Used car buying guide: BMW 3 Series (E30)
14 December 2020 - autocar
The little (by today’s standards) E30 BMW 3 Series ruled its class in the 1980s as a driver’s car. And it’s still in great demand, despite all the rust
Timing is everything, they say, and the 1982 UK launch timing of BMW's E30-generation 3 Series was spot on. Princess Diana's wedding the year before had given spirits a boost and, in a couple of years, enough lucky people would begin to feel richer, thanks to rising wages and house prices and a booming stock market. The classy, good-to-drive E30 captured the mood perfectly and, thanks to its wide choice of bodystyles (two- and four-door saloons, convertible and Touring estate), engines (four- and six-cylinder) and transmissions and decent level of equipment, it quickly became the motor of choice for a generation of pushy drivers.
Fast-forward almost 40 years and those same people, although now less pushy, are helping to rekindle interest in the E30, with the result that good ones now cost almost as much as they did when new and, in some cases, much more. You want an E30 M3, not covered in this guide? Depending on its condition and provenance, it will be between £40,000 and £190,000.
Fortunately, prices for less exotic but sound E30s start at about £5000, rising to around £12,000 for something like a low-mileage 1989- reg 325i Touring auto. Alternatively, you can get involved for £2500, about right for a tatty runner with rust, a patchy service history, a creaky cabin and malfunctioning electricals. Sounds bad, doesn't it, except that, if you're lucky, you might land something like our 'One we found' example, an honest motor with flaws but, at heart, as solid as a rock.
The E30 was a big improvement on its predecessor, the E21 (1975-1982), with more secure rear-drive handling, a much-improved driving position and higher levels of smoothness and refinement. However, despite its superior engineering and construction, it rusted just as badly. The 1987 update brought improved protection in this respect.
New buyers had a choice of four-cylinder 1.6- and 1.8-litre carburetted or injected engines and 2.0, 2.3 and 2.5-litre straight-six injected units. Power outputs were impressive for the time but nothing remarkable these days. You'll find a 316 and 318 pretty underwhelming. The rortiest engine is the 168bhp 2.5-litre straight six in the 325iS but look out, too, for the special 134bhp four-pot in the 1989-on 318iS two-door; it was the most modern engine in the range. We found a tidy 1990-reg example with 147,000 miles for £6750.
Given they were cheaper and the bigger sellers, the cooking 318i and 320i saloons are today the most numerous E30s, split roughly equally between manuals and automatics. Of the two, the 320i manual is the one to have but regardless, at this distance, condition is everything. Rust, particularly, will wipe away any smile. Convertibles, available in Baur-built and later BMW-built forms (the former retains the door frames) are reasonably plentiful but pricey. Definitely one to buy with your head rather than your heart.
An expert's view
Martin Skeet, managing director, Silsoe Classic and Modern: "I remember when the E30 came out. Compared with everything else on the road, it looked sharp, smart and sophisticated. The M3 is still a formidable car. Today, half the calls we get are for BMWs of this period, but they all have serious rust issues. I'd say it's the one thing you have to be wary of, and you should avoid any car with serious rust. Mechanicals can be fixed but rust is expensive to sort."
- Engine: These are old engines that require oil and filter changes on the button. The oil spray bar at the top of the engine gets clogged, so listen for noisy valve gear. Sixes need a cambelt change every 36,000 miles. Check for a cracked head and coolant loss. Fours need a new chain every 100,000 miles. Be sure that the aluminium heatshield that attaches to the firewall and runs under the car isn't holding water, causing the footwells to rust.
- Transmission: Manual 'boxes are tough, but feel for notchy changes. Ditto autos, but also check for leaks where the transfer case meets the transmission. The auto can be sensitive to fresh ATF fluid, but it's worth doing on a high-mileage car.
- Brakes and suspension: Expect to have to change brake lines, suspension bushes and anti-roll bar drop links. Suspension strut cups suffer blocked drain holes that cause them to rust out and require rebuilding.
- Body: Inspect the sills, wheel arches, base of the windscreen, valances and around numberplate light holes for rust. The battery tray in the boot rusts badly, too. Be sure the square lifting pads beneath the car haven't been used as jacking points, causing them to rupture. Where fitted, check the sunroof slides; repairs are expensive.
- Interior: Expect at least one of the comfort features (central locking, windows, warning lights, demister etc) not to work. Check the dashboard for cracks, seats for tears and floor for damp.
Also worth knowing
Being rear-driven, the E30 became intimate with more than its fair share of hedgerows. It's why, at best, you can expect to find some rear-end paintwork and, at worst, bodged structural work. Being a repaired Cat C or Cat D write-off need only be an issue if you're ignorant of the fact and haven't satisfied yourself that repairs have been done properly.
How much to spend
£2250-£3499: Ratty 316s and 318s with big mileages, tatty cabins and rust, but some gems.
£3500-£5499: Tidier cars, but still expect rust and patchy servicing.
£5500-£6999: Beware paying loads for average convertibles. We saw a 1992-reg 320i convertible with 117,000 miles and a good service history for £6500.
£7000-£8999: Expect zero body rust, an unmarked interior and less than 100,000 miles.
£9000 and above: The best cars, but you pay for it.
One we found
BMW 318i Auto, 1990, 195k miles, £2500: It's a BMW, so don't worry about that mileage. Instead, focus on its smart interior, smooth-changing 'box, new bushes and drop links, clean cam oil feed and new full exhaust system. There's some light rust on wheel arches and front valance, but it has a full MOT.