The BMW E30 3 Series represented a big step forward for BMW, in terms of offering a beautifully engineered package at a more affordable price than ever before. The compact saloon offered much improved rear-wheel drive handling, more powerful engines and more technology.
All of these things also add up to a car with great classic potential, and go part of the way towards explaining why the E30 is such a popular choice today. Built in various forms from 1982 right up to 1993, the E30 has become a true BMW icon, especially in Group A homologation M3 form.
Which one to buy?
There’s huge choice when it comes to the BMW E30, with a wide selection of engines and bodystyles. Most common models are the two and four-door saloons, followed by slightly scarcer cabriolet and touring models. Choosing the right car really comes down to what you want to get out of owning it.
You will have no problem finding a saloon, but you must use extreme caution. For years, the E30 was one of the cheapest and most popular rear-wheel drive ‘learner’ cars. Many of the bigger engined models will have been driven hard, taken on track, and occasionally crashed.
A lot of these E30s will have been modified over the years too, with suspension, braking and engine modifications all reasonably cheap and easy to perform. Finding a six-cylinder example that hasn’t been messed about with to some extent can be surprisingly difficult. Original four-cylinder 316 and 318i models are more common, and although they make good usable classics, the performance is unlikely to thrill.
There were two major versions of the E30 Convertible, the early Baur-built cars, and then BMW’s own convertible, which came on stream in 1986. The early cars were built by German coachbuilder Baur, and feature a central roll-over hoop, framed side windows and a slightly impractical removable roof.
The full convertible 3-Series was an altogether more desirable proposition, with a fully retractable roof, and some more substantial body reinforcement. Although demand for the Baur was understandably reduced, the company continued to offer conversions throughout the E30’s life.
Although it didn’t appear until 1987, the Touring actually stayed in production right through to 1994, making it the youngest E30 you can buy. Although originally offered as a 325i, the smaller-engined 318i followed. Find a nice four-wheel drive 325ix for the ultimate go anywhere load-lugger.
Built to comply with Group A homologation, BMW’s M Sport department went to town on the E30, producing one of the finest performance cars of the 1980s: the very first M3. Although performance BMWs had generally used straight six engines, BMW used the four-cylinder S14 engine to keep weight down.
Buyers generally pay huge premiums for low mileage and exceptional examples – from the most basic 316 to the highly desirable special edition M3 special editions. It is therefore very important to carry out checks and ensure you aren’t paying over the odds for something with a dubious history.
Performance and specs
BMW M3 E30
Engine 2568cc, straight-six
Power 197bhp @ 6750rpm
Torque 177lb ft @ 4750rpm
Top speed 146mph
Fuel consumption 24.4mpg
Gearbox Five-speed manual
Dimensions and weight
Kerb weight 1165kg
• The biggest and most expensive problems you will encounter with any E30, an M3 engine rebuild aside, will invariably be caused by rust. Early cars suffer the worst, but even later models that featured some galvanised panels will now be susceptible. Carefully inspect the sills, along the inner edge, checking carefully for signs of corrosion. Factory underseal can hide huge problems, so don’t be afraid to have a good poke around.
• Damp carpets could spell trouble, as it will usually mean that the car has got rotten floors. It’s possible that the car has simply got a leak (not uncommon on the convertibles), but if this is the case, it doesn’t take long for the damp to do its damage, eating the car’s floors from the inside out. The resulting condensation will also cause electrical issues.
• Other rust hot-spots include the rear panel behind the rear lights, the base of the windscreen surround, bumper mounting brackets and the usual places like wheel arches and wings.
• It’s an old trick, but the use of a magnet can help to identify the use of filler in the problem areas. Front and rear valance panels are also notorious for rusting, with a nasty water and dirt trap near the towing eye. Pull out the boot carpet if you can, and check under the spare wheel for any signs of moisture or corrosion.
• Although the M3 is pretty much a different beast all together, the biggest concern with an E30 M3 is also rust. The sills will go in the same way, but are hidden under covers, while all the same problem areas can be complicated by the M3’s unique bodywork, with barely nothing interchangeable.
• Underneath, look out for cracks in the front subframe around the engine mounts, rusty rear floors and box sections as well as the battery box.
• Unless the car is extremely low-mileage, it’s likely that it will have had some paintwork in the past. Check that all panel gaps line-up, and that the car is all a uniform colour. E30 interiors generally wear well, although seat bolsters can look untidy and seat belts and buckles can become worn out with age and rough use. Leather is more desirable, and much easier to repair when it becomes worn.
• Check that all of the electric windows (if fitted) work, as there are often issues with the switches. If none are working try pressing the thermal cut-out switch. If the switch pops out again, there is likely a problem with the wiring. It’s important to check that the key operates all of the locks, as these can seize up due to lack of use.
• Service history is important, as with any car, but the main things you need to ascertain are that the cam belt has been changed recently on the models with belt-driven engines. When you open up the bonnet, check the overall condition of the hoses, paying special attention to the main air intake hose, which is notorious for splitting and causing running issues.
• Check the condition of the oil – it should be clean – and also check for oil leaks around the engine bay. Open up the coolant expansion tank and remove the oil cap, checking for signs of mayonnaise. This could either indicate a failing cylinder head gasket, or possibly a cracked cylinder head – allowing the oil and coolant to mix.
• Fire the car up from cold, and check for any signs of smoke from the exhaust, as well as unusual sounds from the engine. Once up to temperature, it’s worth checking for signs of blue oil smoke – indicating worn valve stem seals, or bore wear.
• The M3’s wonderful S14 engine is strong, and generally gives very little trouble, but there are some things to look out for. Oil leaks, for example, are not uncommon and are to be expected of a car that doesn’t get much use.
• Timing chains should be replaced at around 100,000 miles. A noisy chain is a warning sign, and you’ll be looking at around £2000 for the job to be done. That’s more preferable than the potential £6000 bill if the chain snaps!
• Valve clearances need to be set by bucket and shim, and overheating can cause headgasket problems, so check that the fan cuts in correctly.
The M3’s five-speed Getrag dog-leg gearbox becomes notchy and noisy with use, but is easily rebuilt, and if the differential is whining new bearings and oil seals are generally all that is needed.
• There are no major problems with steering or suspension, but like all cars bushes, joints and other parts will wear out, so a car with fresh suspension can be a very good thing.
• Check the front strut top bearing, which often wears. The rubber perishes, causing a noise over bumps. Rear damper bushes should be carefully inspected, as these can cause rubbing and potential corrosion issues if left unchecked.
• BMW E30 parts availability is generally pretty good. Most mechanical bits are well catered for, although broken or missing trim could be difficult to replace.
December 1981: The very first two-door BMW E30s begin to roll off the production line.
1982: Four-door E30 models come on stream roughly one year after the two-door model was launched. Baur convertible offered as an option.
1985: E30 given a minor facelift with minor interior and exterior changes.
1986: BMW M3 introduced.
1987: A more serious update sees the introduction of the Touring and Cabriolet models, and the removal of the the chrome trim from the bumpers and doors. Evo 1 M3 introduced
1988: Evo 2 M3 introduced.
1989: Johnny Cecotto edition M3 introduced, followed by the final Sport Evolution.
1993: E30 replaced by the E36, with the Touring models remaining in production a further year.
Owners clubs, forums and websites
Summary and prices
As a cult classic, E30 values have soared in recent years, and values continue to strengthen for the best cabrio and Touring models. £1500 is the entry point for E30 ownership, but that is likely to buy you a rough car in need of some serious TLC. The more desirable versions in good condition fetch closer to £5000, while there are some seriously nice cars commanding between £7500-£10,000.
The 325i Sport models are in a league of their own, offering mini M3 thrills, with rough cars starting at £5000, through to concours examples at £22,000. Tourings are rare, and also quite desirable, so prices have always been quite strong. Today pay between £3000-£5000 for a good car, with low mileage examples fetching around £8000.
Cabriolets are considerably more valuable than regular E30s too, with prices starting at about £3500. Great examples cost £8000-£12,000, but the cleanest cars now fetch upwards of £20,000.
Then there are the M3s. £13,000 is the start point for a project car, with £22,000 getting you something that drives. £30,000 will get you a good condition car, while you will need to spend £50,000 for a perfect car. Evo models and special editions regularly sell for more than £100,000.