A Photo For Sunday: 1975-1983 BMW E-21

We do seem to be having a bit of a BMW binge here, what with last week’s photo having been the illustrious success/catastrophic failure known as the 1977 BMW 7-series. Who can remember the internal code number?

BMW E-something, as seen somewhere along the river Inn.

This week we take a look at another BMW from the same happy era. Can you remember the project code for this? You can find out if you check it at Wikipedia or the E21 forum or at the New Zealand BMW owner’s club.

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We all know about this car – I think. Don’t we? Maybe not. That first port-of-call, Wikipedia, starts immediately on an anachronistic note: “The BMW E21 is the first generation of the BMW 3 Series compact luxury vehicle and was produced from June 1975 to 1983“.

Let’s use our Zeiss microscope to zoom in closely on two words: “compact luxury”. In 1975 nothing about the E-21 said luxury. It actually said “quality”. In terms of luxury, any mid-spec Ford Taunus or Opel Ascona had the prison-cell Spartan E-21 trounced. In contrast, BMW’s little vehicle offered a few things beautifully made. The car might very well have been designed to epitomise the moral virtue of delayed gratification.

You paid a lot of money up front and only after a few years would it become a certainty that the cloth, plastic and paint were resisting entropy far more convincingly than the feature-laden cars from everyone else at the same price point.

BMW E-21. I am really drawn to these chrome window frames.

Maybe someone should step in and revise that entry at Wikipedia. “Luxury” is a whole other ball of wax today. Many instances presented as luxury are in fact more like examples of cars with lots of features but not much more quality than can be found on a Toyota Camry (a fine car, by many measures). The E21 does not have a whole lot of features (it only has two doors and has manually operated window winders). A Ford Taunus Ghia would be a gin palace in comparison which is why so many people bought those and not these.

When I think of a luxury car I think of a vehicle that offers a lot of physical pampering: soft carpets, soft ride, soft hide and plenty of features to distract from the dull pain, periodic grief and essential futility of the human condition. Rolls Royce do this distraction very well. Cadillac try this. Bentley do it. The current 7-series and S-class also stand as plausible candidates as providers of luxury. If we go back to 1975 a very similar set of cars offered luxury -you could add Bristol, Jaguar, Maserati and Citroen (just the CX Prestige, mind).

BMW E-21. Look at that paint.

So, Wikipedia’s first line should be “The BMW E21 is the first generation of the BMW 3 Series sports saloon and was produced from June 1975 to 1983″.

I say that because it was a sports saloon and not just a saloon that went fast.  The phrase “sports saloon” really should be meditated on because familiarity has made it make some kind of sense when it really doesn’t. For a very long time “saloon” ruled out sporting pretensions entirely just as the notions of “top hat” and “brogues” rule out athletic activities entirely.

BMW, inspired by Alfa Romeo, tried to offer their customers the useful package of a saloon with the sporting ability of a sports car which in 1960-something always meant a two-seat, close-coupled roadster or cabriolet. Other makers of saloons sold saloons predicated on the idea that few wanted a saloon that acted like a roadster. Who’d want that?

BMW something

In 1975 this car stood out very much as a “specialist” product, along with Saab, Lancia, Jaguar and Alfa Romeo. It’s when you see an example like this that you realise that BMW’s aims – quality over features – has endured. This is still a very special car even if it as luxurious as a Shaker foot-stool.

To change the topic, I saw this car while cycling along the Inn river, from Innsbruck to Passau. Most of the towns along the way can be described as pleasant; I saw the E21 at one of the exceptions. We only stopped at this town because lunch time arrived and we needed shelter from the sun (under that canopy on the left side of the photo). I can recommend most of the Inn cycle route, by the way.

Shouldn’t I really have mentioned this car’s straight-six engine?

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

10 thoughts on “A Photo For Sunday: 1975-1983 BMW E-21”

  1. The Small Six was out of the Triumph playbook, the Vitesse 2000 being the nearest to this 320. But that had ended when the BMW started. Twin headlamps had become the sophisticate’s code for go-faster stripes.

    The 3 Series might have suggested deferred gratification to you, but in London they were the rewards for quick money in the City. Like the 02 they handled wonderfully in the dry but that expensive IRS couldn’t stop them being lethal on wet roads. BM then spent decades trying to sort that out.

    I think the Auto you saw has been either scarcely used or very well resprayed.

    1. The small six was a natural way to go for BMW. They needed a replacement for the old four cylinder engines and they already had a very good large six, so the small six was a logical decision.

      The car in the pictures is fully restored with high probability as the E 21 is extremely corrosion prone. The respray lacks attention to detail because an E21 should have a black front spoiler and black sills.

      BMWs from that era were tail happy because some German journalists preferred them that way.

  2. The Taunus TC sold about 1.1M cars over a five year production run in its original American style “Knudsen nose” version. The toned down version sold 1.6M cars over a six year period.
    BMW sold 1.3 M E21s in seven years.
    So you can’t exactly claim people didn’t buy the BMW, even if the E21 was met with only a luke warm welcome because the original version without the black trim panel between its rear lights looked ugly (Paul G. Hahnemann called it a ‘pavian’s bum’ he would never have signed off for sales) and the original four pot engines were only a shadow of their former self in the 02-series.
    The E21’s true innovation was that it was deliberately kept compact and was meant to be exactly as it was, as opposed to the 02 which originally was intended to offer engines of 1.0 to 1.3 litres and only became what it was because the development team didn’t follow management decisions, fitting much bigger engines instead.
    Where the 02 was the product of one man’s (‘Nischen Paule’ Paul G Hahnemann) marketing genius the E21 was the result of a strategy.

    1. Nowadays Hahnemann’s remark would have been denounced as “Baboonist”…

      If the small engines intended for the -02 were the rather fragile Glas ones, it’s probably better that it didn’t happen. Likewise the alternative rear-engined BMW 1000, a nose-and-tailed 700 Luxus with the in-line four OHC Glas engine in place of the flat twin.

      The E21 is the BMW closest in spirit to the Borgward Isabella, although that car would probably have grown to 5 Series proportions by the mid-’70s had it not been for the 1961 unpleasantness. The E21 is very close in size, much more substantial looking than the 02, but still resolutely a two door car. (A Combi would have been nice…)

      Could there have been some Isabella-sehnsucht among the numerous Borgward managers and engineers who made the journey from Bremen to Munich?

    2. I’m pretty sure that BMW never intended to use any Glas engines in the 02.
      After Hans Glas sold his company to BMW, the first thing the new owner did was to ditch Glas’s own engines and use BMW ones instead in the few cars that were continued like the 1800 (South Africa only) and the BMW Glas GT 1600.
      In the end, the 02 started as a two door Neue Klasse like its initial designation 1600-2 showed.
      The change from spartan and raw Neue Klasse and 02 to much more grown up E12 and E21 was quite controversial because many BMW customers felt that the more comfort oriented vehicles weren’t the way to go. This showed particularly painfully for BMW when their E12 initially lost every test against the then new Alfetta (happy times, then…)

    3. I had a 1600-2 after a few 02s. It was sharper handling, which compensated for less power. Probably thinner tyres. Same new SOHC engine. Oh, and a vynil roof.

      The 2000 Touring (an 02) was the nearest to a Combi. It looked shorter than the saloon, but was an amazing load lugger. The tii Touring (130bhp, Kugelfisher) was a scream in a straight line. No Alfetta (and few other non-exotica) could touch it.

      About quality: I worked on these engines, and BMC B-Series. The latter had stronger iron castings and steel camshafts, which surprised me. But the MGB’s 1798 would never take a 2-litre bore, so was stuck a little below its potential for ever…

      The E21’s bodyshell was indeed a lot sturdier than the 02’s, but those alloy kidneys on the front remained vulnerable to dings.

    4. The M10 engine had, if anything, an absoutely bomb proof bottom half.
      Alpina and Schnitzer (amongst others) offered engines with up to 17o hp without any effect on reliability or longevity and selected blocks from the series production line were used for Formula 1 engines delivering up to 1,500 hp in practice/test trim whch should say enough about the basic soundness of von Falkenhausen’s design.
      The 02 could be heard from miles away when closing up in the fast lane because of the incredibly loud whistling noise from the frameless door windows and once it passed you the road was covered in an enormous cloud of burnt oil smoke from worn valve stem seals. Both features were gone on the E21 where particular attention had been paid to avoiding wind noise from the doors. The E21 also was a big step ahead in passive safety with a fuel tank under the seat (a first for a rwd car).
      What the E21 kept was the terribly bad aerodynamics that were a common characteristic of all BMWs of that time. The 02 and the E21 (and the E30..) had a Cd in excess of 0.5 which made even a 2002 tii struggle to reach 120 mph and even a 323i wasn’t that terribly fast flat out in a straight line.
      Here the Giulia (which was the true 02 competitor) had a big advantage due to its astonishingly good aerodynamics and more torquey engine than comparable BMWs. Regrettably Alfa never managed to build a proper E21 or E30 competitor.

    5. I know a lot more about this car than I did before. Particularly relevant are the data on sales. My estimation comes from the numbers I saw where I lived and that was not many. I presume the E-21 sold very well in Germany and less so outside it. 1.3 million is a lot of cars and the car´s impact in the market must have been noticed. Was there less competion in that sector? I suppose the mainstream makers considered the E-21 as not a potential enemy. I don´t know this, just wondering. I find the E21 a pretty appealing car, precisely because it is a “sports saloon” and not the rather watered-down thing that stands in the BMW showrooms today. I would love to know what would be the reaction to a car with a decent engine and very little else. For a start, it would hardly be hard to lose money on it. I could imaging a wierd situation where BMW charged more for the stripped out car than for a well-specced model. They´d only have to tinker with the motor and suspension to justify it: take your choice 28K for a standard 3 or 28 K for one with a tweaked engine and manual window-winders. Would it not have an inherent coolness to it?

  3. A car that started every morning and didn’t need remedial attention to rust within the first 12 months of ownership was the very definition of luxury in the 1970s…

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