The small BMW saloon as we know it will change very drastically pretty soon. The 3 Series doesn’t look long for this world, set to be replaced by something inspired by the Neue Klasse concept. Perhaps it will keep the 3 Series name, though whatever happens on that front it’s going to be a very different BMW four-door: electric, futuristic, bristling with autonomous tech and AI assistance. It’s not just BMW, of course, going through this transformation, but we’ve known a 3 Series for so long it’ll take some adjusting to.
Perhaps the last time the small BMW experienced such an overhaul was when the very first 3 Series arrived. And even that probably wasn’t as seismic. The E21 generation replaced the BMW 02s in the mid-70s, with a fresh new look (designed by Paul Bracq), the availability of straight sixes in a small BMW for the first time, and a naming convention that exists to this day. Imagine BMW without a 3 Series - it’s not really BMW at all. The 02 was also a compact saloon, of course, but with the strange Touring body also available and only four cylinder engines, it’s not quite the same thing. The E21 is genesis.
With the last ones having been made at the end of 1983, every single example of the first 3 Series is now more than 40 years old. Which would make them ULEZ exempt, for those feeling brave. Today they’re hard to find; rust was an issue, as was the snap oversteer of the semi-trailing arm rear suspension. Many E21s will have ended up backwards into hard objects at some point. However, the same could be said for E30s, and a lot more of those remain on the roads. Perhaps the fondness for the later car was more entrenched earlier on, securing the future of a few. It feels like E21s have only become properly appreciated more recently, perhaps because it didn’t boast an M3. That’s only a hunch, though.
For this generation, the 323i was the most potent engine option, with 145hp from a 2.3-litre straight six. Doesn’t sound much in the days of a 510hp M3, but an E21 will have only weighed a tonne or so, so it was more than enough in the late 1970s for proper sports saloon performance. An Escort RS2000 only made 110hp, for example. As the flagship, the 323i was deemed the right model for an E21 end-of-the-line special, of which this is one. The 323i LE was introduced right at the end of the production run (this is a 1982 example), was always very rare and as such has been prized by fans over the past 40 years. It’s believed there were only around 170 UK cars, one for each dealer.
The Limited Edition was marked out with the two-tone paint (Ascot Grey Metallic over Graphite Grey), the BBS wheels, a deeper front spoiler and a swankier interior. In traditional BMW fashion, the LE was a modest upgrade over the standard 323. But if you knew, you knew. This one is said to benefit from a limited-slip diff and sports suspension, too. For those that want a raw, old fashioned, unassisted BMW experience, this ought to do it just nicely.
This LE is being sold after 12 years with the current owner; it was subject to an extensive restoration over three years to get it to this condition, and the results really do speak for themselves. This must be as close to flawless as it’s possible to get a 42-year-old car with a six-figure mileage, both inside and out. From engine bay to boot (and perfect toolkit), it’s an absolutely stunning E21.
It says a lot that there are just two 3 Series like this on PH currently, the other being an even rarer Alpina. Compare that to the 28 E30s (not including M3s) for how stark the gap is. Those that want an E21 are going to have to search harder and potentially wait longer than E30 buyers. The values are roughly aligned, however, if still a lot for those who can remember old BMWs basically being given away. This LE is £30k, and there are more expensive E30s before even getting to the S14-engined homologation specials. Plenty are above £20,000, so the best really are going to cost. But the past never looks quite so appealing as when worrying about the future; good job then, the E21 has always been a stunner. Whatever the Neue Klasse becomes, the first 3 Series will always be a gem.
SPECIFICATION | BMW 323i (E21)
Engine: 2,315cc straight-six
Transmission: Five-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 145@5,800rpm
Torque (lb ft): 140@4,500rpm
MPG: 31.5 (an average using figures from e21.net)
Year registered: 1982
Recorded miles: 112,000
Price new: N/A
Yours for: £29,995
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