Sorting the E21

In three years, my BMW collection has grown substantially, and it’s a ton of fun to now have a group of cars that span nearly 50 years of BMWs history. I’ve even jumped into the 2002 game, but that will take a bit of work to become a drivable reality. My enthusiasm remains high on that one.

It’s been exciting to see how much love the E21 is getting in recent months – there’s even an E21 chapter of the BMWCCA now. Perhaps as we move forward, the first three will no longer be the forgotten BMW. I suspect that ever-rising 2002 and E30 prices also have something to do with this as well. The E21 may become the starting point for those wanting to jump into classic BMW ownership at a somewhat reasonable price. Maybe dashboards will get more affordable – one can only hope.

We all have our favorite BMWs, and after 40 years, the E21 is still one of my favorites – they say you never forget your first. In a day when riding lawn mowers are nearly 100 horsepower, you might not be excited about this car at first blush, but it only takes a short drive on a country road to appreciate this car.

With a big thanks to Austin Bird at Autobahn Motorsports in Portland, Oregon, my E21 is now pretty sorted. After going through the driveline, replacing all the bushings front and rear, guibo, clutch, along with rebuilding the shifter linkage, the vagueness that plagued this car is gone. Careful attention to alignment and meticulous wheel balancing has made the infamous wheel shimmy this car is known for a thing of the past. It now tracks perfectly. Of course, there are still some trim pieces I’m on the hunt for, but nothing a check to Maximillian Imports won’t fix. And if any of you know where I can get some Hella fog light covers that have the logos affixed upside down, I’d be genuinely grateful. The original owner attached them to the bottom of the front bumper, and honestly, I kinda like them there, especially with the Euro grille and lights.

I’m very lucky to live 10 minutes from nowhere, though we have been cursed with a bit of summer construction traffic, so now I’m about 18 minutes from nowhere. The E21 is ideally suited to Spring, Summer, and Fall driving, which tax neither its cooling system nor lack of current BMW creature comforts. On the contrary, driving around with the window down and sunroof open is sheer joy in this car.

At 30 years old, it was all about acceleration, and it was easy to dismiss the pleasure of driving such a simple car. At 60, pace becomes a cherished luxury, and this is where the E21 excels. Fear not, I’m not becoming a codger, I still love to get the S54 Z3M roadster out for an enjoyable romp, but there is a magic in a moderate pace too.

Nothing makes this more apparent than this morning’s drive through the twisty, tree-lined roads of my nowhere. This fully manual, analog car responds to the smallest inputs with an incredibly delicate touch, going exactly where it’s pointed. While many of us have the urge to modify and upgrade everything (and I won’t call you evil Smurfs for being that way), a car is, in essence, a system, and it’s easy to upset the balance of that system. As it is, the E21 is an exceptional balance of stop, go, and handling, in relatively stock form.

Driving between 30 and about 70, the miles roll by much faster than the speedometer indicates. It’s time to give the cows a morning greeting and get back to work. The ease at which this car carries speed into the corners, mostly shifting back and forth between third and fourth gears is effortless, becoming more telepathic the more I drive. Just as I begin to think, “maybe a six would be nice in this car,” I come back to reality, and am not up to the task – though perhaps a similar treatment to a 323i would be an excellent alternate reality. For now, that’s where my E30s fit in. And at this pace, the M10 responds perfectly.

Driving a sorted E21 down some, gently curved roads in the middle of nowhere is something to be cherished. As I wind up the photos, a fellow pulls up and says, “how much you asking for it?” I tell him, it’s finally done and I’m just enjoying it. As he heads off, we exchange numbers, rolling up the windows in his new 3-series, and he tells me that he’s always wanted an E21. I suspect there are more of you out there than we know.