Growing up in the Philippines, Edgar Fajardo was exposed to a limited number of car makes.
“There were a lot of Nissans and Mitsubishis, but there weren’t really any BMWs,” he recalls. And since most of those BMWs were of the two-wheeled variety, Fajardo associated the Bavarian brand more with motorcycles than cars.
That all changed when Edgar’s parents transplanted the Fajardo family to Southern California in 1985 in search of greater opportunities and a better life for their children. It didn’t take long for 19-year-old Edgar to notice the relative abundance of cars bearing the blue and white roundel driving around the streets of Los Angeles. Instead of a BMW, however, his first car would be a Volkswagen GTI.
“I loved the performance of that car,”
Eventually, a growing family of his own meant that Fajardo had to move on to something more practical and accommodating. The solution came in the form of a 1994 E34 525i, but it wasn’t long before Fajardo began looking at the E30 3 Series, as well. He ended up owning two: a 1984 325e coupe and a 1992 325i convertible. He modified the coupe with upgraded suspension, wheels and tires, plus a few other modifications, but in the end he wanted something more unusual than the incredibly popular E30.
“I find E30s very common,” Fajardo says.
Indeed they are, thanks to their strong build quality and enduring popularity as a classic BMW. That’s less true of the original 3 Series, the E21 sold here from 1977 to 1983. From the beginning, the first 3 Series was a bit of a letdown to U.S. enthusiasts, who were disappointed with the performance of its smog-strangled powerplant and the appearance of its large, cumbersome bumpers. It wasn’t exactly the Ultimate Driving Machine, and it wasn’t nearly as fun to drive as either its 2002 predecessor or the E30 that succeeded it.
A built engine, old school
That said, its shark-nosed styling by Paul Bracq is more distinctive than Boyke Boyer’s more restrained E30 design. Fajardo preferred the E21’s bodywork to that of the later car, and he became seriously interested when he learned that the 320i can be modified into a very cool and fun BMW. That’s precisely what Fajardo had in mind when he decided to get one of his own about six years ago.
Through the E21 Legion, a group of enthusiasts dedicated to keeping E21s on the road, he met a fellow Philippine native, Jimbo Reverente. Reverente owned a 1981 320i but was moving back to the home country and had to sell it.
“It had a good engine, and my mechanic Denmark Pascua saw the potential in it,” says Fajardo.
The car’s original M10 four-cylinder engine had already been rebuilt by BMW specialists Top End Performance in North Hollywood, California. Top End specializes in high-performance 2002s and E21s, and it rebuilt the engine to displace 2.1 liters instead of the stock 1.8 liters. The original block was fitted with the crankshaft from the 2.0-liter engine in the ’77-79 320i, which had an 80mm stroke where the ’80-83 engine had a 70mm stroke. Next, Top End bored out the cylinders from 89mm to 92mm and fitted custom JE pistons with a 9.8:1 compression ratio. With a ported and polished cylinder head and a custom ground camshaft, the engine puts out about 150 hp; in 1981, a stock 320i had just 101 hp. An MSD 6AL ignition box provides more precise spark, and a Rod Davis aluminum radiator keeps coolant properly chilled, augmented by a Mishimoto expansion tank.
As Top End says, “This is the engine that makes it worthwhile to own an E21 320i.”
As good as it was, Fajardo wanted to go a bit more retro, so he replaced the stock Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection with a pair of side-draft Weber carburetors. It’s a step backwards where technology is concerned, but the engine is more responsive with carburation, and it certainly sounds cooler. Top End says it can add as much as 10 hp.
Replacing fuel injection with carbs isn’t smog-legal in California, and neither is replacing the stock exhaust system with the Stahl header, custom 2.5-inch Factoryworks exhaust and a Magnaflow stainless steel muffler that are also on this car. We won’t ask how Fajardo passed the inspection, and we don’t endorse violating emissions laws. This is, however, almost exclusively a track car, and such modifications are permitted for “off-road” use.
Inspired by Motorsport
Strictly speaking, you’re probably not supposed to remove or replace safety equipment, either, but Fajardo’s U.S.-spec car was equipped with the enormous and ungainly bumpers that marred the E21’s clean lines to satisfy Federal regulations for 5-mph crash resistance.
As the look of the E21 had attracted him to the car in the first place, Fajardo and Pascua fitted the far smaller and more elegant looking Euro bumper at the rear and a slimmer BMW Motorsport front bumper cover. The conversion isn’t as simple as merely unbolting the rear bumper and swapping in the Euro part: The entire valance under the bumper had to be cut off so a proper European-spec valance could be welded in place. As it was being fitted with its sleeker bumpers, the trunk gained a factory BMW Motorsport spoiler.
“I wanted the car to look like a factory Motorsport car,” says Fajardo.
Once the body was slimmed down, the BMW was sent off to be painted. The roof had some light surface rust, but the E21 body was remarkably straight.
Though the car’s original color was Polaris silver, it now wears a striking shade that Fajardo refers to as Persimmon Red. The color looks terrific on the E21, particularly when combined with the crisp black elements provided by the rear spoiler and window trim.
In keeping with the Motorsport theme, Fajardo replaced the stock suspension with Top End’s race-ready coilover conversion, which uses Bilstein Sport shocks under shorter, stiffer springs. Urethane bushings provide a more direct connection between crucial chassis parts than the stock rubber bushings, while larger anti-roll bars front and rear keep the body more level. Front and rear strut tower braces reinforce the chassis between its big, open sections, minimizing twist and improving steering precision.
Braking improvements are harder to achieve given the 320i’s age, so Fajardo stuck with the stock single-piston calipers and fitted vented front rotors in the stock 255mm diameter. Rear brakes are the stock 250mm twin-shoe drums, and hydraulic fluid flows through braided steel brake lines for a firmer pedal feel.
Outboard of the brakes, Fajardo has gone through a couple of different wheel choices, finally arriving at what looks to be a perfect setup. His friend Jesus Vera found a set of period correct 6.0 × 15-inch BBS RS wheels that Fajardo rebuilt and restored to perfection.
“They were in pretty terrible shape when I got them,” he says.
Fajardo disassembled the wheels and sent the centers to be powdercoated in silver while the bolts were rechromed. He ordered a wider set of polished outer lips from Germany, and the rebuilt wheels now measure 8.0 inches wide at the front and 8.5 inches wide at the rear, retaining their 15-inch diameter. Fajardo mounted a quartet of Falken Ziex ZE-912 tires in 195/50-15 front and 205/50-15 rear sizes, resulting in a slightly stretched look.
Fajardo got lucky with his interior when he managed to score a set of first-generation Volkswagen GTI seats that had been recovered in black leather with red stitching. The color combination complements the exterior aesthetics perfectly, and the seats look right at home in the BMW.
Fajardo also found an earlier E21 dashboard in perfect condition as well as a European-spec center console with no air conditioning controls. To simplify the car as much as possible, Fajardo deleted the A/C, heat and even the radio, none of which are needed on the track.
We wouldn’t mind having a bit of heat when we meet with Fajardo on a foggy morning in Long Beach.
Fajardo’s E21 looks stunning, emerging from the heavy mist like a bright orange dart. The E21 body style seems to look better and better as time goes on. When set up like Fajardo’s car, it looks angular and old school, its appearance perfectly spanning the gap between the 2002 and the E30. I’m not surprised to learn that his bright orange-red sensation won SoCal Vintage’s Best E21 award two years in a row, in 2013 to 2014.
“They combined the E21s with the E30s last year, so I didn’t stand a chance of winning again,” chuckles Fajardo.
We fire up the M10 and unleash an aggressive burble at idle that evokes the 2002. Blip the throttle and the intake snort from the Weber carbs further emphasizes the vintage connection.
Actually, the entire driving experience is uncannily similar to the car’s predecessor. The chassis has a similarly bouncy and relatively unrefined ride, especially compared to E30s, which feel compliant even when they’re fitted with stiffer suspensions.
On the plus side, its low center of gravity and stiff suspension setup lets Fajardo’s E21 corner with little to no body roll. The car understeers when pushed hard in tight corners, but it’s easy to exit turns with a bit of oversteer with some vigorous throttle application.
Overall, this 320i is a completely transformed car, with plenty of grip and a nice bit of power. The built 2.1-liter has tons of usable torque, and it also loves to rev. The combination of Weber fuel delivery and an uncorked exhaust gives it the feel of a vintage race car, and I can easily picture myself dicing on a racetrack with Datsuns and Alfa Romeos as I whip the BMW around the deserted streets of Long Beach on this early morning.
Fajardo’s striking E21 is a strong sign that the model is finally getting the respect it deserves as a classic BMW. After being underappreciated for years, the model has suffered quite a bit of attrition, and lots of these cars were junked instead of restored—or were sacrificed to improve 2002s with their five-speed gearboxes, axle parts and interiors. Good ones are hard to find these days, but cars like Fajardo’s orange beauty demonstrate that it’s well worth the effort.