BMW 3 Series E21 (1975 – 1982), the first of a successful series, from €7,500

What are collectibles?

These are cars of special interest, which therefore deserve to be preserved. Not necessarily old, they still exist in defined quantities, either because the manufacturer has decided so or because their production has stopped. Then they take advantage of features that make them particularly desirable: an engine, a chassis, a design or a concept. Finally, they will likely see their rating increase. An additional argument to collect them before everyone else!

Why can the BMW 3 Series E21 be assembled?

BMW’s emblematic model, the E21, laid the foundation for the entire 3 Series, namely a smart mix of sportiness, luxury, efficiency and versatility. Specially equipped with the fantastic 6-in-row M20: a concentrate of BMW in short! Although produced in large quantities, the E21 is now rare in very good condition, so it must continue to be preserved. Its constant increase in value helps to determine!

After its miraculous “Neue Klasse” of 1961, which saved it from a takeover, BMW could count on the 2nd in 1966 to increase its production. The latter was indeed a great success, and to replace it we took many precautions. Unthinkable to give up the formula! So we improved it in accordance with the trend of the times, which went towards more comfort. So we took care of the cabin and made the line more elegant.

Originally introduced in 1975 in the 316 and 318, the 3-series E21 was content with two projectors.

This was drawn up under the direction of Frenchman Paul Bracq, a defector from Mercedes who came to head BMW design in 1970. In 1972, the Bavarian manufacturer began dividing its range into series, starting with the 5 Series. replacing the 02, he presented a Series 3 E21, in June 1975. Although classic, it seduced with its modern appearance, while in addition to a very beautiful finish, it had a central console oriented towards the driver. A sign of careful ergonomics, this element was to spread throughout the BMW range and continue to this day. Technically, the E21 is an independent rear-wheel drive, just like its predecessor.

Arriving a few months after the 316 and 318 in late 1975, the 320 is distinguished by its four headlights.
Arriving a few months after the 316 and 318 in late 1975, the 320 is distinguished by its four headlights.

Under the hood, the 3-series initially receives only 4-cylinder M10s, from 02. A 1.6 l of 90 hp (316) and a 2.0 l either with carburetor (320, 109 hp) or with injection ( 320i, 125 hp). The equipment is in tune with the times, clock, totalizer, glove compartment, headrests… So it’s not big, especially since the stabilizer bars are also extra! The 320 adds long-throw headlights and a tachometer. It is clear that prices are high: from 28,900 F (current €21,100 according to INSEE) for the 316 to 36,500 F (current €26,650 according to INSEE) for the 320i.

Pre-series E21s did without a grooved strip between the taillights.
Pre-series E21s did without a grooved strip between the taillights.

Sales started very well and the range was enriched with a 318 (1.8 l, 99 hp) in 1976. But in 1977 the offer was reinforced with a model that would do a lot for the E21: the 323i. In fact, it receives the mythical 6-in-row BMW, a 2.3 l of 143 hp. Approaching 200 km/h, the 323i offers very high performance in a relatively compact body, although it settles for the standard 4-speed, an existing gearbox as an option, in long or short gear. Even better, you can afford a limited slip differential! This variant will be a great success.

It goes better with the grooved headband on the final models, here in 1976.
It goes better with the grooved headband on the final models, here in 1976.

At the same time, the 320 also goes for the 6-cylinder, a 2.0 l with 122 hp only with carburettor. In 1979, a convertible version was offered, built by Baur. In 1980, the fuel-injected 318i (105 hp) replaced the 318 in France, and in late 1981, an entry-level 315 (75 hp) lowered the base price. This is the swan song of the 3 Series E21, replaced by the E30 in late 1982. 1.36 million units were produced: contract fulfilled!

One of the great qualities of the 3 Series E21: a sumptuous interior, well-executed and ergonomic, if not well-equipped and spacious.
One of the great qualities of the 3 Series E21: a sumptuous interior, well-executed and ergonomic, if not well-equipped and spacious.

How much does it cost ?

Long cut off, E21 has seen its rating rise. For €7,500 you get a 315 or a 316 in good condition. At €8,500 you are eligible for a 318, while for a 320 with 4 cylinders you count rather €10,000. The 6-cylinders are pretty for €13,000 in good condition. And the 323i? Don’t expect anything under €18,000, whereas for €21,000 you can find a beautiful car equipped with the box 5. But for an example with a short and self-locking box, it will be a ticket of €26,000, basically. Yes, it stings…

In 1979, the Series 3 E21 was slightly retouched: enlarged and black exterior mirror, modified front apron.
In 1979, the Series 3 E21 was slightly retouched: enlarged and black exterior mirror, modified front apron.

Which version to choose?

Given the price of the 323i, a 6-cylinder 320 is a good compromise, or even a 320i if staying in 4-cylinders doesn’t put you off.

Well optionally, as here (alloy wheels, sunroof, apron), the 3-series E21 increases in value.
Well optionally, as here (alloy wheels, sunroof, apron), the 3-series E21 increases in value.

Collector’s versions

Any Series 3 E21 in perfect condition is a collector’s item. But the most sought after will of course be the original 323i 5 short/limited gearbox, an extremely rare configuration.

The 323i's 6-in-line is very solid, provided you take care of the cooling.
The 323i’s 6-in-line is very solid, provided you take care of the cooling.

What to monitor?

Like all BMWs of these years, the 3 Series E21 suffered a lot from corrosion. It attacks cunningly and attacks first what you cannot see: careful inspection of the necessary foundations before purchase!

So it is important, on 6-cylinders, to have a cooling circuit in good condition. Otherwise the engine will overheat and the long cylinder head will twist. With the key, a big invoice… On the 320/6, the four-barrel Solex carburetor is a purge that needs adjusting. The 4-cylinders are without history, therefore very robust, as are the boxes, but beware, all these blocks have a timing belt: don’t forget to change it!

In the cabin, the plastic of the dashboard splits and the velvet of the seats is torn, so many elements that are not easy to redo.

For the rest, the E21 ages quite classically, and BMW offers quite a few spare parts. A good point!

The engine dominates the driving experience aboard the BMW 323i, here a car from 1981, but the chassis is also fun...if you can drive.
The engine dominates the driving experience aboard the BMW 323i, here a car from 1981, but the chassis is also fun…if you can drive.

Driving

On board the 323i, as in all E21s, we are surprised by two things: the low rear space and the comfort of the front seats. Yes, the seat is firm, but it maintains well. In addition, despite the few settings available, the driving position is perfect! As for the dashboard, it continues to please the eyes: a model of its kind.

But that’s nothing compared to the sound of the 6-in-line. It is soft, melodic, ethereal… This sound alone justifies the purchase of the car. Only the approval of the 323i passes also – and above all – by its incredible flexibility and its quite pleasant punch for such an old car.

This dashboard... A pure delight, even more than 40 years after its appearance.  Here in a 1981 323i.
This dashboard… A pure delight, even more than 40 years after its appearance. Here in a 1981 323i.

Basically, it offers the performance of a very edgy sports compact of the Ritmo Abarth type, but in incomparable refinement. Because the BMW remains silent and its box a marvel of smoothness. The slightly over-geared steering isn’t as comfortable, but remains fairly accurate. the behavior? It is healthy and balanced, but the grip remains average.

As a result, the engine is quickly lacking, even with the limited slip, and the BMW quickly reaches its limits. Advantage, it makes it very playable if you have good piloting skills and that is also the advantage of this version. Be careful, in the wet you have to be very careful. At a quiet drive, everything is fine, although the suspension feels firm and the brakes weak, as on the cars of this epic era. The 323i also has the great advantage of low fuel consumption: 8.0 l/100 km in normal driving.

The Youngtimer alternative

BMW 3 Series E36 (1990 – 2000)

The BMW 3 Series E36 appeared in 1990 and surprised with its lines... and its finish in sharp decline!
The BMW 3 Series E36 appeared in 1990 and surprised with its lines… and its finish in sharp decline!

It breaks the mold with its bodywork, where the grille tilts in the direction of the wind and places its round lights under the glass roof. And it adopts a Z-shaped multi-link rear axle that becomes a school at BMW. The Series 3 E36 was therefore very surprising when it was released at the end of 1990, seduced by its enormous driving pleasure, especially in the 325i, whose 6-in-line 2.5 l 24 valves develop 192 hp. But it also disappoints with its almost junk finish.

Offered as a coupé in 1992, as a convertible from 1993, as a Compact in 1994 and as a station wagon in 1995, it was restyled for 1996. The finish improved significantly, and the M3 that appeared in 1992 (3.0 l), 286 hp ) , goes to 3.2 l for 321 hp, while it gets a box of 6. Series 3 E36 is gradually replaced by E46 from the end of 1997, the very last Compact came out in 2000. More than 3 million copies have been produced! From €2,500.

The BMW 3 Series E21 was discovered in part thanks to the bodybuilder Baur.
The BMW 3 Series E21 was discovered in part thanks to the bodybuilder Baur.

BMW 323i E21 (1981), technical specifications

  • Engine: 6-cylinder in line, 2315 cc
  • Power supply: Bosch K-Jetronic injection
  • Suspension: McPherson struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar (AV); trailing arms, coil springs, anti-roll bar (AR)
  • Gearbox: 4 or 5 manual or 3 automatic gearbox, propulsion
  • Performance: 143 hp at 5,800 rpm
  • Torque: 190 Nm at 4,500 rpm
  • Weight: 1135 kg
  • Maximum speed: 190 km/h (manufacturer data)
  • 0 to 100 km/h: 9.5 s (manufacturer data

To find BMW 3 Series E21 announcements, go to the La Centrale website.

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