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.