Curbside Classic: 1977-83 BMW 320i (E21) – The Ur-Ultimate Driving Machine

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(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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


Related reading:

1985 BMW 318i CC

1976 BMW 2002 CC