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?
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.
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.
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).
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?
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?