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

BMW Baur E21: The Original 3-Series Cabriolet

By Doug DeMuro
November 14, 2014

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
9 years ago

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, but sadly, she doesn’t drive any more. Have to put up with a Jeep now.

tom schuch
9 years ago

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
9 years ago

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 converted the Opel Kadett to TC. The Jag XJS was the same idea. The Triumph Stag had bracing too but technically it was a ‘[i]convertible[/i]’ because it had a detachable hard top. The bracing idea had nothing to do with the proposed US roll-over regulations. Cut the top off a car & you need the additional bracing (unless you want to add a ton of extra weight with other reinforcements – e.g. E30 – and it will still wobble, again e.g. E30).

There were lots of others – I’ve seen Jag XJ6’s, BMW E24 6-series, Toyota Celica’s & Vauxhall Cavaliers/Opel Mantas converted in small production runs.

I don’t know why he thinks it looks like it’s wearing a hat – the profile is the same as the saloon. If it’s the colour then the same could be said for any cabriolet/convertible.

I’ve owned an E30 convertible & currently own an E21 320 Baur. Top down, the Baur is the nicer of the two. The E30 may look cooler with the roof down but it’s draughtier, noisier, wobbles more, leaks more, is less practical & only has two options roof up/roof down. Perhaps the author should actually try a Baur before slagging them off.

Nice photos, shame about the facetious comments.

Brian Miller
Brian Miller
9 years ago

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
9 years ago

Thank you, Djordje Sugaris, for the pics of the rare TC4 Baur!! Only 311 ever built!

Tom Schuch
9 years ago

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 the Baur. I don’t mean to single out this particular author, because the opinions and ‘facts’ that he stated are, unfortunately, very commonly held. I will give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he is too young to remember, or perhaps he is older and has simply forgotten a certain period in automotive history in which this rather ungainly Baur design first emerged. There is a REASON that the Baur looks the way it does!

In the late 1960’s and 1970’s there was a strong concern about automobile safety. Ralph Nader had published his famous “Unsafe at any Speed” book about the Corvair, and governments around the world, for the first time, were starting to look seriously at automotive safety. Seat belts became mandatory, for example. Convertibles quickly became a high profile issue because of their perceived danger in a rollover accident. There was talk at the government level (including the United States Government) of banning convertibles altogether! As a direct result of the fear that government might ban convertibles, factory production of convertibles stopped. The last American factory convertible in that period was the 1976 Cadillac Eldorado. Factory tooling was dismantled. With very few exceptions, no automobile manufacturer built any factory convertibles until the crisis passed, in the early to mid-1980s. The only way you could obtain a convertible, again with a few exceptions, was through an aftermarket coach builder, such as American Sunroof Corporation here in the US.

It was during this period of fear and anxiety about the future of the convertible that BMW contracted with Baur, the noted coach builder, founded in 1910 in Stuttgart, to provide a ‘convertible’ for BMW customers who, despite the safety concerns and the potential government ban, wanted a top down automobile.

In the article your author states:
“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.”

That statement is completely backwards. The rather ungainly design of the Baur Top Cabriolet actually follows a universally accepted, and time-honored, engineering concept: form follows function. But since your author has no clue about the function, the form makes no apparent sense to him.
The function drives the form. The ‘function’ is passenger safety in an open top car. How do you provide that safety particularly in a rollover accident? Well, how do race cars do it: they require the installation of a roll cage! Now take another look at the Baur top cabriolet. You are looking at fixed windows with a built-in roll bar: that is a roll cage! Is it strong…. is it safe? You tell me. This a TC2 E30 Baur Top Cabriolet.

I love this pic, btw. 🙂

The explanation for the rather ‘ungainly’, or ‘strange’ design of the Baur Top Cabriolets is that it is a roll cage built into the car to address the safety concerns in a rollover accident, and still provide a ‘top-down convertible’ experience! The Baurs are arguably the safest convertibles in the world!

By the mid-1980s, the crisis had passed. Governments did NOT actually ban convertibles, and automobile manufacturers slowly began to retool and resume factory convertible production. BMW did not present its own convertible until 1986-7, with design help, btw, from Baur.

Once BMW began production of its own ‘true’ convertible, BMW Baur Top Cabriolet production gradually diminished. Your author is correct in that there were 4,595 E21 Top Cabriolets produced. We also know that at least 1 other vehicle was built here in the US by American Sunroof Corporation under Baur license. Baurspotting has located that example in North Carolina, btw.

But he is incorrect on some of his other figures: BMW produced 10,865 E30 TC2s at Stuttgart. That does include the 114 325ix Baurs. An additional 3,000+ TC2 Baurs were produced in South Africa under license to Baur. There were also 311 E36 Baurs built before production completely stopped. That was indeed a 4 door convertible….. NONE of which were ever imported to the US, btw.

In summary, while I applaud the fact that you have featured this very special car—- and the E21 Baur is my favorite—- I hope that you will also post my complete response, which may serve to enlighten your readers to the true significance of this very rare and unusual car. It is an historical artifact of a nearly forgotten period in automotive history when …. convertibles were almost outlawed! Imagine that! 🙂
It looks like some of the pics may not show here. They are worth seeing…. so you can find them on my blog, where I have posted all of this, and more.

Yoav Gilad
9 years ago
Reply to  Tom Schuch

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
9 years ago
Reply to  Tom Schuch

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
9 years ago

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!

Sté Phane
Sté Phane
9 years ago

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 had full soft roofs.

I can only recall Lancia with its Beta Spyder following the system implemented by Baur.

Matthew Lange
Matthew Lange
9 years ago
Reply to  Sté Phane

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

Jamie Bakum
Jamie Bakum
9 years ago

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
9 years ago

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!

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