My First Car: BMW 323i

I vividly remember sitting through double GCSE English classes doodling pictures of a BMW 635 CSi in the back of my book, dreaming. I would wonder how much insurance would be for that much fabled 3.5 litre six for when I became 17 in suburban North London. As I got closer to 17 and after having passed my driving test, I realised, even back then in 1990, what an unrealistic goal this was as a first car. Undeterred, I wanted more than 4 cylinders, rear wheel drive and being something of a geek I also needed mechanical fuel injection and a hemi-chamber.

After considering the E30 BMW 3 series, I soon settled on the older E21 3 series- mesmerised by its aggressive shark nosed elegance. I would spend ages in the library and my parents were pleased. They probably wouldn’t have been so pleased had they gathered that rather than studying I was actually thumbing through back issues (late 1970s) of Motor and Autocar magazine,  sizing the E21 up against its period rivals: the Chevette HS, Dolomite sprints, Escort RS2000s, Alfettas, Golf GTi Mk1s and Saab 99 Turbos. They might as well have not existed as far as I was concerned. After many phone calls, I got an amazing insurance quote for the twin tail piped, 143bhp fuel-injected 323i (£750). I viewed no less than eight examples before settling on ‘MIB’, my Kashmir gold shark. The heady halcyon adventures of my late teens then began.

The car wasn’t all it seemed though: it was an oil burner, as the valve guide oil seals had hardened, and it would roam around with two plumes of smoke trailing behind it. When I smell that smell today, it still takes me back to the early nineties. It had some surface rust too. This car taught me so much, not only technically, but also in terms of being shrewder when buying in the future. It also taught me what oversteer really was. ‘Sideways to Victory’ became my mantra. My hands-on antics changing the cam belt probably contributed to my dexterity in my future career as a professional engineer. Nothing could match the pride I would feel when I would adjust the valve clearances and get that sweet six cylinder as smooth as silk. Sweet memories of hanging out in car parks around Southgate with other car enthusiasts (Escorts RS2000s, Astra GTE Mk1 and Golf GTi Mk1s) may seem sad today but are tempered with satisfying memories of sideways opposite lock mastery.

The car became a constant companion. Girlfriends came and went, some felt threatened by the amount of time I would lavish upon MIB. I felt like Arnold Cunningham in ‘Christine’ sometimes. All through university I planned my engine upgrade to 2.7 litres. I saved holiday money and got hold of a 2.7 litre engine from a 5 series. This became my project engine, which I finally installed while working in my first job as an automotive engine engineer for a British marque in the midlands. I became very associated with the little Beemer, like a double act, Kirk and the Enterprise, Blake and the Liberator, or maybe more accurately, Michael Knight and KITT (especially considering the mullet hair style I used to have when I first bought the car). I bought other cars, an Alfa 75, a Porsche 928, a Pontiac Firebird, but all finally gave way to the E21 BMW again. I moved to Germany, the car deteriorated a lot. However I found a brand new shell in a barn and now have new plans for the re-birth and the next generation of engine mods. Engineers will be engineers…

I’ve owned the car for almost 18 years now. It is now in Holland, getting totally rebuilt with a new shell. It will use Z3 M coupe underpinnings and will soon house my next generation of mods unleashed: 3.1 litres, 8000 rpm capability, my own design of cam shaft (296 degrees) and 6 speed box. When completed MIB will join me here to begin new adventures in the USA.

Comments (102) Join the discussion on the forum

  • Neomagic 19 May 2008

    What a great tale, I wish I still had my first car. What 3.1 are you using?

  • layabout 19 May 2008

    Very cool car,323's were very quick in their day.

  • JaseB 19 May 2008

    I still miss mine, to think I chopped it for a 205, Z3 underpinnings sounds an interesting concept though, good work fella!

  • Marquis_Rex 19 May 2008

    Neomagic said:
    What a great tale, I wish I still had my first car. What 3.1 are you using?
    Thanks! Hi, I intend to stretch the M20 small belt driven six.
    The easy way to do it is to use the crankshaft out of a US M3 (86 mm throw) or even slightly longer (89.6-but dont go for the 91 throw crank from the 330i). You'd have to use an adaptor to go from chain drive back to belt. Then use custom pistons with reduced compression height and/or a spacer cylinder head gasket.You'd also have to machine some clearance. The M20 can also be bored out to 86-87mm (the siamesed block ones)although some are nervous about going to 87mm.
    I'm doing things the difficult way by using Euro M3 crank, which has a totally different crank nose- this is a stronger heat treated crank with bigger con rod journals but has alot of high rev ability

  • Mike Roberts 19 May 2008

    Such a timeless shape.

    My friend had a genuine Hartge 323i turbo in a very light metallic green, even back then in '96ish it was an absolute sleeper, so I've high hopes for yours.

    This thread has now started a lot of discussion in my office with us all wondering how our first car would have evolved? should we have kept them.

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