BMW E30 3-SERIES 1982-1991

By: Alex Affat, Photography by: Unique Cars Archives, BMW

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One of the car models of the moment, if it's not already a classic - it's about to be!

MW’s line of mainstream E30 3-Series bear the unenviable task of living in the shadows of its M3-badged big brother.

But unlike most top-shelf sports cars based on more pedestrian less-desired platforms (ie: Subaru’s WRX and Impreza), the 3-Series truly stand on its own as a significant and desirable vehicle.

For many motorists, the E30 redefined what a small car could be. It was an entry-level compact prestige saloon, powered by a range of perky motors up front and a pair of driven wheels at the back. Tactile rack-and-pinion steering, along with an independent rear end, earned it a reputation as a tremendously sharp-steerer too.

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And, best of all for us enthusiasts, for the longest time they were cheap! In fact, the E30 has been a stalwart in various ‘Budget Classic’ features we’ve done over the years and it truly wasn’t so long ago that you’d take a pretty long pause before paying more than $5000 for one. Today though, prices have almost trebled, more in some cases.

And yet, perhaps it was always to be. A recent string of head-scratching auction sales of delivery-mile E30 M3s (the record holding AU$352,000 sale occurred in the US this past July) and no doubt contributes to the unprecedented buyer interest in the humble E30. The scary thing is this might only be the beginning.

So, if you truly yearn to own one, and are unopposed by a more costly barrier to entry, which one to get?

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Well, the good news is more than 2 million of the things were made with a bevy of engines and variants. There are sedans, coupes, and even two convertibles: a factory-backed Bauer conversion, and a later factory-produced convertible.

Models are generally divided between engines. There are the inline-sixes, which prove popular for those seeking the big-engine-small-car experience.

Budegt buyers could opt for the 2.0lt 320i or the 2.3lt 323i. The bigger 323i was the pick of the bunch peaking at 102kW, which may not sound like a lot these days, but it was big news back then in such a small package. A small update under six months later saw the 323i transition from fuel injection to electronic fuel-injection, yielding a welcome power bump to 110kW.

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1985 to 1988 marked somewhat of a purple patch for the E30’s inline-sixes amidst unleaded petrol’s Australian introduction and a significant shift in buyer perception against fuel consumption.

In response, BMW launched a line of E-badged (denoting the Greek letter ‘Eta’) cars with low-revving and high-torque versions of its delightful straight-six. Undoubtedly aimed at the frugal consumer, the engines were woefully underpowered with the 325e’s 2.7lt unit peaking at just 90kW. Avoid these ones.

By 1988, the straight-six 3-series was back in fighting form with the introduction of the 325i and its bigger 125kW 2.5lt straight-six. The 320i remained in the portfolio as a more affordable six-cylinder offering.

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But while the big-sixes might intuitively be the ones to buy, there are many in the cult of E30 who actually prefer the nimbler experience of the four-cylinder cars.

With less weight and mass over the front axles, the four-cylinder 318i has long been the choice for the dedicated driving enthusiast. The rev-happy M10 four-cylinder also provided the block for the E30 M3’s S14 four-cylinder engine, and more closely mimics the big hero’s experience – albeit with a single-cam head.

One model that will prove hard to find is the 318is, and if we’re talking non-M3 four-pot E30s - this is the one to get!

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Launched in July 1990, and remaining on the Australian market for just eight months before the E30 was superseded by the E36 in March 1991, the 318is was a manual-only two-door which featured a 16v DOHC-variant of the standard four-cylinder called the M42. This is the closest you can get to an E30 M3 without writing a six-figure cheque!

And now the tricky part, buying. Apart from perhaps the ULP-induced ‘eta’ sixes, there are no truly bad apples in the range, but with steep price rises observed over the past 12 months alone – it’s getting hard to purchase quickly on desired spec alone.

While E30s were for a long time, plentiful and easily attained for modest money, they are well past the ‘cheap beater’ phase. Tired automatic examples in various specification are still easily found for under five-figures, but asking prices rapidly march towards $20,000 and above if you’re seeking one with a manual transmission, a convertible or coupe body, or generally one that has been maintained to a high degree.

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A few very ambitious sellers are even asking $30+, with one time-capsule 13,000km 318i seller knocking on $40,000. These numbers are very much a recent phenomenon, likely tacked on since various recent headlining M3 sales overseas, and are likely way ahead of the market.

Be wary not to over invest in haste, but our advice is to always buy to the best condition possible. It is far easier to maintain an old car’s condition, than to elevate it.

FOR
• A significant model with iconic design, and a lauded driving reputation
• Interest (and value) will likely
continue to increase
• Plenty of desirable models throughout the range


AGAINST
• These are not $5k cars anymore
• Good examples are fewer between
and getting costly
• Are at an age where unattended mechanical problems can arise

 

From Unique Cars #447, December 2020

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