Looking for an affordable summer classic? It’s a no-brainer.
It’s that time of year again. Pub gardens are open, the horse chestnuts are in their full glory, and a few lucky people will be able to hear the late afternoon joy of a song thrush recital, as the days extend into the evenings, heading for midsummer. So, that means its time to talk convertibles, rag tops, drop heads, drop tops, and cabriolets. Or to be more specific, we’re talking about E30s – ones without a roof.
Its my assertion that the E30 range ‘made’ BMW. With the eighties in full cultural swing – BMW had pinned their colours tightly to that mast – the E30 embodied the true spirit of the era. Not just the M3, although that car certainly played a big part, but all the different configurations. Aspirational, packed full of style, and much faster than their contemporaries, owning a 3 series marked you out from the pack. BMW didn’t need a big range of cars – they basically had the 3,5, and 7 – because the E30 was so many cars in one. It was so ubiquitous that production ran for 12 years during which time nearly 2.5 million E30s were born – a colossal number given the relatively expensive price tags. Cost-conscious family men bought the 316 saloon, sporty types bought the 325i coupes, wealthy sporty types bought the M3 and practical types bought the touring. If you were practical and lived in a snowy place, you even had 4WD with the 325ix – the first 4×4 BMW. But if you really wanted to be seen, were totally impractical and not at all cost-conscious, you bought the cabriolet.
But the drop top 3 series wasn’t that expensive. Compared to the rival Mercedes 500SL – a much more pricey range-topper complete with thumping great V8 engine options – the 325i cab was cheaper, with half the engine, at half the price. In its day, the SL was a bit of a car for the ‘merchant banker’ – in both the rhyming slang and actual senses, whereas the E30 would have been more for the merchant banker’s wife. There’s nothing that rhymes with that, so you’re OK. Not that I think the 325i cab is a girl’s car – I am the proud owner of an Alpina E30 C2, and although its not a big car, I never feel little when I’m driving it. And while it is definitely pretty, those quad lights do invest a fairly aggressive stance, only really as you move to the rear does it’s more elegant – even feminine – aspect become apparent. Compared to the SL now, with that same 5-litre V8 looking so primitive and unnecessary, the lines and form almost agricultural against the E30 with its nimble M20 engine, the E30 has aged incredibly gracefully. Despite being much more torque-y and less economical, the SL’s whopping V8 only turned out a pathetic 237bhp compared to the much more modern BMW straight six, which delivered 168 horses, in a much lighter body.
The main thing that struck me when I first drove an E30 drop top was the incredibly low level of scuttle shake, something that would put me off owning any convertible right away. I remember distinctly how modern the car felt, and what excellent road manners it had for a thirty-year-old car. I ended up buying it, and I still own it.
So, what’s it like to own one? Well, firstly, they are super cheap to run. Lack of use will always cause issues, with random niggles popping up and often disappearing again for no obvious reason. The roof can be an issue, and there are three types, manual, electric and hydraulic. All of them need you to release the handles at the top of the windscreen, and some of them need help stowing – which can be difficult if you have to be at the back doing folding, whilst being at the front pressing. New roofs are easy to procure and fit, the motors less so. The tension straps are the main cause of folding issues, and if you keep the roof up for too long, it forgets how to stow without a reminder or two. The rear screens go milky, but we have products to renovate them, which is easier than replacing the whole thing. The window motors get lazy. The seat mechanisms can slip and mess around, but they can be overhauled cost effectively. Parts availability can be patchy, but apart from the odd bit of trim – the usual BMW irritation of one part out of a set of eight being NLA – I’ve never been let down on a major issue.
But more than anything else, it’s a classic that absolutely looks, well, classic, without being stupid money. For around the mid-thirties you can still bag a seriously up-and-together 325i with well under 100k miles. And it will feel like a perfectly useable, daily driver – except you’ll be stopped at the petrol station, people will take pictures as you pass on the motorway, and you’ll realise that for a new generation of car lovers, the E30 is the mutt’s nuts.
Why hasn’t the whole world woken up to the E30 cabriolet, and why aren’t they more money? Over the last ten years, at Munich Legends, we’ve maybe seen a dozen you’d want to own. Sadly, it’s the same old syndrome – the low values meant people are reluctant to invest in long term maintenance. Thus more and more saveable cars get beyond reach, and the number left with the right potential diminishes. And as few recorded sales emerge, the prices don’t rise…and so the circle continues.
But just this last year, the trend seems to have reversed. Prices have gone up without going silly. Owners realise what a cool car they’re sitting on and commit funds to recommissioning their cars. Ownable cars pop up, and sell. Values strengthen. With stronger values people are more comfortable investing for the future. In my opinion, the E30 cabriolets are about to have their time – second time around. So, will I capitalise on the new-found love for this modern classic BMW? Would I sell my E30 cabriolet? Not a chance. But if you’re interested, I just might know where to find one…
Dan Norris, Straight Six Magazine by BMW Car Club GB (June 2023 issue)