If you’re a gearhead, you can probably pick an ’80s–early ’90s compact BMW out in traffic, and call it by its factory designation: E30. But if you bought a new 3 Series sometime between late 1982 and ’92, chances are you had no idea what E30 meant. That’s because there was no reason to back then, when the 3 Series was the incredibly popular entrance point to “The Ultimate Driving Machine,” and the pretentiously unpretentious status symbol of yuppie America.
A quarter century since the last E30 rolled off the assembly line, that name — BMW E30 — has gone on to carry a lot of weight to a lot of people. Sure, there are still well-heeled old-timers who meticulously maintained their cars for all these years (mostly convertibles, it seems), but for the most part, the E30 has become the gateway drug to enthusiasts of all stripes. Its simple mechanicals make for an attractive first restoration candidate. Its wide range of powertrains means it can be set up as anything from a quick sporty car to a no-holds-barred track rat.
Search your local Craigslist, and if you’ve got $1,500 to play with and an urge to get into racing, autocross, or drifting, chances are you’ll be able to find a beat E30 within your budget. And if you love the little car’s crisp, Teutonic looks but demand the best, then you can join the club of collectors driving prices up on the first-generation M3, arguably the best all-around performance car to ever wear the BMW roundel.
Today, the E30 is enjoying an incredible second act that puts it in company with the Volkswagen Beetle, Mazda Miata, Ford Mustang, Porsche 911, or Chevy Corvette: It’s important enough to be prized on its own merits, yet plentiful enough where it can be endlessly personalized. For something that started out as an object of exclusivity, the E30 has surprisingly become the car for the everyman.
The E30 hits that sweet spot in the annals of BMW design because it feels like the perfect bridge between the brand’s past and present. There’s no arguing that the car looks old now, but it’s easy to forget that its design stayed shockingly contemporary for decades. BMW’s Neue Klasse cars, which included the iconic 2002, were introduced in 1961 and would remain available in Europe until 1976. In 1975, BMW’s all-new entry-level car, the 3 Series, was introduced and was a vast improvement over the old car in terms of power, comfort, and efficiency. Despite being a success for the brand (1.36 million sold over eight years), BMW quickly began looking beyond the car, which was codenamed E21. By 1978, Claus Luthe (designer behind the iconic rotary-powered NSU Ro80 sedan) had penned an all-new 3 Series. In December 1981, the first of these cars would roll off the assembly line, and would be sold alongside the old models in Europe.
From a distance, the E30 didn’t look all that different from the E21. It was a little bigger, but it still had the full-frontal grille with four headlights and kidney grille, upright greenhouse with Hofmeister Kink rear windows, and a crisp three-box design. Since the E21 had a reputation for being squirrelly at speed, the new car was built with a focus on handling, which it would quickly become known for.
But there was more to the E30 than crisper looks and handling. Mercedes-Benz had recently introduced its 3 Series fighter, the W201, with the intention of offering a luxury compact with a similarly sporty feel to crush its smaller rival. At the same time, BMW was quickly moving upmarket, and the 3 Series was to be at the forefront of its push. What’s more, it had to be able to compete with the new Mercedes on all fronts. Introduced in the U.S. for 1984, the base 318i cost about $18K out the door, or around $41K today. In comparison, when the U.S.-spec E21 3 Series was introduced in the late ’70s, it cost half that. Nonetheless, the E30 was a massive success for the brand, and within a few short years, most American luxury buyers looked at Mercedes and BMW as equals.
At the end of the E30’s first full year on sale in America, Newsweek had declared 1984 “The Year of the Yuppie,” and the compact Bimmer would soon become yuppiedom’s official ride of choice. The Baby Boomers were now all out of college, and for thousands of people entering the white collar world and earning some money for the first time in their lives, they wanted to spend it on the finer things in life, including cars. If the 7 Series was the full-size car for the executives, and the 5 Series was for your boss, a 3 Series was the perfect way to convey your socioeconomic status and scream to the rest of the world that you have good taste.
1985 brought the introduction of the four-door sedan, a first for BMW’s compact model since the Neue Klasse’s disappearance a decade before, and a move that made the car even more appealing. In the U.S., there was the base 318i, with a fuel-injected 1.6 liter inline-four, good for 101 horsepower and 103 pound-feet of torque. Above that, there was the 325e, which had a 2.7 liter straight six under the hood good for 121 horsepower and 171 pound-feet of torque. Both models came standard with a five-speed manual transmission, though an automatic was offered as an option. For a 2,500 pound car, it was enough to make it one of the most engaging driving experiences at any price.
Over the next two years, the E30 transformed from sporty yuppiemobile to legitimate performance car. In 1986, BMW introduced the M3 performance variant in Europe. A track-focused marvel built to dominate the German DTM Touring Car series, it quickly became one of the most critically acclaimed performance cars of the decade. The U.S. market would have to wait until 1987 for it.
By then, BMW ditched the American-spec 2.7 for the rest-of-world 168 horse 2.5 liter straight-six. The 318 had been dropped, and the 325 was now the only model below the M3. Available as a two-door and four-door sedan, plus a convertible (a wagon, the Touring, was never offered in the U.S.), the car delivered performance at any price. 1987 saw more than a few minor mechanical and aesthetic changes for the E30; other than the introduction of the all-wheel drive iX cars in 1988, they would be the last major updates the car would see.
In June 1994, a Touring model like the one above rolled off the BMW assembly line. It was the 2,339,250th and final E30 built. Its replacement car, the E36 3 Series, took nearly 10 years to develop and was quieter, more luxurious, and more contemporary, just like its predecessor was 12 years before. And while that car proved to be even more popular (over 3 million sold), the E36 seemed to prioritize comfort over performance, creating a small number of E30 purists who began to swear that they don’t make them like they used to.
That number has only grown over the years. Thanks to the huge worldwide availability of E30s, plus luxury buyers’ habit of preferring the newest model, the luxury market quickly became flooded with cars. As they aged and changed hands, they got cheaper and cheaper. Once that happened, they became available at almost any budget. It’s been that way for a while now, but it may not be for much longer.
The newest E30 is now 23 years old, and despite impressive production numbers, more cars are disappearing from the roads every day. For years, an E30 was usually your cheapest option for a reliable, rear-wheel drive manual car. Today, that’s largely been replaced by the E36. And now that the 2002 has gone from affordable classic to near blue-chip status, the second-generation 3 Series isn’t far behind. Concours-level M3s command well over six-figures, and even hammered on beaters are usually sold as “classics” now. Still, you can’t help but love being able to regularly find one of the best driver’s cars of an era for less than $2,000. At that price, it may have seen better days, but in 2017, it’s high time we save as many E30s as possible. We’ll be glad that we did, and our kids will thank us for it someday.