The 3-Series E30 is the Swiss Army Knife of classic motoring: it fits right in at shows, tackles trackdays with gusto and takes on the daily commute with aplomb. GREG MACLEMAN is impressed
BMW 3-SERIES E30 (1983-1991)
For many years the E30 has been the classic of choice for those with a more enthusiastic driving style, especially the 325i Sport models with their limited-slip diffs.
E30s are hugely popular when it comes to amateur motorsport. One of the main reasons for this is that the rear-wheel drive/front engine format is perfect when it comes to learning how to control a car on a circuit. 1.6-litre, 1.8-litre and 2-litre cars all seem fairly pedestrian in the speed stakes, but all of them will be a barrel of laughs when pushed through the bends. The standard 325i offers the best bang for your buck, producing 169bhp out of the box. A 325i can be bought for as little as £1500.
A decent E30 really is a joy to drive. The suspension is firm enough to hold the car when pushed hard, but soft enough to iron out the bumps on a longer cruise. Oversteer is easy to provoke, however many a decent driver has been caught out in the past, so be careful.
1986 BMW 325i
Top speed 138mph
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
BODYWORK & CHASSIS
The car may look clean, but rot hides itself very well in E30s. Sills, scuttle and arches are the main problem areas. Feel around behind the front and rear arches for crustiness, especially if the car looks freshly undersealed. Inner wings will go behind the front wheel arch guard so open the bonnet and check for rust along the top edge of the inner wing. Front suspension turrets can rot from the base. Check for rust on the bulkhead by removing the fuse box. If you find rust here walk away.
Open the boot and remove the jack. If there’s rust here it will have made its way from the rear inner wheel arch. Also take a screwdriver and magnet to the sills. Lift the carpets in the boot and footwells. Rust here will be difficult to cure. Be wary of sunroofs too. Rot in the roof skin is terminal, so watch out for bubbling here.
E30 engines are well known for their reliability, but only if well maintained.
A fully documented service history is a must. The cambelt should be changed every 60,000 miles or at four year intervals. If this isn’t documented, budget to have it done as a matter of course. Start the engine from cold and listen for noisy tappets. If the sound continues when warm then they need to be adjusted. Valve clearances should also be set every 15,000 miles. Improperly adjusted valves can break rocker arms.
Check oil and coolant levels. Look for signs of oil in the coolant and mayonnaise around the oil filler cap. Both could suggest head gasket failure. Carry out a compression test before buying. Allow the car to idle until warm listening for the fan to come on. If it doesn’t, then assume the car has overheated so warping the cylinder head.
Check the engine bay. Make sure the colour matches the exterior of the car. Fresh paint may suggest the car has been in a crash, so make sure you ask all the right questions. Ensure you get a HPI check. Due to the low book value of E30s many crash-damaged vehicles are written-off as a result of what most would consider light damage. There are a lot of decent-looking cars on the road that have been registered as Cat C or Cat D. Beware.
Check the rear subframe bushes for excessive wear. This will have an adverse effect on handling and can be very dangerous. It’s a hugely time consuming job and beyond the reach of the amateur. Listen for a whining noise and clunking from the diff. The mounts could be perished, but more than likely it’ll be a worn diff. Replacements are easy enough to come by, but limited-slip diffs will demand a heavy premium. Check for any excess play or vagueness when changing gear. Avoid high mileage cars that jump out of gear or have worn synchromesh. Look for four matching tyres with plenty of tread. Be wary of cheap tyres which can be dangerous.
Interiors are generally hard wearing, but will be past their best after 20+ years. Leather cracks over time and cloth seats will wear particularly badly on the driver’s bolster. Replacement seats are still relatively plentiful, but good quality items will command a premium, especially in leather. Switches give up the ghost with regularity, but are easily sourced and replaced. Odometers will die anytime beyond 100,000 miles as the worm gear deteriorates. Replacement gears are cheap, but fiddly to fit. Remove the card shelf from below the steering column. Any fluid dripping on this hints at a knackered clutch master cylinder. The slave should be replaced at the same time.
The E30 is a superb car that has stood the test of time. Its styling still looks fresh while decent build quality and a growing following have ensured the survival of many cars. They also fit right in at classic shows, track days, or simply on the daily commute. Parts are cheap and plentiful and there are regular club events to attend. There really is an E30 to suit every budget, and both entry-level models and more powerful 2.5-litre cars can be affordable propositions. Many different models were produced over the eight-year production span, with varied and confusing spec sheets. Do your research to ensure you get the car to suit your needs, and don’t buy the first car you see. M3 aside, 318iS and 325i Sport models are the most desirable.
Retro cars are all the rage at the moment and the E30 is the daddy of them all. Remarkably, its boxy styling has aged well. In fact, its perfect proportions have ensured that the 3-series E30 looks as fresh today as it did when it arrived in British showrooms back in 1983.
As well as looks, the E30 has practicality in spades, which makes it a great choice if you’re in the market for a useable classic that will earn its keep. Spacious inside, the E30 will carry four adults in comfort and the cavernous boot is large enough to accommodate even the most enthusiastic of holiday packers.
A hugely practical and stylish car then, but the icing on the cake must surely be the legendary reputation for reliability that BMWs of this era enjoy. A well-maintained E30 will be among the most reliable classic cars at any show, and will devour mile after mile on twisty B-roads, motorways and everything in between. It’s the ideal daily-driver and weekend show car.