BMW 323i Cabriolet

It was five years ago, in the summer of 1979, that BMW first offered the Baur cabriolet conversion on the 3-series bodyshell. It was an instant success, arguably the most practical of the "affordable" convertible conversions and executed to a typically high standard of Germanic perfection. Although the original 3-series bodyshell has now been superseded by its crisper second generation counterpart, the worth of those original Baur conversions seems to be reflected in their resale value (or, at least, the prices asked!). With no disrespect to BMW, a 1979 3-series saloon amounts now to a fairly run-of-the-mill secondhand proposition, quite modestly priced; but the Baur conversions still tend to reflect the initial price differential they commanded over the saloon versions when they were new.

It was, therefore, with great interest that we recently sampled one of the very latest Baur BMW cabriolets to the most exalted 323i specification, and we are happy to report that the same comments apply in 1984 as they did in 1979, although the level of high detail finish seems even more refined. Judged against some of the excellent recent crop of convertibles emanating from other big manufacturers (such as the Escort 1.6i, the Strada and the Peugeot 104), this BMW is unquestionably expensive. The basic two-door 323i retails at £10,300 inclusive of car tax and VAT, to which £3,153 is immediately added for the cabriolet conversion. Then, of course, you are at liberty to frighten yourself with a quick glance down the dauntingly lengthy list of optional extras from the BMW price list which can add another £2,500 to the overall price if you feel you need them. Our test car was fitted with the stylish alloy wheels (£432), electric windows (£291) and central locking (£154), all of which added up to £14,330 by the time it was ready for delivery to a customer.

The conversion is now officially dubbed the Baur Topcabriolet and the German coachbuilding company has addressed itself to the task of producing a sensibly conceived convertible without compromising unduly in terms of reduced interior space. Having sliced off the top of the two door saloon, the problem of torsional rigidity is handled by means of a very slim, but strong, rollover "cage" which stiffens the passenger compartment in every direction. The result is to provide a cabriolet with fixed side window frames, something which may well be frowned on by the "full convertible" aficionado, but a concept which allows the maximum amount of fresh air motoring combined with the minimum of buffeting and aerodynamic discomfort.

The Baur concept of a four-seater convertible with a rigid roof has been carefully developed from the original 2002 BMW, which looked a little unbalanced, through the early 3-series version whose improved proportions were only spoiled by the heavy roll-bar, to this latest and most elegant cabrio in which the roll-bar is hardly noticeable.

The central detachable roof panel is fixed by means of two secure and quick catches at its leading edge, each released with a straightforward hand grip. Where that central panel joins the rearward cross-bar of the roll-cage, there is a rotating hand wheel by means of which the rear end can either be completely undone, for removal, or raised slightly into what is described in the brochure as the "airing position" which permits a pleasant amount of ventilation without needing to take the panel out completely.

The roof's detachable section itself ls made from a special synthetic material and has been newly developed for the Baur Topcabriolet, enabling it to be lifted easily off for storage on the guide rails in the boot, a neatly thought-out position which is easy to use and hardly reduces the overall luggage carrying capacity. To the rear of the second rollover bar there is a conventional convertible roof section which folds back neatly for storage under its customary push-stud retained weatherproof cover.

I have to confess that, through a combination of laziness and outlandish curiosity, I gave the 323i Topcabriolet the ultimate test of its weatherproof potential. Needing to clean the car prior to its photography for Motor Sport, I concluded that its rigid central frame meant that it wouldn't in any way be vulnerable in a car wash. As I advanced forward through the high-pressure spray I mentally prepared myself for a cascade of water from some seam or other, somehow recalling motoring in conditions of heavy rain in older, less meticulously manufactured convertibles. The result? Absolutely perfect — not one droplet penetrated the passenger compartment, so that's all you need to know on this particular front.

The performance and handling qualities of the 323i remain essentially unchanged from the saloon version, the 2,316 cc, in-line six-cylinder engine delivering a smooth 150 bhp at 5,300 rpm on Bosch L-Jetronic injection and transistorised ignition. A passing word should be expended on the development of this small six-cylinder engine from the Munich manufacturer: when I first drove one in 1978 it was a noisy, clattering, rather uncouth little unit, although the 323i was undeniably quick even then. The engine in the '84 model has made considerable progress in terms of refinement over the past six years and the only trace of harshness begins to assert itself beyond 5,000 rpm under really harsh acceleration.

A five-speed Getrag gearbox is employed, giving a precise enough change but requiring the clutch to be depressed quite a long way to guarantee that the gears will not "graunch" slightly when they are engaged. I found the throttle movement quite acceptable, but colleague D.S.J. thought that it had quite a long, floppy movement and the engine's pick-up isn't really crisp enough at very low speeds to make life in a long traffic jam particularly pleasant. Jenks likes cars that can be eased along at walking pace at tick-over speeds and this the 323i was singularly unable to manage as we edged our seemingly endless way down a nightmare M25 jam between the Dartford Tunnel and Brands Hatch on British Grand Prix Sunday.

The taut and predictable 3-series handling makes this Baur Topcabriolet as at home through the country lanes as cruising on a motorway, but on certain surfaces a curious mixture of roll and pitch develops at between 40 and 50 mph, notably on one particular section of what we thought was particularly smooth road which we frequently traverse. The braking system employs discs all round, ventilated at the front and solid at the rear, and provides firm, reliable retardation on all occasions.

Internally, the BMW trim remains unchanged, the individual front seats being a trifle too soft for our taste: they are not uncomfortable, but I would prefer much firmer support round the base of the spine. Inertia reel seat belts are fitted front and rear, of course, and there is a warning light check panel just above the rear view mirror. During the course of our time with the car this periodically chose to tell us that the brake lights and rear lights were not working — a fact which we disproved by instant examinations on several occasions. The front seats provide a typically wide range of fore and aft adjustments, BMW cars in general (as well as the 323i in particular), consistently producing machines in which the writer's six-foot-plus frame finds itself with room to spare when the driver's seat is pushed back as far as it will go.

The BMW Topcabriolet comes only as a completed car — it is not possible to have the conversion carried out on a secondhand 3-series model. The original Baur convertibles were imported and marketed in Britain by Sytner of Nottingham, the well-known BMW distributor which is currently the outlet for the mouthwatering Alpina range of "bespoke" BMWs, but the current Topcabriolets are imported by BMW (GB) at Bracknell and are incorporated in that company's new car price and specification tables.

It would be difficult to exaggerate the charm exuded by this precision conversion, one of the few convertibles in which one is not aware, when the roof is in place, that it is in fact a convertible! It is also one of the few convertibles which looks as attractive with the top removed as it does when the occupants are fully enclosed.

Of course, whether you think the exclusivity of the Baur Topcabriolet is worth the additional cost depends on how much you worship sunshine and fresh air, particularly the latter if you are motoring in this country. If you cannot afford the 323i, of course, then you can have this conversion carried out on the most modest 316 which, in theory, means that you can have a brand new Topcabriolet on the road for just under £10,000 tax paid. That would be a trifle bland in terms of performance, of course, but you would still enjoy the cachet surrounding this splendid two-door convertible. As I said at the start of this article, I see no less reason to be impressed with the Baur BMW cabriolet than I did in 1979 — truly, a car for the individualist. A.H.