Tina | our 1981 BMW 323i E21
The first 3 Series, or E21, was a two-door. Styling was by Paul Bracq, fresh from the first 5 Series, and the two cars had a strong resemblance.
Just as the 5-Series became the definitive executive saloon of the 1970s, the 3-Series did the same in the small performance saloon market – cementing the reputation that had been earned by the 02-Series cars. The 323i in particular became the to beat the moment it first appeared on the market in 1975.
The four-cylinder M10 powered versions weren’t electrifying, but they were quick enough – but more importantly, dependable. However, the (later) six-cylinder 320 and 323i with fuel injection were electrifying, especially in the wet – perhaps a little too much. Build quality was impeccable, and the interior ergonomics were superb, making this a very satisfying car to own. As with most BMWs of this era, corrosion has been a constant factor, meaning survival rate is low – although many 323is ended up doing some inadvertent off-roading.
Rare now, cult following is growing, and prices are on the up.
Suspension was by MacPherson struts at the front and semi-trailing arms at the rear, along with unassisted ZF rack and pinion steering. You got ventilated front discs with rear drums and a servo, but there were rear discs on the quickest 323i.
The first thing strikes you when you get behind the wheel is how the centre console is angled towards you. It gives the car a tight-fitting feel, like a pair of gloves – but the feeling isn’t one of being cramped.
The Achilles’ heel of these small BMWs was always what Motor magazine called “snap oversteer”. It’s nothing to worry about, but the semi-trailing arm rear suspension is subject to sudden camber changes on the limit – if you discover this on a wet road, you could lose the car. It’s not helped by a wooden feel to the steering at high speeds. Otherwise, the handling is little short of admirable for a mid-1970s saloon.
This is the origin. And yes, in some ways it has a charmingly year-zero feel about it. Our E21 is completely restored to original, with some performance upgrades, because why not?