Few BMWs have attracted the same widespread affection from enthusiasts as the E30-generation 3 Series. Built between 1982 and 1994 (depending on the market), this small and square style icon was the entry point to yuppie-dom for thousands—and for many more, it was their gateway to the pleasures of European driving dynamics.
Throughout its long production run, the E30 would be available in a wide range of body styles and with a varied selection of drivetrains. Its mission statement was sufficiently broad, encompassing both BMW's desire to conquer the American luxury market while also serving as the focal point for its factory racing efforts. The humble 3 Series would spawn more than a few icons (M3, 325is) in its decade-plus run, displacing the easily forgotten E21 generation that came before it while carving out a fresh identity for the brand around the world.
As might be expected from a vehicle with such a diverse number of models produced, pricing for the E30 is all over the map. Our Hagerty Valuation Tool says you'll pay around $10k for a modest four-cylinder or six-cylinder driver-quality sedan with an automatic transmission, and up to 15 times that amount for a concours-ready M3 coupe, a homologation special that's currently in the stratosphere when it comes to pricing. The Spec E30 road racing series and a surging interest in these cars has driven up values even for ratty examples, so the time is now if you want to get in just above the ground floor on the most popular 3 Series.
How can you avoid the dregs of the E30 universe while snagging a car you'll enjoy driving–and not have to dump a ton into maintenance in the process? We talked with some of the country's leading BMW experts about the quad-headlight 3 Series to get their advice on what to look for when it comes time to buy.
Something For Everyone
The 1982–1994 BMW 3 Series was offered as a coupe, sedan, convertible, and wagon (also known as the Touring model). The latter was never officially imported to the United States, but given their age, they are increasingly found for sale thanks to the 25-year exemption rule. There are two distinct versions of the E30: those built between 1982–87, and those offered from 1988–94. Even within these subdivisions there are variants, which we'll get to later on, as America was a little slow to adopt all of the changes that filtered down from the Euro market.
A note about those last few years of E30 production–only the convertible and Touring lingered from 1992–94 because the next-generation E36 sedan and coupe replacements were introduced after the ‘91 model year. It's also useful to note that the American-market starting point for the E30 is the 1984 model year.
Models were named loosely after their engine size, with a suffix (i, e, es, is, or ix) providing further details. The near-ubiquitous “i” stood for “fuel injection,” while “e” denoted “economy.” A trailing “s” denoted “sport,” while an “x” revealed the presence of all-wheel drive.
Initially, it was coupes-only, with 318i (four-cylinder) and 325i (six-cylinder) models leading the charge. 1985 brought the addition of the sedan, followed by the convertible in '86 and eventually the wagon in '88. The M3, built so that BMW could participate in touring car racing, also debuted in 1988.
While searching for a 3 Series to buy, you’ll encounter sub-models such as the 325e/es (1985–87), 325is (1987–91), and 325ix (1988–91). Tuners such as Hartge would also try their hand at special edition E30s, and there is, of course, the Baur “fixed-roof” convertible model that was available prior to, and for a brief time during, the existence of the factory convertible. These round out what was sold at American dealerships, and while there exists a splendor of Euro and South Africa-only E30 models, they are beyond the scope of this buying guide.
Globally, there exists no shortage of these cars: more than two million were built. Just under 350,000 of those were sold in the United States. In America, 318i models are by far the most common, followed by the 325i. Outliers include the M3 (only 5115 sold here, out of just over 17,000 worldwide), the 325ix, and the 318is.
All BMW E30 models have their VIN stamped on the passenger side of the firewall (below the cowl vents and wipers), while U.S. models also feature a VIN plate on the dashboard. You may or may not find VIN stickers elsewhere on the vehicle, depending on how the BMW in question made it into the country, if it has been repainted, or if it has had certain body panels replaced.
"There are at least 15 places where we check for the VIN when we're inspecting an E30," explains Eric Keller of Cincinnati, Ohio's Enthusiast Auto Group, one of the country's best sources for top-tier E30 M3s. "The front bumper, fenders, hood, engine head, transmission, doors, quarter panels, rear bumper, dash, trunk, firewall, driver's door jamb. Add another two doors if you're looking at a sedan."
If you're really lucky, you may even discover the original build sheet stuck to the bottom of the rear bench seat pad. There is also a build plate affixed to the passenger side shock tower.
The VIN is 17 characters long, and starts with a W to indicate that the 3 Series was manufactured in Germany, followed by a B to denote it's a BMW Germany vehicle, then the letter A (passenger car) or S (M3). The next few steps are where it starts to get complicated, because BMW built the E30 for a global market which led to a lot of overlap in coding. Characters four through seven denote the model itself, and rather than dive down the rabbit hole of conflicting letters and numbers, it's better to check one of the many convenient online decoders available for BMW VINs. These decoders will often also provide descriptors of the specific option codes listed on the automobile's data sheet.
Choose Your Engine Wisely
The BMW E30 was offered with a variety of fuel-injected four-cylinder and six-cylinder engines, each an inline design. As mentioned above, the number on the back of the car loosely ties to the displacement of the engine under the hood.
The two most common engines are the M10B18 1.8-liter four-cylinder (318i), which produced 105 horsepower and 107 lb-ft of torque, and the M20B25 2.5-liter six-cylinder (325i, 325is, 32ix), which was good for 168 horses and 164 lb-ft of torque. The M20B25 appeared in America in 1987, while the M10B18 would disappear from the U.S. market around the same time. Later 318is models switched to the M42B18 edition of the 1.8-liter four-cylinder motor, which was good for 134 horsepower and 127 lb-ft of torque, while the M3 was offered with the S14B23 2.3-liter four-cylinder (twin-cam, four-valve) with just under 200 ponies and 177 lb-ft of torque.
Earlier i-less 325/e/es models feature a larger-displacement 2.7-liter six-cylinder (M20B27), also known as the eta (the Greek name for the letter e), that was aimed at keeping revs low and torque high, and preserving fuel economy. It produced between 122 and 127 horsepower, and up to 177 lb-ft of torque, depending on model year and trim.
The M20 is notorious for requiring fastidious timing belt maintenance. An interference design means that if the belt snaps, the engine lunches its valvetrain, so respecting the 50,000–60,000 mile (or five-year) interval is not optional. It's worth it to simply replace the belt immediately upon purchase if the vehicle comes with no record of it previously having been done. Typically, the water pump is replaced at the same time.
"The M20 doesn't have a lot of issues, aside from the oil leaks that you'll discover with any engine of its era," says Keller. "The S14 is probably the most durable and reliable of the E30 motors. If it's had high quality maintenance from a diligent owner, is easily a 300,000-mile drivetrain. We've seen that at our shop a fair number of times. The M42 is known for being more problematic–including a profile gasket failure that's a big, in-depth job to tackle."
"The eta motors are extremely reliable, too," agrees Mark Dikeos of Pacific Motorsports, which is based in Portland, Oregon. "One thing to consider is that replacing an E30 engine with a more modern, 16-valve BMW mill is very easy to do. The S52 from the E36 M3 is a popular choice. Even the big M30 3.5-liter straight-six fits under the hood, too."
"We always recommend a compression test, whatever you are buying," explains Keller. "If you have a bad motor or a tired engine with low or irregular compression, it can be costly, especially with M cars. It's roughly $12,000 to $15,000 to rebuild an S14, for example."
Transmission choices for E30s across the board include a five-speed manual and a four-speed ZF HP22 automatic (very early 318i models came with a three-speed autobox). The 318i came with a Getrag 240 transmission in clutch-equipped models, while the six-cylinder cars used a Getrag 260. The M3 is outfitted with a Getrag 265, and although the European market offered a dogleg shift pattern, U.S.-spec cars do not.
The 325ix featured an all-wheel-drive system that was fairly advanced for its day (built by ZF), and had only a minimal impact on the driving characteristics of the car thanks to a limited-slip center differential and a rear-biased torque split. The viscous center differential is known to wear out. Other considerations for this model include unique suspension components that don't always mix and match with rear-wheel-drive models, and transfer case and driveline components that are getting more difficult to find with the passage of time.
"The engine in the 325ix is actually different than the rear-wheel-drive models," Dikeos explains. "There are nuances in the block, and of course the oil pan is modified to allow for the passage of the front drive axles. BMW supports these motors to a degree, but parts availability on some of the older cars is spotty. They'll wait until there is enough demand and a part will be remanufactured again. It's up and down."
"The transfer cases are kind of weak–it's a known problem in those cars," continues Mark Norris of West Hills, California's Bavarian Workshop. "They can also be noisy. You'll also likely be dealing with a continuous drip between the transfer case and the transmission on automatic-equipped cars that simply won't go away."
Mechanically, the 325is brings an available limited-slip differential into the picture, along with a somewhat more aggressive spring and shock setup. The M3, of course, steps up with significant chassis, braking, and driveline improvements across the board. Many, if not all, of these parts are specific to that model, making interchange with a standard E30 almost impossible.
Common E30 driveline woes include oil leaks from numerous places (oil pressure sender, oil pan, oil cooler send at thermostat housing, rear main seal, rear transmission seal), steering rack leaks, and cooling fan clutch seizure. Also consider wear items such as shifter bushings, as replacing them can significantly improve the feel of rowing through the gears.
As mentioned earlier, it's possible to draw a dividing line between the first and second series of E30s at the 1988 model year. Typically, the later cars are more desirable than earlier ones due to their sleeker cosmetics.
The most obvious visual differences between these cars include a move away from metal bumpers (even longer in the “diving board” design that had been fitted to American 3 Series models), replaced by a body-hugging plastic setup painted to match the vehicle. Confusingly, there's an interim step for U.S. cars: in 1988 the bumpers were shortened before being completely replaced by plastic for 1989. Other important changes for the revised 3 Series included headlights, taillights, and front and rear valences.
"Small bumper cars are always more desirable," confirms Norris.
Several E30 models offer their own unique styling as compared to the standard coupe, convertible, and sedan body styles. The 325is and 318is feature unique bumpers, fog lights, and trunk lid wings (in addition to sport seats and steering wheels), while the all-wheel-drive ix comes with side skirts and fender cladding that is subtle, yet unmistakable when seen alongside a rear-wheel-drive model. The M3's aggressive aero package shares only its hood with the garden-variety E30 coupe, with even the rear window glass raked at a motorsports-appropriate angle not found anywhere else in the 3 Series family.
Perhaps the most unusual E30 body style is the Baur convertible. Built early on in the vehicle's run by third-party Karosserie Baur before the actual drop-top 3 Series appeared on the scene, it was never officially sold in the United States but frequently found its way there via grey-market importers. The Baur maintains the side glass and sheet metal of an E30 coupe but replaces the roof and rear glass with folding vinyl. Traditional E30 convertibles have a more familiar folding roof, and were also offered with a lift-off hardtop.
What to Watch For
Ready to inspect the body work and undersides of an E30? Rust is, of course, the primary concern. ”The license plate light area is one of the first places to check–take the two Philips screws out and look around in there," says Eric Keller. "Second most frequent spot for rust is the base of the windshields, and this applies to matter where the cars are from, because even California vehicles can have cowl corrosion. It's a sunroof drain issue usually, where they clog and hold water, typically behind the base or bottom front corners of the windshield. You can pull the rubber out with a little pry tool, or push down from the outside and feel the rust bubble through the rubber itself."
Keller notes that the rear of all four wheel arches, any unfinished parts of the undercarriage, and the battery box in the trunk are frequent rust spots, as well. He also cautions that many E30s have had their pinch welds crushed due to improper jacking or lifting, which creates crevices for gunk and moisture to hide and kick-start the corrosion process. "It's rare to find one with straight rocker seam lines," he says.
The good news is that body panels and interior trim are still available for the E30, without many headaches.
"There's not much that we don't have or can't get, in terms of parts, for the E30. That goes for the regular cars as well as the M cars," says Keller. "They made a pretty good amount of them, and a lot of stuff carries over between the three major drivetrains. Every HVAC controller is the same for any AC-equipped car, for example. Cars that have seen heat and UV are going to have shrunk and cracked dashboards, and those are becoming harder to get because so many are damaged at this point."
"The thing is, these cars are now all the same age, so they're all starting to show the same problems," says Dikeos. "The newest ones are 26 years old at this point. Make sure you choose the most complete car you can find, because it's easy enough to blow a few thousand dollars on factory trim inside and out when you start adding up stuff like side moldings and bumper parts."
"Wear should be proportional–cosmetics, drivetrain, interior–so if only one area is showing signs of abuse, others might have suffered in the same way," says Keller.
The 1982–94 BMW 3 Series is one of the easiest modern classics to own and drive. Handling is nimble and pleasant thanks to a low curb weight and responsive chassis that stands in stark contrast to the current crop of larger sport sedans and coupes, and while power is modest in anything not wearing an M badge, it's more than sufficient to deal with the commute and then later delight on a lively slice of secondary road.
The fact that so many of these vehicles were produced also means that parts are relatively plentiful, and affordable, so long as you stay away from the more exotic (ix, M) members of the family. There exists an enormous online community dedicated to keeping the cars on the road, modifying them for extra performance, and just generally appreciating perhaps the most popular BMW ever built.
Common sense remains the best approach to take when purchasing any classic car, and it's no different for E30s.
"When somebody says they got a great deal on an M car, it's a different way of saying they bought a poor quality car," says Keller. "A lot of people just don't know, because they don't have experience with these cars. They are the most at-risk buyer because he doesn't know what he doesn't know. If a deal is too good to be true in the M world, it's likely a scam or there's going to be things about the car that has big obvious needs."
"Buy what makes you happy–what you'll enjoy most," he continues. "Enjoyment is the right reason to purchase one of these cars, and the right thing to focus on. The E30s overall are great cars, with so many variants and body styles, and with the right care they are still excellent vehicles in a modern context."