making the 320i a key part of the making of BMW and its famous slogan in the U.S. While the 2002 had been a car coveted by enthusiastic drivers outside of the Detroit (or Stuttgart or Goteborg) mainstream, the 320i became a car coveted by mainstream car buyers, who by the late 1970s were turning to German cars as status symbols as well as for their autobahn-bred handling.
It arrived in the U.S. in 1977, two years after the 1975 introduction of the E21 3-Series in Europe, with a two door sedan the only body configuration. As the entry-level and highest-selling BMW, the 320i was central to the German import invasion that shaped today’s U.S. high-end car market.
A significant handicap ensured that although affluent young car buyers coveted the 320i during its era, car collectors would not decades later, preferring its predecessor, the 2002: tightening U.S. emission standards and the primitive smog controls of the era. To meet U.S. EPA standards, the E21 3-Series came only with a fuel injected version of BMW’s M10 inline four, displacing 2.0 liters with 110 horsepower from 1977-79, and 1.8 liters with 101 horsepower from 1980-82.
With the 320i approximately 250 pounds heavier than the 2002 that it replaced, it was slower than the 130 horsepower mechanically fuel injected 2002tii, the 120 horsepower dual carburetor 2002ti, or even the ordinary single carburetor 2002 with 100 horsepower. Not until the following E30 generation would the U.S.-market 3-Series acquire serious horsepower from BMW’s inline sixes and the 192 horsepower twin cam, 16 valve inline four of the first generation M3.
Outside of North America, BMW 3-series buyers could choose from powerplants ranging from a carbureted 1.6 liter M10 four in the 316i to a 2.3 liter M20 inline six in the 323i. The 323i with its 143 horsepower six and four wheel disc brakes was capable of storming the autobahn at a then-impressive 120 miles per hour. Tuners such as Alpina and Hartge took the M20-powered 3-Series and made far more extreme performance models for drivers with the need for more speed.
Those wanting more fresh air could opt for a convertible conversion by Karosserie Baur, with a removable targa roof, roll bar, and folding rear soft top, sold through BMW dealers. Grey market importers brought some of these modified European 3-Series to the U.S., where they are highly coveted.
Although deprived of the more powerful engines available in other markets, American owners of the 320i received the full BMW experience in other ways. The chassis provided the driving dynamics that BMW had become known for since the New Class, with rack and pinion steering and suspension by MacPherson struts in front and semi-trailing arms at the rear. The 320is variant introduced in 1981 added a sport suspension with larger front sway bar and added rear sway bar, limited slip differential, front spoiler, Recaro sport seats, and other features that enhanced the model’s sporting qualities.
Exterior styling was BMW’s practical 1960s to 1980s three box look, space efficient and with a tall greenhouse and slim roof pillars giving panoramic sightlines. The “Hofmeister kink” angling upward at the base of the C-pillar gave the simple, boxy shape a BMW styling cue as distinct as the twin kidney grille in front. The projecting 5 mile per hour bumpers necessary to meet U.S. Department of Transportation requirements were larger than the slim units used in Europe, but they did not look out of place with BMW’s square styling.
Inside the 320i, the driver looked at BMW’s new interior design concept, with the center of the dashboard and center console angled toward the driver. The E21 3-Series introduced this driver-centered layout that would be BMW’s signature interior style for the next several decades. Not luxurious in the 320i, with hard plastics and vinyl everywhere and carpeting reminiscent of a coconut husk floor mat, it was ergonomic before the word became trendy in the automobile industry, sporty with its suggestion of an airplane cockpit, and hard wearing.
This combination of attributes, and one of the most effective and long-lasting advertising campaigns in the history of the automobile industry, made the 320i the face of modern performance cars during the late Malaise Era. The 320i abounded wherever young upwardly mobile urban professionals were found in the late 1970s and early 1980s, becoming the symbol of a much commented upon social class that ended up exerting great influence over American automotive tastes from the 1980s onward. It was as much a focus of attention and sign of its times as the Toyota Prius is today, and it inspired a similar type of social commentary and ire.
Being the entry-level BMW of its time and quickly far surpassed in performance, however, the 320i soon became a cheap secondhand status symbol that never really made the transition from used car to collectible classic. As a result, sightings of the 320i have become rare, rarer than of 2002’s, which are restored and collected in large numbers. This apparently rust-free 320i with a restored interior spotted in Georgetown in early August, one of the areas of Washington, DC where 320i’s once roamed and parked in large numbers, was the first that I can remember seeing in years.
Only a few days after that curbside 320i sighting, an opportunity to inspect and drive a 320i came up, and I of course accepted it. A friend was looking for a cheap classic, old enough to quality for registration as an antique, for occasional use at an out of state beach house. The search led her to this Sierra Beige 1980 320i, with less than 90,000 miles, claimed to have been originally purchased by a senior citizen who drove it very little.
The 320i is not a model that makes BMW aficionados go “Schwing!” as said in Wayne’s World (example here), but driving it and riding as a rear seat passenger made clear why the 320i took the market by storm. Its manual steering was precise, body roll was well controlled, the ride was firm but compliant and never harsh even over speed bumps and potholes, and the interior austere but high quality with all controls clacking into place decisively.
As a rear seat passenger, I found the space to be remarkable and the perception of space even more remarkable. Headroom and legroom for four adults was more than adequate in the boxy body, and the huge and nearly vertical windows made the compact passenger space feel big in a way experienced today only in Mini Coopers and Scion xBoxes. This 320i had rust and small electrical problems that led my friend to pass on it, but it made a strong enough impression that she focused on BMWs from then onward and ended up buying a 1985 528e.
The end of the 320i came in 1983, with approximately 186,000 sold in the U.S. in seven model years, but its legacy is going strong more than three decades later with the 3-Series still the car to beat in the small sport sedan class. More recent generations have added several times the horsepower, more luxury, and completely different exterior and interior styling, but the fundamental qualities were apparent in the 320i.
Today a surviving 320i is the most inexpensive way to experience a classic BMW, with book values for examples in excellent condition at substantially below $5,000, far less than those of the 2002 or the following E30 3-Series with its six cylinder and convertible variants. I would get one now, before the hipsters realize that Ford Falcons and Mercedes W123 diesels are completely played out and the most ironic car out there is the trendiest car of the Eighties, now completely un-trendy and out of fashion.
This was a popular car with GIs in Germany. However, most of them were rust buckets that were always breaking down.
Nice piece, Robert. I was discussing recently with Athos how few of these we see now, despite their relative ubiquity over here during their day. As with you, I’ve been seeing more ’02s recently. CC effect came into force soon after and bumped into this nice red 318i. Did you get the twin-single headlight configuration over there?
I don’t believe the single headlight version was ever offered in N.A. IIRC, the single headlights were installed on the 316i, which was never sold here.
Cheers. I don’t think we got a 316 until the short-butt E36/5.
Wow, I’ve never seen the single headlight version before, those really smooth the transition from the 2002, which I always felt was a tad abrupt for the E21.
I think these came later in the E21’s life over here, but now I prefer the look. It makes the quad headlight grille look a bit crowded. The E30 handled them better.
Yeah I agree, Even though I’m a fan of quad headlights most of the time I never was a big fan of the quads on the E21, much preferring the 2002’s original single treatment or the E30s cleaner quad treatment(I like the E30 taillights better too)
Smallest engine ever placed in a US 3-series was a 1.8. Originally in the later E21’s (but still labeled a 320i), then the first E30’s, then the 16-valve 318is of 1991, and finally the E36’s in all body styles. No four-cylinder E46’s at all.
I would think that the “first” 3 series are the equivalent of the first 4 seat T-Birds in that the series that preceded them was so good and the customers for these cars when they were brand new was entirely different. Like the 1st 4 seat T-Bird, sales of the 320 jumped over the “old” car.
It’s unfortunate but even if the 1st “3s” were collectible the examples remaining are quickly rusting away.
Another reason why the 2nd series “3s” are more popular, at least as used cars versus collector cars is that the newer cars are more amenable to “upgrades”.
I meant to say that the first 4 seat T-Birds were once not all that collectible.
And the 1st “3” series didn’t have the plethora of body styles that the 2nd and all subsequent series would have.
Terrific analogy to the 4-seater T-Bird.
As a kid in the late 1970s, I remember liking BMWs (and 911s and Lotus Esprits) because I liked their looks, and they had (relative to other cars of the malaise era) good performance and fuel efficiency according to Car and Driver, Road Test, Road & Track, etc.
So when I had the chance to valet a 320i in the early 80s in my summer job, I jumped on it. I only drove the car around the building, I was so impressed with the steering, clutch and shifter–they ‘felt’ so precise! The dashboard and interior looked so cool and modern. And I liked the car’s looks, handsome and functional.
And at that time I decided that even though a 3 series cost twice as much as a ‘typical’ car, if one had the money, it was definitely worth it, if only for the way it felt, and I agreed, it was “The Ultimate Driving Machine”.
And it remains “The Ultimate Looking 3-series”
Interestingly, in one of their more laughable reviews of the 70s, Consumer Reports preferred a Corolla SR5 to the 320i. Maybe the BMW rode too hard, or the lack of a 5th gear.
I could easily see the 320i getting dinged in that comparison for not being worth its’ price premium, if the Corolla was 85-90% of the car for half the money.
The scant model lineup compared to the E30/50 Corolla’s vast one – depending on model year you could have two- or four-door sedans, two-door hardtop, post coupe, hatchback coupe and five-door wagon (only the coupes and hatch came in SR5 form but the 1600/5 speed combo was offered across the board).
To add insult to injury, BMW’s sole body style was Toyota’s cheapskate special!
BMWs have always interested me but the high price of spares and repairs has made me play safe and just look but not touch
Thousands of unmaintained since new BMWs have flooded into NZ from Japan they are cheap and nasty the allure what little they had is gone Msport means Recaro seats and no performance upgrades in JDM speak and the parts are still expensive.
I always liked the styling of these better than the generation that followed – these were smoother and more subtly styled.
I have not thought of these in eons. Once the 325 with its 6 came out, I never saw much reason for a 4 cylinder BMW. The VW GTI did what the BMW 318i did for a lot less money. These sort of became the used BMWs that appealed to nobody. While the 2002 was considered classic, these were just considered dated. But I still have a small soft spot for the 320.
I purchased a 320i in 1977, to replace my 1975 2002. Although the 2002 was a great car in many ways, it was something of a maintenance nightmare, requiring both engine and transmission rebuilds during its short stay with me. The pollution control system involved a lot of biodegradable rubber tubing that needed constant attention. In spite of the 2002’s reputation as a driver’s car, it certainly was not very quick. From the original 1975 brochure, 0-60 mph is listed at 12.8 seconds, and max speed is 102 mph with the manual transmission.
So the much more modern 320i was very appealing to me. Notable improvements included that wrap-around dash, and Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection. One of the cool features of the dash was the use of fiber optics to light up the dash controls from a single light source. In particular, I remember the tips of the heater control sliders lighting up at night, each with their own ‘light pipe’.
Overall, this was a much more reliable car than the 2002. The only problems I remember were the atrocious Continental tires that were permanently out of balance in spite of the dealer’s efforts (soon replaced by perfectly round Michelins), and the fuel injection system.
Of course, the fuel injection system acted up on a Friday afternoon, and I was due to leave on a business trip on Monday. I showed up at the dealer at 17:15, just as the mechanics were starting to shut down for the weekend. The chief mechanic drove my car into the shop, and went to work, assisted by the owner of the dealership (!). An hour later, they had diagnosed a faulty injection pump. They did not have the needed parts in stock, so they drove a brand new 320i off the lot, took all the parts they needed from it, and installed them in my car. I was back on the road by 19:00.
In 1979, I traded the 320i for a 528i. I might still be driving a BMW today based on that dealership experience, but after moving to another city, I quickly realized that I was not likely to ever see that level of service again.
Great find and write-up. The background in the first picture perfectly complements the personality this car developed in the U.S. The 2002 and following E30 (especially the M3) may get all the attention, but this was a very important car in establishing BMW’s dominance and reputation in the U.S. market. You effectively capture that point in this article.
The 3-Series has always been one of my favorite cars, even if it may be a bit over-hyped today. One small (or large in this case) ax I have to grind is how large the current F30 has become. I recently spotted one parked next to an E39 5-Series, and was amazed at how similarly sized they were. It’s an attractive car, but it’s getting too large. If I were to buy a new Bimmer, I’d take a serious look at the 2-Series coupe.
I completely agree with you; I constantly complain about the “size creep” of the 3-series and other cars these days. My good friend’s 2008 e90 is my preferred size and combined with the smooth in-line six and no auto stop/start, we both agree it is a keeper for the time being.
This is a terrific article. These cars were really popular in SoCal back in the day, as was the 2002. With form and function blending so well, they make many of the over-styled cars of that period look ridiculous.
And it was the beginning of the ‘yuppie douchebag’ attitude towards BMW drivers. I can remember a co-worker of mine back in 1978, nice lady I’d known since high school, but definitely a bit on the social climber side. She and her husband bought a new 320i which they’d trade off on alternate days as the work commuter.
It was a nice car (I had previously been, and still am, a devotee of the 1600’s and 2002’s having autocrossed against them), but the rest of the office were absolutely aghast that they’d pay that kind of money for what was an upscale econobox . . . . . and, knowing both the owners, you could tell by their attitude just who was driving the Bimmer that day.
At that time I was long used to status in automobiles, mainly the ever present American desire for Cadillac ownership. This was different, however. A combination of “look at me, I’ve made it” plus “I’m too cool for you.” No Cadillac ever pushed the second point equal to the first.
Yep, this was the beginning of the ‘BMW as status symbol’. At least back then, you had to buy them . . . . . .
Well said/wrote, Syke.
I laughed out loud at the current Audi commercial where the thoughtful Audi driver slows down for a puddle to avoid splashing the nice pedestrians, while the BMW driver behind them plows through and soaks the poor people with a wall of water.
It’s doubly ironic in that the modern Audi driver has taken on the stereotypes once attached to the BMW driver of yore…
I still remember the first time I knew about these cars. It was a TV ad in probably the late 70s. I remember a stuffy character actor playing the part of a rich guy standing outside of his multi-car garage (maybe even a cobblestone driveway) extolling the BMW 320i. As a kid, I remember thinking that this car was evidently aimed at someone beyond my social class.
Now they’ve dropped down the chain and are driven by chavs,wanna be badasses and small time drug dealers in the UK.They got an image problem when yuppie tossers started to drive them(badly) over here and it went downhill from there
If it was an automatic you could’ve always pointed out that it had the same transmission as a Chevette.
I’ve seen the Baur convertible exactly once – in a wealthy suburb of Boston (near BC) circa 2010.
There was a Baur convertible in my little town. I used to see it at least once a week. It’s since been replaced by a Golf.
Impressive cars that look lovely especially that yellow 3-series. However, why does the BMW in the first photo have an air splitter, but nothing else?
As a resident of the DC metropolitan area (I’m in northern VA) I can attest to your previous statement that the E21 320i’s are rarely seen around these parts anymore – in fact, I’ve only seen one on the road in the last two years.
I see many more old Volvo 240s running around VA and DC than I do old Bimmers – probably because they’re easier to get parts for and/or keep running.
If you want to see even more 240’s come to Richmond. Tons of the boxes still rolling around. The E21s are pretty rare though–there’s one in my neighborhood that I see quite often, but it rarely moves and I’m honestly not sure if the registration is current.
A friend in high school had a 1981 320 as his first car. This was in 1996, so it was well out of status symbol territory, but still kind of cool. Blue, and I *think* it had silver-painted steel wheels rather than alloys–did any come that way or maybe they were added on later? Unfortunately it wasn’t the most reliable thing, with perhaps its finest trick happening when one day he parked, shut off the ignition, withdrew the key, and then noticed the car was still running. He couldn’t turn it off with the key, didn’t want to start pulling on wires with the car running, and i think it finally shut off when the gas ran out.
And what was up with the vertical-mount radio? One of the odder placements I’ve ever seen.
I like the looks of the Euro BMW 320 but the US market ones look odd with that front bumper with the fog lights which looks like the catcher on the front of a train. BMW could have done a better job integrating the fog lights in these US market cars. Yes I realize that the USDOT had a hand in ruining this good looking car with their stupid bumper mandates but still BMW could have tried a bit better on this. That is what makes the 84-92 3 Series such a classic. Good looks, refined driveline etc.
While I agree with Syke these are the beginnings of the Yuppie BMW slur, they were nice driving cars. That yellow one later in the post really appeals to me. As good as new cars are, there’s a certain characteristic to that one that I like.
Not for anything but both the 1980 BMW 320i and its contemporary the 1980 Toyota Corolla almost resembled each other not only in design but size as well. Both the 2 and 4 Door Sedans of both models looked very similar to one another. Decades before Toyota had a BMW 323 fighter called the Lexus IS 300 which was in the same compact size class as the later Corolla in 2000, it is just fitting to say that the earlier Corolla shown here was a poor man’s BMW 320i.
I see a 5 series Bimmer of this general era (I’m not too up on BMWs but it looks similar) in my town and that is what I always think. Yeah, I know its a Bimmer from the Bavarian roundel and the grille, but it looks like an 80s penalty box. I would guess it can corner better than a Toyota if everything else is in good enough shape but still, its just kind of ugly and plain. Its cool to see older cars like this, but it really does nothing for me. Same with the 2002 I see now and again-cool to see such a historic car but if I’m going to drive a car that has obviously seen better days, its going to be some big damn American boat.
I always thought that, too.
Back in the day I argued that you could shove a Toyota Crown six in the front of a Corolla and get a BMW for a fraction of the price. The wiser me of today appreciates performance around corners, too.
That would be an interesting concept and maybe it might even give this Corolla more horsepower only if it can fit inside the engine bay.
They are definitely overlooked in favour of the other models and are rarely seen now. I have been seeing a 323i regularly on my commute though and I know a guy with a JPS model.
Louis experience confirms my perception that the original US-spec 320i was a worthy successor. It was fun to drive, and lot more updated (the 2002 traced it’s origins to the early 60s…) A memorable ride in a family friend’s Euro 316 in 1984 drove the point home…
However, the 84 318i that replaced the 320i was disappointing. The longer gearing was good for EPA numbers, but hardly sporting. So BMW gave us Americans the 325e–“e” for execrable, a low-rpm six not sold in Europe, with all of 120 hp from 2.8 liters–about 5 more than a Citation, with a 4750 rpm redline. An appliance more at home in a base Valiant or Maverick, . Much more elegant and refined, to be sure, but a low-revving six that was the antithesis of driving fun.
Finally, BMW redeemed itself with the great 325i (170 hp 2.5 liter six), followed by the ‘budget’ 318i ($20k for a 133 hp, 16 valve 4 cylinder–what the original 318 should’ve had at it’s US intro).
Also, by 1983 BMW was established in yuppiedom, so the car was grossly overpriced, even though there were other alternatives now (Rabbit GTI, 2nd Gen Honda Prelude). The fact that BMW sold crap here it would never sell in its home market is an eloquent testimonial to the superficiality of wannaberich upper middle class America
“The fact that BMW sold crap here it would never sell in its home market is an eloquent testimonial to the superficiality of wannaberich upper middle class America”
Yes, we all like to bash ourselves (because it’s usually true). However, I’ve come to realize people in the rest of the world are no different. They all like the badge, and probably more so than Americans. Europeans have been flocking to lower level premium marques and deserting upper level mainstream models for a long time now. And they’ve been buying 1.6 liter, barebones BMWs for eons, which probably can’t be any better than the lowest level models we’ve gotten. People are superficial and materialistic all over the world!
BMW hit its stride with the 7 series. Why bother with dinky sedans that can tear up interstate exit ramps when you can produce a real Kraut Brougham-something that handles well and will impress anyone that sits in it? As a businesss owner, I wouldn’t care what some subset of gearheads thought, I’d care about who is willing to drop the real cash-its rich people who want something exclusive, or at least as exclusive as mass production will allow. Thus, the halo car 7 series. Folks will buy all the rest of them because they share some of the glory of the Bimmer Grosser.
I lived in the Netherlands in 1984. The two most commonly seen BMW models were the 315, which was an E21 with single headlights and a carbureted 1.6 liter engine making 75 hp, and the 525e, which had the same 2.7 liter eta engine used in the US 325e and 528e. Other countries may have been different, but performance models, like the 323i and 528i, were greatly outnumbered by BMWs as pedestrian as any US offerings.
I’m surprised it uses a macpherson strut instead of double wishbone. It would be nifty if someone would contrast this with the ur Saab 900 and Audi 80.
By the end of the 50’s BMW’s automobile division was essentially bankrupt. They held on and the cars that eventually became the 2002 model (early version were lower numbers, like 1500) reversed BMW’s finances.
The 2002’s were noted for exceptional handling. American cars were generally not noted for handling, but more for a soft ride.
Another reason 77-83 320i is overlooked compared to 2002 is easy–it’s from the malaise era!
The best of the malaise era, but still malaise…
Re: Pedro: I’d say the Datsun 510 was the poor man’s BMW 2002 (others have said it).
The 79 Corolla superficially resembles the BMW and is rear drive. The Toyota was available with a slick 5-speed.
But the engine was average, performance was worst, handling was mediocre, steering was too–the difference between a 79 Corolla and a 79 320i was MUCH greater than that of Japan’s best 10 years before –Datsun 510 vs. BMW 1600/2002.
The Corolla had a softer ride–in the “we can do smaller-American better” Toyota spirit, and that’s probably why Consumer Reports preferred it. Maybe better mpg too.
Prior to 1984-85 Toyota Corolla 2 and 4 Door Sedans were RWD. Tom, the Datsun 510 has a little bit of a 1971 Dodge Colt 4 Door Sedan styling or even a 1968 Ford Cortina 4 Door Sedan as well. In my honest opinion, the Datsun 510 looked very different and from an earlier era in the 1970s compared to the late 1970s to early 1980s BMW 320i so I will still stick with the 1980 Toyota Corolla design until someone else can post a side by side photos of other cars similar to the BMW 320i in both size and design and then I will make my opinions afterwards based on my observations.
I seem to recall my “reference source” of the early/mid 1970’s (“Car & Driver” magazine) calling the 1971-1975 Opel 1900/Manta the “Poor Man’s BMW 2002”.
I spent considerable time driving 320’s, Corolla’s, Colt’s, 510’s, Vega’s and Pinto’s. The fuel injected ’75 Opel Manta I finally spent MY money on was, for me, “The Ultimate Driving Machine”.
The Opel 1900/Manta’s front grille may look similar to BMW 2002, but their body designs were still worlds apart. The Opel 1900/Manta’s design had a little more resemblance to the earlier Opel Rekord which in South America were aka the Chevrolet Opala and larger than this BMW as well.
The “poor man’s 2002” reference doesn’t refer to the styling. That would be the Wal-Mart BMW(IE N body Grand Am) As comparable in terms of driving experience, the Corolla isn’t even close.
Driving experience is different and subjective to the Driver’s experience which I can understand and therefore that’s okay.
Second your opinion of fuel injected ’75 Opel. Drove a sport wagon for some years. Loved the handling, equal to the BMW on smooth roads. Solid axle not quite as good on bumps, of course. Very smooth running engine. Simple, but high quality interior. Wish I still had it! Just as satisfying to drive as my mother’s purchased new 1980 BMW 320i 5 speed, which she is still driving today.
Yutaka Katayama was inspired by the BMW 1600 and used it as a benchmark when he helped (led?) development of the 510, so your analogy is apt.
There is an ad running currently where a guy buys an off lease BMW. He drives by his neighbor who is with his dog and watering his lawn. Everything goes in slow motion as the new BMW owner drives his car down his street, the guy watering his lawn goes slack jawed and in total awe of the superior owner and his superior car driving buy, the dog is equally impressed and the new BMW owner grins from ear to ear as a Jesus halo appears around his head. (OK, no halo but you get the idea). The ad states how affordable the car is, and how everybody else in the neighborhood will bow at your feet. I didn’t know if I should laugh or vomit. I actually would consider owning a older 3 series, but I couldn’t handle being cut off, possibly keyed and middle fingered because of the BMW driver perception.
If you see enough as ghetto hoopdies and 3rd owner suburban wannabes, the effect is considerably lessened. Sorry, when I see an older 3 series, my jaw does anything but drop. Any Tom, Dick, or Harry can buy one if they have a full time job.
I remember when the 320i came out the 2002 faithful panned it. Overweight, underpowered, poorer fuel economy, and more expensive in true malaise-era fashion. But, like so many malaise-era cars, it really wasn’t so bad, in fact I think you could say the 320i was overall a better car than the 2002, even if the performance was off a bit.
Definately see more 2002s than these, and I rarely see those.
Great article – you’ve really captured the essence of the brand at the time. I’ve got a soft spot for these. I was a teen when they came out, and while I was into cars for as long as I can remember, I was just starting to see BMWs around. I loved the Spartan but (seemingly) high quality of these cars, and I really loved BMW’s marketing angle, which really differentiated them.
When I was a kid, my next door neighbor, a self made guy who had always had two Lincolns, traded his Mark IV in on a ’77 rust/tan 320i. I saw this car every day, and never tired of it. It was the first in a succession of other BMWs and then Mercedes; never another Lincoln. When I got my license a few years later, I had the chance to drive one of these, and I remember the heavy manual steering and super tight feel. A few years later, a friend had gotten an E30 325iS 5 speed, which was as close to perfection as I can remember.
I suppose the “old” BMW, which we enthusiasts miss, would have kept BMW as more of a niche player, as opposed to the broadly appealing company they are today, which has obviously led to tremendous (sales) success.
My neighbor bought a Sierra tan 1980, brand new; like the one with the Schwing dealer sticker on it.
When he told me it was almost $20K OTD, I thought that was a bit much. I’d bought a new ’75 Rabbit, the nice one with carpeting, for $3837 OTD and there wasn’t that much different between the two.
Seems like a lot of east coasters on this site, was Schwing also a VW and Honda dealer in the late ’70s? My supervisor was a service manager of a BMW, VW, Honda dealer in Baltimore back then, I always wondered which store that was.
Pedro:’ I was referring to engine, transmission, suspension, braking, handling and overall driving pleasure.
NOT what it looks like or might resemble on the outside.
Driving experience is different and subjective to the Driver’s experience which I can understand and therefore that’s okay. So all that you have mentioned Mark is okay since its coming from a substance perspective outside from the superficial.
Nice write up Robert. I’ve ridden in these many times and will never forget how solid the ride felt or that whirling engine sound. The rear end styling is much nicer than on the E30, which to most people looked like a facelift of the E21. I find the E30 to be a hugely overrated car, the E21 underrated.
As for price my feeling is that any desirable old car like the E21 will go for much more money than you think, if you can find one with low mileage from a dry area like California. The doggy ones can be had for far less but that’s true for just about any car.
So Bob Lutz was responsible for the Ultimate Driving Machine tag line? That’s not going to sit well with the folks who like to take pot shots him.
Great little cars, I owned the ultimate one, a Alpina B6, based on the 323i, mine was a 1980, with the 2.8 engine, and back then (it was around 1986) you could outrun mostly anything…..if only we knew what cars to keep forever when we where young…..
The only E21 versions that you have to pay serious money for are the 323i in mint condition. 320 were available as both 4 and 6 cylinders.
Your observations regarding its classic status translates exactly to the situation in Germany. The have always been overshadowed by the 02 series and now it seems like are even being out-performed as classics by the E30 series from the 80s.
Holy crap what a great car. I owned and drove a car identical to the Alpine White 1981 320i in the photo from 1984-1990. (Those turbine wheels are a bitch to keep brake dust out of.) My father had purchased it new for about $18K, and sold it to me for a song as a graduation present. It was an outstanding vehicle in every respect, and taught me at a young age that quality costs more because it’s worth it. It was incredibly solid and surefooted, and everything snapped or clicked into place with a precision I’ve rarely seen before or since. It had a chocolate-brown cloth interior with seats both comfortable and supportive, and the wrap-around red-illuminated dash was swell. It handled spectacularly, had great space utilization, was great on gas, and all-around fun to drive All The Time. It had a great big slide in the middle of the dash that would open and close the master fresh air damper – you could crack the back of the sunroof on the highway and the vacuum would draw a tremendous fresh-air flow into the car. The engine had a unique turbine smoothness – I was told it was because the intake and exhaust manifolds had been balanced so that each cylinder had equal intake and exhaust manifold volumes, making the thing sing. And except for the electric wing mirrors, every single thing on the car was manually operated: windows, locks, seats, sunroof, steering, transmission, even the brakes were only vacuum-assist, a characteristic a loved dearly then and missed sorely now. Downsides were several: Underpowered. A/C was a Germanic afterthought, and it showed – the center console was a disaster, because the Bavarians hadn’t made any accommodation for the A/C (warum brauchst man Klimat-anlaage?) so the radio knobs pointed at the headliner, and the afterthought center console panels were cheaply fabricated and poorly assembled (I figured this out in the course of installing three or four radios in the thing). Certified factory service in the U.S. in the early 80’s was expensive, and often performed by morons. Anti-corrosion protection was inadequate, and ultimately did it in. But it was probably the best-assembled, best-engineered, simplest, most satisfying car I have ever owned, and I’d love to own one today.
My college roommate and his wife bought a new 2002 in 1974. I drove with them in it for a fall foliage tour to New England in 1975. By 1978, they had moved to Maryland, but my friend returned to upstate New York to buy a new 320i from the same dealer (they kept the 2002). It was his first manual transmission car, and I taught him to drive a stick shift in the 320i. On the drive to my house, where he was staying, a bad battery left us stranded by the side of the road. The dealer came by with a used battery so that we could drive the car to my house. The next day, the battery was replaced and the car went to Maryland. I think they kept it for about fifteen years, repainting it a different color a few years before they traded it on a new 190 E. It was a very nice car, but not the cult favorite that the 2002 was.
Since we’re talking BMW, I think the website is running into trouble again. I’ll just leave this pic here
Ha! I bought our first of many SAABs, a ’67 96 3 cylinder smoker, at Schwing Motors on Keswick Dr. in Balto in the summer of 1971, which was traded on a new SAAB 99 two years later.
BMW 320i, well, they sold those too, as well as the Ferrari Dino 248 that was in the showroom when we bought the 96. My best friend bought a ’69 2002 around that time and we all quickly fell in love with that one, to the extent that a 2800 followed me home a short time later, the beginning of a short, very expensive, and fraught with problems fling with German cars. by the way, the Bavaria was the 2500 trim level with the 2800’s 2.8 liter six (a highly flawed mechanism powering the most wonderful driving machine, especially with their velvety 4 spd box).
The 2002 made the ’76 320i look flaccid by comparison, and so on our trip that year to Munich where we originally had planned to include European delivery of a 2002, upon discovery of the news that it was kaput in the US, we opted not to take delivery of the newer model. Though not without merit, the 320i to me was a pale imitator of the original small sport sedan. Subsequently we became inveterate SAAB lovers, and to this day I’d submit that the 99 and 900 Turbo were the true spiritual successors to the sporty and 2002, and superior to the 3 series of the ’80s in most respects. That’s my $.02
BTW regarding the usual reference to the eponymous “Hoffmeister kink”, to give credit where credit is due, take a look at a ’53 Kaiser and you’ll see where that particular styling cliche came from!
I remember Jack Lemon drove a 320 in the film “The China Syndrome”. Later in the early 80’s I remember these being marketed pretty aggressively, and they were popular in the well to do (especially college) crowd. For some reason I remember them making a big deal coming out with the 4 door version, which seems odd to me, since this small of a car seems to be better suited to 2 door than 4 door.
Though I drive a German car (VW) I’m not much of a fan of BMWs…my Brother in law had a 528i which had cooling problems, I worked with him on it and did not care for it…the layout made things hard to get to. VW has its foibles too, but I guess I’m more used to it. I’m sure the BMW drives nicer, but I’m no longer the barnstormer that I once was and living in a congested city, don’t think most of the driving attributes would come into play. The older I get, the more I seem to think that an “old guy’s car” with comfort and gets you there reliably is more important than sport …though I do still have a manual transmission on my VW.
I think back then some of the 320’s came with “Cocoa Mats”…for some reason this is the car I associate with when I think of them (which I haven’t for awhile until now for some reason).
One of the guys at work had one awhile back…I thought them tiny inside, compared to my VW (with FWD was roomier) for the size.