1983 BMW 316 E21

1983 BMW 316 E21

The E21 sat in the shadow of the E30 for quite some time, now this classic BMW is getting the attention it deserves – like this lovingly restored 316.

Words: Simon Jackson

Photography: Felix Bluethner Iconized Ltd

1st Class

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Car collectors the world over undoubtedly wish they could go back in time to purchase those classic BMWs that have rocketed in value over recent years. But there’s two schools of thought here. Often it’s those looking to make money – buying low and selling high – who spring to mind when we talk about the increasing value of certain vehicles, but there’s another group to consider, too. When classic BMWs increase in value they often move out of the reach of grass roots enthusiasts, those people on a realistic budget who always lusted after a certain model – a car they planned to buy “one day”, yet sadly they suddenly find that vehicle is now out of their financial reach.

The E21 sat in the shadow of the E30 for quite some time, now this classic BMW is getting the attention it deserves – like this lovingly restored 316.

In recent times the E30 is one such model that has transitioned from being readily available for a song to becoming far more valuable, just like the 2002 before it. Today even “vanilla” E30s are trading hands for pretty strong money and the same process is befalling a car that was often an underdog in the world of classic BMWs – the E21. Arguably undervalued for a long, long time, enthusiasts of all kinds have woken to the charms of the first 3 Series in the past decade and as a result its star is ascending. Values have been creeping up for some time but they are yet to reach eye watering levels, that means perhaps now is the time to buy – before E21 prices move beyond us mere mortals.

1983 BMW 316 E21

Tom Davis-Reason from West Sussex saw the potential of the E21 almost 10-years ago, though his purchase of the car you see here wasn’t exactly planned, as he explained: “Purchasing the E21 was slightly unplanned, it was a result of some evening eBay browsing. I’m a big BMW fan and although it’s hard to choose some of my favourite BMWs are from the 1980s, the E21 has that classic ‘sharknose’ styling. It was the tri-colour M stripes that caught the attention initially with our car as it looked a little bit different, and all the black trims were painted Alpine White. I’ve seen other 1980s BMWs with body coloured trims so I assume that this was a styling choice back in the day.” With an E24 635CSI, E28 M535i and an E30 325i Convertible already in the family at the time he spotted the E21, Tom is, and was, no stranger to classic BMWs.

1983 BMW 316 E21

“Cars have always been my passion, I’ve been around them all my life. Being an engineer, I like to understand how things work, with modern cars being so complex these days there’s always something new to learn. Perhaps in contrast that’s why I like older cars so much – less electronics and more mechanics,” Tom explained. “With my job as an Automotive Test and Development Engineer I’m lucky enough to drive lots of cars from different manufacturers; Audi, Jaguar, Land Rover and even Porsche, Bentley and Aston Martin.

Individually they all have stand-out features, but for me, for the price point, BMW always delivers a more well-rounded product. Perhaps I’m a little biased as I’ve seen first hand the amount of time, effort and attention to detail that goes into developing these cars.”

1983 BMW 316 E21 - engine M10

Tom has owned a string of BMWs, from an E46 to his currently daily drive – a G20 320d M Sport Pro Edition, while his wife drives an F20 118i. Most of the 30-year-old’s family are in the club too, owning everything from classics including an E9 3.0CS, to an E34 and E39 M5, to modern motors like the G20 318d, F10 520d, and an E61 530d.

But back to the car in question today – Tom’s 1983 BMW E21 316. One of the last before E30 production began, the late model 316 has the 1.8-litre 4-cylinder M10 engine with a five-speed manual gearbox.

“I got the car back in 2013 as a good drivable example, but it was by no means perfect,” we’re told. “One of the key selling points at the time was that the car was completely original. It was 30-years old at this point so there were some areas of the car which needed immediate attention. The interior was faded and the fabric had worn through in the typical areas – such as the driver seat bolsters, and the front chrome bumper had a bend in it We sourced a complete replacement interior in the same colour, as well as a set of chrome bumpers for the front and rear. Unfortunately, in the last 10-years, good used parts for the E21 seem harder and harder to find.”

1983 BMW 316 E21 - interior

Initially the car was used every year during the summer months without too much trouble, until in 2019 when it received an MoT failure for a worn steering joint and two areas of corrosion on the front chassis legs.

“At this point the car was starting to look a little tired. The paint was flat with some other areas of rust in all the usual spots, mainly the rear C-pillar corners under the side windows. It also had nearly 40-years of general wear and tear.” Tom said.

“We needed to make a decision – repair the car to get it through the MoT, or take the plunge and set about a more significant restoration. I always liked the fact it was original and I didn’t want to loose the history of the car, but it was at the stage where if it was to last another decade or more something more in-depth was needed.”

The decision was made that the E21 should get the TLC it deserved, so Tom and his wife set about saving for its restoration. Tom began collecting the parts required for said resto, the biggest single component being a replacement bonnet. A day trip to BMW specialist Fritz Bitz provided the solution and within the day Tom was home with a good version, by chance also in Alpine White.

“I also had a wish list for some upgrades and slowly these were ticked off along the way while we were saving up for the bodywork to be completed,” Tom recalled. “The three-spoke sport steering wheel came from an E21 contact on Facebook, the Foha boot spoiler and 15-inch wheels were birthday gifts from my wife, mother and father-in-law. I’m sure she never thought she’d ever be buying those before she met me!”

Eventually the E21 was stripped to a rolling shell and sent to the body shop for all of the rust to be repaired, cutting out all the bad material and welding in all-new metal. It was then repainted in its original Alpine White, including the boot and engine bay, the tri-colour stripes were remade by a local supplier to the exact dimensions of the original ones. “The rebuild process took around six-months to get to where we are now, and I’d say the car is 95 percent there. All the work for this we did ourselves, learning some new skills along the way,” Tom said. “The E21 is a relatively simple car, probably the hardest bit was the glazing, particularly the chrome filler inserts, which was a job my wife and I did together. The original glass cracked when it was removed so a replacement windscreen was sourced from BMW. Everything else was either replaced, cleaned or restored before being fitted back on to the car. The boot spoiler and wheels being the finishing touches. One of the benefits of doing it yourself is that you really get to know the ins and outs of the car.”

One of the few things Tom did change from the car’s original state is to put the aforementioned white trim back to its original black – the right move in our book. Given Tom’s line of work as an automotive engineer it’s no surprise that he was keen to complete as much of the work on the car himself, for anything else outside of his ability he called upon family and friends. So, we wonder if there had been any sticking points during Tom’s E21 journey?

“The car has been pretty reliable during our ownership. The only issue was the carburettor, the original was okay for the first few years but the car became difficult to start and wouldn’t run smoothly,” Tom explained. “It would have been possible to rebuild it, but after some research it was clear that Pierburg 2B4 that it had originally was never the best to start with. We replaced it with a new Weber 32/34 carburettor conversion with manual choke and since then the engine starts and runs well.”

The E21 is largely in all-original specification, with a few modifications, as Tom explains: “Being a 4-cylinder model it would have had single headlamps from the factory, but it has an aftermarket Hella four-lamp conversion, which really lifts the front end appearance,” he explained. “That was already on the car when we bought it, I suspect it has been on the car since new. Other additions include the re-trimmed 3-spoke Sport steering wheel, and that Foha rear boot spoiler from a 323i.

Although the changes are not original to the 316 they are from an E21 so they’re inkeeping with the overall feel of the car. The last upgrade are the 15-inch Alpina wheels, which, although not original, suit the car and help to improve its handling compared to the original 13-inch wheels.” Tom has all the original parts safely stored in his garage to keep the originality with the car. So, it’s clear that in Tom’s eyes the E21 is a true BMW classic, but we wonder what appeals most about owning one over, say, an E30?

“I feel the E21 is a little overlooked when compared to the E30. The rarity is one of the features I like most about it, and it truly fits into the sharknose era which has to be one of the best for BMW,” he said. “It’s less complex than some other models of the same period which makes it much more accessible and manageable to be able to maintain and work on the car myself, for me, apart from driving, that’s one of the most enjoyable aspects of owning a classic car.

“The E21 is more than just a car for us though. It is the perfect partner to be able to immerse yourself in the whole experience; both the enjoyment of driving a classic car, whilst being able to visit new places, meet like-minded people, and have an adventure for the day.”

The E21 has been back on the road in its newly restored condition for only a few months now, but it has already garnered admiring glances and comments from people who really appreciate seeing it. And what of the driving experience provided by the car now?

“There’s a feeling you get from the E21 which newer cars don’t provide. The sound of the carburettor and having to work the manual gearbox really connect you to the car. There is no driver assistance so you’re always more aware that you are fully responsible and you feel like you are actually practicing the art of driving, rather than in my G20 where there is a lot more going on behind the scenes to take all the stress away from the driver. Both cars suit different situations, I will always have a mix of both, old and new,” we’re told.

Tom’s E21 showcases everything that is great about the first 3 Series, and underlines why this model is growing in appeal and value all the time – some might say that now is the time to buy, while you still can. We’ll leave the final words to Tom:

“I had the car valued for insurance purposes earlier in the year, prices for restored cars seem to be close to the E30, I don’t think they are as sought-after as the E30 yet but maybe that time will come – although maybe by then there will be even fewer E21s to choose from,” he explained.

“The car has covered just over 140,000- miles now, but I always believe that mileage doesn’t necessarily define condition, this is a good example of that. Admittedly it has had a lot of work, but hopefully it’s now ready for many more miles of happy motoring.”

“I don’t think they are as sought-after as the E30 yet but maybe that time will come”


  • ENGINE: 1573cc 4-cyl
  • TRANSMISSION: 5-speed manual
  • MAX POWER: 90bhp
  • MAX TORQUE: 90lb ft
  • 0-62MPH: 13-seconds
  • TOP SPEED: 100mph
  • ECONOMY: 24.6 mpg
“We needed to make a decision – repair the car or take the plunge and set about a more significant restoration” 
Article type:
Bob Harper Bob Harper 1 month ago #

Talking of restorations, the E21 in this issue is another car brought back to life by a dedicated BMW enthusiast. For a long time you could pick up a decent E21 for not very much money while it sat in the shadow of the E30, as values of E30s have risen so the E21 has become more popular, and rightly so – the pure lines of the first generation of 3 Series and its ultimate simplicity make it a fabulous first classic car. Read about the rebuild of a lovingly restored 316.

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