Sep 8, 2011

Left For Dead

My brother, Joel, is an avid E21 enthusiast.  It started almost fifteen years ago when we bought our first BMW.  It was a 1979 320i with a three speed automatic.  We split the purchase price of $1475 and shared it for a couple of years before it met its demise at the hands of an inattentive driver in an Isuzu Trooper.  That car cemented the love for the E21 and the BMW brand.  Since that car, there have been numerous BMWs in the family including several grey market (European market) 323i.  Joel is currently in the middle of a complete ground up restoration of his first 323i that he purchased in 2001.  The restoration can be seen here: Joel's 1981 323i Restoration

Last fall, Joel saw a for sale ad on a local low traffic E21 message board offering a 1979 323i for sale.  Out of curiosity, Joel contacted the owner to get a little more information.  It turned out that the car had been in a minor accident and needed some work.  It was a low mile car that had been fairly well modified while still in Germany and it was imported in around 2005.  The price was reasonable, so we decided to take a two hour drive down to Southwest Washington.  We met the seller who turned out to be a pretty nice guy.  He opened up a small garage and revealed the car.


Driver's Rocker

Driver's Rocker

Passenger front Wheel Well Damage

We closely inspected the car and got the complete story on the accident.  Apparently, the owner of the car who had imported it from Germany had let his teenage son take the car out one afternoon.  As he was out driving around, he decided to have a little fun.  He took a corner too fast, lost control and slid the car into a curb striking the passenger side wheels.  The passenger front wheel was driven up and inwards toward the center of the car.  The passenger footwell was pushed upward.  The rear wheel also struck the curb, but with less impact.  The car had been wearing a set of Authentic staggered 15 inch Alpina wheels.  Both passenger side wheels were destroyed.  We could see that the front subframe, strut tube, and rotor had all been damaged.  The end result was a car that had been pushed from the fender/door joint on the passenger side up and toward the driver's side. 

We continued to inspect the rest of the car.  It had a very clean interior including the original comfort seats in perfect condition and a very nice set of Recaros.  The paint was in nice shape and the car had very minor rust considering it was imported so late.  The rust was isolated to the rockers, driver's fender, and some minor rust around the rear windows.  The trunk was full of parts including some brand new OEM door seals.  The grills, bumpers, and all of the other parts that had been removed were still with the car.  The car's original 50,000 mile long block was also there in the garage. 

We also found that the car had been fairly extensively modified.  While in Germany, the car had been given Alpina progressive rate springs, Koni Red struts, and staggered Alpina wheels.  The original M20B23 was removed and replaced with a Euro market 11:1 compression ratio M20 bottom end and an E30 323i 731 head.  A long tube header was also adapted into the stock factory dual exhausts.  The dual exhaust system was also new. 

After the car was imported, it resided in Bellevue, Washington.  We later found out that the car had lived less than a mile from our mother's home at the time.  The car was wrecked sometime around 2007 and later sold to the person Joel bought the car from. 

When we went to see the car, the seller told us that he felt he had "gotten in a little over his head."  We told him we thought it was a great car, but the commitment to repair it would be quite large.  And, the thought of parting it out was a hard pill to swallow.  We left and told him we would give it some thought.  We talked about all of the angles and possibilities on the way home. 

The next day, Joel told me he was making an offer.  I was a little surprised since his tone had been a little different the day before.  Joel had been able to get a hold of the owner who had imported the car and was able to corroborate the seller's story and also gained more information.  Joel told me he felt like he could save the car.  I knew he could, but I wasn't sure that it would make sense in the end. 

The car came home to Joel's house a few days later.  We started inspecting things more carefully and found a few more things that would need to be replaced.  We decided that the first step would be to to get the car running.  It turned out that it didn't take much.  Fresh gas, an oil change, and a battery had it running.  It ran pretty well, actually.  An attempt to take it around the block revealed more problems.  It had a binding caliper and some undiagnosed issues in the passenger rear suspension.  All in all, we felt good that we had it running without too much drama. 

The '79 Arrives

There are a few factors that made Joel's decision to rescue this car a little easier.  First, about a year earlier I found another '79 323i for sale in Montana.  This car had been modified with some great parts and was a really low mile example.  Unfortunately, it had spent many years in Vermont and Montana.  The result was a great car with terminal rust issues.  Even for the most die hard enthusiast, this car was beyond repair.  In fact, I was surprised that it made the drive from Montana to Seattle without a rear shock breaking through the top of the strut tower.  Joel parted this car out and had saved anything of note.  The "Montana Car, " as we so creatively named it, had given its life to save future 323s.  The second factor is our uncle Tim.  Tim is incredibly talented in all aspects of autobody.  He started out working in body shops, then selling products for Dupont, all the way up to managing Dupont's paint operation for Volvo of America's truck factory in Virginia.  Tim has an unending knowledge base of autobody technique and the products that go along with it.  He also has a lot of contacts in the industry.  The third factor is that Joel was already knee deep in the restoration of the '81 323i and has extensive knowledge of the E21. 

Tim helped Joel locate a local frame shop that was capable of straightening this car out.  Tim had talked with the frame shop and had determined this frame guy was the right one for the job.  He was what you would call an "old school" type of guy.  He has been doing this for years.  He had all of the body measurements and had a good understanding of what had happened to the car.  Joel pulled the carpet up to show the frame shop all of the aspects of the damage.  The car spent Twenty hours on the frame rack and, as we had hoped, it came out very well. 

Once the car was straightened out, Joel began replacing the accident damaged components.  The front subframe, passenger strut housing and strut, rotors, calipers, tie rods, control arms, control arm bushings, and sway bar were all replaced.  The complete passenger rear trailing arm was replaced.  The front end bushings and mounts were replaced with bushings from  Jesse, the proprietor, is a fellow E21 enthusiast and E21 owner and he was proud to help Joel get this car back on the road.

The car was beginning to take shape.  The mechanicals of the car were coming around and it looked pretty good.  Joel put the bumpers back on and then reinstalled the grills and lights.  At this point, it was time to apply for a new Washington State Title.  After the accident, the car had been totaled and given a salvage status.  In Washington State, the car must be inspected by the Washing State Patrol before a new title can be issued.  The car was taken for inspection and it passed.  This was a nice step in the process.  Unfortunately, the victory was short lived.  On the trip over to the inspection office, the car was shifted into fifth gear for the first time since it was back on the road.  Once fifth was engaged, it immediately began screaming.  It had a failed or damaged bearing.  The seller had never driven the car, so he wouldn't have known about it.  And, the owner who had imported the car probably didn't drive the car after the accident and may not have known either.  The search was on for a replacement Getrag 245 for an M20.  As you may know, this is not an easy to find transmission.

In the meantime, work continued on the body.  Joel cut the rusted areas out of the rockers on both sides of the car.  The inner rockers were sand blasted and treated with rust preventative products.  New metal was welded in, epoxy primed, and painted with a black textured product that matches the factory finish. 

The trunk was cleaned up, next.  There was no significant rust.  Any surface rust was removed and treated and the whole trunk was repainted. 

Cleaned up and Repainted Trunk

The driver's fender was replaced with a new OEM replacement and the front valance was repaired.  The valance had been damaged and bent upward in the accident.  A significant amount of time was spent reshaping the metal to regain the original shape.  It came out so well, it was decided that adding an airdam or spoiler would do the car a disservice. 

Repaired Front Valance

After the fender was replaced, the paintwork needed to be done.  Uncle Tim was called in to make a plan to tackle the paint work.  It was decided that a complete repaint of the car would not be necessary.  This car still has original paint on the roof and trunklid, but it still has life left in it.  The plan was to repaint the front clip and blend it back into the doors.  The challenging part would be getting the color just right.  This is often difficult, especially with a lighter metallic paint.  

Cleaning up After Paint

Joel located a low mile replacement transmission in Rhode Island.  He was able to work out a favorable deal and have it shipped out to Seattle.  It took a while for the transmission to show up and while we waited, we decided to take a look at the engine compartment and engine.  With the old transmission removed, we installed a 13 pound flywheel.  Everything was carefully cleaned up, refreshed, and many components were painted.  An extensive amount of time was spent on the engine compartment and the engine.  I had been suggesting an upgrade to Motronic 1.3.  In a nutshell, that is the upgrade from Bosch K-jet mechanical fuel injection to the electronic fuel injection from a 1991 325i.  The upsides to this upgrade are, reliability, efficiency, and power increase.  The downside is the loss of originality.  Since the motor in the car was already a conglomerate of parts from other cars, we decided to go ahead with it.  We sourced all of the necessary parts and began the process.  This upgrade completely transformed the motor.  It runs much better and the power increase was remarkable.  It is possible that the K-jet was not in optimal running condition which further enhanced the effect of the Motronic upgrade.  Nevertheless, the change for this motor was well worth it.  Send me an email if you would like to see the details on this. 

Work in Progress
Polished Valve Cover

A Tezet Header was installed which replaced the original header of unknown origin.  Tezet is a small German performance part manufacturer.  The header we used is no longer available.  Here is the current E21 323i header from Tezet :  TeZet Header for E21

The replacement transmission finally showed up.  We replaced the input, output, and selector shaft seals and then filled it up with Redline MTL.  It was installed and then the exhaust was refitted to the car. 

At this point, the project had reached a very important stage.  It was time to have the alignment done.  With the frame repair and all of the replacement parts, it was now time to find out if the car's driving geometry was going to continue to suffer from the accident damage.  Joel took the car and had it aligned.  The technician was very knowledgeable and took his time.  The end result was very surprising.  The alignment came out great!  The technician told Joel he was shocked to see how well it came out considering what had happened to it. 

The resurrection of this car was exceeding everyone's expectations.  I had my first chance to drive it after all of the work and modifications.  All I can say is, "Wow!"  This car encapsulates why I love BMW.  The power to weight ratio is perfect.  This car winds up incredibly quickly and has a surprising amount of torque.  The suspension is perfect and the steering is tight and responsive.  After a short five minute drive, I could not wait to for the next chance to get behind the wheel. 

The project's completion coincided with the 2011 5erWest in Gladstone, Oregon.  We decided that we would take the car to the show for it's maiden voyage.  The week before the show, Joel installed a brand new set of 15 inch Alpina knock off wheels and began detailing the interior.  While there were still a few loose ends, the car was looking and running very well.  Here are a few pictures from the event.

I have to admit that I questioned Joel's wisdom in taking on this project.  At several points during the process, I found myself thinking, "how deep are you going to go?"  Now that the car is back on the road, I can say that he had the confidence and the vision to save a great car.  The 323i that we found sitting in a old garage had come full circle.  The end result is a beautiful E21 that is incredibly fun to drive.  The 11:1 eta bottom end, 731 head, header, and motronic 1.3 have created an incredible M20.  A friend and fellow enthusiast who owns several high performance BMWs drove the car at 5erWest.  After getting out of the car, he looked at me and said, "that cannot be an M20!"  It took longer than first thought, probably cost more than estimated, and there were things that had to be addressed that were not seen coming.  In the end, I have to say it was worth it. 

It has been beautiful weather here in Seattle.  I talked to Joel and decided to take the car out for a little drive and brought along my camera.  I took a few pictures.  This is the car as it sits today. 


  1. Hats off! Wonderful work and a pleasure to read. Thanks so much for sharing.

  2. Thanks Eric! Your comments are appreciated.

  3. Joel has done an amazing job with that car & has been an inspiration. Now I'm not sure if I have the fastest roadworthy e21 in the NW anymore, we'll have to find out next time. :)

    Paul, thanks for documenting!

  4. Congratulations!!! I love restoration stories. It's like ABCs Wide World of Sports... agony, drama... in this case, it ends in the THRILL OF VICTORY!