When it comes to classic BMWs, the E21 3 Series loses out on the lion’s share of attention, frequently playing second fiddle to 2002s, E9 coupes, E30s and any other number of admittedly cool classic Bimmers. In the U.S., part of that no doubt has to do with the E21’s relative lack of performance thanks to the added weight of U.S. bumpers and and power robbing smog controls mandated by our government. North American enthusiasts never officially enjoyed performance versions of the first generation of the 3 Series like the 323i, which featured a sweet, revvy little 2.3-liter straight six and clean styling thanks to its small, European spec chrome bumpers. Granted, there are a quite a few grey-market E21s in the U.S., but they’re far rare than the standard issue 320i that was sold here.
Edgar Fabardo started out as an E30 enthusiast, having owned a 1984 325ES coupe and a 1992 325i convertible. While those were fun cars to own, Fabardo admits the model is not exactly rare. Thanks to a tremendously enthusiastic scene and an ardent fan base, E30s of just about every variety are commonplace, particularly in Southern California, where Fabardo lives. “I find E30s very common,” he admits.
When he discovered a group of dedicated fans in the E21 Legion, he knew his next project car was going to be a first generation 3 Series. Through the Legion he met a fellow Philippine native who was moving back to the Philippines. Fabardo ended up buying his project 320i, which wasn’t completed but was an excellent base for a fast, fun BMW.
The 320’s 1.8-liter M10 had been enlarged and upgraded to 2.1-liters of displacement. Built by Top End Performance in North Hollywood, CA the motor is based around a 2.0-liter crankshaft. Stock rods actuate 92-mm JE pistons that provide a compression ratio of 9.8:1, while a custom ground camshaft adds more power and extends the redline. The head has also been ported and polished for better airflow. All told the motor was putting out about 150-hp.
With the help of his friend and mechanic Denmark Pascua, Fabardo went on to finish the project, resulting in the striking looking orange-hued E21 pictured here. Pascua ditched the aging fuel injection of the M10 in favor of more simple and performance oriented deal side-draught Weber carburetors, also sourced from Top End Performance. The change added another 10-hp to the motor.
More importantly than the power though, Fabardo says that his main motivation with the carb conversion was to help the BMW sound, feel and even appear more vintage. We completely agree. The exhaust consists of a Stahl header that feeds into a 2.5-inch Factoryworks exhaust and stainless steel Magnaflow muffler. On the spark end of the equation is an MSD 6AL ignition box. Ensuring that the motor stays cool on hot Southern California days is Ron Davis aluminum radiator paired with a Mishimoto coolant expansion tank and overflow tank.
When it came to the BMWs handling, Fabardo again relied on Top End Performance’s array of performance parts, installing the company’s coilover setup. Utilizing Bilstien Sport shocks and a threaded body, the coilovers allow a range of settings. Urethane bushings and a front strut brace sharpen up chassis feel, and urethane subframe mounts and K-Mac adjustable urethane control bushings and a strut brace do the same at the rear. Larger front and rear swaybars reduce bodyroll. Stopping power has been increased with vented rotors and braided steel brake lines.
Fabardo’s E21 was originally equipped with large and unattractive U.S.-spec bumpers, a look that would never do for what he had in mind. The bumpers were ditched for a super rare BMW Motorsport bumper cover at the front and a Euro-spec bumper at the rear. At the back, the conversion involved chopping off the existing valance and then welding on a European valance to allow installation of the slimmer bumper. Above the bumper is a rubber BMW Motorsport spoiler. “I wanted the car to look like a factory Motorsport car,” says Farbado.
Once some minor rust repair was performed on the body, Fabardo’s painter changed the original silver color to a bright, Persimmon Red hue. The color choice looks particularly great when combined with the black rear spoiler and blacked out window trim.
When it came to selecting the all important wheels for the project and after going through a few design, Fabardo ended up bolting on a set of 15-inch BBS RS alloys. Though they were “in terrible shape” when he acquired them, they have been completely transformed with a good deal of elbow grease. The centers were powdercoated and the bolts rechromed before the wheels were reassembled with polished 15x8-inch and 15x8.5-inch outer lips ordered from Germany. Tires consist of 195/50-15s at the front and 205/50-15 at the back.
Inside the 3 Series are first-generation VW GTI Recaro seats that have been recovered in black leather with contrasting red stitching to echo the exterior color. Fabardo also installed a crack free dash from an earlier E21 and Euro-spec center console that is cleaner thanks to the lack of AC controls. The interior upgrades are rounded out with a MOMO steering wheel and shift knob.
The driving experience that the E21 delivers feels old school in the best way. When we twist the key, the built M10 fires with muted burble that sounds exactly like a lot of the built 2002s we’ve experienced. When we blip the throttle, the Webers snort happily through their open air horns while the exhaust has a gruff, 4-cylinder bark. The BWW zips around corner with a minimum of bodyroll, the ride feeling stiff and somewhat unrefined, particularly in comparison to the later E30 chassis. With a low center of gravity and stiff suspension setup, the E21 is chuckable and predictable.
The larger 2.1-liter has tons of usable torque, but is also and enthusiastic revver. The combination of carbed fuel delivery and the open exhaust makes it feel a vintage racecar, even if it is completely usable on the street. Fabardo's striking take on the E21 is proof positive that the first generation E21 is getting the love and attention is has deserved all these years. Though the model has always had a small cult-like following, there is no doubt it’s appeal is becoming more universal with every passing year.