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Steady Evolution – Lucy Barlow's 1983 BMW E21 316

Words & Photos by Henry Phull

The BMW E21 3 Series has become more and more popular within the modified scene in recent years, and it’s no surprise as to why… Being the ‘baby’ shark nose of the bunch, it’s a lot more affordable and easier to work on, compared to the E28, E24, and E23 of the same era, which are so much bigger and complex. The E21 is more of a back-to-basics package, with the upside of sharing the same charismatic looks of its elders. Today’s feature looks at one of the UK’s cleanest examples… And although it’s been around for a good few years in various guises, we think we’ve captured the car in it’s best form yet. Shot in Slovenia back in 2018, we’re excited to finally take an in-depth look into the build of one of Slam Sanctuary’s long-time friend and supporter, Lucy Barlow.

Lucy has been interested in cars from the get-go - she started her apprenticeship as a mechanic at just 14! Her first car was a MOT-failure Volkswagen Polo 6n2 which was given to her by her aunt, a blessing in disguise, as this really taught Lucy how to maintain and repair a car. This then led to a Polo Mk2f, where she became interested in the modified side of cars. Starting with the standard procedure of lowering it, adding some BBS, then getting involved with trims and paint. However, it’s always been a dream of Lucy’s to own a super clean, show-worthy classic car on air suspension… So that’s what she did! The hunt began a few years go for the project candidate, and decided to look for a BMW E21, which, in retrospect seems like the perfect progression from Polo ownership to the world of BMWs.

After searching on the ’Car & Classic’ website, Lucy soon came across a possible candidate, although it was gold in colour, which she absolutely hated. Luckily, working at bodyshop ‘Kustom Kolors’, head honcho Colin told her it wouldn’t be a problem, and they’d of course repaint it in-house. A deal was done on the E21, and Lucy put it straight through an MOT to find out the true state of the car. Amazingly it only failed on lights and rear brakes, and she noticed an issue with the fuel filter. Once she addressed the niggles, the E21 ran as it should, and with faith in the car restored, she knew it’d be a good base to start a full restoration on.

Working at Kustom Kolors meant that most aspects of the restoration could take place in-house, bar the interior work and engine tuning. This meant she got to do a lot of the work herself, along with the rest of the team at Kustom Kolors. Picking a colour was Lucy’s hardest decision. With a couple of colours in mind (metallic greys, to deep metallic reds, to metallic browns). The grey was too boring, the red would clash with the all-red rear lights she wanted, and the brown was too common, she stated. Colin at Kustom Kolors found a Xirallic Pearl which she initially thought looked too purple, but being a painter, Colin had a gut feeling that it would work, so he sprayed out a test panel to try and change her mind. It’s safe to say she fell in love with it straight away, and the decision was made!

Like any 80’s BMW, Lucy’s E21 needed a fair amount of fabrication work to bring it back to life. Once the car was solid, she decided on some subtle changes for the exterior, including the removal of all locks, extending the height of the stock front spoiler, and turning the rear light clusters completely red for a ‘US spec’ look. To bring the car together, she opted for a set of 15x8.5j BBS RM wheels, with gold centres. These are mounted with 185/45/15 tyres all round, and certainly look at home on the E21.

Inside the cockpit, you’ll notice that it has had the luxury of a full interior re-trim and the addition of Recaro front seats, thanks to the guys at Trim Deluxe. Lucy was a big fan of Harris Tweed, so Trim Deluxe ordered a few samples and one in particular caught her eye straight away. The centres of the seats and door panels were trimmed in this, whilst a darker tweed was sourced for the outers to add some contrast. Then, of course, Lucy added a deep dish Nardi wooden steering wheel. “You just cannot find a more beautiful steering wheel” Lucy says. Would it even be a classic build without one?

Getting the car sitting right was a top priority. Lucy had already decided that she wanted air suspension… “I love that I can air out when I park and drive the car higher so I don’t damage it - I can’t think of anything worse than damaging something I love” she mentions. So, the first job with the suspension overhaul involved a chassis notch, as the E21’s stock sump was sitting too low. Alex Taylor came in and did the welding work… resulting in the engine sitting a little higher and safer from potential damage. The air suspension was built up using a custom front setup - coilovers mounted with custom triple bellow bags, which have an impressive lift capability. The rear uses universal chapman air shocks, and everything is then controlled with an Air Lift 3P management system.

Being a mechanic, Lucy became rather absorbed with the engine and running gear. The original engine was swapped out, and another installed consisting of a large bored E30 318is head (brand new from BMW), which had been skimmed, ported, polished, and all the injector seals blanked ready for carbs. The engine was rebuilt using a Shrick 316 camshaft, valves, and valve springs. Plus, uprated rockers, standard bottom end with baffled sump and an uprated oil pump. You’ll also notice twin 45 Webbers and a custom built 4-branch manifold in the bay. But wait, there’s more… an E30 325i Sport clutch was fitted along with a BMW 2002 lightened & balanced flywheel, Mocal oil filter sandwich plate for Mocal oil cooler, modified dizzy, OBP catch can with K&N filter and magnetic sump bung (supplied by Hack Engineering), Cometic head gasket (as the original had blown), and an ARP head stud kit. The engine was finally set up and dyno’d at 180HP. 

Clearly, Lucy’s E21 has been fully rebuilt from the ground up. This isn’t just an ‘air and wheels’ build, so many hours have been put into creating the complete package. The workmanship is truly outstanding, it’s a credit to Lucy and the OCD she has towards cars. Naturally, the 316 is always evolving, and her “massive wishlist” continues to grow, which we’ve been told includes a 123/BMW-4-R-V dizzy, 16” BBS RS wheels, a Wilwood front & rear brake setup, new exhaust from manifold back (as hers is unbearable on a long drive), an LSD, and possibly a smaller cam. It’s great to see that she hasn’t lost the love for the car, even though she’s owned it for many years. Right now, she’s busy working on her latest purchase, an E46 330ci Sport daily driver, but we’re sure that she’ll be back tinkering with the E21 very soon.

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