The First 3, the Follow Through

Interesting | December 16th, 2008 by 11

Munich, 1975, BMW finds itself at an important stage in it’s continued growth as a world-wide auto manufacturer. BMW has occupied it’s famous Vierzylinder (four …

Munich, 1975, BMW finds itself at an important stage in it’s continued growth as a world-wide auto manufacturer. BMW has occupied it’s famous Vierzylinder (four cylinder) headquarters in Munich across from the equally famous Olympiastadion, which hosted the 1972 Olympics three years prior. The Bavarian firm is in the process of phasing out the successful E9 3.0 CS series while phasing in the first generation of the 5 Series and in the process of saying Auf Wiedersehen to the venerable 2002 model, arguably the most influential and important model BMW have ever produced.

bmw 498x373

Due to it’s wide appeal and sporting nature, the 2002 gave BMW it’s reputation for being the “Ultimate Driving Machine” so BMW execs had the difficult task of following through to provide a suitable replacement to it’s already legendary little 2.0 liter. Pulling both from the styling cues of the then already-three-years-old E12 5 Series and evolutionary design cues of the 2002, BMW rolled out it’s very first 3 Series – the E21 in July of 1975.

The E21’s top model at the initial launch was a 320 with a 2.0 4-cylinder engine based on the M10 block. For those not familiar, the M10 block was the same basic 2.0 liter engine that powered the normally aspirated and turbocharged 2002s and went on, as a testament to BMW’s durability, to serve as the base engine for the turbocharged engines of Brabham-BMW’s Formula One program with greats such as Nelson Piquet driving the 1,000+ HP beasts of the early 80’s.

bmw e21

One of the few engines that had as an illustrious racing career as the Ford Cosworth DFV. Not bad for an engine that entered into production in 1962! By 1977 though, BMW had moved the 320i on from the 4 cylinder M10-derived block to the 6 cylinder M20 block.



I digress, the E21 was a significant model, aside from the successor of the 2002 and providing the first 6 cylinder in a 3 Series, in that it brought the driver mounted dash to the Bavarian line-up along with the now typical BMW design of the quad headlamps on the range-topping 320i. The 320i sported a Jetronic fuel-injected engine producing 125 horsepower. In 1979, the 323i was introduced with a new 2.3 liter version of M20 inline-6 block and eventually moved from a 4-speed gearbox to a 5-speed. 


However, while the E21’s sold over 1.3 million units during it’s production cycle, it was also creating further success for BMW in the motorsport realm. The 320 was introduced with a 2.0 liter turbocharged engine and slotted as a replacement by M Division of the 3.0 CSL that was campaigned throughout the early to mid-1970’s. In true BMW Motorsport form, the 320 was a flying success in the 1977 and 1978 seasons at the hands of greats such as Eddie Cheever and Hans Stuck. M Division initially ran the 320 Turbos in the IMSA and the European Touring Car Championship. More importantly, the Formula 2-sourced engine of the 320 became the eventual platform on which BMW Formula One engines of the early 1980’s. 


The most important purpose of the E21 was that it served to set up the huge success that would become the E21’s successor: the E30 3 Series. The E21 helped BMW to solidify it’s position within the United States market and follow through with the success of the 2002 thus ushering in what many feel was the quintessential 3 Series that carried BMW through the mid-1980’s and very early 1990’s.

Andrew Murphy

[Photos: bmwinfo ]

11 responses to “The First 3, the Follow Through”

  1. adood84 says:

    I do believe the 135i has captured some of that old BMW essence and thats why I have ordered one

  2. Javier says:

    and those E9x are big-fat cars that don’t capture that old essence at all :(

  3. Marc says:

    Sweet writeup Andrew! I agree that the current 3er is pretty big. Part of the reason I got a 1er instead of a 3er coupe.

  4. Gragop says:

    @Marc: @Javier: @adood84:

    What’s funny is I agree with all you guys. Back in March I had about 1 month left on my lease for an E46 325Ci. I put down a deposit on an E92 328i then moved it to a 135i when I realized I could snag one of the first ones specced the way I wanted it for a price very close to the 328. I ended up pulling the deposit and buying out my E46 for money reasons and not wanting to buy a car I’d never driven but I wanted the 1er for the smaller car feel that BMW is currently lacking. I like the E90/1/2 models a lot but they’ve become more of a low displacement GT car than a sports car/saloon like they used to be.

    That and the idea of owning a car for 5 to 7 years with the level of electronics on major functions like the engine, gearbox, etc. found in the E9X’s scares me.

  5. Auday says:

    very nice writeup and excellent car for sure. The only thing I don’t like about this car is how fast its body gets rusted but that’s almost the case with all cars in that era, the CS was even worse with it’s Italian build chasses.

    The 1er captures lots of that with its size and personality, but IMO it falls short when you look at the disappointing weight, the 1er is a heavy fat ars car.

  6. adood84 says:


    you got to blame the safety requirements for that/

  7. Gragop says:


    sure can, I think the saying goes “3,000lbs is the new 2,000lbs” in terms of car mass. A Cayman weighs just a hair over 3,000lbs but by comparison a Porsche 914 weighed between 2,000 and 2,200 lbs – which seems unheard of these days.

    You can lay it all on Ralph Nader for the additional weight in modern cars – that and consumer electronics and creature comforts finding their way in – anyone know what the weight differential is on a E90 with idrive versus without?

  8. Auday says:

    I dont think the electronics and comfort features add much, the CSL is only 350 LBs less than the Comp Package loaded M3.

  9. Gragop says:


    350lbs is a lot of weight though. that’s stripping two medium-sized passengers out of an M3…I believe that moves the weight of the E46 M3 somewhere closer to 3,000lbs which is a fairly low weight for that type of car. The rest of the heavy weight in that car keeping it above 3,000lbs is likely the extra safety equipment, though the CSL doesn’t have side impact air bags, does it?

  10. Auday says:

    The CSL has almost nothing on it, with carbon fibre roof, cardboard trunk,….etc, so this 350lb gain is mainly coming of those items, the electric seats is probably the only comfort item that has a significant scontribution to that.
    The CSL is still heavier than the E36 that is fully loaded. Yes the E46 is a bit bigger, but I dont think it’s even that. The 1 series is smaller than the E36 and is more than 400Lb heavier, this is what I dont get.

  11. Gragop says:

    @Auday: I think the turbo engine is pretty heavy, BMW, for some reason, put 6-pot brakes on the 1er, safety equipment added to a new gen. of cars, the electronics for the limited slip diff. etc…those are my guesses.

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