It has beautiful, classic BMW lines by Paul Bracq. It has excellent handling, loads of room, and it’s fun to drive like a proper BMW. It’s even historic – the first car to wear the 3-series label. But BMW’s E21 is permanently trapped between the 2002 and the E30 3-series – heavier and less delicate than the 2002, slower than later E30s.
This is particularly true in the U.S., which got a very limited range of E21s – really only two, both labeled 320i. Nevertheless, the E21 is a great drive – balanced and sharp, wanting only for more power. It’s good looking and easy to live with too – it deserves more attention.
With the E12 5-series replacing the 1960s-era, modern-BMW defining Neue Klasse sedans in 1972, work soon began on replacing the 02 range of 2-doors. Arguably most of the E21’s styling origins were in the same concepts that informed the E12.
Bracq, Gandini, Hofmeister
Both were evolutions of the basic ideas of the Wilhelm Hofmeister-directed earlier Neue Klasse cars with some outside input in the form of Bertone’s 1970 “Garmisch” concept, styled by Marcello Gandini.
The Garmisch, long lost, was re-created by BMW last year and widely displayed. It doesn’t look quite like either of these cars, but many elements from it found their way into the E12 and E21.
To this existing array of style elements came Bracq, who came from Mercedes-Benz and succeeded Hofmeister in 1970. He and his staff clothed the new platforms into evolutionary but more modern looks for the 1970s. During testing, what became the E21 was a little more angular – more like Alfa-Romeo’s 1977 Tipo 116 Giulietta, but the final design was quite lithe.
Inside, the E21 had a layout not so different form the E12, but more cockpit-like as in Bracq’s 1972 BMW Turbo concept.
Bracq departed BMW before the E21 (and E24 coupe, both projects he’d largely overseen) debuted – moving to Peugeot to design interiors.
The new 3-series went into production in June of 1975, running concurrent with holdover 02s for the first year and a half or so. In Europe, that meant a holdover BMW 1502 into very early 1977. In the USA, the 2002 continued for the 1976 model year and was in production until that summer.
As per usual, Europe got a much wider range of E21s than the U.S.A. From the lowly 316 (and later 315) to a pair of potent sixes – 320/6 (from 1977) and 323i (from 1978). The sixes would not pass U.S. emissions laws and federalizing them was costly, so they never made it stateside except by private import.
The E21 Comes Stateside
The U.S. version was introduced in November of 1976, powered by a federalized 110-hp 2-liter. It was quieter, softer, and more refined than the 1960s 2002, but heavier and not quite as sharp-edged.
Among some of the weight were a pair of big impact bumpers just as on the late 2002. This took some of the pretty edge off the Euro-spec version, and some enthusiasts often change them out for the European-spec bumpers, but buyers at the time didn’t seem to mind.
The 320i may not have had the sporting edge of the outgoing 2002, but it was popular, bringing BMW new audiences. Although it was always more mainstream than Alfa-Romeo, BMW was still very much a niche brand in the USA in the 1970s – selling about 25-30,000 cars a year.
In the U.S. the E21 played a key role in finalizing the transformation of BMW from a maker of mostly sporty cars mostly favored by specialized enthusiasts, like Alfa-Romeo, to a mainstream luxury item even though the actual car was pretty spartan inside, just like the E12.
It was not as much of a runaway success as the E30 would be later, but the 320i was as cool and modern as a Cadillac was “establishment” – it was about $1,000 cheaper than a Coupe DeVille but appealed to a whole different buyer.
The 320i was as much an enthusiast’s car as a status car. The term “young, upwardly-mobile professional,” was first seen in print (in Chicago magazine) in May of 1980, but had been around for a few years by the time journalists cottoned on to it.
In 1980, the 2.0 became a more frugal 101-hp 1.8 – essentially a federalized version of the Euro 318i, but the car was still badged 320i for continuity. All U.S. E21s were five-speeders, which offered them longer legs on the highway than the 2002 and in the case of these later 1.8L cars, fantastic fuel economy – 35mpg on the highway, which was right in tune with the time but also not something many buyers were buying the car for.
The ultimate U.S. version was the 1981-83 320iS – a handling and appearance package consisting of special rims, thick anti roll bars, Recaro seats, fog lights, and spoilers. It didn’t come cheap and since it offered no extra power, it proved a rare bird.
The European E21s, including the Baur Cabriolet, were rarely seen stateside, not officially available and rarely imported privately (when you could still do that). In late 1982, the E30 replaced the E21, arriving stateside a little later (jut as the E21 had) for 1984.