The first BMW 3 Series occupies an important place in the company’s history. The E21, as the chassis is known, had the difficult task of following up the legendary 2002, while moving the entry level BMW towards the more serious 5 series – a mix of sport and style that would become BMW’s bread and butter.
Released in 1975, the E21 had the look and class of the new BMW styling direction. The classic “shark nose” and boxy styling — both cues that were in tune with the new 5 series — provided a touch of class and a visual break from the 2002. The interior was a huge leap forward, featuring a molded dash and center console angled toward the driver, a feature that would be standard on the 3 Series until the 2012 models. The angled dash was one of many “drivers” features integrated into the 3 Series that made the cars popular with enthusiasts in particular, and helped establish BMW’s reputation as “the ultimate driving machine.”
In U.S. spec, the car used BMW’s 2.0-liter, fuel injected, 110-hp four-cylinder engine to drive the rear wheels. Wrapping a four-door body around this 2,380-lb package struck a sensible balance between performance and refinement. The 3 Series was tamer and more sorted than the 2002, but could outpace nearly all of its peers. Contemporary reviews were mixed; all agreed that the car handled cleanly and precisely, yet disagreed on the effect on the driving experience. CAR thought the car was emotionless and “clinical”, while Car & Driver praised the car for being “perfectly engineered and not boring.”
The “perfectly engineered” performance described by Car & Driver became a hallmark of every 3 Series to follow. The E21 was the first BMWs to have the class and prestige to fit in at the corporate parking lot, yet offer the performance to please the company’s loyal enthusiast buyers. The E21 also introduced “yuppies” to the brand, and helped build BMW into the brand that it is today.
The original BMW 3 Series was available with many engines, but contemporary U.S. emission laws meant that the only models available in the States were the injected 320i and, after 1980, the 320iS. The “S” denoted the sport version of the 320i, and that variant featured Recaro bucket seats, a limited slip differential, a beefier sport suspension, and a special front spoiler.
Today the car’s age allows carbureted European models to be legally imported, which opens the choice up to six-cylinder models. The most desirable Euro cars are tuned variants from Hartge and Alpina, both of which offer monster performance upgrades and slight body modifications.
The 1975 to 1983 BMW E21 3 Series is an affordable project car, largely so because of its placement in BMW history. The E21 is bookended by the much-loved 2002 and the popular E30, which takes the spotlight off of the original 3 Series. Subsequently, cars are more affordable and rare parts are in low demand. BMW also supports the E21 though BMW Mobile Tradition, meaning that any part you need can be sourced from the dealer. With proper care and maintenance, the E21 will continue to offer the classic BMW driving feel and classic lines well into the future.