Even though the E30 isn’t the first generation of BMW’s bestselling 3 Series, it was by far the most important range of cars the Bavarian company introduced. Just like the Neue Klasse cars in the 1960s, the BMW E30 3 Series was a big milestone which cemented the brand’s identity and authority in the compact sports sedan market.
In many ways, the E30 became the quintessential BMW and a starting point for many enthusiast drivers. Today, it is a car that fulfills a wide range of automotive needs and dreams: the E30 can be an affordable fun transport, a rad 80s convertible, a race car that doesn’t break the bank or a Holy Grail among cars when in M3 guise.
So, what makes the BMW E30 a true enthusiast car? How did this 3 Series get its cult status and what is the best variant to look for? Let’s dive into the world of 80s BMWs and see!
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The history of the 3 Series can be traced to the compact Neue Klasse models first introduced in the early 1960s. These cars almost singlehandedly saved BMW from financial collapse by offering fun and nimble cars that were also practical and affordable. The range of compact four and two-door sedans turned out to be the backbone of BMW’s offerings, especially the 02 models with E10 factory designation. These compact two-door sedans achieved cult status, especially in form of 2002, 2002ti, 2002tii and 2002 Turbo form, all powered by the venerable M10 four cylinder engine.
In 1972, BMW introduced the first 5 Series sedan which replaced the outdated big sedans from the Neue Klasse era, paving the way for the first 3 Series intended to replace the E10 02 models. The premiering BMW 3 Series came in 1978 as E21, a car with only one body style, but with the addition of six cylinder engines.
The E21 was replaced in 1983 by the E30, the first BMW car that offered a variation of body styles on the same platform. Unlike the E21 which was available only as a two-door sedan and a rare Baur targa top, the E30 was available in all popular body styles. Initially marketed as a two-door and four-door sedan, the BMW E30 was also available as a wagon and a convertible, the first one since the 1960s 1600 drop top.
All that made the E30 a versatile car, giving the buyers a choice to configure their compact BMW to suit their daily needs the best. Using a wider range of engines than the E21, the E30 could also be a sensible compact sedan or a true sports car, which also broadened its appeal among younger buyers looking for a car that mixed practicality and driving excitement.
In 1986, BMW made sports cars history by creating the E30 M3, a homologation special that made BMW synonymous with touring car racing. This two-door with flared fenders became the most legendary sports car of the 1980s.
The E30 3 Series was sold in more than two and a half million copies, before slowly being replaced by the E36 generation in 1990 and completely discontinued in 1994. But, the immortal appeal of the E30 lives on today, either through the E30 M3 or other enthusiast-friendly models like the 318is, 320is, 325iS and 325ix, as well as wagons and convertibles.
Engines and Body Styles
Upon introduction in 1982, the BMW E30 3 Series was marketed as a four-door and two-door sedan, but more body styles followed in subsequent years.
First, there was the Baur TC2 convertible. Just like the E21, the E30 had its targa-top convertible produced by Karosserie Baur, an outside contractor with a history of collaborating with BMW. However, BMW introduced its own convertible body style in 1985, which became the first BMW drop top since the early 1960s and the 1600 convertible.
The wagon was added to the range in 1987 and was named Touring. This body style wasn’t sold in the United States, which makes it a desirable import today. The E30 Touring actually started off as a passion project for BMW engineer Max Reisböck who built a prototype in his garage during his off hours.
A trademark feature of the E30 Touring was its fifth door layout designed to conveniently fit a crate of beer. The company officials liked the project so much that the Touring was turned into a production model.
BMW E30 had two updates during its production span, the first being in 1985 when some bits of interior and exterior trim were updated and modernized. The second, more elaborate update was in 1987. With this redesign, the E30 got new tail lights, a significant reduction in chrome trim and a switch to large plastic bumpers.
In the States, the E30 had aluminum bumpers up to 1989, when they were replaced by body colored plastic design.
When it comes to engines, the BMW E30 had a range of petrol and diesel powerplants, the second not being available in the United States. The four-cylinder lineup was limited to 318i, first powered by the M10 engine and then by a more modern M40B18. The real fun started with six-cylinder M20 units available in the 320i, 323i, 325i and 325e variants.
Examples powered by these engines are what most enthusiasts are after. The 325i was the most powerful non-M E30 in the lineup with 168 horsepower and 164 lb ft of torque coming from the M20B25 engine.
Apart from these cars, the BMW E30 came in several special variants which are now sought-after collector and enthusiast cars for every budget. This is our overview of these special E30 cars.
The most important and the most coveted BMW E30 comes with flared fenders, the S14 engine and a high five figure price tag. It’s the BMW M3 E30, the 1986 homologation special that changed touring car racing forever, becoming one of the greatest sports cars of the 20th century.
Even at first glance, the BMW M3 E30 differed from the regular E30 3 Series since it had a thoroughly reworked body. Even the trunk was unique to the M3, not to mention the bumpers, boxy flared wheel arches, front and rear bumper. In fact, the M3 shared only the hood and the roof panel with the non-M E30.
The M3 E30 was built using a two-door sedan body, but a total of 787 convertibles were produced as well: 786 were European M3 models, and just one was built in Sport Evolution spec.
In addition to the unique body, the E30 had a host of upgrades under the sheet metal. The powerplant of the E30 M3 was the S14, a 16 valve dual overhead camshaft four-cylinder engine developed from the M88 straight-six that powered the M1. The engine’s design was based on the M10 straight-four block with head from the M88, albeit with two cylinder heads less.
Initially, the S14B23 engine produced 192 horsepower with a catalytic converter, or 200 round horsepower without it. From 1989 until the end of production in 1991, the power was bumped to 212 horsepower in Europe. The engine was mated to a close ratio Getrag 265 5-speed manual transmission with dogleg layout for European models and standard H pattern for North American ones.
The dogleg variant of the Getrag 265 is seen as a more desirable option that provides a more engaging driving experience for those who choose to drive the M3 E30 the way it deserves to be driven.
To maximize the performance in every aspect, the whole mechanics of the E30 M3 were upgraded as well. Master brake cylinder, brake calipers and brake rotor were developed for this car only, limited slip differential came as standard and there was more: aluminum suspension arms, offset arm bushings, five-hole wheel hubs and adjustable dampers with three modes were just some of modifications unique to the M3.
In addition to the regular E30 M3, BMW produced a series of updated models in form of the EVO 1, EVO 2 and Sport Evolution homologation models.
In 1988, BMW introduced an upgraded version of the E30 M3 called EVO, with a power increase to 220 horses and richer use of spoilers. It was a car intended for privateer racers and it was made in 505 copies.
In addition to the Evo 1, the E30 M3 Evo 2 had more go fast options and was mostly concentrated on shedding weight. With that in mind, it had a lighter trunk lid, thinner rear and side windows, but larger 16” wheels, as well as larger spoilers from the EVO 1. The power ratings remained unchanged, and the EVO2 was limited to 500 copies.
The final step in the E30 M3’s evolution came in form of the Sport Evolution model. It was a limited run of 600 units with the updated S14 engine and a set of differences that helped the drivers push this car to its maximum.
In this variant, BMW increased both the stroke and bore to enlarge the displacement of the S14 engine to 2.5 liters, pushing the power output to 239 horsepower with 177 lb ft of torque. In addition to that, the aerodynamics changed too, so the E30 M3 Sport Evolution got adjustable front air dams and rear wing. To maximize braking performance, the fog lights gave way to brake cooling ducts.
Cecotto and Ravaglia Special Editions
The 1989 Cecotto and Ravaglia special editions were built in a total of 505 examples, celebrating the duo of successful DTM drivers, also packing a bump to 212 horsepower. Another desirable special edition is the 1988 Europameister, a E30 M3 celebrating the successful 1988 racing season.
It was finished in Macao Blue paint with light gray Nappa leather interior, electric windows and M3-engraved door sill plates. The Europameister was limited to 148 pieces, and each had a plaque hand signed by Roberto Ravaglia.
In 1989, BMW decided to take a hot hatch approach to the E30 3 Series, creating the 318is, a 1980s interpretation of the classic BMW 2002 philosophy. It was envisioned as an affordable performance alternative to the M3 for enthusiast drivers looking for a classic BMW sport sedan in the blossoming 1980s compact luxury market.
The 318is was available in two-door and four-door sedan body and had a compilation of various bits and pieces that made it quite a desirable car for the starting price of $19,995.
First, the 1.8-liter M42 straight four engine pushing 134 horsepower was a little work of art itself, with dual overhead cam design, hydraulic valve adjusters, coil-on-plug ignition and updated Bosch Motronic injection. Then, there were the Getrag 240/5 five-speed manual, stiffer springs, Boge shocks, anti-roll bars and a discrete body kit. Limited slip differential was an optional extra, and so were the sunroof, fog lights, anti theft protection and metallic paint.
The 318iS was simple in execution, a driver-oriented compact machine built for going fast around the corners. The E30 318iS remains a true enthusiast car today, and good news is that it can be bought at a rather affordable price.
The E30 318iS wasn’t the only model from the iS family, since BMW marketed the 320iS as well. Although its name implies that the 320iS isn’t that different from the 318iS, the reality is completely different. The 320iS was powered by the S14B20 engine, a smaller displacement variant of the powerplant from the E30 M3 and was built for Italian and Portuguese markets which had alarmingly high taxes for cars exceeding 2 liters.
The E30 320iS was offered from 1987 to 1991 as a four-door sedan, while the two-door variant became available in 1988. Unlike the E30 M3, the E30 320iS had a regular body with slightly altered bumpers, and the interior was the same as on regular E30 models, except for M3 instruments.
Under the hood was a 2-liter S14 engine with the power output of 192 horsepower thanks to absence of catalytic converters. The four-banger was mated to the same Getrag dogleg transmission as the European M3 and limited slip differential also came as standard. The coupé variants all had sports suspension, as well as sedans built from 1989 onwards.
A total of 1,206 sedans and 2,542 coupés were built, making the 320iS a rare and highly collectible piece of E30 history. Its rather unassuming looks and well-known sound from the rev-happy S14 engine are a winning combination that also draws enthusiast drivers to find and import their 320iS from Europe.
A big brother of the E30 318iS, the E30 325iS was powered by the same M20B25 straight-six engine as the 325i, but it had more equipment, making it the ultimate non-M3 variant of the E30. This model was available from 1987 to 1991 and some subtle differences included real leather upholstery instead of vinyl and a three-spoke steering wheel replacing the four-spoke design from the 318iS.
BMW E30 was a milestone car for BMW for many reasons, one of them being the introduction of all-wheel drive to their range of cars. The all-wheel drive E30 was available only with a 2.5 liter M20B25 engine and was named 325iX. Combining power and grip even in snowy months or on light off-road trails, the E30 325iX is a very special enthusiast car that provides a completely different E30 experience than the rear-wheel drive models.
In the United States, the 325iX was available from 1988 to 1991 in two-door and four-door guise. On the European market however, the E30 325iX started in 1986, and could be had as a Touring as well.
From the outside, the E30 325iX differed just slightly, with wider side skirts and fender flares being the strongest visual cues. The drivetrain itself was rear biased with 60:40 torque split and limited slip differential came as standard both in Europe and the US.
This South African special was probably the craziest BMW E30 ever produced, and it was born in 1985 by mating the E30 body shell to a 195 horsepower 3.2-litre M30 six-cylinder engine. This ultra-limited run of 204 examples were primarily built for racing purposes in the South African touring car championship, but for homologation purposes, the car had to be sold to the general public.
Due to obvious limitations in the E30’s engine bay, the buyers were forced to choose between power steering and air conditioning, and given the harsh South African climate, it’s no wonder most of them went for the latter.
Some examples of the BMW E30 were fitted with a series of visual and functional upgrades under the M-Technic package. During the production span, there were two variants of the package: M-Tech 1 and M-Tech 2.
Apart from the body kit that changed the appearance of the E30, the M-Tech cars had lowered suspension, 15” wheels and a set of modifications to the interior including a three-spoke steering wheel, leather console, special seats and M-Technic door sills.
Today, having a M-Technic package adds some value to the BMW E30, and details like the three-spoke steering wheel command high prices among the enthusiasts.
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Living with the E30: Driving Experience, Running Costs and Common Issues
Most BMW enthusiasts will agree that the BMW E30 is the most rewarding classic BMW to own and drive daily. Even by today’s standards, the E30 is a relatively modern car, and you’ll often find it with power steering, air conditioning and power windows, small things that make everyday life with it easier.
The mechanics of the BMW E30 are simple, and a large part of regular maintenance can be done in your garage with a basic set of tools. When maintained properly, the E30 3 Series is a reliable car which offers many carefree miles. Should a problem arise, the BMW E30 community is enormous, so you’ll have no trouble finding answers just by performing simple Google searches.
As many cars from the 1980s, the E30 has rust issues. So, when checking for your potential BMW E30, make sure to check rear shock towers, door drains, footwells, sill jacking points and sunroof drains if a car has one. It is also worth noting that the fuel tank of the BMW E30 is made out of metal, so make sure to see if it has rust or leaks, especially if the car in question has been sitting for long.
If you go for the E30 318iS, it’s good to know that early variants of this car had a timing case profile gasket that was prone to failing, and other things to consider are the condition of a timing chain tensioner and valve cover O ring seals.
The S14-powered E30 M3 is a completely different story, both in terms of initial pricing, running costs and a list of potential issues. If you’re going for the OG M3, make sure to have a trusted mechanic, or even better, be a trusted mechanic yourself.
In terms of driving experience, the BMW E30 is a fun and engaging little car. Given its light weight, it is easy to control even when pushed to the limits, and rear-wheel drive layout gives it a tail happy driving experience that never ceases to amaze. The steering feels predictable and precise even though it sometimes has the feel of an analog 1980s car.
The four-cylinder enthusiast E30 like the 318iS works the best in higher revs, while the six-cylinder variants offer a torquier drive. Still, even the six-cylinder engines love to be pushed close to the redline, offering you a rewarding acoustic experience. Also, the six-cylinder E30 cars have a more front-biased weight balance which makes it easier to engage in sideways adventures.
The E30 handles various modifications surprisingly well, and some of them you should consider are suspension and brake upgrades. That way, the BMW E30 of your dreams will handle even better in the twisting roads, but will still be a reasonable daily driver when you disengage the fun driving mode. As a trackday car, the BMW E30 is also an excellent choice since it’s an affordable foundation for further track preparations.