Pity the poor E21. Despite its distinctive modern styling, the first-generation 3 Series never captured the hearts of American BMW enthusiasts quite like the earlier 2002. Slower and heavier than its predecessor, it suffered mightily from BMW’s inability to meet Federal and California emissions and safety requirements without strangling performance or compromising design.
Things were different in Europe. With emissions testing still on the far horizon—the Euro 1 standard wasn’t introduced until 1993—the E21’s performance was far more exciting. Where the early U.S. cars had just 110 horsepower, 105 in California, the Euro 320i had 125. And where the U.S. cars were encumbered with “diving board” bumpers that added 154 lbs. of curb weight and several inches to Paul Bracq’s elegant body design, the Euro E21 got slim, close-fitting bumpers that complemented the bodywork like trim pieces.
That was bad enough, but U.S. enthusiasts knew they were getting shafted when BMW introduced the 320-6 in 1977. Powered by an all-new M60 six-cylinder that delivered 122 hp and 118 lb-ft, that car was merely a preface for the 323i that arrived in 1978. The last word in E21 performance, its 2.3-liter M60 six put out 143 hp and 140 lb-ft, rocketing the 323i from 0 to 62 mph in just 9.5 seconds and taking it to a top speed of 120 mph. Over here, meanwhile, U.S. 320i drivers had to wait an agonizing 10.8 seconds to reach 60 mph en route to max speed of just 106 mph.
No wonder the 323i became a grey market legend. In that bleak era of early emissions controls, the 323i was The One That Got Away from Stateside BMW enthusiasts.
The forbidden is always alluring, but what were we really missing? We know our 320i was disappointing, but was the 323i really that much better? Performance stats and 0-60 times can only tell us so much, so let’s get behind the wheel of a 1978 323i and see how this thing drives.
A ’70s time capsule
This pristine, low-mileage example is owned by BMW Classic, and it’s basically as good as new. As a time capsule of E21 performance, it provides the perfect platform from which to experience Paul Bracq’s still-stylish sheet metal in its pure, as-designed form as well as the E21’s Spartan but functional interior.
The seats alone are enough to make anyone nostalgic for the ’70s. Pre-obesity epidemic Recaros, they’re super-slim and highly bolstered, covered in grippy velour that looks like cross-hatched corduroy. Supportive and comfortable, they’re better than almost any current BMW seat, and probably lighter, too.
The driver-oriented dashboard and center console are similarly simple. With four gauges—speedo, tach, fuel and water temperature—ahead of the steering wheel and only the most basic HVAC controls alongside, distractions are nonexistent. This 323i doesn’t even have a radio, though it does have a cigarette lighter, which in the ’70s would have been used to light actual cigarettes rather than charge a cell phone.
The interior tells us the 323i was built for driving, pure and simple. So does its engine: With oversquare dimensions of 80 × 76.8mm, the 2,315cc M60 is a revver. Peak horsepower is reached at 6,000 rpm, and torque peaks at a similarly high 4,500 rpm. Compression ratio is 9.5:1, highest of all engines used in the E21 3 Series, and fuel is metered by Bosch K-Jetronic mechanical fuel injection.
The K-Jet gives decent throttle response, but it lags far behind the fully electronic combination of Bosch L-Jetronic and Motronic Digital Motor Electronics that would come along in 1985, when the M60 became the M20 (following BMW’s “rationalization” of its internal engine codes). The earlier engine in this 323i feels a bit crude compared to its evolutionary successor…or even the M30 “big six” of the same era. It’s smooth, yes, and vastly more powerful than any of the M10 fours, but it’s not quite as satisfying as the other BMW sixes we’ve experienced.
And then there’s the handling. It’s easy to dismiss criticism of the E21’s handling as curmudgeonly carping, but its flaws are real. BMW gave the 323i more power than its suspension can manage, and despite stiffer front springs the car still goes into snap oversteer if you get on the gas too enthusiastically while exiting a turn. It’s a quirk of the E21’s rear axle design, which allowed steering angles to exert an unwanted influence on the rear suspension. This hadn’t been the case on the 2002 and it was resolved for the E30, but it makes the E21’s handling decidedly odd.
Whoa, there! Hold that throttle!
The 323i’s propensity for oversteer was recalled in 2005 by Dr. Burkhard Göschel, then BMW’s head of R&D. Introducing the new E90 3 Series with an E21 parked alongside, Göschel disparaged the 323i’s tendency to spin every time it rained, an unusual admission from a BMW board member.
The roads were wet when we drove this 323i, tempering our enthusiasm for the throttle pedal on corner exits. Having driven one at the Performance Center’s test track a few years ago, we were well familiar with its handling oddities, which make it feel like a giant spring that’s suddenly released when driven with too much enthusiasm. It’s fine at 5 or 6/10ths, but you probably don’t want to push it much further without a lot of run-off room, especially when there’s water on the ground.
Simply put, BMW was still a generation away from building a 3 Series that would respond predictably—or, more accurately, predictably well—when pushed. The E21 introduced some important technical features, like power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering on all models and four-wheel disc brakes exclusive to the 323i, but it’s a transitional vehicle and feels like one. Yes, the steering system improves upon the 2002’s worm-and-roller box in ease of use, but it’s lacking in feel thanks to a stratospheric 21.1:1 ratio. (And you thought lack of feel was exclusive to electric power steering!)
Its brakes and seats are standout features, but overall the E21 doesn’t make much of an impression. The Euro-spec 323i is certainly better than the 320i we got here in the U.S., but it’s hard to imagine paying a grey-market premium to own one, then or now. Any well set up 2002 will eat it for lunch, and so will any E30, which retains the same “youngtimer” vibe even though it’s a decade newer.
The E21 spans the gap between the Neue Klasse of the 1960s and the almost-modern E30 of the 1980s, but like moustaches and Members Only jackets, it’s one relic of the ’70s that’s best consigned to history.