Words & Photos by Henry Phull
There is no doubt about it, the 3 series has always been BMW’s best selling production car, with the popularity and high volume of sales continuing to this very day. But how did it all start? It was way back when the shareholders in Munich decided it was time to replace the ever-successful 2002. Borrowing features from the then-current E12 5 series, the E21 was born resembling the famous shark nose and dominant kidney grills. As you may have gathered, all of these retro BMW’s have recently become hugely popular within the car community that we tend to focus on, with the E21 holding prime position on most people’s wish lists. It shares the beauty of the bigger 5, 6 and 7 series, yet is more sporty and nimble – always more appealing to the younger generation. With a handful of stunning ‘stanced’ examples in the UK alone, one that stuck out to me in particular was Steven Doe’s 1983 Alpine White 316. I first noticed the car through social media, as you do, when it was bog standard. The fact that the car was white, was what attracted me to it in the first place – owning a white E24 6 series myself. I followed the progress of Steven’s car throughout its transformation, to the beautifully executed show car that it is today.
Having owned the odd Jap car and a couple of Mk4 Golfs, including an R32, Steven had always fancied himself an E21 but he never seemed to come across the right one. He ended up searching for over a year and almost gave up. Good examples of these cars really are like hen’s teeth if you’re not looking to pay silly money.
Out of nowhere, an advert popped up on a classic car website for a white 316. The ad was plainly written and contained no photos whatsoever – the sort of car ad that Steven would normally stay away from, but white was the colour he wanted – so he phoned up the seller who agreed to send over the required photos. The car looked clean… really clean. The next day, he made the trip to view the car, and a deposit was paid. Steven had finally found his E21.
Being a one owner car and still wearing the original paint, not much had to be done to return the shell to its former glory. Typically with cars of this era there were still minor common rust issues though, with the windscreen having to be removed in order to replace the scuttle panel with an OEM repair panel. Other than that, the car has simply had a full detail by Steven’s friend Chris Phillips to bring it back to life and make the paint pop once again.
The 316 is powered by a 1.8 M10 lump, with an upgraded Webber carb. In addition to a full service and replacing the radiator and water pump, Steven wanted to make the baby engine a bit more aggressive, so decided to dispose of the aged exhaust in favour of a full long life stainless system with a centre box delete which completely transformed the car.
The overall plan with the E21 was to make sure it was as low as possible. This meant that Steven had to make the jump to air ride to ensure the 316 was going to lay frame, and of course keep from destroying the underside of the car. With no bolt-on air setup available for the car, Air Lift universal struts were purchased – which luckily included fully adjustable dampening. Laying frame is one thing, but drivability was still high on Steven’s wishlist, so he enlisted the help of Luke Robinson to install and fabricate the air build to the highest possible standard.
After securing a good deal on AccuAir SwitchSpeed management, Steven installed this himself in addition to a VIAIR 444c compressor, Zaetech digital gauge and air tank, before driving the car up to Basingstoke for Luke to work his magic. This wasn’t just a regular bolt-on job… Sleeve style airbags were used for the rear setup, seeing as the rear turrets on E21’s have limited space. The damper bodies were shortened by Luke to achieve the maximum available drop, which were then set up and TIG welded. Custom rear top mounts were fabricated on a CNC plasma cutter to sit perfectly on the dampers and fit directly to the E21’s chassis.
Moving on to the front suspension (which uses a MacPherson setup), Luke had to cut down the original dampers in order to gain a satisfactory drop. More work included fabricating custom adaptor bushes on the lathe, and the Air Lift universal sleeves were then welded to these with the utmost precision. Although all this work did get the car low, it wasn’t low enough for their liking. Steven ended up purchasing a brand new front subframe from BMW which Luke custom notched and installed on the car. It was finally laying frame.
To compliment the drop, a decision had to be made on wheels, probably the most difficult task for all car owners. Steven originally had his mind set on Hartge 3pc splits, but sourcing a set of 16″ examples was near on impossible. He then came across CCW’s D110. This wheel shared the same characteristics of the classic Hartge spokes, but the CCW’s were available to order brand new with custom specs to suit the car. With help from his good friend Jonathan Dehate who worked for CCW at the time, they spec’d up the wheels and opted for 16×8.5’s up front and 16×9’s at the rear, which were then were mated to 205/40 tyres all round. The outcome is visually stunning, and so different to any shark nose BMW that I’ve come across which makes Steven’s so unique.
To complete his vision, Steven sourced a pair of Ford Fiesta RS Turbo front Recaro’s which were mounted to custom frames. These were then given to Joe at Trim Deluxe to be retrimmed with tweed centres, along with a tweed parcel shelf and floor mats, plus boot panels to match. The dated BMW steering wheel was binned and replaced with a classic Nardi wheel (with Momo boss), with a Nardi gear knob to set it off.
The boot build compliments the E21’s overall simplistic nature beautifully, with the retrimmed floor panels used to hide away the VIAIR compressor and excess cabling. All that remains visible is the 3 gallon seamless tank finished in white to match the car, with an appealing 200psi liquid needle gauge and gorgeous custom hardlines.
So what’s next for the E21? Steven wants to strip down and rebuild the engine, keeping it original, and tidying the bay making it presentable. He’s also considering another set of wheels, but has no plans on ever parting with the CCW’s – he’s grown quite attached to them, not surprising considering they were custom built for his very car.
I’ve seen and experienced my fair share of bagged cars, so it’s always an absolute breath of fresh air when I come across builds such as Steven’s. I think it’s such a shame that there are so many poorly set up air builds out there that have been thrown together and built to get them out the door as quickly possible, it’s the sad truth with too many ‘show cars’ these days. Do it once, and a do it right. After the first few minutes of riding shotgun in the E21, it was hard to believe it is actually on air – it drives and handles so well – Luke did an amazing job with this build and also smashed my major gripe I tend to have with a lot of bagged cars… when they’re not low enough. In my opinion there is no point of being on air if you’re not going to make it as low as possible. Evidently Steven agreed, and took his project that extra mile to get it laying frame. My hat’s off to you, sir.