Featured: BMW Baur E21: The Original 3-Series Cabriolet

BMW Baur E21: The Original 3-Series Cabriolet

By Doug DeMuro
November 14, 2014
13 comments

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!

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Warren Robilliard
Warren Robilliard

Just sold our 1985 E30 Baur (323i) after 23 years of ownership. It was “plain green” with a dark brown top. Looked so much like an upside-down bush, that our rescued ex racehorse chewed the top……not inexpensive! During the subsequent repair job, it was discovered that the “Baur Boys” had little respect for BMW craftsmanship and had left a bare metal edge where the original coupe roof had been cut away aft of the doors. Not a sniff of paint, but a lot of metal cancer which was well repaired by our local non-BMW mechanics. The wife loved that car,… Read more »

tom schuch

While folks may be somewhat familiar with the BMW Baur design, they may not realize that there were actually quite a few others of similar design over the years, as Mr. Scott has noted above. Baurspotting has collected pics of some of those examples, as well as some ‘variations on the theme’. You can check them out here: http://baurspotting.blogspot.com/p/new-non-bmw-baur-or-baur-type-top.html

Andrew Scott
Andrew Scott

Nice to see an article on the Baur however it’s is full of inaccuracies & the author thinks being flippant is clever. For a start, it’s not a ‘bizarre convertible’, it’s a [i]cabriolet[/i] – the clue is in its name. They are not the same thing. There actually was a full convertible but they are very rare & as you would expect, rather flexible. You [i]can [/i]see over the folded roof. Either the author has never sat in one or he’s very vertically challenged. BMW never built an E21 ‘coupe’ only a saloon & the Baur Top [i]Cabriolet[/i]. Baur also… Read more »

Brian Miller
Brian Miller

Here’s one for sale in Houston
[url=”http://driver-source.ebizautos.com/detail-1978-bmw-320_6-baur_top-used-10954049.html”]Your text to link…[/url]

tom schuch

Thank you, Djordje Sugaris, for the pics of the rare TC4 Baur!! Only 311 ever built!
http://baurspotting.blogspot.com/2014/11/rare-tc4-spotted-in-serbia.html

Tom Schuch

The following post is in response to an article that appeared on the Petrolicious website today. Muchas gracias to our good friend Harry Bonkosky for posting it in Facebook today. Thank you for posting those wonderful pictures of that beautiful example of the E21 Baur, al so know as the Top Cabriolet (TC1). My compliments to Gilles, the owner! Fantastic pics! However, I take strong exception to the content of the article that accompanies those photos: it is filled with errors and misconceptions, which probably derives from a profound misunderstanding of the whole ‘raison d’être’ of the unusual design of… Read more »

Yoav Gilad
Yoav Gilad

Hi Tom,

Indeed, it seemed that convertibles were going to be outlawed in the ’70s and I want to thank you for your comprehensive contribution to the article’s historic value.

Regardless, it does look like it’s wearing a hat 😉 Have a great weekend!

Djordje Sugaris
Djordje Sugaris

Hello Tom,

Your response was a great read! I’d like to contribute with one photo of E36 Baur with German plates, but pictured in Novi Sad, Serbia. The author of the photo runs a blog called autocaffe.net and while you wouldn’t understand much, since it’s in Serbian, believe me that it holds some great reading material 😀 Also, one great E21 Baur is currently being built in Serbia, and it’s almost finished.

Harry Bonkosky
Harry Bonkosky

I have owned one of these for a few years, albeit a 320/6 (2.0 6 Cyl M20 with Solex four barrel carb) and I must say that it is the most fun car I have owned, including about 15 2002s, several E30s and E21s, an E39 and other non-BMW’s. Not everyone likes the styling, but I do!

Winston Wolfe
Winston Wolfe

My turn to add something: highlighting the difference with the 911 targa is fair when comparing contemporary machines. But, the Baur system is the one that can be find on the 911 2.0 targa (called soft window) As for the way the soft roof is stored and the junction within the B-pillars, it was the usual way to built convertible in the 80’s: the Golf Gli, the 205 CTI, euro Ford Escort, Fiat and its Ritmo. The folding system of the soft roof even lasted by Porsche until the 90’s with the 944 and 968 convertible I think…. Although those… Read more »

Matthew Lange
Matthew Lange

The Jaguar XJS-C cabriolet did as well, before Jaguar made it a full convertible.

Jamie Bakum
Jamie Bakum

Love these! – Here’s one in my neighborhood, with Alpina badging on top of it – Poking around online I can’t seem to get a definitive view on whether or not Alpina actually worked on any of these, several sources mention a badge-only update from a French importer, and it’s possible the current owner just threw them on. Either way, it stands out from the crowd.

Djordje Sugaris
Djordje Sugaris

Great find and great photographs!

However, I’d like to add something: “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.”

Baur saw the potential even earlier, with the 02 series, and it looked even funkier!