The Forgotten 3

Though often overlooked by enthusiasts, the 1977-’83 E21 3 Series played an important role in BMW’s history by bridging the gap between the legendary 2002 and versatile E30. It’s time to take a fresh look at this under-appreciated classic

June 1, 2011
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Like anything that follows in the footsteps of greatness, the E21 3 Series has lived in the shadows of its 2002 predecessor for decades. The ’02 not only helped save BMW from financial ruin, it also captured the imagination of the car-buying public unlike any BMW before…or arguably since. The E21 3 Series, by comparison, was merely another competent sport sedan from Bavaria, something the automotive world had grown accustomed to by the mid-1970s.

To make matters worse, the E21 was developed during the darkest era of the modern automobile: Just as the OPEC oil embargo of 1973 sparked a sudden demand for improved fuel economy, any new vehicle sold in America also had to meet much stricter safety and emissions regulations. That added weight and complexity, both of which had a correspondingly negative impact on fuel consumption.

The net result was that almost every new car introduced during the Ford and Carter administrations performed worse than its immediate predecessor. Weight went up, horsepower went down and performance paid the biggest price. Although the E21’s engineers made a valiant attempt to conform to the new regulations without diluting too much of the 2002’s spunky character, they met with only moderate success. The E21 was larger, heavier and slower than the ’02 it replaced, and many BMW enthusiasts were understandably disappointed.

That was 1975, however. Thirty-six years later, would hindsight prove more favorable to the E21 than contemporary opinion had been? After all, the original 3 Series was undoubtedly a better sport sedan than anything from BMW’s competitors, all of whom were also turning out larger, heavier and slower machines during the 1970s. Perhaps a fresh look at the E21 would show it as a better car than its lukewarm reputation might suggest.

We decided to track down a representative example of the breed to see how well the model has withstood the test of time. Before we drive it, let’s take a look at the E21’s history and the difficult tasks that faced BMW during its development.

Some things old, some things new

As an evolution of the 1600 first introduced in 1965, the 2002 was long in the tooth by the time its successor was unleashed upon Europe in mid-1975. (Production of some 2002 models, including U.S.-market versions, continued well into 1976.) Positioned below the 5 Series sedan in both size and price, the new E21 platform was given the logical 3 Series designation, and each individual model was named according to its engine size. This followed the convention that had been established with the E12 5 Series a few years earlier, and it would become standard practice across the entire BMW range by the end of the 1970s.

Also from Issue 100

  • Special content for a special issue
  • 1 M Coupe: Driven in NJ!
  • Not for U.S.: the 57-mpg 320d EDE
  • A chat with BMW NA product guru Rich Brekus
  • From 7 cars to 15: How the lineup has grown
  • Joji Nagashima, designer of Z3, E39 & E90
  • How BMW Classic was born
  • A bit of ’30s racing history—with Nazis!
  • World champion John Surtees and his 507
  • Ludvigsen recalls BMW in the ’50s & ’60s
  • Utterly outlandish: the Project Goldfish V16
  • Roy Hopkins' Targa-winning 2002
  • Fat and fast: Vorsteiner/Active M3
  • Bill Auberlen's 25-year career with BMW
  • Latest news from the BMW racing scene
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