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Man Maths: E21 BMW 323i

4 weeks ago

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Andrew Frankel | Ti co-founder


18 May 2024

I so nearly fell for it too. Today I can recall the handsome face with its cold eyes and perpetually smug expression and kick myself for not realising then and there he was nothing more than a superficially plausible chancer; but at the time I only had eyes for his car. And, to be fair to me, I was just 17 and his motor was a brand new E21 BMW 323i. You can see why I might have missed the signs.

This, then, was my mother’s first and last post-divorce boyfriend, a man who did indeed turn out to be a wrong ‘un from head to toe. But, like her, I was totally taken in. With his orange E21 and her pale metallic blue Lancia Beta coupé (at least the bits of it that hadn’t by then turned brown) they made quite a couple.

It had to be the 323i. The E21 was the first compact BMW into which its famous single-cam straight-six engine had been fitted and while, yes, there was a 2-litre version too, why would you bother with that when the full fat, 2315cc, 143bhp variant was available, complete with Bosch mechanical fuel injection? I loved everything about that car, from its looks to its interior with its unimprovable instruments. And the sound of that satin-smooth six. And the fact that all the tests I read suggested the back of the car had even greater influence on its direction of travel than the front. Clearly my mum’s new squeeze was an oppo-addicted driving god.


Except he wasn’t. Three things finally made me see the light. First, he never drove it fast, rarely venturing above 3000rpm, which to me was a total waste of an absolutely cracking engine. Second, he insisted on driving around with the boot chock full of all his stupid golfing stuff plus, if I recall, a couple of sacks of something like gravel or cement, simply to stop the car doing what it did best.

And finally, and you’ll appreciate how much it wounded me to think this man was consorting with my mother, although it was a manual car, it was fitted with the standard transmission, not the optional close-ratio gearbox. Worse, when, somewhat incredulous, I asked him why this might be, there was a sufficient pause before whatever lame excuse was proffered for me to believe he not only didn’t know the option existed and wouldn’t have chosen it even if he had, but also and worst of all, he didn’t even know what a close-ratio ’box was. The fiend.


You’d have thought my memories of him would have poisoned my memories of it for ever more, but apparently not. I’ve wanted one ever since. But they have become increasingly scarce as rot eats away at their bodies and there are hardly any for sale in the UK. Casting about it seems that prices already start at around £20,000 for a usable example and something perhaps the other side of £30,000 for a really nice car. And you might have to get it from Europe and put up with the steering wheel on the left.

But it will always occupy a strange place in my heart, not least because it’s one of very few remotely affordable cars after which I have lusted that I’ve not yet driven. For although I was 17 at the time and fully licensed up, no way was he letting me anywhere near its driving seat. Not that I held that against him too.


So the question is, if I drove one now, would I fall in love with it all over again and not rest until it was mine, or would I conclude it was just a nice old thing for someone else? I have no idea, but I’d like to find out.

As for the boyfriend, the 323i was far too good for him. He soon jacked it in for a 3-litre Ford Capri. Not a manual 3.0S with net headrests like Bodie drove in The Professionals, but a flabby Ghia complete with a three-speed automatic. Told you all you needed to know, really.

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