If the alphanumeric "E21" doesn't ring a bell, I don't blame you. The E21 is the unloved and forgotten middle child of early BMW sports sedans. Sandwiched between the iconic 2002 and the legendary E30 the first 3 series is mysteriously absent from the enthusiast scene.
My first encounter with an E21 was a few years ago, during a family vacation to Seattle. My eyes set sight on what looked like a cross between a shark nose 6 series and an E30. Upon further inspection the car in question turned out to be an immaculate E21. They are surprisingly rare to come by, even at large Cars & Coffee events which are filled with E30s and 2002s.
The E21 was the immediate successor of the BMW 2002 and the first BMW to carry the 3 series designation. Released in 1975, the E21 was generally well received by the public. Some prominent design elements were the Hofmeister kink at the base of the C-pillar and a slanted "shark nose". Magazines raved about how enjoyable the E21 is to drive. To appeal to a large audience, BMW offered a plethora of different models ranging from the spartan and economical carbureted 4 cylinder 315 to the sporty and luxurious M20 powered 323i, which could be optioned with things like power steering, a dogleg gearbox and a 25% limited slip differential. For those thrill-seekers who were not satisfied with the 323i's 143 horsepower, there were versions from well-known BMW tuners like Hartge and Alpina which could supply you with an E21 putting down in excess of 240 horsepower. Eventually, in 1984 the E30 superseded the E21 with only the 315 remaining in production as BMW's entry level offering.
Hartge H3 (source: Wikipedia.org)
Alpina B6 (source: Wikipedia.org)
Why does it deserve more love?
Due to its unfortunate position between two enthusiast favorites, the E21 was often overlooked in favor of the simpler 2002 or the more advanced and refined E30. Also, the mechanical fuel injection system suffered from reliability problems. The lack of presence in motorsport may have also played a major role in the disappearance of the E21 from the average enthusiasts radar. Now before you argue that there was in fact a Group 5 version of the E21, there just isn't an exciting rivalry story behind it like there was with the E30 M3 and the 190E Cosworth. Despite this, the E21 revolutionized BMW interior design with the driver facing center console, which has been used on virtually every BMW since. Most likely, the E21 will remain a car for people who want to stand out from the crowd.
BMW E21, the end of an era:
The E21 was the last 3 series not fitted with an onboard service indicator, unlike the E30 which received an LED bargraph plus Inspection, ABS and Oil Service warning lights. This made the E21 very popular with German car magazines like Auto Motor Sport which used it to test the quality of BMW dealerships. A typical test would go something like this: The Auto Motor Sport crew would "break" about ten to twelve things on the E21, then they would go to different BMW dealerships to test how skilled their mechanics were at diagnosing the broken parts. Using a car with an onboard service indicator would not have been a good idea because bringing in a car for service even though no service lights are illuminated would have been suspicious. Also, keep in mind that theses were the eighties, so making the service indicator illuminate wasn't as easy as plugging in your laptop and tapping a few keys.