Now before you go asking me what the difference between a porcupine and a BMW is, or pointing out the obvious hubris in even writing about the E30, I’ll stand by the three family members I have put in them and the ridiculous love that so many harbor for these boxy little monsters.
In the past two Schucks Tape-endorsed Lazarus projects, the author has advocated longevity over speed, weight over agility and safety over looks. With the BMW E30, you don’t have to make those choices. But you will pay for this smorgasbord of options with your time, and sometimes, real money. An abundance of running, non-rusted, non-wrecked E30s there certainly is not. If you know what to compromise, you can still find one and enjoy for many years beyond when you should most likely, thanks to BMW’s Mobile Tradition parts supply and catalog. This asset is unique in the Euro junker world and removed the necessity for say, a petite Jewish girl to go crawling around under rusting cars in muddy lots in the rural Midwest at dusk looking for drive shaft spindles and odometer components. Just for example. But don’t diss junkyard socializing before you’ve tried it.
—Decisions, decisions: You’ll need to decide before you begin your hunt what sort of power plant (i.e., motor, for all you normal people out there) you want. The E3s came with a plain-Jane 4 (that is anything but plain) and a six-cylinder version. The sixes are far and away the easier to procure, but beware, they come with maintenance items that cannot be neglected, namely, the timing and drive belts. Although the M42 (four cylinders) came with a timing chain (requiring much fewer service intervals and capable of sustaining higher RPMs in older engines), the M20s ran a timing belt, needing more frequent servicing and giving less warning in old age of imminent failure. A brief note about timing failure: If maintenance intervals, understanding what a timing service is and what an interference engine does when it drops this belt do not interest you, go back to Schucks Tape: Portrait of a Euro junker and buy a 240 Volvo. These are non-interference engines and will not extort … I mean, extract, $2,000 to $3,000 from you when the timing belt breaks. Which. It. Will. This should be the first thing you ask about when looking at a high-mileage, used 325. The M42 timing chain motor will go a lot longer and give you warning: rattles, taps, all sorts of sounds that the tensioner is going or the chain is looser than it should be. You should also decide on whether you are looking for two doors or four and figure out what all those pesky BMW acronyms stand for (325e versus 325i). Understand that timing chain services are more expensive, however infrequent. It’s up to you.
—More decisions: You will have a choice of an automatic and a five-speed, most likely. Although the Getrag transmissions are known for their longevity and toughness, be on the lookout for a “high clutch” (i.e., takes a long time to engage), dirty clutch fluid (yes, it’s a hydraulic clutch) and other signs that the wannabe-bad-boy that owned this old girl before you was out horsing her around. In case the jokes about porcupines don’t clue you in, the sheer number of these cars that have been wrecked should. They appeal to a distinct demographic that over, over-assesses their driving skills. Even if she looks “clean,” these are cars you need to be certain at the outset have a “clear” title: no salvage, rebuilt, reconstructed need apply. The automatics, however, suffer under the burden of the six-cylinder, and ZF or HP-22s can be hard to find in good condition if a replacement is warranted.
—Endangered species: You are going to pay a premium but benefit from resale values that are high if you hunt down one of these rare beasts: the 318is or the E30 M3. The former is the lightest BMW chassis made for that era, and you can feel it (invest in a good alignment, or she will dance) and the E30 M3—well, good luck. The latter came with a truly gorgeous S14 motor, a trimmed-down version of the S38 that went in the M5s (pictured above) of that era.
If it’s truly the four-cylinder with that Rondel on it you want, you may also want to consider a 318ti, as it came with the M44 more developed variant of the M42. Note: This one has roller cams not standard, so if you are looking toward doing modifications for a higher-revving or hotter engine later on, this limits you considerably. As should it being an E36 chassis (get your superglue out to hold the plastic together).
—Stock is better: When starting out, from both a wear 'n' tear and evaluation perspective, the closer you can get to stock (the way it came from the factory), the better. Big fancy rims, exhausts, chips may indeed be fun, but do not necessarily make for cheaper maintenance or longevity.
All in all, the E30 is a car you likely won’t forget, for better or worse, and has, without any question, been one of the best learning experiences of my automotive life.
(P.S. This author pays bounties for tips leading to clean E30s found in the wild.)
Hannah L. Coffey is an ASE tech and divides her already-fractured time between teaching at UTC and working/writing about Subarus, Volvos and diesel Mercedes power trains. You can grill her about the latest quirk of your aging machine, what [she thinks] you should buy or whatever else strikes your fancy on her blog or by email. When in doubt, you should always seek the advice of a certified mechanic in your area. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.