BMW 3 Series (E21)

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BMW 3 Series
E21 BMW 316.jpg
Manufacturer BMW
Production 1975–1983
1,364,039 built[1]
Assembly West Germany: Munich
Malaysia: Kuching (SMI)[2]
Designer Paul Bracq (1972)
Body and chassis
Class Entry-level luxury car
Body style 2-door compact sedan
2-door convertible
Layout FR layout
Engine 1.5-2.0 L M10 4-cyl
2.0-2.3 L M20 6-cyl
Transmission 3-speed automatic
4-speed manual
5-speed manual
Wheelbase 2,563 mm (100.9 in)
Length 4,355 mm (171.5 in) /
4,508 mm (177 in) with US bumpers
Width 1,610 mm (63.4 in)
Height 1,380 mm (54.3 in)
Predecessor BMW 02 Series
Successor BMW 3 Series (E30)

The BMW E21 is the first generation of the BMW 3 Series compact luxury vehicle and was produced from 1975 to 1983. It was initially available as a 2-door sedan,[3] to replace the 02 Series. At launch, all models used carburetted 4-cylinder engines, however fuel injected models were introduced in late 1975 and 6-cylinder engines were added in 1977. A cabriolet body style - manufactured by Baur - was available from 1978 to 1981.

The E21 was replaced by the E30 3 Series in 1982.


Under the direction of its 51% percent shareholder, Herbert Quandt, BMW decided upon a replacement for their aging 02 Series. Paul Bracq, Director of Design at BMW from 1970 to 1974, is credited with setting the design direction of the E21.

In July 1975, BMW’s Board of Management introduced the 3 Series to the public at the Munich Olympic Stadium.[4]


316 (Europe)
320 model with twin headlights

The frontal view of the new car was dominated by the BMW trademark kidney grille standing out clearly from the radiator cover. The styling of the new car bore a resemblance to the BMW E12 5 Series.

The wedge shape of the two-door model was distinctive, extending all the way to the unusually high rear end. In response to criticism of the tail design, a black plastic trim panel between the tail lights was added.[citation needed] Like many other BMW models, the C-pillar of the E21 features a Hofmeister kink.

The cockpit design of the E21 marked the introduction of a new design concept, with the center console and central dashboard area angled towards the driver. This feature has become part of BMW’s interior design philosophy for many years. As a sign of passive safety, all edges and control elements within the interior were rounded off and padded.


Measuring 4,355 mm (171 in) long, 1,610 mm (63 in) wide, and 1,380 mm (54 in) high, the E21 continued the tradition of the New Class 2-door sedan models. With the wheelbase measuring 2,563 mm (101 in), there was little body overhang in the rear-wheel-drive design. The track measured 1,364 mm (54 in) at the front, and 1,377 mm (54 in) at the rear.

The suspension incorporated rack and pinion steering and MacPherson strut suspension at the front, and semi-trailing arm type independent suspension at the rear. The rear suspension design causes camber changes, which can introduce "snap oversteer" at the handling limits.[5] The power assisted brakes were discs on the front wheels, while the rear wheels had drum brakes (except the 323i model which had discs all round).

Initially, a Getrag four-speed manual was the standard transmission fitment. Five-speed overdrive Getrag gearboxes were fitted as standard in 1980, but close ratio 'sport' gearboxes were available at the car's release as an option. Alternatively, purchasers could opt for the ZF 3 HP-22 three-speed automatic transmission.


BMW 316
Model Years Headlights Engine Power Torque
315 1981-1983 Single 1.6 L M10 carb 55 kW (74 hp)
@5800 rpm
110 N·m (81 lb·ft)
@3200 rpm
316 1975-1980 1.6 L M10 carb 66 kW (89 hp)
@6000 rpm
92 N·m (68 lb·ft)
@4000 rpm
1980-1981 1.8 L M10 carb 66 kW (89 hp)
@5500 rpm
105 N·m (77 lb·ft)
@4000 rpm
318 1975-1980 1.8 L M10 carb 72 kW (97 hp)
@5800 rpm
106 N·m (78 lb·ft)
@4000 rpm
318i 1980-1981 1.8 L M10 injected 77 kW (103 hp)
@5800 rpm
148 N·m (109 lb·ft)
@4500 rpm
320 1975-1983 Twin 2.0 L M10 carb 80 kW (107 hp)
@5800 rpm
157 N·m (116 lb·ft)
@3700 rpm
320i 1975-1977 2.0 L M10 injected 92 kW (123 hp)
@5700 rpm
175 N·m (129 lb·ft)
@4350 rpm
1977-1979 2.0 L M10 injected 81 kW (109 hp)
@5700 rpm
152 N·m (112 lb·ft)
@4000 rpm
1980-1983 1.8 L M10 injected 74 kW (99 hp)
@5800 rpm
135 N·m (100 lb·ft)
@4500 rpm
320is 1980-1981
320/6 1977-1982 2.0 L M20 carb 89 kW (119 hp)
@6000 rpm
160 N·m (120 lb·ft)
@4000 rpm
323i 1977-1981 2.3 L M20 injected 74 kW (99 hp)
@5800 rpm
190 N·m (140 lb·ft)
@4500 rpm


The 315 was the base model for years 1981 to 1983. It accelerates to 100 km/h in 14.8 seconds and has a top speed of 154 km/h (96 mph).[citation needed]


This 316 was the base model for years 1975 to 1981. It accelerates to 100 km/h in 13.8 seconds and has a top speed of 160 km/h (99 mph).[citation needed]

In 1980 the engine size increased to 1.8 litres, however the model remained badged as 316. Acceleration to 100 km/h was reduced to 12.5 seconds and top speed increased to 167 km/h (104 mph).[citation needed]


The 318 was a mid-range model. It accelerates to 100 km/h in 11.9 seconds and has a top speed of 165 km/h (103 mph).[citation needed]


In 1980, the carburetted 318 was replaced by the fuel injected 318i. It accelerates to 100 km/h in 11.5 seconds and has a top speed of 173 km/h (107 mph).[citation needed] In Sweden, the 318i was badged 320i and had twin headlights.


The 318 was a mid-range model, powered by a 2.0 litre engine using a Solex 2-barrel downdraft carburettor. It accelerates to 100 km/h in 11.2 seconds and has a top speed of 170 km/h (106 mph).[citation needed]


The 320i was released in late 1975. It accelerates to 100 km/h in 9.9 seconds and has a top speed of 182 km/h (113 mph).[citation needed]

USA models are fitted with a thermal reactor as a pollution control device. The 2.0 litre USA model (1977-1979) accelerates to 100 km/h in 10.5 seconds and has a top speed of 165 km/h (103 mph).[citation needed] The 1.8 litre USA 320i and 320is models (1980-1983) accelerate to 100 km/h in 11.1 seconds and have a top speed of 169 km/h (105 mph).[citation needed]


M20 six-cylinder engine

The 320/6 replaced the 320i. It uses a six-cylinder engine with a Solex 4-barrel downdraft carburetor. It accelerates to 100 km/h in 10.0 seconds and has a top speed of 180 km/h (112 mph).[citation needed]


The 323i was the top E21 model following its introduction in 1979. It is powered by a 2.3 litre six-cylinder engine using K-Jetronic fuel-injection. It accelerates to 100 km/h in 8.7 seconds and has a top speed of 200 km/h (124 mph).

North American models[edit]

North American 320i (front)
North American 320i (rear)

The E21 was sold in the United States from model years 1977 to 1983 as the 320i and 320is. Six-cylinder models were not sold in Ameria, because the E21 versions of the M20 engine did not meet U.S. emissions regulations at the time.[citation needed]

Due to American regulations, the following changes were required:[6]

  • larger front and rear "diving board" bumper bars
  • sealed beam headlights, larger indicator lights and side reflectors
  • speedometer in miles-per-hour
  • fuel gauge markings changed from litres to "full, ½, reserve"
  • a detuned version of the M10 engine, initially using a thermal reactor to control exhaust emissions[7]
  • in 1980, the engine was downsized from 2.0 L to 1.8 L and the thermal reactor was replaced with a catalytic converter.

Model year changes[edit]

At the E21's release, three models were available: with 316 (1.6-litre), 318 (1.8-litre) and 320 (2.0-litre) versions of the BMW M10 4-cylinder engine. To differentiate between models, the 320 model came with dual headlights, while the 316 and 318 had single headlights.


The fuel-injected 320i was introduced at the end of 1975. It featured the M10 4-cylinder engine with Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection, and a limited slip differential was available as an option.


At the 1977 International Auto Show in Frankfurt, BMW unveiled its new variants of the E21, featuring the new straight-6 M20 engines (which were initially called "M60").

The 4-cylinder 320 model was replaced with the 320/6, featuring a 2.0 litre version of the M20 engine. The new range-topping 323i model was introduced, featuring 2.3 L with 105 kW (141 hp), which gave the 323i a top speed of 200 km/h (124 mph).[8] The braking system was also upgraded, with the 323i featuring disc brakes on all wheels. Options include power steering, a 5-speed close-ratio 'dogleg' sport gearbox, and 25% limited slip differential.


For the 1980 model year, the four-cylinder models were upgraded: the 1.8 L carburetted M10 unit was revised to produce 66 kW (89 hp) and entered the market in the updated 316, while a fuel-injected version of the 1.8 L M10 was introduced in the 318i model (which replaced the carburetted 318 as the mid-range model). This fuel-injected 1.8 L M10 was also sold in Sweden with 320i badging (with a higher level of standard equipment to distinguish it from the 318i), because the 320/6 was never certified for sale there.[9]

The 320is model (USA only) was released in 1980 using a 1.8 litre version of the M10.[10] The "S Package" featured Recaro sport seats, upgraded suspension components that included a rear anti-roll bar and a larger front anti-roll bar, a 5-speed transmission and limited-slip differential, cross-spoke alloy wheels, a larger and more extensive tool kit, a dual operation manual sunroof, an AM/FM Blaupunkt radio with cassette player, fog lights, a 3-spoke leather-wrapped steering wheel and leather shift knob, a front air dam, a "delete" of the alphanumeric 320i markers on the rear trunk lid and a limited color palate of white, silver or black. Just 2,500 320is's were produced. [11]


The economy model 315 was introduced as a reaction to the second "oil crisis" in late 1979. More spartan than the other E21 models, it was the last E21 to be built and produced alongside the early E30 models.

Baur cabriolet[edit]

Baur TopCabriolet

A cabriolet conversion was offered by Karosserie Baur GmbH, based on regular E21 models. The cabriolet conversion was composed of a targa roof and an independent rear soft-top. Production of the Baur TopCabriolet began in 1978, and were sold via the BMW dealership network.

All TopCabriolets included the BMW warranty. A total of 4,595 vehicles were manufactured before production ended in 1981.


The Group 5 version of the BMW 320, introduced in 1977 as a replacement to the already obsolete BMW 3.0 CSL and became nicknamed as the Flying Brick in reference to the blocky bodyshape, was powered by a Formula Two engine that was tuned to 225 kW (306 PS) by BMW Motorsport. The car was developed in only just over 12 weeks, without technical drawings. BMW Motorsport engineers simply carried out the modifications directly, with the car progressively taking its final shape.[12]

Other than the main factory team and McLaren who ran the IMSA operation in the US, the car was notably used by the BMW Junior Team, who had the likes of Manfred Winkelhock, Eddie Cheever, and Marc Surer as drivers. They would help to win the 1977 Deutsche Rennsport Meisterschaft and would later go into Formula One. The 320 won its first race, at Zolder in 1977 with Surer at the wheel.[12]

The car was also used to win the Macau Guia Race in 1981 and 1982.

Further reading[edit]

  • Jeremy Walton (2001). BMW 3-Series Collectors Guide: Generation 1 and 2 including M3. Motor Racing Publications. ISBN 1-899870-55-5. 
  • R.M. Clarke (1990). BMW Series 3 - 4 Cylinder Cars Gold Portfolio. Brooklands Books. ISBN 1-85520-149-6. 


  1. ^ Oswald, Werner (2001). Deutsche Autos 1945–1990, Band 4 1. Auflage. Stuttgart: Motorbuch Verlag. ISBN 3-613-02131-5. 
  2. ^ "BMW Malaysia J-V Formed". 
  3. ^ "BMW E21 3 Series specs". Retrieved 22 January 2017. 
  4. ^ "BMW 3 Series Coupe (E21) - 1975, 1976, 1977, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983". Retrieved 23 January 2017. 
  5. ^ "BMW 3 Series E21 Review". 
  6. ^ "The U.S. E21 320i & 320iS". 
  7. ^ "1977-1983 BMW 320i". Retrieved 21 March 2017. 
  8. ^ "1977 BMW E21 3 Series 323i Specs". 
  9. ^ Kjellström, PeO (1987-02-04). "Klass som kostar" [Class at a cost]. Teknikens Värld (in Swedish). Stockholm, Sweden: Specialtidningsförlaget AB. 39 (4): 76. 
  10. ^ "1980 BMW E21 3 Series 320is (USA) Specs". 
  11. ^ "1977-1983 BMW 320i". 
  12. ^ a b Wright, Cedric, ed. (September 1978). "BMW 320 Racer". CAR (South Africa). Vol. 22 no. 78. Ramsay, Son & Parker (Pty) ltd. p. 78.