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Why you’d want a BMW E30 3 Series
Compact rear-wheel drive saloons were in short supply in the 1980s. The E30 harked back to the 1960s and before, to the days of Alfa Giulias, Triumph Vitesses and similar sporting machinery.
Well over two million E30s were made in a huge selection of models: power units ranged from 86bhp diesel to 238bhp M3.
Stress analysis of the structure kept weight to a minimum despite extra equipment over earlier versions, and a five-door Touring joined the two- and four-door saloons, plus two-door dropheads – initially by Baur, and later as a factory convertible.
BMW resisted any temptation to change a winning formula; instead the E30 was refined in almost every detail from the E21. Fuel-injected models used electronics, there was a delightful all-new five-speed transmission, and the E21’s tail-happy handling had been dialled out in favour of a fine ride/handling compromise, while the heating and ventilation were much improved.
Performance enthusiasts were not forgotten, with options on the 323i including a close-ratio ZF ’box, but it was sophistication that shone out when the E30 was tested. Motor commented on the 323i’s‘exceptional blend of refinement, smoothness and responsiveness’ and its ‘high quality feel’.
The driving position ‘fits like a glove’ and the ‘teutonically firm’ seats were surprisingly comfortable; rear seat space was limited but the boot was huge.
A warning-light panel in the roof above the rear-view mirror was one of the few unconventional features. And in case the four-cylinder unit seems like a poor relation, don’t forget that its block formed the basis for the turbo F1 engine in the 1980s!
BMW’s soft-top, unusually for the ’80s featuring an open cockpit to distinguish it from Baur’s Top Cabrio, was stunning with its top disappearing out of sight. Testers’ only criticism was high wind noise when erect. Extra stiffening made it heavier – and some scuttle shake was inevitable with the Sport set-up usually fitted to the 325i – but it was ‘the fastest production four-seater convertible you can buy’ in ’86.
It was exclusive in the UK, with 150 imported in ’86 and 250 in ’87. The Touring arrived in 1988, a true performance estate with limited but useful load capacity that weighed fractionally less than the convertible.
The M3 will be featured in its own buying guide very soon, so it is not included here. The same goes for other models, such as 2.4 diesels and the 320iS, that were only offered in certain markets.
BMW E30 3 Series: what to look for
See above for trouble spots
Regular maintenance is key to long engine life. ‘Sixes’ need a cambelt every 30,000 miles/four years and it’s best to change water pump, too. Otherwise, they can do well over 200,000 miles without problems.
Chain-driven cam on M10 ‘fours’ can be worn by 100,000 miles; belt on less-robust M40s should be changed at 30k miles/three years.
Rattles from the back end are likely to be down to worn suspension linkage or rear subframe bushes, which ruin the handling and are a nightmare to change.
Front strut mounts fail, so listen for graunching/knocking; also check lower bushes. Calipers seize if car left unused; front discs vented on sporting models.
Autos (common) need oil changes; if not, they will be worn out by 120,000 miles. Desirable manuals rarely need more than new linkage bushes; check for leaks.
Manual hood (£900 new) is simple and effective; BMW offers a kit to convert electric/hydraulic tops to manual. Check fit all round and look inside for stains.
Driver’s seat often worn on right bolster; a good trimmer can sort it. Feel carpets for damp, especially in convertibles. Some trim parts are difficult to find.
A complete toolkit is a bonus and shows that the car has been cared for. Look for service history, especially in recent years – too many have been neglected.
BMW E30 3 Series: on the road
A good E30 should feel tight, smooth and safe, with an excellent surge of performance from the sportier models, though weight precludes ultimate hot-hatch level acceleration.
As with any powerful rear-drive car, over-enthusiasm in the wet is inadvisable. Worn suspension bushes play havoc with handling and tyre wear. Look for leaks from power steering rack and dampers, too.
Unmolested E30s are becoming harder to find, which is reflected in the prices. Tourings go for 50% more than four-door saloons, while convertibles are twice as much and a mint 325iS M-Tech could be double the price of a soft-top.
Regular maintenance is crucial to a good E30, especially the engine. A motor that is neglected and allowed to overheat will trigger issues with the head gasket and so on. An overheated ‘six’ can crack its head, so look for signs (staining in the block, emulsion under the oil filler) and make sure that the viscous fan still works (many fail).
M10 four-pots suffer a clogged oil feed to the cam (especially if servicing is late), resulting in worn cam and followers, while the later M40 and twin-cam M42 can have a problem with the oil pick-up from the two-piece sump. But don’t be afraid of high mileage, provided that a full history (with no recent gaps) is there to back it up.
The electrical items are complex and, while usually reliable, should be thoroughly tested. For example, on many cars the wiper motor will stop when switched to intermittent – only a replacement will cure it. Powered windows also give trouble, as does central locking, and check the warning lights above the rear-view mirror.
BMW E30 3 Series price guide
- Show: £7000
- Average: £3000
- Restoration: £500
- Show: 12k
- Average £6000
- Restoration: £1500
- Show: £20k
- Average: £15,000
- Restoration: £7000
BMW E30 3 Series history
1982 Nov E30 announced: 1.8 316 ‘four ’, 320i and 323i ‘sixes ’, 2dr saloon or Baur Top Cabrio
1983 Mar on sale in UK
1983 Nov 4dr available in UK; 105bhp 318i added, all get increased rear seat space, optional four-speed auto on ‘sixes’
1984 Oct Four-speed auto option on ‘fours’
1985 Oct Minor trim update; 325i replaces 323i; convertible added (UK Aug 1986) and diesel
1986 320i/325i SE versions with extra equipment package; M-Tech aerodynamic kit offered 1987
1986 April 4x4 325iX (LHD only) in UK
1986 Oct chrome deleted on bumpers/windows; M40 ‘four’ replaces M10, 325i Touring added (UK Apr 1988, 320i Sept)
1988 Oct 316 carb model dropped
1989 Oct 318iS added (UK 1990), with 16-valve 136bhp M42 1.8 ‘four’: 0-60mph 9.3 secs, 125mph
1990 Feb 316i/318i Lux launched; trim upgrades
1991 E36 replaces E30 in most markets/models
1993 E30 convertible production ends
1994 E30 Touring manufacture ceases
The owner’s view
“I grew up always wanting an E30,” recalls owner Damon Hatcher. “A friend’s dad had one and I loved the rumble of the straight-six and the looks.
“I’ve had a 2002tii since 2005, but four years ago I decided to look for an E30, too. I found a nice 325i convertible, and it has fulfilled all my dreams. I really love the looks, the engine, the exhaust note, especially with the top down. I like the check panel above the windscreen and the 1980s computer stuff – and I adore the driving experience.
“I fitted new Bilstein dampers and it handles really nicely. It died once on the motorway and we struggled to find the fault, so I decided to upgrade it to the later Motronic ignition. I managed to do it all myself despite no previous experience; it’s quite easy to work on and there’s a great support network for the cars.”
Compact Stuttgart saloon was a few inches bigger than the E30 with 1.8-2.5 ‘fours’ and 2.6 ‘sixes ’, plus diesels. More staid than BMW but Cosworth models are quick. Now good value.
1982-’93 • 1,874,668 built • 22-40mpg • 0-60mph: 17.7-7.2 secs • Top speed: 98-155mph • Price new: £15,630-32,940 (1990) • Price now: £400-15,000
ALFA ROMEO 75
With 1.6 -2.0 twin-cam ‘four’ or 2.5-3.0 V6, the rear-drive 75 was aimed head-on at the 3 Series, boasting five-speed transaxle and de Dion rear set-up. Rot has decimated survivors.
1985-’92 • 386,767 built • 20-30mpg • 0-60mph: 9.6-7.5 secs • Top speed: 117-137mph • Price new: £13,320-17,045 (1990) • Price now: £2000-20,000
BMW E30 3 Series: the Classic & Sports Car verdict
With M3s now out of reach for most people, all E30s are flying high as the 1980s generation indulges its childhood dream cars, with rare sporting models the most sought-after.
As with all relatively complex youngtimers, buy the best that you can afford, because an unloved or non-standard car will cost vastly more to put right, and the parts can be hard to locate.
- Quality build
- Brilliant sporting pedigree
- Traditional rear-drive handling
- Increasingly collectable
- Rot can be costly to fix
- Modified cars are undesirable
- Neglect brings many problems
- Tourings, ragtops and M-Tech already pricey
BMW E30 3 Series specifications
- Sold/number built 1982-’94/2,339,520
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine iron-block, alloy-head, single overhead-cam 1766cc or twin-cam 1796cc ‘four’ or 1991/2316/2494cc ‘six ’, with Pierburg carb or Bosch L-Jetronic (or ME-Motronic) injection; 90bhp @ 5500rpm-171bhp @ 5800rpm; 103lb ft @ 4000rpm-164lb ft @ 4300rpm
- Transmission Getrag 4/5-speed manual or ZF 3/4-speed auto, RWD (limited slip optional)
- Suspension: front MacPherson struts, anti-roll bar rear coil springs, semi-trailing arms, telescopic dampers (anti-roll bar on more powerful models)
- Steering rack and pinion, power-assisted on ‘sixes’ (optional on ‘fours’), 4 turns lock-to-lock
- Brakes 10.2in discs front solid/vented, 9in drums/10.2in discs rear, with servo, ABS optional
- Length 14ft 2in (4326mm)
- Width 5ft 5in (1646mm)
- Height 4ft 8in (1379mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft 5in (2570mm)
- Weight 2369-2803lb (1077-1274kg)
- 0-60mph 12.2-7.3 secs
- Top speed 109 -135mph
- Mpg 23-37
- Price new £11,985-21,440 (1990)
BUY A CLASSIC BMW E30 3 SERIES