It could be argued that the E30 was as important to BMW as the iPod was to Apple. It set a tone, an approach, and it consolidated public perception about what it meant to be a BMW. It was a damn good car.
Produced from 1983 (the first ones to arrive in the United States were model year 1984), this generation (the second) was the longest-lived by a fair chunk. It started out as a coupe, followed by the sedan. Looks-wise, there's still something about it even now, a streamlined timelessness. It wouldn't be hard to imagine it coming out today looking exactly like this, and people would still love it and buy it.
In 1984, the 318i arrived with 105 hp from its four-cylinder engine. The 325e (e stands for economy; funny how that wasn't such an issue back then the way it is now, but no contemporary car has "economy" as part of its name) only managed to coax 121 hp from its 2.7L straight-six. The sedan style came along in '85, with a four-speed automatic transmission, followed by the 325es two-door. That was also when ABS became standard. These early models had metal bumpers, front and rear.
An update in 1987 really pushed the E30 into a higher gear, so to speak, with the introduction of the 325i. It was the most powerful 3 Series to date, with 168 hp and 164 lb-ft of torque. The 325is and 325iC convertible further consolidated the car's reputation. This refresh changed the bumpers to plastic versions. The foglights are integrated into the front spoiler. And the interior became slightly more refined.
The seismic event in E30 history, though, is the first-ever M3. Born out of German touring car racing, it might be hard to believe now that this little machine, with 192 hp accessed by revving its 2.3L four-cylinder engine to an almost painful 6,750 rpm, could be a thing of awe and beauty. But it was. It is.
Standstill to 60 mph in 6.9 seconds, top speed of 141 mph, quarter-mile dispatched in 15.2 seconds while hitting 92 mph… a '16 GTI will do better than that. Which just goes to show that it's not so much what you do, it's the way you do it.
The two-door body was unlike any 3 Series before it, with only the hood remaining stock. The fenders are flared and even the rear window has a sharper angle. It had a five-speed transmission (which was considered cutting edge at the time), but its M Power engine has a double overhead cam, 16-valve head—essentially the same as BMW's bigger straight-six heads, only cut down to size. The suspension was precise and the car weighed just 2,857 pounds. It was immediate, direct, tactile. And these were the days before traction control.
An all-wheel-drive 325ix debuted in 1988. M3 Evolution models working up to 217 hp were produced until the end of 1990. By then, though, the E30 had gone as far as it could go.
Buying an E30 requires homework and patience, and it doesn't hurt to have wrenching skills and good contacts. A nice place to start looking is an '89-or-later 325i. A 325is would be even better. Sorry to say this, but an E30 M3 is now a collectors' car, fetching as much as three times the car's original price. Some knights have given up looking for the Holy Grail to concentrate on getting one of these.
Back to reality. If the odometer has less than 200,000 miles, so much the better, but mileage and reliability aren't factors unless we're looking at less than 100,000 miles or above 300,000; the M20 engine, properly maintained, can hit 400,000 miles. Maintenance trumps mileage.
Always check the VIN. Forget salvage titles: too much bother and tricky to resell. And forget about cars that can't pass a smog test. As well as being wary of crashed-and-repaired cars and modifications carried out by chimps, anything other than factory BMW paint colors are also bad things. It'll be hard to get new bodywork to match. Cracked dashboards are another reason to keep scouring the classified ads.
Rust is the enemy: battery tray, license plate lights, rocker panels, floor, behind the front wheelwell, around the sunroof and strut towers. Is the air conditioning unit working? Toggle the power windows up and down; the buttons sit over the transmission, so they can get hot and the wiring can become brittle over time. Try and find out if the timing belt, water pump, and tensioner pulley have been changed.
Get an expert inspection and make sure it's your guy, not the seller's choice. We're talking old cars here, so don't expect to drive it home. Instead, arrange for a trailer to transport it to your preferred shop for a thorough going-over.
Try and buy from an E30 enthusiast. A lot of guys will sell a car for much less than they sank into it. Join the forums. If you find a well-cared-for one-owner example, consider yourself blessed.
We found a '91 325i sedan in white (tan interior) with 322,000 miles going for $4,500 at a dealer and a peachy '90 model, same color scheme, with 174,00 miles, going for $5,800 from what appeared to be a private party. To tell you the truth, we hesitated to mention these because we might want to buy one ourselves. But that's how much we love our readers.