The E30 bug bit me four years ago, almost to the day. I’m glad it did, and I love the one I own. I knew BMWs already, and had always appreciated the E30, but now I consider it amazingly transcendent. We often hear arguments about our favorite BMW models, and discuss “the last great BMW.” During those arguments, I don’t think I can recall many people saying, “Those E30s—those were never any good.”
So what is it about the E30? It came in coupe, sedan, convertible, Touring, and of course M3 variants. It even came with all-wheel drive. I was at an E30-focused meet the other day, the Covid-style adjustment for the perennial Southern California Dockweiler Beach meet (held elsewhere this year), and as I watched E30 after E30 roll in, I figured that this was the place to find out what stirs the passion that surrounds the E30.
One common theme that I love is that there is not a common theme. People like their E30s for different reasons.
One of the first E30s that rolled into the not-at-Dockweiler meet was Anthony Day’s E30 convertible, which he’s owned for six years. “I bought my E30 when I was 23,” he said. “It’s such a blessing having this car. I’ve met so many radical people and learned valuable life lessons through the E30 community. My dad and I have bonded and become closer over years of working on it together. I wouldn’t trade this car for the world.”
On another end of the spectrum, Ryan Castro of Motorsport Hardware races an E36 M3, but he also has an E30 track car often seen at automotive playgrounds like Buttonwillow, Chuckwalla, and Willow Springs. “I grew up an E36 guy,” he says, “but I’ve had four of each, the E36 and E30. I started playing with E30s and noticed what a good value they were. I enjoy how lively the car is; it’s as analog as you get without being ’70s-vintage, sort of the crown of ’80s-era-type cars. I really like them, because although they generally lacked power, you can bridge that gap with driver skill. The E30 doesn’t have the 50:50 weight balance of an E36, so the rear end likes to come around. This is the fun car; it teaches me how to be a better and faster driver in the slower car.”
Castro’s E30 might be the “slower car,” but even so, his runs a three-liter S52 engine on AST coil-overs and some wide tires under flares.Even though I was at a meet in Southern California, I know that the E30 culture is alive and well throughout our country (and the world), highlighted by the E30 Picnic in Washington and amazing passion all over. I checked in with Esteban Valentin in Florida, who, if I recall correctly, found his E30 325iS while at the 2019 Oktoberfest in Greenville, South Carolina. “What inspired that purchase was the history behind the model,” Valentin explained. “While the E30 M3 set the benchmark, it’s out of reach for me right now, but I wanted to experience what the chassis and drive of an E30 offered. With its nicely tuned suspension from the factory, a limited-slip differential, and the M20 engine, it’s a perfect dance between power and chassis balance, making it extremely fun to drive.” Sure enough, there were a few of those benchmark E30 M3s that rolled into the meet that day. I checked in with another BMW CCA member, Ben Lau, to hear what drew him to his M3s. “The E30 for me is an old car that never disappoints,” Lau said. “I like this car because of the history, the looks, and especially because it’s not an oversize car like we see these days.” Lau has had his current E30 M3 for four years, going with white after his earlier black model. (He also has an incredible BMW 1600 that might make it here in another column someday.)
It’s interesting to hear how people get turned on to BMWs—in this case, the E30. Matthew Angwell wasn’t too far behind Day pulling into the meet that Sunday morning in his 325is. “What really fueled my passion for E30s goes back to high school,” Angwell recalled. “A friend of mine had a Schwarz 318i. We would always grab our boards and take the E30 to different skate parks. I acquired my first E30 for free from my dad’s friend, but that one had a seized motor. Then I bought an automatic 1990 and swapped in the other car’s manual transmission. I sold that soon after and got my current E30. Meeting all my great friends has helped continue my love and passion for the E30.”
That’s not a bad history with E30s—especially considering that this BMW CCA member is only 23.
Speaking of history, how does more than 300,000 miles sound? I know a number of you out there have some incredible mileage stories, too. Leo Farjid, the current organizer of the Dockweiler meet, has owned more than 35 cars but loves his high-mileage white 318iS. “I had owned plenty of newer BMWs,” he says, “but after riding in my cousin’s E30 years ago, I was surprised and intrigued. I got my E30 in 2006 from a BMW CCA member and have owned it ever since—a new record for me for ownership, too! I’d have to say this is the most well-built and robust car I’ve owned. It really needs nothing but basic maintenance. I’d say support and enthusiasm for the E30 really comes from the bang-for -your-buck dynamic; it’s still very affordable for what we get.”
I’ve known that the 325iX is a fantastic E30 model, but mostly from following the all-wheel-drive escapades of Kirkland, Washington, resident Samantha Turner (@allwheeldrivebimmer) on Instagram. “I’ve had my white 325iX for seven years, but remember being amazed the first time I took it in the snow,” Turner said. “I couldn’t believe how it handled. I drove it up a hill with a curve in the parking lot at Steven’s Pass, and the rear end started sliding out. I just turned the wheel a bit and accelerated and the car pointed straight as an arrow. I remember one time helping a lady in her SUV out of the snow in a parking lot and then hopped in my car and pulled out in the fresh snow with no problem.”
Turner likes her manual Alpine White 325iX so much that she just added an automatic Diamond Black 325i to the stable, too!I can get behind playing in the snow like that, but I’m also a wagon fan. Craig Borja has a beautiful right-hand-drive 325i Touring I first saw on the lawn at Legends Of The Autobahn in 2019. “I have always loved the E30; it was my era growing up was the ’80s and ’90s,” Borja says. “I had always dreamed of having a 325i or a 318i. Then, when I saw an E39 Touring, I knew I wanted a wagon, but not an E39. I wanted something unique, something that I had never seen. Then I saw it: It was at the Pomona Car Swap Meet owned by an enthusiast who got it from a collector who imported it from the U.K. I saw that steering wheel on the right side and knew I had to have it. I bought it without even driving it. I didn’t even negotiate. It feels really good being able to have a gem I always wanted, and now being a part of the BMW CCA. I have a great car that I can share with many who can appreciate the E30 right-hand-drive Touring, too!
I absolutely love all the different varieties of the E30, but more important, I love the enthusiasm in the E30 community. I didn’t even cover all the fun modifications people do to their cars, including engine swaps of S52s, S54s, BMW V8s, LS motors, and even the Toyota 2JZ (Tino Fauatea, I’m looking at you!). And if you all think I’m neglecting the not-for-the-U.S. 320iS model, fear not: I saw one today—and it was awesome, too.—Kyle van Hoften
[Photos courtesy Kyle van Hoften unless otherwise noted.]