1981 BMW 320iS E21

1981 BMW 320iS E21

Subtle on the outside but with a hidden sporty streak underneath, the E21 320iS is an extremely rare addition to the 3 Series roster, and this Canadian example is as clean as they come.


HIDDEN GEM

Words: Garry Melnyk

Photos: James Kelly


Few people knew how rare this little coupé is. At a glance, the car simply looks like a typical E21 320i from the early ’80s, a model not embraced by some BMW aficionados today. However, the 320iS, officially called the 320i with Sport Package, is a limited- production model of which only some 2500 cars were produced. But the chances of finding one as mint as Greg Sauve’s summer driver will be very slim. 320i models were driven hard by some and modified or simply year-round transportation enduring Canadian winters and hot, dry summers.


1981 BMW 320iS E21

The optional Sport Package was introduced in 1981 for North America and Canada and provided some unique features compared to other 320i models. To keep the cost and weight down, factory air conditioning was deleted. Where the A/C controls would normally be, there was instead a central dash storage area. The suspension was upgraded in the form of a rear anti-roll bar and a stiffer front anti-roll bar. A five-speed transmission and limited-slip differential got the power to the rear wheels. Cross-spoke alloy wheels, a more extensive tool kit, a front air dam, fog lights, a delete of the alphanumeric 320i markers on the rear trunk lid, and a limited colour palette of beige, white, silver or black finished the exterior. Inside, Recaro sport seats were offered along with a dual-operation manual sunroof, an AM/FM Blaupunkt radio with cassette player, a three-spoke leather-wrapped steering wheel and leather shift knob.


1981 BMW 320iS E21 - interior

Greg first saw his coupé in 1985 on the used car lot of a BMW dealership in Calgary, Alberta one evening. This followed a meal where Greg mentioned to friends that he was looking to buy another car, perhaps something fun to drive. One of those friends suggested he check out a little BMW at a long-established BMW dealership. Greg scoffed at the idea, knowing those models were for a buyer with a slightly higher income. Even so, after their meal, Greg, with his friend in tow, went and looked at the car with which he was almost instantly smitten. “I fell madly in love with it,” Greg tells us with a gleam in his eye. A salesman provided some background history, telling him the coupé had been traded in by a gentleman who originally bought it as a graduation gift for his son. But the son struggled to learn the fine art of driving a car with a manual transmission, and as a result, the father traded the car in, and now the lightly used coupé was up for grabs.

Greg negotiated a deal that evening, and the car was his and has remained his ever since. As a person who takes meticulous care of himself and his property, the 320iS remains in wonderful, almost like-new condition.


1981 BMW 320iS E21

Documentation is extensive and includes all receipts for the maintenance the coupé has needed since the mid-’80s, and to help preserve the car, Greg never drove it in winter, keeping it covered in his attached garage. He also detailed the car inside and out, which shows in rust-free body panels on the exterior, on the underside of the door-edge bottoms, as well as the interior of the boot.

While the body of the car looks showroom fresh, look closely, and you’ll see places where Greg touched up little nicks in the paint. But that’s to be expected over 38 years, right? And the paint is original, with a numbers-matching engine and drivetrain. An engine that has never needed major repairs since leaving the factory in the spring of 1982. The door tag indicates manufacture in May of 1982, and the low VIN number or 000084 confirms the 320iS was one of the first out the factory door. Once on the train and later onto the transport ship, the car was eventually offloaded in a Canadian harbour and shipped by rail to western Canada and to a dealer in the city of Calgary within sight of the Rocky Mountains.

Only a few minor changes came to the coupé over the years. Not satisfied with the factory radio, Greg installed a new model Blaupunkt stereo and leather-covered shift knob. A radiator had to be replaced over time, and a minor shunt on a city street resulted in a replacement front bumper. Interestingly, Greg’s coupé doesn’t have the three-spoke wheel; instead, it’s fitted with the normal 320i steering wheel. So, did earlier iS models not have the three-spoke installed for a reason? Perhaps a cost-cutting measure? This would be a question for someone in Munich who worked on the model programme back then. Greg only has one frustration with his car and that is the non- functioning manual sunroof. It stopped working over a year ago. Despite the best efforts of the BMW dealership he bought the car from, an intensive search for replacement cables to make it work has come up dry, but such is life when you own an older car.

Since the 320iS was purchased, Greg’s routine with it has been to enjoy the coupé during the summer on dry, sunny days. In the beginning, it was a daily driver, but working in the insurance industry, he came to the realisation that his special little coupé needed to be preserved and protected. So, a second car was purchased for daily routines, with the 320iS sitting out cold winters in the garage and coming out once the snow was gone in spring. “It has never seen the inside of a car wash,” Greg tells us, with the E21 always washed and waxed by hand. The care he’s put into preserving it certainly shows, and he has nothing but praise for the maintenance provided by a local German car shop, saying they deserve recognition for the advice and reasonable cost of work they’ve done on his little car. Greg also delights in talking about the many trips he’s taken along winding highways in British Columbia: Highway 40, southwest of Calgary, and the scenic Highway 1A to Banff and Canmore. He enjoyed every curve on every smooth piece of road he drove, enthusing: “I had so much fun going into a corner, it would stick like glue!”

Back in the day, the 320i was a popular car for Yuppies throughout North America. The coupés seemed to be everywhere as they offered reasonable performance, were affordable and, yes, trendy. And although not as revered as the legendary 2002, nonetheless, the 320i had a following. Today, they may be considered pedestrian by some, but Greg disagrees. His experience over the years is much more satisfying; “It is the ultimate driving machine,” he says with a smile.

By the time you read this article Greg Sauve’s E21 may be under new ownership, as, with some hesitation, he decided to put the 320iS up for sale last year, but we’re sure that whoever buys this immaculate – and rare – classic will agree that it captures the essence of BMW, and embodies the meaning of the ultimate driving machine.


1981 BMW 320iS E21

The 320iS came without any model number on its boot Quad headlights and a front air dam were standard on the 320iS. The M10 didn’t make any more power, but this model did come with an LSD.

As a person who takes meticulous care of himself and his property, the 320iS remains in wonderful, almost like-new condition

The 320iS came with Recaro sport seats as standard.

Few people knew how rare this little coupé is. At a glance, the car simply looks like a typical E21 320i from the early ’80s… However, the 320iS, officially called the 320i with Sport Package, is a limited- production model

TECHNICAL DATA 1981 BMW 320iS E21

  • ENGINE: 1.8-litre four-cylinder M10B18
  • MAX POWER: 102hp @ 5800rpm
  • MAX TORQUE: 100lb ft @ 4500rpm
  • NUMBER MADE: Approx. 2500
  • YEARS PRODUCED: From 1981
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