Sacrée gueule pour la BMW 323i E21, ici un modèle 1980.

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

What are collectables?

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

Why is the BMW 3 Series E21 collectible?

BMW’s emblematic model, the E21 laid the foundations for all the 3 Series, namely a clever blend of sportiness, luxury, efficiency and versatility. Especially equipped with the fabulous 6-in-line 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 continuous increase in value helps to decide!

After its miraculous “Neue Klasse” of 1961 which saved it from a takeover, BMW was able to count on the 02 of 1966 to increase its production. Indeed, the latter was a huge success, and to replace it, we took many precautions. Unthinkable to abandon the formula! So we improved it, according to the trend of the time which was towards more comfort. So, we took care of the cabin and made the line more elegant.

Initially presented in 1975 in 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 arrived at the head of BMW design in 1970. In 1972, the Bavarian manufacturer began to divide its range into series, starting with the 5 Series. Consequently, to replace the 02, he presented a Series 3 E21, in June 1975. Although classic, it seduced by its modern look, while sporting in the passenger compartment, in addition to a very beautiful finish, a central console oriented towards the driver. A sign of meticulous ergonomics, this element was to spread throughout the BMW range and continue to this day. Technically, the E21 is an independent rear wheel drive, like its predecessor.

Arriving a few months after the 316 and 318 at the end of 1975, the 320 is distinguished by its four headlights.
Arriving a few months after the 316 and 318 at the end of 1975, the 320 is distinguished by its four headlights.

Under the hood, the 3 Series initially only receives 4-cylinder M10s, from the 02. A 1.6 l of 90 hp (316) and a 2.0 l either with carburettor (320, 109 hp) or with injection (320i, 125 hp). The equipment is in the tone of the time, watch, totalizer, glove box, headrests… Not huge then, especially since the stabilizer bars are also extra! The 320 adds long-range headlamps and a tachometer. Obviously, the 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.

The pre-series E21s did without a ridged strip between the taillights.
The pre-series E21s did without a ridged 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 . Indeed, it receives the mythical 6-in-line BMW, a 2.3 l of 143 hp. Approaching 200 km/h, the 323i offers very high performance in a relatively compact body, even if it is content with standard 4-speed, an existing gearbox as an option, in long or short gear ratio. Even better, you can afford a limited slip differential! This variant will be a great success.

It goes better with the ridged headband of the final models, here in 1976.
It goes better with the ridged headband of the final models, here in 1976.

At the same time, the 320 also goes to 6-cylinder, a 2.0 l of 122 hp only with carburettor. In 1979, a convertible version was offered, bodied by Baur. In 1980, the fuel-injected 318i (105 hp) replaced the 318 in France, then at the end of 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 at the end of 1982. 1.36 million units were produced: contract fulfilled!

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

How much does it cost ?

Long shunned, the E21 has seen its rating climb. For €7,500, you get a 315 or a 316 in good condition. At 8,500 €, you are entitled to a 318, whereas for a 320 with 4 cylinders, count rather 10,000 €. The 6-cylinders are rather at 13,000 € in good condition. And the 323i? Don’t expect anything under 18,000 €, whereas at 21,000 €, you can find a pretty car equipped with the 5 box. But for a copy with a short and self-locking box, it will be a ticket of 26,000 € at the bottom word. 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 does not put you off.

Well optioned, as here (alloy wheels, sunroof, front apron), the 3 Series E21 gains in value.
Well optioned, as here (alloy wheels, sunroof, front apron), the 3 Series E21 gains in value.

Collector’s versions

Any Series 3 E21 in perfect condition is a collector’s item. But, of course, the most sought after will 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 those years, the 3 Series E21 suffered greatly from corrosion. It attacks slyly, attacking first what you can’t see: meticulous inspection of the foundations required before purchase!

Then, 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 carburettor is a purge to be adjusted. The 4-cylinders are without history, therefore very robust, just like the boxes, but beware, all these blocks are with timing belt: do not forget to change it!

In the passenger compartment, the plastic of the dashboard cover 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 know how to drive.
The engine dominates the driving experience aboard the BMW 323i, here a car from 1981, but the chassis is also fun… if you know how to drive.

Driving

On board the 323i, as in all E21s, we are surprised by two things: the low rear space and the pleasantness 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 delight the eyes: a model of its kind.

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

This dashboard... A pure pleasure, even more than 40 years after its appearance.  Here in a 1981 323i.
This dashboard… A pure pleasure, 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 steering, a little too geared down, isn’t as pleasant, but remains fairly precise. The behaviour ? It is healthy and balanced but the grip remains average.

As a result, motor skills are quickly lacking, even with the limited slip, and the BMW quickly reaches its limits. Advantage, it makes it very playful if you have good piloting skills, and this is also the advantage of this version. Be careful, in the wet, you have to be very careful. In quiet driving, everything is in order, even if the suspension seems firm and the braking weak, as on the cars of this epic era. The 323i also has the huge advantage of low fuel consumption: 8.0 l/100 km if driving normally.

The youngtimer alternative

BMW 3 Series E36 (1990 – 2000)

Appeared in 1990, the BMW 3 Series E36 surprised by its line... and its finish in sharp decline!
Appeared in 1990, the BMW 3 Series E36 surprised by its line… 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 will become a school at BMW. The Series 3 E36 was therefore very surprising when it was released at the end of 1990, seduced by its immense driving pleasure, especially in the 325i, whose 6-in-line 2.5 l 24 valves develops 192 hp. But it also disappoints with its almost junk finish.

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

The BMW 3 Series E21 was partially discovered thanks to the bodybuilder Baur.
The BMW 3 Series E21 was partially discovered 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)
  • Transmission: 4 or 5 manual or 3 automatic gearbox, propulsion
  • Power: 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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