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A Short History of the BMW 320i

BMW 320i cutaway

The BMW 320i was part of the first-generation BMW 3-series (E21), which ran from 1975 to 1981, during which time over 1.3 million cars were made. It was designed to replace the innovative 02 series models with a slightly longer, lower and wider body but keeping the 2-door compact sedan (saloon) body styling, though a Baur convertible was also available.

The 3-series was initially launched with a choice of three four-cylinder M10 engines. The 316 had a 1.6-litre motor developing 89hp, the 318 had a 1.8-litre engine with 98hp and the 320 had a 2-litre engine with 108hp. 

All three were equipped with carburettors, but late in 1975 BMW introduced the 320i, a fuel-injected version of the 2-litre model with a meaty 123hp. 
BMW replaced this engine with a new 2-litre, 6-cylinder M20 motor in 1977 to produce the 320/6, which ran all the way through to 1981, but this carburettor-equipped engine produced no more power (2hp less, in fact) and it took the 2.3-litre 323i’s 141hp to convincingly upstage the 320i.

There was an upgrade to the other four-cylinder models in 1980, and one of the rare occasions when BMW’s naming system (based on series number and engine size) came unstuck. A downgraded version of the 1.8-litre engine replaced the 1.6-litre unit in the 316, and a fuel-injected version was used in the new 318i.

The 1.8-litre motor appeared once more in the US-only 320is, but with 99hp it was a lot less powerful than the ‘proper’ 320i, despite the addition of Recaro sports seats, upgraded suspension, alloy wheels and other trim and equipment goodies.

A short history of the BMW 320i

Like the 02 series before it, the 3-series followed the classic front-engine rear-wheel drive layout and delivered lively handling – the semi-trailing arm rear suspension produced camber changes during cornering and a tendency to snap oversteer.

The cars initially came with a four-speed Getrag gearbox, but this was superseded in 1980 with a five-speed overdrive Getrag ‘box. A three-speed ZF 3 HP-22 automatic gearbox was also available.

There was one further model, the BMW 315 introduced in 1981, but with a modest 1.6-litre 74hp engine, this was a tame and underwhelming reaction to the second oil crisis of 1979 and a long way from the lusty 320i.

So was the 320i the best of the bunch? The 323i brought more power, a smoother 6-cylinder engine and all-round disc brakes rather than the disc/drum setup on the 320i and earlier models, but the 1975 320i surely set the benchmark for the rest – and for generations of sports saloons which followed.