BMW E30 Buyers Guide



Turner Motorsport is dedicated to providing service, parts, and BMW content to enthusiasts everywhere. Our fixation with BMW allowed us opportunities to learn a great deal about each model and techniques to squeeze every ounce of performance from them. A positive side-effect of that experience is our overall familiarity with these cars and the ability to help you find the right BMW so you can start your next build. This week, we would like to share some of our knowledge about quite possibly one of the most popular BMWs of all time: the E30. With this brief guide, along with other additional resources, you will feel confident as you inspect potentially your next BMW.

E30s are unsurprisingly popular and increasing in value by the day. Even the ‘baby’ E30s like the 318i and 325e still fetch eyebrow-raising prices in good condition. As these vehicles age and fewer remain in good condition, those prices will continue to increase. Today is a great day to invest in an E30, but which one?

Common E30s Available in America

For those unfamiliar with the E30 lineup, let’s take a moment to run through each model variation and help drill down the best versions on which to focus your search. This guide will run through the models most widely available in America, so don’t be surprised if you are in the know and see a missing model. The American market saw realistically a fraction of the total variants produced and received even fewer engine options. The first E30s to hit American shores were the 318i, 325e, and 325es. The 318 featured a four cylinder while the 325e and 325es featured a 2.7-liter 6-cylinder M20. The 325i and 325is featured a 2.5 liter m20 with a higher red line, the most horsepower (besides the M3) and are ordinarily the preferred engine. The models are as follows:

Early Model:

318i M10- coupe and convertible

325e/325es M20b27- coupe and sedan

325i/325is M20b25- coupe, sedan, and convertible

M3 S14- coupe

Late Model:

318is M42- coupe, touring, and convertible

325i/325is M20b25- coupe, sedan, touring, and convertible

M3 S14- coupe and convertible (limited production)

While there seem to be a lot of different models available, they are all basically the same car with the exception of the M3. Currently, for those who live under rocks, the M3 even in scrap condition demands a premium price. If your sights are set on an M3, you need deep pockets. The S14 engine is one of the most expensive engines out there to restore and one of the most difficult to find parts for.

Noteworthy trim options to keep in mind are Mtech features like the Mtech steering wheel, body kit, or spoilers. These were mostly available on European cars, but parts can be easily sourced for a dedicated buyer. If you find a car with Mtech components, keep that one near the top of your list since original Mtech parts are quite desirable.

Now that we have broken down some of the models, we can move on to what you need to look for when you want to purchase your own. Before physically inspecting your E30 of choice, see if the service history and carfax are available. A lot of E30’s have been owned by enthusiasts and meticulous folks who keep detailed records of their car. The more you know about your specific E30 going into a purchase decision, the better. Don’t pass up a good E30 with unknown service history, but definitely err on the side of caution with E30’s that have little to no documentation.

Rust Inspection

The most important thing to remember is that the youngest of these cars are still 26 years old. Cosmoline was used to protect the cars from rust, but a few decades of neglect can be enough to rot these cars into the ground. Rust, especially in northern areas, is a big factor. Some rust can be easily repaired, like surface rust or rust on removable body panels. Rust in the floor pans, quarter panels, rocker panels, battery tray, trunk, and tail lights will need to be closely inspected since these areas are nearly impossible to repair if you are a novice. Floor pans, especially around the drain holes behind each front seat, are notorious for problem rust. Many E30s sport Flintstones-style holes in their floors, which makes them both structurally unsound and cars to avoid. Floor pans are No Longer Available so you would have to cut your own from a shell. Avoid the headache of rot repair and just say no to rusty E30s. Here is your rust spot checklist:

Jack points - one on each corner on the pinch welds

Rocker panels

Floor pans

Tail light bezels (exterior and behind the carpeted beauty cover in the trunk)

License plate light bezels

Battery tray (one in the trunk on the passenger side, one in the engine bay on the passenger side)

Sunroof area

Rear shock tower mounts

Rear subframe

If your prospective E30 is rust-free in those locations, or at least only sporting some minor cosmetic rust that can be dealt with easily, then you can begin to inspect the car further.





Interior Condition and Electronics

Check Panel

Check the function of all interior features. Turn on the car, use the power windows if your E30 is equipped with them, cycle through the functions of the OBC, and look at the check panel above the rear view mirror. The check panel is one of the E30’s best features as it will actually tell you a lot about the car. A simple wire connected to a light bulb will indicate low oil, low coolant, headlight and taillight failures, and other key information. The coolest part about those check panels is that they are deadly accurate. Unless a sensor has been disconnected, it can’t be wrong. So don’t ignore an ‘oil’ or ‘coolant’ light, as these mean there is less fluid than the system requires. Trust the light.

Gauge Cluster

Look at the cluster and see if the oil service lights have been reset, make sure the odometer gears work, and look for any indicator lights. Like the check panel, your check engine, ABS, brake wear sensor, and other warning indicators are quite accurate. It is up to you whether working ABS and cruise control are must-haves, but it is still an excellent idea to check both regardless.

Upholstery, Headliner, Carpet

Be sure to look around the cabin for excessive wear and tear. Factory E30 interiors in good condition are rapidly rising in prices, so keep that in mind if the E30 you are considering has a rough interior. Be sure to look at the carpet for excessive wear and stains. Pull up the carpet in the rear and look at the floor pans from the inside. If your car leaks water in the interior, a dead giveaway will be surface rust under the carpet or wet carpet foam. You may want to consider before you buy the car whether you want a clean factory interior or to strip the car out and install bucket seats. If you plan on upgrading the car for racing, we have some safety suggestions and steering wheel suggestions you will want to read.

Dashboard

It is critical that you inspect the dashboard. These are notorious for cracking and can make or break any interior. A cracked dash is not a big deal, but you will probably need to do a fair amount of searching before you find a replacement. When/if you do find one, be ready to shell out a few hundred bucks and spend several hours on the swap.

HVAC

If the interior condition meets your expectations, then move on to inspecting the HVAC. Make sure it blows hot air and if the A/C works, see if you can get cold air. These were all R12 systems, so recharging will not be easy. Converting to R134 is possible and can make daily driving your E30 immensely more comfortable.

Radio

See if your antenna works by turning on the radio. Play some music through the speakers if possible. Though easy to replace, a big kicker for any car that is intended for road use is a working sound system.



Under The Hood

Cooling System

With the interior and all interior functions checked, the E30 should have been running for more than a few minutes at idle. Check your temperature gauge and watch it closely. No E30 likes to sit for too long, but it should still stay in the middle (~165 degrees Fahrenheit) on the dial. If the temperature starts to creep up, you can expect to have one of a number of issues with the notoriously weak cooling system. A bad fan clutch, broken auxiliary fan, clogged radiator, failing head gasket, or stuck thermostat can all be possible causes for cooling issues in these cars. Regardless of the E30’s cooling system function, we recommend that you refresh the car upon purchase. New hoses, a new thermostat, possibly a new surge tank, and possibly new radiator along with fresh coolant should be high on your list unless they have been recently serviced.

Engine Bay

The next area to inspect if the cosmetics and interior are to your liking will be the engine bay itself. Keep an eye on the ground for any leaks while the engine is running. This is a good time to test your fan clutch as well. Take a rolled up newspaper (not too tight, just loosely rolled like you would use to swat a fly) and hold it to the spinning fan. If the fan stops, your fan clutch is bad. If the newspaper is shredded, your fan clutch is doing its job. Listen to the engine as well. Too much lifter noise will mean a valve adjustment is needed or that there could be valvetrain damage.

Timing and Water Pump

Look for a timing belt service sticker if you don’t have the vehicle’s service history. The timing belt and water pump should be replaced every 60k miles or seven years and can mean life or death for your engine. You may luck out and find that the belt has been replaced recently, but if you don’t see a sticker or have the history, you will want to go ahead and do that service.

If your engine seems to idle happily without too much chatter, give it a rev and check the condition of the engine mounts. If your engine torques over heavily, you will want to replace those mounts.

Before You Drive

After checking to make sure the engine is going to stay in the car for your test drive, go ahead and close the hood and hop back in the car. Now is time to check the transmission and clutch. Each gear should engage smoothly and the shifting mechanism should feel tight. Shift bushings and the carrier bushing are easily replaced and make shifting gears much more pleasurable and easier, but see if your car will need them by rowing through the gears a bit before you drive off. Then, put the car in third gear and try to let the clutch out and drive. If the car starts moving forward, it is probably time for a clutch and accompanying accessories. This is not a terribly demanding job, but it is also not exactly the easiest DIY procedure if you are new to working on cars. Proceed with discretion if you think the clutch or transmission will need to be replaced immediately upon purchase.


The Test Drive

Parking Lot

If the car moves under its own power, give it a drive around the parking lot or neighborhood slowly before taking it on some real roads. You will want to listen for any squeaks from wheel bearings, do a tight-radius turn and see if the power steering protests, and listen for the telltale pop of a bad tie rod or ball joint. Once you have circled the parking lot, go ahead and hit the road for a real test drive.

Around Town

A best practice is to drive the car hard. An easy way to check for any problems in the suspension, brakes, or drivetrain will be to give it a hard test drive. Accelerate quickly and bang through the gears. You can quickly determine the condition of the drivetrain mounts and Giubo in the driveshaft by doing so. If you feel clunking, especially from the rear, you will definitely need to service those bushings and mounts. While not the end of the world, this can be a good point to bring up to the seller when you return from the test drive as replacing the bushings and mounts means a good bit of work after you take the car home.

Brake Test

From about 60mph, hit the brakes hard. If your pedal starts going to the floor, chances are your booster and brake fluid are not doing their job. If the car pulls to one side or the other, then you may have uneven brake pressure or some worn suspension components. The brake stomp test will alert you quite obviously if there are any underlying issues you couldn’t visually pick out.

Highway Test

After the brake test, get out on the highway and cruise around. Watch your temperature gauge the whole time and see if it stays in the middle or starts to creep up as you drive it hard. Make sure the engine feels healthy at cruising speed and that the suspension feels supple over bumps. It should not feel floaty, nor should it feel too bouncy. E30’s with shocks, struts, and tower mounts in good condition are actually incredibly comfortable so a harsh ride will be a dead giveaway that suspension service is needed.

Feel for any excessive vibrations in the car. Sometimes, the suspension will feel great but the car will still have a shake. This can be a number of causes ranging from worn tie rods, worn ball joints in the control arms, a sticking brake caliper, imbalanced wheel, failing differential, or worn Giubos from the driveshaft or steering coupler.

If everything goes smoothly on the test drive, the car is cosmetically what you hoped for, and everything checks out within reason, there are just a few things left to consider before you make an offer on the car. When you get back, turn the E30 off and let it sit. After a hard drive, any leaks that may not have been able to drip down to the ground will definitely show themselves.


Final Inspection

Make one more pass under the car to check for those leaks, inspect the CV axles, and to double check for any rust you may have missed. After that, you should be good to make an offer. Remember, even E30s in the best condition will probably require some maintenance, replaced trim bits, or even possibly bodywork. The important factors are that it is rust free, mechanically sound, and the majority of its features function as they should.

Common Oil Leaks:

Valve cover gasket

Oil pan gasket

Rear Main Seal

Oil filter

Oil cooler lines

If you are considering a convertible or are lucky enough to find an imported touring, there are some other places to check as well. The convertible tops are still easy to acquire but are an involved process to replace. Take the car through a car wash on your test drive. If you get wet, convertible top seals and new canvas will be needed to drive the car every day. For touring, the hatch and hatch itself are both notorious rust spots. Check the hinges, around the rear glass, and in the jamb around the hatch itself.

Once you have picked your E30, found one that checks all the boxes for the condition, and have it home in your driveway, you can start with the maintenance. You should go ahead and invest in a few resources as well as some maintenance parts right off the bat. The Bentley manual is an invaluable resource and will help you as you work on the car, no matter the job. A timing belt kit, water pump, thermostat, coolant hoses, spark plugs, plug wires, accessory belts, intake gaskets, exhaust gaskets, valve cover gasket, brake pads, rotors, and oil service kit should all be purchased. These basic services done all at once will ensure your E30 stays happy and healthy for a long time. Once the maintenance is finished, you can start planning what to do with the car. Whether you intend to modify it for racing or showing, restore it to factory original mint condition, or just enjoying owning an E30, all your performance and maintenance parts can be found right here at Turner Motorsport.


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