E21’s in racing


In the 1960’s and early 70’s, BMW cars were very successful both on the track and in rallying. Besides the works teams, we also saw starting tuning companies like Alpina and Schnitzer preparing their own 02’s and CSL’s. In the following years, more tuners emerged that would be seen in the E21 racing scene as well, like Alpina dealership Faltz, Kelleners, Eggenberger and GS-Tuning. By 1975, the CSL’s and 02’s were having a hard time on the track with competitors like Ford and Porsche becoming stronger and stronger.

 1976, development of the big wings and wide arches

Mid 1976 BMW ordered that a new Group 5 racecar was to be developed based on the lighter E21 chassis (compared to the CSL’s that were used previously for the powerful engines). The E21 body was to be combined with the successful, powerful and reliable M12 Formula 2 engine with Kugelfischer mechanical fuel injection which was based on the regular M10 4 cilinder engine. Even though a smaller car was used as a basis, further weight reductions and balance improvements were booked using lighter materials like aluminum in the suspension and fibreglass doors, lids and wings.

M12/7 naturally aspirated Formula 2 engine – click to enlarge

The end result that BMW presented in December 1976 was a racecar that weighed 740 kgs including the driver and 60 litres of fuel, a 50/50 weight distribution and 304 BHP at 9.250 rpm! And BMW Motorsport manager Jochen Neerpasch had more up his sleeve, presenting the successful Formula 3 drivers Eddie Cheever, Marc Surer and Manfred Winkelhock to complete the BMW Junior Team army. He definitely had an eye for talent, these drivers would all end up in Formula 1!

1977, start of the E21 in Group 5

The Faltz team also entered two 320i’s for the soon to start 1977 season driven by Formula 1 drivers Hans Joachim Stück and Ronnie Peterson in the known orange Jägermeiser livery. With the Junior Team youngsters driving very aggressively at times, BMW swapped drivers a couple of times and also introduced David Hobbs as a driver. Bad publicity forced BMW to introduce some Gentlemen drivers and Hobbs, Stück and Peterson were among them. The teams were doing well winning races here and there, but the championship was not within reach.

Hans-Joachim Stück taking the Karoussel at the Nürburgring’s Nordschleife

Junior Eddie Cheever airborn at the Nürburgring

In the meantime, in the US the 320i’s started off being no competition to Porsche’s turbocharged 934 and 935 models and BMW ordered McLaren North America to build a turbocharged version. In April of the 1977 IMSA season the 500 BHP car driven by David Hobbs was among the Porsches! Later that year this car was driven by Hobbs and Peterson in the Mosport 6 hours, accompanied by a 2nd turbocharged car built in Munich. The car was driven by Formula One newcomer Gilles Villeneuve and Eddie Cheever and finished 3rd after two 934’s. When these two Porsches were disqualified for not meeting race class regulations, Villeneuve and Cheever ended up winning the race. Overall though, the turbocharged cars lacked reliability.

The McLaren BMW 320i turbo IMSA racer, also see drawing below

1978, dominating the 2 litre classes

In 1978, the naturally aspirated 320i’s competed both in the German DRM championship and the World Touringcar Championship. Third places overall were the common picture, but the cars absolutely dominated the 2 lire class. BMW produced 28 racecars and most of them were supplied to tuners as kits. But as Porsche was developing just as well, a new step was required. Schnitzer introduced a turbocharged version that was driven by Harald Ertl, getting 380 BHP out of 1427 cc’s. Manfred Winkelhock also started to use this engine when driving for the HAT team. Later that season BMW also built a turbocharged version that was driven by newcomer Markus Höttinger. The shorter stroke of the BMW unit made it more driveable and more powerful, reaching 410 BHP at 9.400 rpm.

H-J Stück in the 560 BHP (!!) Schnitzer 320i turbo. Note the extended rear window for better aerodynamics.

Frenchman Charles Veillard in a replica of Eddie Cheever’s car at the German OGP 2011 on the Ring



In the years that followed, the engines developed steadily and output rose to an astonishing 560 BHP for the 1.4 litre turbocharged engine. The BMW’s got a fair share of wins but were never able to clinch the overall title. BMW Motorsport shifted its attention to the development of the M1 using a six cilinder version of the M12 engine, the larger touring cars and of course Formula 1.

Presentation of the national teams for the 1978 Group 5 Championship in Mugello, Italy – click to enlarge

The BMW 320i Art Car painted by Roy Lichtenstein

The Brabham BMW F1 cars still used that same M12 turbocharged engine in the early 80’s and in 1983 Nelson Piquet won the first ever world title with a turbocharged engine using that engine. By that time, this engine got to 900-1000 BHP during races and at some point even 1.300 BHP from a qualifying version. The 70’s were a good basis for all 80’s successes and that also included becoming the most successful touringcar in racing ever with the 4 cilinder S14 engine in the E30 M3 also being derived from this magnificent M12 engine.

At the end of 1981, the introduction of the Group C class marked the end of the Group 5 era.

Rally E21’s

I might sit down and do a part on rallying at a later stage as well. Just to get a taste, here’s a few nice pictures of the magnificient Belgian Patrick Snijers and a wonderful video of the late Swede Ingvar Carlsson.

Patrick Snijers in the 1982 Ieper Rally in Belgium

Group 2 Champion in the 1982 Belgian Rally Championship

E21’s in Touringcar Championships

Especially in Europe several 323i’s were entered in National and European Touringcar Championships and in endurance races like the Mugello 6 hours and the Spa 24 hours. In the UK they even went one step further with the 1979 and 1980 County Championship: all similar E21 323i’s racing each other as County teams. This is where we saw close racing of young talent like Martin Brundle, Tiff Needell and Nigel Mansell. Below you will find a unique report on the entire 1980 season! Vintage