The genius of the E30-generation BMW 3 Series was that there really was a variant for everyone. The range was so broad and diverse, it could tick any conceivable box: if you wanted a sensible family runabout, the Touring had plenty of boot space. If you fancied a sports car, the M3 was the Touring Car halo. The 318i four-door made for a frugal commuter. Combined with a design language that was crisp and has proven to be pretty timeless, the accessible price point made for a runaway sales success through the 1980s and into the early ’90s.
Naturally, as is so often the case with wildly popular automobiles, they tend to gradually transition from ubiquitous to scarce before anyone’s had time to really notice, and that’s the position we found ourselves in today: everybody has some kind of nostalgic memory tied up in the E30, because everybody knows somebody who owned one (or, indeed, they’ve owned them themselves in the past), and yet when we idly browse the classifieds for 1980s 3 Series, it becomes apparent that they’re not as fabulously abundant as they once were. The days of picking up an MOT’d running project for pin money are long behind us… but thankfully, as these machines pass into the realm of the collector car, it’s still possible to unearth cherished and original examples, ready to be pressed into reliable daily service.
The car you see here is a keen example of that, and being a 320i convertible, it represents a best-of-everything option among the diverse E30 range: with the 2.0-litre straight-six, it offers elements of both sportiness and frugality, and the open-top format means it’s a backroad cruiser… and yet there’s still a practical amount of rear legroom and boot space. This generation of 3 Series was an ingenious proposition and, in this particular spec, the 320i convertible is arguably the perfect E30. A consummate all-rounder, fulfilling every possible whim and desire.
When you’re looking at a car which is gracefully wearing this number of years, it can sometimes be hard to track down the history – the classics of the early nineties have often been passed around so many owners that the trail’s gone cold. But that’s very much not the case with this one. In fact, the E30 has been in the same family for a remarkable twenty-two years.
The original owner kept it for the first seven years of its life, only putting around 20,000 miles on the clock before selling it to the current owner’s father. So when you see that there are two former keepers noted on the V5, that’s who. The car was used and enjoyed for high days and holidays, generally garaged and always correctly serviced. Sadly the owner’s father passed away, and the E30 was then signed over to the son, who put it into storage for a number of years before exhuming and resurrecting it in 2018. The 320i received a new battery (as you’d expect), along with a new radiator, as well as a thorough service, and it was immediately ready for regular use again. It’s run faultlessly ever since, and the car has clearly been used as a practical family runabout rather than just as a recreational toy – on the day of our shoot, we found two sets of golf clubs and a large radio-controlled boat in the boot, so it’s evidently been serving the family well! Indeed, the BMW is a beloved and cherished member of the family, particularly with the deep emotional ties intertwined with its history. The only reason for selling, aside from the fact that they also have a modern daily driver, is the impending change to ULEZ regulations, which will soon make the car prohibitively expensive to keep in central London. If it wasn’t for that, the owner reckons he’d probably keep it forever…
The documentation which accompanies this car is scrupulously honest, if perhaps not the most comprehensive we’ve seen. Whereas some keepers will retain every receipt for every piece of work that’s been carried out, that isn’t the case with this car – although the bit you really need to know, for absolute peace of mind, is that the service history is complete and fully stamped, meaning of course that the impressively low mileage is 100% verified. The original manuals are present and correct – not just the service book, but the original owner’s manual too, and the manuals for the aftermarket audio system are also present. There’s a stack of old MOTs and, as a fun detail, the windscreen still wears a tax disc from the last time such things were required.
Picture in your mind’s eye the sort of interior you’d expect to find in a car wearing just 43,000 miles. That’s exactly the interior you find here – it’s all clean, straight and remarkably tidy, to the extent that it really does feel like a much newer car inside. All of the E30 design hallmarks are there, of course – the dash angled toward the driver being the key ingredient – and it’s something of a timewarp: the original leather seats are firm and supportive, none of the stitches are separating, the bolsters haven’t sunk. The dashtop isn’t suffering from the sun-damage cracks that so often plague these cars, and the steering wheel’s rim isn’t crumbling or corroding. In short, it’s evident that this car has been looked after, has spent much of its life garaged, and isn’t worn out simply for the fact that it hasn’t been used all that much – divide the mileage by the age, and it averages out to under 1,500 miles a year!
It’s worth bearing in mind that the convertible roof, which was once electric, must now be manually operated – this is most likely a motor issue and may perhaps require a specialist’s opinion; however, given that it’s the work of a few seconds to lift or lower the roof by hand, it doesn’t detract from the overall experience.
At some point in the car’s history, the audio system has been upgraded to run a Sony radio-cassette head unit with a 6-CD changer mounted in the boot. The owner points out that the front speakers are a little tinny-sounding, although aftermarket upgrades are cheap, abundant and easy to fit.
Inside the boot, the original toolkit is all present and correct, and the floor underneath the carpet is absolutely perfect – indeed, it looks brand new under there. The boot carpeting has come a little loose at the top edge, as is common with these cars, but would be easy to reaffix. The inside covers of the taillamps are a little scuffed, although only a pedant would notice! And the original BMW first aid kit is present too – but this is probably best used as an interesting piece of the car’s history and perhaps a prop or set piece at shows, as the contents will presumably have gone off a bit since 1991…
The exterior condition is incredible for a car of this age. Every panel is straight and sits true on its mountings with even gaps, and it all wears its original Alpine White paint. It’s extremely presentable and would be completely acceptable if one were to press the car into immediate daily use; alternatively, if the buyer wanted to turn it into a show car or collection piece (and the originality and low mileage would make it an ideal candidate), it would only take a short list of jobs to elevate it to concours standard. The only real area of concern is the rear window, which is noticeably cracked and degraded.
The convertible roof itself is in excellent condition, so it would be a case of replacing just the plastic window rather than the entire hood, and we’re informed by a specialist that this would cost in the region of a few hundred pounds to rectify. Aside from this, it’s only detail jobs to attend to minor blemishes: the original lattice-spoke wheels are in excellent condition, although they’d benefit from a new set of centre caps (three have been stolen, and the one that remains is a little corroded). The tyres are budget items, but have plenty of tread. There are a couple of parking scuffs on the bumper corners which are purely cosmetic and should be easily tidied.
The car is structurally rust-free and there’s nothing to worry about underneath – the only tiny rust spots on the body can be found on the driver door, one on the coach line below the mirror and a few on the inside edge at the rear of the door. These are minute imperfections and would be very easily fixed.
The engine bay is all impressively original, wearing its factory stickers and with all the original sound deadening still firmly in place. There are no leaks, rattles, smoke or troubling noises from the motor – it behaves exactly as you’d hope of a low-mileage engine that’s always been correctly maintained. It starts on the first turn of the key, idles evenly, and pulls strongly through the gears with that subtle and alluring rasp from the twin-tailpipes.
The automatic transmission behaves exactly as it should, selecting cleanly and at the appropriate times. These cars were fitted with a four-speed ZF auto, which features a selector switch to choose between ‘Sport’ or ‘Economy’ modes. All of this is working well, and there are no worries with the propshaft or differential either. Similarly, the steering, brakes and suspension are all spot-on. It really does drive like a far younger car.
What we’re looking at here is a number of different buying propositions at once. For a buyer seeking a reliable classic to use as a daily driver, it would be hard to find a car of this age that’s more original or boasts a lower mileage while still being thoroughly usable. If someone were after an entertaining toy for occasional recreational use, this would be the perfect thing to keep in the garage on a trickle charger, ready to capitalise on sunny days when they arrive, ripping back the roof and enjoying the B-roads in the sunshine. Or if somebody fancied a show car or an addition to a high-end collection, this E30 offers all the key ingredients: it’s impressively original, low-mileage, straight and solid, complete, never been crashed, can have its entire ownership easily traced… all it would take is a few weekends of honing and refining to get it concours-ready.
Whatever the approach or the goal, what this car offers in spades is pure honesty. It’s a well-specced example that’s always been cherished and looked after, and has been a beloved part of the same family for over two decades. What it needs now is for a new owner to embrace it into their own family and continue the tradition, appreciating this enjoyable classic for what it is: a desirable model that’s still thoroughly usable. It may be 29 years old, but its intriguing history still has many more chapters yet to be written.
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