Sun Burned: 1981 BMW 320i

1981 BMW 320i

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Not too long ago, one of our readers sent in the details of his excellent project-car purchase, a 1979 BMW 320i. This stuck with me, as the older generation of the 3-Series – the E21 – remains largely affordable and readily available if you’re willing to go pick one up or have it shipped in from the West Coast. For a young enthusiast with an eye towards vintage European iron, it’s one of the few examples that can be bought and used without a ton of money. Though this 1981 320i here on craigslist in Chicago may need a new interior and paint, it looks extremely solid and ready to be loved again.

1981 BMW 320i Engine

When I go looking for a new project BMW, the E21 admittedly falls off my radar fairly quickly. It’s not that there’s any particular reason for that, other than there are other examples I’d like to own first. It’s just a matter of priorities, really. But I would like to add one to the fleet someday, especially in European spec, which featured all of the goodies those of us on this side of the Atlantic lust for: a beefier six-cylinder engine, slimmer European bumpers and an optional close-ratio dogleg gearbox and limited-slip differential.

1981 BMW 320i Interior

Since the hotter model stayed overseas, the U.S. made do with some revisions over time to the standard M10 4-cylinder motor which, while not particularly powerful, is extremely durable and battle-tested. Parts, in my opinion, shouldn’t be difficult to find for any overdue maintenance this example needs. What will need attention is the interior, which has clearly seen better days. Fortunately, this gives the next owner a perfect excuse to hunt down a set of the factory Recaro bucket seats for an easy upgrade. The rear cloth seat isn’t pricey to buy, and you should be able to find an enthusiast with one for sale on the excellent E21 Legion Facebook page.

BMW 320i

While there aren’t any overly specific details offered in the listing, I think the seller does a good job of hitting on some important points: no rust, passed emissions, cooling system functioning and matching tires. Although it’s a bummer the A/C is non-functioning (not a surprise), the fact that it hasn’t been hacked to bits is a good sign. Personally, I love the way it looks currently with the faded paint and polished OEM wheels, but you may want something that appears a bit more finished. Would you pick up this vintage 3-Series for a cheap project, or keep looking for one like our reader Russell D found?

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  1. jim s

    this looks like a great daily driver. i would switch the front seats if they are interchangable. get the service up to date, look at the A/C to see if it is a cheep fix. i also think there is more in parts then the asking price. great find

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  2. NickF

    What a great car! My first new car was almost a twin to this. 1982 E21 320i with sunroof, limited slip, in Baltic Blau metallic paint – a no A/C Canadian spec car. Drove it daily for 12 years and 200,000 miles, one major accident (T-boned) and many slaloms. If I could get it home to eastern Canada I’d buy this one right now and start all over. As I recall the warm start was a common problem – related to the extremely high fuel pressure system as I recall (owner can check fuel pump lines for leaks). Also, mine was prone to burning out sealed beam units, always had to carry several spares. The only flaw in the car was the rear oversteer caused by the rear suspension design – it could bite you on freezing roads.

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  3. DolphinMember

    This 320i is attractive in various ways in addition to price, especially the unrusty body, but for all those in Chicago and the midwest who are looking for an unrusty older BMW……..the car is actually located in Tucson, Arizona, so there will be some travel involved.

    That raises the question why it’s listed on the Chicago CL site. I guess the owner is in Chicago, and dealing with a car in one place and an owner with the title who’s far away doesn’t appeal to me. But it could work if everything said it true and the owner is helpful.

    I would be cautious, tho. The ODO doesn’t work and the description hints at high miles (“shifter has a lot of play”; “other assorted mechanical needs”; interior is seriously worn). Nice body, but someone could be into the car for a lot more than it’s worth before they’re done.

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    • Jeff LaveryAuthor

      Weird that it shows up on Chicago’s Craigslist, unless it’s a shrewd seller who knows people in the Midwest will likely salivate at something that looks this clean. Sneaky, but shrewd.

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  4. cory

    I don’t get why these cars are so unloved. they are true bargains in the BMW world. they handle spectacularly well, and are amazingly fun to drive. if the fuel injection acts up, swap out some side draft webers and move on. I have seen many clean examples in the $1-2k range. as said earlier, throw a set of recarros in and drive. I would look for a clean rust free one, the 5 speed is a bonus over the 4. I owned both a 79 and an 80. there were some significant improvements in the 80.

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    • Jeff LaveryAuthor

      I agree w/ you Cory. Unfortunately, it got sandwiched in between two truly great BMWs and then got hit with the smog equipment. A double-whammy, unfortunately, and it just didn’t register high on the desirability list.

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  5. Horse Radish

    Am I the only one who remembers, that the later 320i s had the 1.8liter motor, had less power and were not as good as the early ones ?
    These cars (unfortunately) had/have such low resale value for so long they went through junk yards mostly untouched.
    Don’t get me wrong:I love these, drove a couple of them for a while, but the smog check is what killed them off here (So Cal) and the rust killed them anywhere else.
    I still have about 5 of them stashed between the ‘real’ cars that I have.

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    • DolphinMember

      When the 1.8 engine cars arrived I drove one and enjoyed the way the car handled, but it was a tad anemic compared with the earlier 2.0 cars. Then later on I drove and bought a 325is and decided that it was better than both 320i cars. I enjoyed that car for more than a decade as a DD. I know the 320i has lots of fans but for me it will never come close to the 325is with that sweet straight-six engine.

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  6. RickyM

    I much prefer the European bumpers, with the rear number plate being underneath the rear bumper. Nice cars, and nice find.

    Like 0

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