21 July 2014

Personal Import Report: BMW 3-series Touring

The EPA and DOT allow individual vehicles over 25 years old to be brought into the country as personal imports, exempt from meeting the standards originally imposed on them. You can take advantage of this allowance to pick up some forbidden fruit from an earlier time and be the star of your next Cars and Coffee show. Here is an example of one such model that qualifies and is sure to get looks from all the right people.

Subject: BMW 3-series Touring (198X-91)

Current values: From ~ €1,850/$2,520 (Autoscout24.de)

Best place to buy: Germany

There are two things European carmakers do better than anyone else: sport sedans and small station wagons. When you combine the two, you end up with a rather practical and exceptionally fun-to-drive car that the whole family can enjoy. And when the result happens to be a BMW 3-series wagon, you have an instant cult classic.

BMW first introduced the 3-series wagon (or Touring in BMW parlance) as a 1988 model, five years after the introduction of the second-gen 3-series. Neither this original 3 wagon (E30) nor its successor (E36) was offered in America, however. It wasn’t until 1999 that BMW finally gave in to enthusiasts’ cravings with the launch of the U.S.-spec E46 3-series sport wagon. Today, the 3 wagon is just as popular in Europe, and while still available in America, it makes up a minute percentage of overall 3-series sales.

BMW originally conceived the second-generation 3-series as a coupe, a sedan, and a convertible. A station wagon was never in the product plan, as BMW had never produced one before and couldn’t have imagined the demand. In fact, were it not for a truly compelling side project by one of the company’s employees, the world may never have known a BMW station wagon.

Starting with his personal 3-series sedan and a wrecked donor vehicle, Max Reisböck, an engineer in Munich, extended the sedan’s roofline and created a hatch-style rear door using the original rear window, and rear side glass from a coupe for rear quarter windows. He crafted nothing new, instead modifying existing factory pieces to achieve his goal.

Upon completion of the project in just six months of his spare time, he showed his work to his bosses, who undoubtedly saw potential in adding this configuration to the wildly popular E30 range. Only a handful of minor changes were made to the original design to make the wagon more usable, and for 1988 the 3-series Touring came to market.

The clean, simple lines of the E30 3-series lent themselves well to the straightforward conversion to a wagon. The end result was handsome and somewhat more practical than the 3-series sedan on which it was based, but it was hardly a large wagon. Nevertheless, the Touring proved popular in Europe, even if only as a lifestyle statement.

Engine options abound for the E30 Touring, ranging from a 100-hp 1.6-liter four-cylinder 316i to the venerable 325i with its 168-hp 2.5-liter six. A lone diesel, the six-cylinder 324td, was offered in addition to 1.8- and 2.0-liter gasoline fours. Rear-wheel drive and a five-speed manual were the standard drivetrain, though a four-speed automatic was also offered. All-wheel drive was available only with the gas six-cylinder engine as the 325iX Touring, perhaps the Holy Grail of factory-built E30 wagons in the eyes of enthusiasts.

BMW produced the E30 Touring into 1994, long after the other E30 models had been retired. In total, BMW built more than 103,000 examples of the original 3-series wagon. Naturally, the most desirable for many enthusiasts happens to be the least available – the 325iX, of which only 5273 units were built between 1988 and 1992. Fortunately, most of those were made in the earliest eligible years (1988 and 1989) for personal importation to America.

In recent years, a handful of E30 Tourings have slowly made their way into the U.S., many of them having come through Canada first, perhaps occasionally registered as sedans. Now that this model has officially crossed the 25-year barrier, it makes an attractive and fairly affordable personal import that can be used and enjoyed on a daily basis.

Choosing a 325i or 325iX version makes for a fairly easy car to simply maintain and enjoy, with a healthy aftermarket for parts and accessories Stateside. Finding a clean example with an excellent body may be a bigger priority than being picky about which engine it has since engine swaps are pretty popular in the E30 community. Fancy an M3 wagon? No problem, it’s been done. Perhaps a more powerful six-cylinder from a later 3-series? Piece of cake.

Anyone familiar with the U.S.-spec E30 should feel right at home with a Euro-spec Touring. Differences largely come down to trim items like lights and bumpers, plus the array of funky-patterned cloth upholstery in lieu of our preference for leather or vinyl.

While popular in their day, many were presumably used hard and discarded when retired, based on the limited number of listings for sale. Of those listed on Autoscout24.de, almost all have covered 100,000 miles or better. Also, as you might expect, the Touring is a popular platform for modifying, so search carefully if you’re looking for a clean, original example.

6 Reader Comments

  • 1
    Joe Brown United States July 30, 2014 at 11:23
    I would like to see an article about what it takes to actually buy a car in Europe and get it shipped back home.
  • 2
    adam WA July 30, 2014 at 11:49
    But does Hagerty insure these?
  • 3
    HGM Michigan July 31, 2014 at 17:03
    Just a question - if the EPA and DOT allow one to import a 25 year old car without meeting the original emission standards, how about local people with 25 yr old domestic vehicles? Are those be exempt also?
  • 4
    Madam_S Overseas August 11, 2014 at 05:00
    HGM - Yes, domestic vehicles are "exempt" from EPA and DOT standards, because for domestic vehicles, the standards only apply when they are sold new. After that, they don't apply. Of course, if your state has inspections, that is different.
  • 5
    Andrew Staiano Kansas October 7, 2014 at 13:33
    Great article. What's the best way to get a legitimate appraisal of a clean E30 Toruing that's been imported and titled in the US already?
  • 6
    J Estonia July 17, 2015 at 06:05
    One for sale in Europe: http://www.bimmerforums.com/forum/showthread.php?1358368-E30-Touring/page2&highlight=e30+touring

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