Aspirational, stylish and agile enough to thread along a B-road, the BMW E30 embodied the spirit of the 1980s and continues to boast a strong customer base striving to recreate the decade of excess. The E30 was a huge success thanks to its good looks, practicality and finely-poised rear wheel drive layout. Following its launch in 1982, BMW shifted over two million units. It can be a challenge to find one in decent condition these days but if you can pick up a tidy example then you can have a slice of Yuppie-era BMW for a fraction of the price of a newer pretender.
The E30 built on the foundations laid by the E21, revising rather than revolutionising the 3-Series format. Thanks to this conservative approach, there were no vices or major weaknesses engineered into the E30. BMW minimised any weight gains and included advancements such as electronic fuel injection, a slick five-speed transmission and more forgiving handling. A visible example of BMW’s revisionist approach was the styling. Penned by Boyke Boyer under the supervision of chief designer Claus Luthe, the E30 had a sleeker, more distinctive body than the E21, and one of the more memorable designs of the 1980s. There was a host of different body shapes, too, with the option of a two-door, four-door, estate and convertible.
The bodywork is the E30’s weakest area because although examples are often mechanically sound, they do tend to rust. The difference between a diamond and a dog can often be down to bodywork rot, so be vigilant. Inspect the front wings, especially in and around the wheel arches, as well as front subframe mountings, suspension turrets, the corners of the windscreen, inner wing tops in the engine bay, the bulkhead, sills and jacking points. Other areas to check include the footwells (any signs of damp is a sure sign of rot), seat belt mounts, the bottoms of the doors and the boot floor. If a sunroof is specified check the mountings and for any sign of leaking. On convertible models, look for signs of staining on the canvas and ensure the top rises and falls without any issues, Manual roof conversions can be had for under £1000 and work well. BMW offers a conversion kit to change electric roofs to manual.
Like all classic cars, regular servicing and maintenance is vital. There aren’t any major mechanical issues with the E30. As a German car from the 1980s it is, if anything, over engineered and a well-looked after engine is good for a quarter of a million miles. The six-cylinder engines need a cambelt change every 30,000 miles or four years, depending on what comes first. It’s recommended that you use this opportunity to change the water pump, too. The chain-driven cam on M10 four-cylinder cars is known to wear by 100,000 miles, while the belt on the M40 cars should be replaced every 30,000 miles or three years.
Like the engines, E30 transmissions are hard-wearing. Manual gearboxes will rarely demand new linkage bushes, but check for signs of leakage. Auto models will need an oil change. If not they will be worn by 120,000 miles.
If you can hear rattles from the rear of the car during the test drive, it is likely due to a worn suspension linkage or rear subframe bushes, which destroy the handling and are difficult to replace. The front strut mounts can fail so keep an ear out for knocking and grinding noises. Be sure to also inspect the lower bushes. The front struts are susceptible to rot in the spring cup and may have to be replaced, while dampers are cheap and relatively simple to replace.
Some examples will have a check control system so ensure that it works without any glitches or issues, particularly the coolant level sensor.
Like many used cars, the E30 has a propensity for worn right hand bolsters on the driver’s seat. Make sure you also look out for evidence of damp, especially under the floor carpets. Mint E30 interiors are difficult to come by, with uncracked dashboards sought after and worth serious money (around the £500 mark). The air conditioning system will likely be the R12 type, which will need changing to the newer R134A. A malfunctioning instrument cluster circuit board often results in broken rev counters, inconsistent temperature gauges and service indicator lights that won’t reset. Problems with the central locking usually boil down to a broken solenoid relay in the A-post behind the speaker (on driver’s side).
The E30 was a well-balanced machine and a good example should feel precise and agile, with a good ride quality. While lower powered cars were disappointingly slow even in period, the sportier models still offer a spritely burst of performance. Take it easy negotiating roundabouts in the wet. The E30 is proudly rear-wheel drive and over-enthusiasm will result in snatches of oversteer. Feel for any corruption in the ride and steering column. A lumpy ride quality, uneven tyre wear and woolly steering could mean worn suspension bushes or issues with the steering rack.
The E30 has been waiting a long time to achieve ‘classic’ status. Values have wallowed in the doldrums, leaving cars neglected and undervalued. While prices are now rising to match the car’s reputation as one of BMW’s greatest hits, a good example can still be found for under £10,000. The trouble with valuing a E30 is that - like many premium German cars - it was produced in a range of different body styles, engine sizes and trim levels. Finding an average price is tricky. Nevertheless, you can pick up a bog standard four-door in average condition for around £3,000 - £4,000, with mint low-milers fetching upwards of £7,000. If you want a bargain basement project car, sheds can be snapped up for as low as £500. The convertible demands a higher price, with decent examples going for around £6,000 and show cars topping £12,000. The faster, flashier 325iS MTech averages around £15,000, with immaculate examples valued at £20,000. While expensive, these are a great budget M3 alternative.
Be sure to check the car’s service history. While the E30 is a relatively simple and well-engineered machine, regular maintenance and servicing is vital to ensuring a long, expense-free life. It’s better (and cheaper) to buy a modestly specced example with great service history than a scrappy car with a larger engine. This is because a neglected E30 engine can throw up all kinds of pricey problems. An overheated motor will cause issues with the headgasket, and can crack its head on the six cylinder model. Steering racks can become corrupted and leak. Unfortunately, finding used replacements is getting harder. An increasingly popular alternative is to convert the power steering to the newer and faster E46 3-Series rack. It usually costs around £60 for a purple tag E46 system. Another common problem with E30s is dodgy aftermarket tuning. Thanks to bargain basement values and the rear-wheel drive balance, the E30 is the perfect base-car for tuners and boy racers. So many have been lowered, tweaked and changed that finding an unmolested example can feel like looking for a needle in a haystack. While some alterations can improve the car (e.g. steering racks), more DIY changes can wreck the car and leave you with a ticking time bomb of bills. Check the car thoroughly and study the all-important service log.
The E30 was a game-changer for BMW. It asserted the brand's dominance at the top of the small-saloon market and it hasn't looked back since. It embodies everything that is great about the company - rear-wheel drive balance, timeless looks and enviable build quality. While many cars have been tuned or neglected, a well-sorted E30 can be had for little money and offers you the simplicity and dependability modern alternatives cannot match.
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