BMW Baur E21: The Original 3-Series Cabriolet
Photography by Rémi Dargegen
It happens every few years, like clockwork. First, they come out with the sedan. Then the wagon. Then the coupe. Then the convertible. Invariably, there’s always a performance version, and occasionally a hatchback.
Except, that isn’t how it always happened. Once, they made one that looked like it was wearing a hat.
I am referring here to the BMW 3 Series, which has been produced consistently since 1975, when it was codenamed “E21.” (Yes, for all you young’uns, there was 3-Series life before the E30.) Back then, there were only two body styles: a coupe, which is what everyone bought. And one of the most bizarre convertibles on the market.
That convertible came courtesy of a Stuttgart-based coachbuilder named Baur, who had a long history with BMW and apparently saw the market for a BMW convertible before BMW did. So the two teamed up to make a convertible 3-Series – with only one little problem. It wasn’t quite a convertible.
You see, Baur had to start its convertible 3-Series by taking an already-built 3-Series coupe and sawing off the roof. As a result, there wasn’t any extra rigidity built into the body or the chassis – since the car was never intended to be a convertible in the first place. So Baur had to engineer this rigidity into the top.
The result of this was a convertible of … unusual … proportions. For one thing, it isn’t a full convertible: the top panel comes off, and only the soft top over the rear window retracts like a typical convertible top. But then there are the pillars. In “roof open” mode, the A-pillar is still in place, of course. But so are the B-pillar, and the C-pillar. And there’s a huge bar connecting the B-pillar on the left side of the car to the one on the right side – even when the top is off.
Speaking of when the top is off, the Baur E21 cars had another unusual aspect: roof storage. Because the regular 3-Series wasn’t built with a rear-hinged trunk to accommodate the folding roof, the convertible soft top just kind of sits on top of the trunk when it’s down. The benefit is that cargo volume is the same as a regular E21 coupe – and Baur drivers swear it doesn’t block their vision. But then they’d probably also swear their car doesn’t look like a regular 3-Series wearing a hat.
The result of all this top engineering is that the Baur E21 isn’t really a convertible – but rather more like BMW’s take on the targa top, which was all the rage back in the ‘70s. But unlike a Porsche 911 Targa, which only had a removable roof panel, a top-down Baur E21 had the roof off and the rear window removed, giving it slightly more of a convertible feel.
And we stress slightly.
In the end, Baur manufactured this unusual 3-Series – officially called the “TopCabriolet,” and referred to in BMW circles as the “TC” – for four years: 1978 to 1981. They made precisely 4,595 units – and while I’ve only ever seen 323i models, they apparently covered all engines: from the frugal 75-horsepower 315 to the raucous 143-horsepower 323i. Needless to say, it was a different time in the land of 3-Series.
Of course, you all know the rest of the story: the TopCabriolet was such a success that BMW decided to make actual convertible versions of subsequent 3-Series models, and everyone lived happily ever after, especially wheel repair guys, because lease-return 3-Series Cabriolets make up 90 percent of their business.
But that isn’t quite the rest of the story. You see, even though there was a factory BMW 3-Series convertible on the E30 body style, it didn’t start out that way. Instead, Baur made another 14,426 E30 3-Series convertibles (including 114 all-wheel drive iX models!), with the unusual targa-ish convertible roof and all the pillars and bracing in place before BMW finally took the reins and did a factory convertible with a normal roof and no extra pillars or bracing.
And here’s the crazy thing: it still didn’t end there! My personal favorite Baur 3-Series is the E36, which was actually a four-door sedan with a folding roof over both front and rear seats. Once again, the sole roof brace joined the B-pillars, meaning that the rear seats enjoyed a limousine-style landaulet look.
Unfortunately, the Baur 3-Series stopped there: there was no E46, no E90, and certainly no F30. But sometimes, it’s nice to remember the classics. Especially the ones wearing a hat.
Thank you to Gilles, from Atelier E21, for letting us photograph his car!