Respect your elders. It's a sentiment you see expressed here again and again, on t-shirts, on license plate surrounds, on bumper stickers. Respect wisdom, respect tradition, respect those who came before you. Ordinarily, it's something older folks say, their words often falling on deaf young ears. But at the E30 picnic, it's the kids parroting the mantra.
A large but relatively informal car show, the E30 picnic is held annually at on the field near the Le May family collection, in Tacoma, Washington. Currently in its 18th year celebrating the 1982–94 BMW 3 Series, the picnic just keeps growing. In its first year, there were about 50 participants. Now that number is up to nearly 300.
If you're old enough to remember this generation of 3er debuting in Germany, then you will be the exception here. Not that there aren't more than a few graying BMW enthusiasts in the crowd, but at least half the attendees are of an age to have been theoretically conceived at a Justin Bieber concert. Their cars have stickers with Instagram handles, high offset wheels, and occasionally questionable modifications.
It's fantastic. Any baby boomer prone to complaining about young people not loving cars anymore or making Facebook posts suggesting a manual transmission is a “Millennial anti-theft device,” needs to pay attention to what's happened in the E30 community. Young men and women who've grown up as digital natives, steeped in social media and smartphones, have for some reason fallen head-over-heels for a blocky German sport sedan with four headlights and a trunk-full of Bavarian charm.
“The market's gone completely crazy in the last five years,” says Rob Graspy, owner of a well-kept first-generation M3. “I've always had old BMWs, and I've really noticed the change.”
Graspy's M3 is probably the E30 most casual enthusiasts would be aware of. A chunky little coupe with fender flares like 1980s shoulder-pads, it's a DTM racing hero that escaped the track and became an icon.
Among the featured cars here today is a very rare, grey market M3 Sport Evolution, worth well into six figures. It's probably as valuable an E30 as you're likely to find, but the burgeoning love here for the mid-80s 3-series isn't about rising market values.
The E30 picnic was founded by architect Lance Richert in 2002. A BMW fan since college days spent lapping local tracks, he noticed that local E30 owners often sat out typical BMW group meets and concours events. He conceived of the picnic as a relaxed way to hang out with fellow enthusiasts.
“I wanted to show people you didn't have to feel like you were driving an E30 because you couldn't afford a newer 3-series,” he says. “You could just enjoy driving one because you liked it.”
Simple in engineering, unfussy, and solidly built, the E30 is BMW at its best. Both the straight-six or four-cylinder engines are popular, and there are four main body styles to choose from: coupe, sedan, wagon, and convertible. That square design is totally timeless, a boxy Bavarian still vivid in the minds of those who remember how it single-handedly carved out BMW’s place in the American luxury market. (It was also the starting point for a variety of highly successful racing campaigns.) You'll also find rarities like the Baur TC cabriolet here today. Someone's even cut up an E30 into a pickup truck.
“They aren't making any more of these,” Richert says. “But they keep coming from somewhere. We're actually getting tight on space.”
Don’t forget, BMW built great deal of E30s. The picnic's Pacific Northwest home, where roads go blissfully unsalted, is ideal for preserving the metal. E30s are plentiful here, to the point that the chassis has its own racing series, Pro3. Essentially a spec series with slightly looser rules, Pro3 runs at a handful of tracks in the region, with fields as large as thirty cars.
“It's a great way to have a good 35-minute knife fight with someone,” Richert says.
With so many cars still floating around in decent condition, the E30 is an accessible classic. Owners find each other on social media, forming local clubs. Sometimes too, new owners crop up from families that brought their children with them to some of the earlier picnics.
One such family are the Mazurs, Rob, Sherry, and son Spencer, 15. They've owned their pristine 1991 325i convertible since the mid-1990s, and make hauling it out of storage a family affair. Sherry pops the trunk to show off a finishing touch that would please any dyed-in-the-wool BMW propellerhead: a fully complete rear toolkit.
“Even this silly plastic part,” she exclaims. “I had to scour eBay for ages to find it.”
The Mazurs are looking for an E30 for when Spencer has his license, but it's harder to find clean examples out there. E30s are getting snapped up right and left, and original cars are getting hard to find.
Wandering through the rows of cars, you'll spot flawless Alpina wheels, patina'd paint, and turbocharger kits lurking beneath front-hinged hoods. “There are so many S50 swaps here,” I heard tittering in my periphery as I meandered through the show. (S50 is the engine code for the straight-six for the second-generation BMW M3. E30 owners speak in a patter of alphanumeric slang for engines, transmissions, and chassis. If you know someone who loves BMWs, you’ve probably rolled your eyes at this.)
The picnic doesn't hand out awards. Featured cars each year are hand-picked by Richert depending on how good their story is. A few years back they included an M3 with 440,000 miles on the odometer, faded from the outside but flawlessly maintained. Next year it might be the E30 driven up from California by its original owner, a 75-year-old woman, the oldest owner here. Or it might be one of the heavily modified examples elsewhere on the field. “The young kids are just totally fearless when it comes to modifications,” Richert says.
Fearless yes, and a little rebellious. One car even has a window sticker boasting membership in the “Anti-Purist Car Club.” Yet there's a lot of deep-seated love here for the E30 in stock form.
On the way off the field, I stop to chat with Aaron and Nicole Kirkland, who are just locking up their white 318is coupe. It's got a few marks on the paint, but is completely factory-looking—unusual given its young owners.
Aaron talks about some driveline tweaks he has planned, but seems to want to keep the car just as it is. He bought it as a teenager, and it's been sitting for six years. This is the first time Nicole's ever ridden in it, and they're coming up to their third wedding anniversary.
“I even have an E30 tattoo,” Kirkland says, “My brother had a convertible at the same time. We got tattooed together before he went off to war. He got back OK—it's all good. He should be showing up here soon.”
Love. Respect. A little Bavarian car with a big heart. The E30's going to be celebrated for a long time to come.