It's hard to overstate the enthusiast popularity of the BMW E30, Bavaria's second generation of 3-series coupes, station wagons, and sedans. From the homologation special E30 M3 to European-only touring models and economical 325e models, every flavor has become a classic, with even high-mile varieties of the nearly 40-year-old model selling for upwards of $10,000.
This craze may seem peculiar, given the model's relative lack of power and amenities, but the feeling of analog driving is one that is priceless for many. Much like its predecessor models, the BMW 2002 and E21 3-Series, a lightweight construction paired with rear-wheel drive and a focus on driver engagement make these quirky coupes the antithesis of the computerized, comparatively mundane, and occasionally brutish driving experience that characterizes most modern vehicles.
That may sound harsh, but it also rings true after a 600-mile road trip in my new-to-me 1984 BMW 318i. When you hear of a running and driving E30 for sale through a friend-of-a-friend of a work colleague, you make an effort to traverse those relational boundaries in the name of a good deal—a $1500 deal to be exact.
Having seen a few pictures of the engine bay and significant rocker rust, I decided it looks good enough to fly out to Toledo, Ohio, and at least try to make it back to Brooklyn. Armed with a one-way plane ticket and two weeks to plan, what's the worst that could happen?
Anxious parents, BMW master techs, and the Pennsylvania State Police would all agree that a lot could go wrong—catastrophically wrong, even. Intrepid readers would disagree, stating that even a catastrophe is still an adventure nonetheless, while a more pragmatic audience would calculate the cost of turnpike towing, VIN shaving, and Greyhound bus tickets.
Though I personally side with the intrepid view, the prospects didn't line up in my favor, at least on paper. As such, some very specific planning went into this journey, in the name of thoroughness and calmed nerves.
After examining photos of the engine bay, I saw a few cracked vacuum lines and hoses, a run-of-the-mill problem on any aging car. Packing some additional vacuum lines was in order, but I also noticed a severely cracked hose connecting the idle control valve and intake manifold at a 90-degree angle. Along with this issue, the E30 and the following E36 generation 3-series were known for cooling system issues, specifically with the thermostat.
As such, I made a trip up to FCP Euro to pick up a series of specific hoses, a thermostat, and coolant system switches. If these specific parts were to fail, it's unlikely I could find a replacement quickly, relegating me to the Pennsylvania roadside for longer than I would like. A checked bag full of gear oil, tools, and warm clothes in tow, I was ready to go.
Brazen confidence can only take you so far, and I knew this before I even turned the key. As such, routing was also an important consideration. The straightest shot east would have been Interstate 80, but the Pennsylvania stretch of highway is relatively rural and had fewer BMW-specific repair shops.
If I were to have suspension issues, brake problems, or valvetrain failures, my tool pouch—and some pages of the Bentley manual—might not be enough. I chose to take the entirety of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, otherwise known as I-76, instead, with the hope that any potential problem would occur within proximity to Pittsburgh or Philadelphia, with ample Euro shops and plentiful alternate transportation back to New York.
I'm happy to say my ride home was uneventful—boring even—in a turn away from the involuntary cliche of many project car missions. Across the entirety of Ohio, through all of Pennsylvania, and eventually reaching sanctuary in New Jersey before crossing into Brooklyn's precursor (Staten Island), the 1.8-liter M10B18 four-cylinder never even touched the halfway mark on its water temperature gauge.
With around 101 hp and a 3.64 final drive ratio, pushing above 75 mph was a 4000-rpm, dashboard-rattling event, but the 2300-pound coupe was happy to sit at 70 mph for hours at a time.
Sure, there was a slight pull to the right and a significant shake through the steering wheel, but nothing aggressive enough to end the drive. Braking action was true to a hydraulically boosted system from the 1980s, with a squishy pedal and a noticeable bias toward the front discs. The radio was finicky, only working at full volume, but that didn't stop me from enjoying Muddy Waters and Beach House on cassette tape.
Did I just get lucky? In many ways, yes. Having lots of photos and prior conversations with the previous owner and car enthusiast colleagues meant my relationship with this car was somewhere between sight unseen and 40 years' worth of service records in hand.
The previous owner had driven it with some regularity, though he had taken ownership of the car by default when it was included with the house he bought.
That means the car lacked any real service records and hadn't seen highway mileage for years, and yet the engine started easily and idled steadily. The gears rowed smoothly, and the body was accident-free.
The plan for this car is to restore it partially to its OEM glory. Given the price and the prominence of such a car, I plan to keep it for years to come while I tidy up the rusty parts, fine-tune the drivetrain, and perhaps do a little ice racing.
And I invite you all to follow along, offering tips and constructive criticism as I learn how to make this E30 my own.
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