Buyer Guide: BMW 320i

By Alan Cesar
Aug 28, 2020 | BMW, Buyer's Guide, 320i, Vintage Views | Posted in Buyer's Guides , Vintage Views | From the April 2012 issue | Never miss an article

Between the groundbreaking 2002 and the do-it-all E30-chassis 3 Series lies BMW’s 320i. This shark-nosed compact debuted for the 1976 model year to rave reviews. Contemporary magazines lauded its handling, its transmission, and even its fuel-injected engine.

By today’s standards it’s not extremely quick, but this E21-chassis BMW can boast of being the first car in the famed 3 Series line. It’s also a standout in the Malaise Era, a time when many American offerings were guzzling gas. One more reason to get nostalgic? It was absolutely the vehicle to have if you were a nose-wiping yuppie. 

Like its predecessor, the 320i is light, nimble, and makes good power. The M10 engine is a holdover from the 2002. A mid-cycle update traded out the 2.0-liter for a 1.8—horsepower stayed the same, though torque dropped a bit. A new transmission joined the new engine, however, with five speeds replacing four. 

Other than its driveline update, the 320i was more or less unchanged until production ended in 1983. Only one body was available, too: a two-door coupe.

Its motorsport credentials may be narrow, but they’re significant. McLaren built a turbo version with extreme aerodynamics and a propensity to shoot 4-foot flames from the tailpipe. David Hobbs piloted that car to strong successes in IMSA competition. Another version of that turbo engine would power Nelson Piquet’s Brabham BT52 Formula 1 car in the 1983 season.

Today, the 320i is somewhat of a strange bird in the compact BMW family—kind of like the Porsche 924 of the Bimmer world. Though it was a good performer for its time and had excellent looks, it wasn’t the second-coming of the 2002 that enthusiasts expected. Because of this, many examples fell into uncaring or abusive hands when they began to show their age; unmolested versions can be tough to find.

The “i” in its model designation indicates that it’s fitted with a Bosch K-Jetronic Constant Injection System. CIS is a type of mechanical fuel injection from a time before the era of oxygen sensors and electronic controls. Many of the European brands used CIS, but over time it can become problematic and expensive to repair. 

BMW released performance versions of the car, but there are some caveats. The 323i married the 320i body with a sexy inline-six engine, but BMW never imported it to the U.S.

The only hot E21-chassis BMW that America saw was the 320is. Power output remained the same, but the car received a limited-slip differential, stiffer anti-roll bars and Recaro seats. Don’t expect M3 levels of performance, and keep in mind that examples aren’t easy to spot. A 320is doesn’t wear any special badges. 

Why check out a 320i? It’s an inexpensive, underappreciated piece of history from a brand with a huge following. Plus, the styling has aged well.

It may not be the fastest BMW you can buy for the money, but it’s certainly unique. If you want to get into an attractive, sporty, offbeat car, the E21-chassis BMW isn’t a bad place to start.

Shopping and Ownership

Once the BMW 320i became old news, many were unceremoniously trashed and destroyed. Fortunately, a few good cars remain. Figure that a nice driver goes for about $3000. Double that figure for a pristine example, but remember that we’re talking about a groundbreaking machine from a top-tier producer. Who knows, maybe in a few years every self-styled BMW fan will need to have a 320i in their collection.

Rennie Bryant of Redline BMW Performance is something of an E21 enthusiast; he talks in weary, dulcet tones about these cars, perhaps out of disappointment that they’re not highly appreciated. He still happily offers advice for those who are considering one:

The first thing to look for is rust. These cars will rust on the floor pans along the rockers, the bottoms of the doors, and the trunk floor—especially around the spare tire carrier.

Be extremely careful with CIS fuel injection. It’s very temperamental and has issues with old fuel and rust. If you want to keep it original, clean out the fuel tank first thing. 

The easiest solution to all your CIS problems is a retrofit: the BMW 2002’s intake manifold and carburetor fits, and they’ll set you back about $300 to $400. CIS, on the other hand, can cost thousands to repair. Finding a car that’s already been converted is a nice bonus.

Both the 2.0-liter and 1.8-liter engines offer plenty of performance. Install side-draft carburetors, increase the compression, add headers and cams, and you can make a 160-horsepower screamer if you want. 

Cars built through 1980 received four-speed boxes; in 1981, BMW fit a five-speed. The overdrive gear makes highway cruising less of a thrash, cutting the cruising speed by about 500 rpm. And yes, you can swap an earlier transmission for a later one. 

The driveline is durable, but the front suspension tends to shimmy at about 45 to 55 mph. There used to be a lot of fixes on the market to address this, so it’s likely you’ll find a car that has already been upgraded. A urethane washer between the anti-roll bar and lower control arm will do the trick.

The 320i is perfectly suited to daily driver duty. The E21 is light, nimble and quick—though not fast. It weighs in at 2400 pounds, so it becomes a pretty entertaining car if you nudge the engine above 130 horsepower.

The suspension should get the first modifications: Upgrade the springs, shocks, and anti-roll bars. A complete Bilstein kit used to be available; Bavarian Autosport sells a spring kit that includes Bilstein dampers.

Interested in taking it to the track? Consider that most model years have solid front disc brakes. The debut 320i from 1977 is the only one with vented discs, but they’ll swap right over to the later versions. Just take the whole steering knuckle.

Parts are getting hard to find, but the 320i is a pretty easy car to work on if you’re a do-it-yourselfer: no special tools or funky vintage weirdness. You can still get patch panels and fenders for them.

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View comments on the GRM forums
spandak HalfDork
8/28/20 1:08 p.m.

I've always thought these were interesting. Good ones are indeed hard to find though

OldGray320i (Forum Supporter)
OldGray320i (Forum Supporter) Dork
8/28/20 3:36 p.m.

I haven't finished dialing mine in after getting it running a year or so ago, but they're fun as all get out once you sort them a little.

Tips to wake them up:

Hotter coil, good wires, plugs

Electric fan

If you get an 80-83, get the 77-79 air sensor plate, and readjust your mixture

Lighten it - its got HEAVY sound deadening.

If you don't want functional bumper shocks, make brackets and tuck the front bumper.  You can do the rear too, home made brackets save a little weight there. 

Springs and struts (I think only Bilstein is making them) wake up the handling, urethane components make it better still. 

Bimmerforums E21 section is pretty much THE place to get tips and info. 

Buy a running car if you plan to keep K-jet (ask me how I know), but they're fun as hell with a carb, too.

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