300bhp powered retro rocket 1979 BMW 323i 2.9-litre M20 E21
Purchased to be turned into a classic tarmac rally car, this E21 323i was deemed too clean for that purpose and has instead been given a period-correct performance overhaul, and it’s now a snarling 2.9-litre M20-powered retro rocket.
Words: Elizabeth de Latour
Photos: Kade Moir
I wanted a 323i, but finding one wasn’t exactly easy. After six years of searching, I managed to find one listed online on eBay – the problem was it was 3000km away, so I couldn’t inspect it… Based on a few photos, I pulled the trigger.
2.9 M20 E21 CLASSIC PERFECTION
Period Correct With a screaming 2.9 M20 under its bonnet, this gorgeous E21 has undergone a retro modifying transformation.
In our article E21 buying guide showed that the OG 3 Series is something of an under-appreciated classic. Prices have yet to soar like those of the E30, and it just doesn’t get the love it deserves. The E21 looks every bit as iconic as the E30 does, and that sharknose styling is to die for, plus it’s got bags of character and class. We have seen some seriously nice E21 builds, but it’s a car that deserves a lot more admiration. There are people out there who really do admire the first-gen 3 Series, though, people like Aussie David Jaunzems, and his gorgeous build brings out the best in this classic BMW.
This is actually David’s first-ever BMW, but he’s been keen on them for quite some time now. “My interest in BMWs started back in the ’80s when I was in high school. A friend’s parents had an E28 535i five-speed manual, which for that time was an absolute four-door rocket,” he grins. “Over the years, I have almost purchased several E30s, but could never find the right car at the right time,” and we guess that means the E30 just wasn’t the right car for him.
In the end, it was an E21 that David went hunting for, but finding what he wanted proved to be a challenge. “I wanted a 323i, but finding one wasn’t exactly easy. After six years of searching, I managed to find one listed online on eBay – the problem was it was 3000km away, so I couldn’t inspect it,” he says, but after searching for so long, that wasn’t about to stop him. “Based on a few photos, I pulled the trigger and purchased the car sight unseen, then spent almost as much transporting the car as I paid for it,” he laughs.
“With eager anticipation, about a week later, the truck arrived, and the truck driver climbed into the car, and it fired into life. ‘Yes, it runs!’, I thought to myself. Then after what felt like forever, he reversed it down from the truck, mumbling about trying to find reverse! With that, it was time for a lap around the block, and that’s when I realised the car has a dogleg gearbox! A quick drive also confirmed it was a closeratio ’box, with each gear landing in that sweet spot of revs,” grins David. “The seller told me he had purchased it for his wife, but she didn’t like the manual gearbox, and it was no wonder she didn’t like driving it. Looking at the misaligned rear bumper had me wondering how many times she had selected reverse instead of first,” he winces.
However, the car was in decent condition overall. “It had minimal rust, and the original engine was very tired with all the usual K-Jetronic issues,” says Richard. Here’s where the story takes a couple of turns because, you see, there was a reason why Richard had spent so long hunting for an E21 instead of buying an E30 as he’d originally come close to doing. “Funnily enough, I initially purchased it to use as a classic tarmac rally car. I was looking for a pre-1981 car to be in the right class for racing, and I wanted a non-sunroof, six-cylinder car,” Richard tells us. “I also own a 1969 Datsun 1600 (510) race car. I converted the car from a street car to a full tarmac rally competition car, which I use for hill climbs and sprint events,” he says, which explains his intentions with the E21. But, as you can see, things didn’t work out that way.
“When the car arrived, it was so original and complete that it seemed a shame to strip it for racing. The original engine was still running with the original head and no overheating issues, which is very rare in our hot tropical climate,” remarks Richard. “My new vision for the car was to create a modified E21 as it would have been done in period, in the early ’80s. This would include Bilstein suspension with coilovers, Pfeba front lip and a race engine,” and that’s exactly what he’s built, and it’s simply stunning.
The star of the show here is the engine because Richard has stuck with the M20, and we admire his commitment. “Most people choose to engine-swap to a more modern powerplant when they are looking to build a fast E21 or E30. This is a cheap and easy option. I really wanted to stay with a period-correct look for the car, so it had to be triple Webers for me, and with these readily available, they would have been a great upgrade for the time,” he says. “The 2.3- litre engine was removed, and the engine bay was resprayed and simplified. I wasn’t looking for a smoothed, show-car look, rather removing brackets and the poorly-applied factory seam sealer for a cleaner, uncluttered feel,” explains Richard.
“My goal was to achieve 300hp — not an easy task from an M20, so I knew I needed to speak with Rama from RHD (Racing Hardware Developments). Rama put together an incredible 2.9-litre screamer with custom pistons at 12:1 compression and a massive amount of head work with a 304° cam. I topped it off with new Weber 45 DCOEs and a wasted spark ignition system controlled by an Ecumaster classic ECU. This was essential to control the ignition timing carefully due to the high compression!" and with that his M20 masterpiece was complete.
The finished engine uses a 325i block, an M52 head, custom JE pistons, along with a custom 2.5” exhaust system. And it definitely does the business. «The car has not been dyno’d as yet. but my goal was 300hp at the crank. The engine builder has built many of these engines, including one m his E21 race car, which produces 300whp,» so it's safe to say David’s E21 is not short on shove. And while his goal wasn’t to produce a show car engine bay, that doesn’t mean the bay is boring to look at, with the red velocity stacks inspired by those on the mighty M88 engine.
The engine is the centrepiece of this build, while the rest of the car is very subtle, and we’re big fans of that approach. “The only exterior mod is the Pfeba front spoiler. I love the look without the front bumper as it gives it that period racer look,” says Richard, and it definitely enhances the retro styling. And nothing pairs with a classic M quite like a set of 38s.
«When it came to wheels fee the car, there was only ever one choice for me — it had to be the BBS RS. I decided on 16s to assist with good clearance for brakes and suspension. I found a set of 7x16s with original lips in good shape. I left the sevens as is for the front and replaced the rear lips to bring them out to a 9”,” says David, and these classic cross-spokes look so good on the E21. The polished stepped lips and silver centres are perfection, and the gold lettering on the centre caps even ties in with that custom pastel yellow bodywork.
As you can see, this E21 has achieved pretty much the perfect drop, and that comes courtesy of David’s choice of suspension. “I fitted coilovers all-round with Bilstein shocks. This provides great handling and a nice, low, but usable ride height,» he says, and the way he's got the arches just over the sidewalls is a thing of beauty. Finally, there's the interior, and, as with the rest of this build, it’s all about the little touches. “I really wanted to keep the interior as simple and clean as possible,”David explains.
“I thought about some race seats but decided to go for a more classic look as it’s not a track car. The interior has new carpet, a perfect set of early E30 Comfort seats re-dyed to match and a Nardi wooden wheel and shift knob,” and it needs nothing more than that.
It may have taken David a while before he got into a BMW, but he’s very committed to his E21. “I have owned the car for 15 years and really got into it over the last five years,” he tells us, and it’s clear that this is very much a long-term relationship. And it’s also clear which part of the project is his favourite. “It’s without a doubt the engine,” he grins. “The imperfect nature of Webers over more modern EFI creates a real sense of occasion every time I drive the car, with their pops and backfires, and the incredible soundtrack of the long velocity stacks when the throttles are fully open,” he enthuses. His passion and enthusiasm for this E21 are obvious and infectious, and it’s an absolutely glorious build.
There is a little work left to do, as to be expected of any classic project, and while this 3 Series goes very well, it’s in need of a little assistance on the stopping front. “Brakes are definitely next,” says David. “It has factory discs all-round, being the 323i, which are fully rebuilt and stop the car, but a set of big front brakes are next for sure,” and with that, all that will be left to do will be to enjoy everything this E21 has to offer. And while in the UK that would give us a small summer window of opportunity, for David down under, that means he can enjoy driving the wheels off this ferocious retro beast pretty much all year round. And we have no doubt in our mind that’s exactly what he’ll be doing.
The interior features re-dyed E30 Comfort seats, a Nardi steering wheel and a wooden gear knob.
TECHNICAL DATA 1979 BMW 323i 2.9 M20 E21
- ENGINE AND TRANSMISSION: 2.9-litre four-cylinder M20, M52 crank, 325i block, 12.1:1 compression ratio, extensively ported head, 44.5 and 36.5mm valves, JE Pistons custom pistons, 138mm special order rods from MaXpeedingrods, RHD titanium valve spring retainers, Schrick 304° cam and springs, triple 45 Weber carbs, red velocity stacks, custom 2.5” exhaust with dual silencers, Ecumaster Classic engine management. Getrag five-speed close-ratio dogleg sports gearbox
- CHASSIS: 7x16” (front) and 9x16” (rear) BBS RS wheels, coilovers with Bilstein dampers
- EXTERIOR: Custom pastel yellow, Pfeba front lip
- INTERIOR: Early E30 seats re-dyed to match interior, new carpet, Nardi wooden steering wheel, wooden gear knob
I fitted coilovers allround with Bilstein shocks. This provides great handling and a nice, low, but usable ride height
My goal was to achieve 300hp – not an easy task from an M20, so I knew I needed to speak with Rama from RHD (Racing Hardware Developments). Rama put together an incredible 2.9-litre screamer
The BMW M20 has been transformed into a 2.9-litre masterpiece. 16” BBS RSs suit the E21 perfectly.