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.