My first year with a BMW E30 project car
While casually browsing eBay for a new hoover, an ad for a “Dolphin Grey” BMW E30 320i popped up in my suggested items. Having been a BMW fan for a number of years (with two E46s) and with a growing interest in classic cars, I was intrigued…
To be honest, I had been keeping an eye out for an 80s project car and E30s were a strong contender. This particular one stood out due to it being a facelift model, in a cool colour, with a leather interior, a 6 cylinder engine and a manual gearbox. Sure I wanted a 325i, but they were out of my price range at the time. I realised that if I didn’t get on the E30 bandwagon soon, they would all become unaffordable.
So the next thing I knew, I was heading up to London to “take a look”. Unfortunately for me, it happened to be raining – so I didn’t get as good a look at the bodywork as I had hoped. However, everything seemed to be in order and the seller was pleasant to deal with. On the test drive I realised that the car needed a lot of suspension work but the engine ran sweetly. It wasn’t long before I was smitten by the sound of the inline six, the smell of old leather and the 80s styling.
Assessing its condition
It wasn’t until I got the car home that I started to notice things that I should have checked more carefully (isn’t that always the way?). Because of the rain on the paintwork, I hadn’t noticed small rust bubbles under the paint in the scuttle panel (which sits underneath the windscreen). This is a classic E30 problem and usually involves a new scuttle panel. The boot pocket also was full of water – which I assumed had been sitting there for some time. I had tried to assess the sills and jacking points before buying the car, but had decided not to jack it up as a jacking point was missing (not a good sign). Turns out that these had been very badly repaired in the past (another E30 problem) and signs of rust were becoming visible.
For some reason, the power steering worked when turning right but wasn’t so great when turning left. The suspension was shockingly bad (and was probably the original 1988 shocks and springs). When accelerating you saw the sky and when braking you saw the ground. If anyone sat in the back seat, the tyres would rub on the arches as the car basically sat on its bump stops.
I decided that the first priority was the suspension as this would at least make the car safer to drive. After much research, I ordered a set of Eibach springs and Bilstein shocks. I also decided to change all the bushes and control arms while I was there.
The job was completed in a couple of days with a little help from my friends. Not too bad except for the task of removing the old shocks from the front struts. One of the collar nuts had completely rusted away which left no option but to cut it off.
The parts weren’t cheap but it totally transformed the car. The Eibach + Bilstein combination proved to be the right choice and the result was both a comfortable ride and exceptional handling.
After changing the tail light seals and checking the boot seal, I was stumped as to how water was still getting in to the boot. I realised that it was happening after a drive on wet roads and not when the car was stationary. This lead me to the conclusion that water was getting in through the rear driver’s side wheel arch and running down the inside of the quarter panel into the boot.
After a fairly miserable week of grinding, painting and sealing the inner rear arches, I was relieved to solve the problem at the source. I had expected them to be in terrible condition (as this is another common E30 problem) but thankfully, someone had already cut out the inner arch seam – so they could have been a lot worse. I realise that it’s likely that the car will need new arches at some point but hopefully this can coincide with a full respray (as a lot of metal work is required).
As my E30 came with very little service history, I had no indication of when the timing belt had last been changed. It was supposed to have been done every 10-15k miles. As the job looked fairly tricky (and easy to get wrong), I decided to get the experts involved. The car went into BMR Performance who have a lot of experience with E30s. They were really helpful in assessing it’s overall condition.
Turns out that the timing belt was the worst they had ever seen and was on the verge of letting go. They fitted a full new cooling system (including radiator, water pump and hoses). The old water pump had 1988 printed on it, as did the distributor rotor arm – not a good sign of regular maintenance!
As the power steering rack was on it’s way out, I decided to upgrade it to an E46 Clubsport one. This involved some custom plumbing and clearance issues so I was glad that BMR Performance knew what they were doing. The result is steering with 3 turns lock to lock (instead of the original 4) and fantastic feedback – so I couldn’t be happier with the choice.
Although the leather seats could do with a full re-trim, I’ve become attached to the aged leather look. Scott from SM Trimming did a fantastic job of upgrading the worn out drivers seat cushion with modern foam. This only took a few hours and I enjoyed watching the process (and seeing all the other wonderful cars they were working on at the time). As a result, my back pain is gone and the car is much more comfortable on longer trips.
Tesco car park
I try not to be too precious about my cars and realise that accidents happen. Sometimes, they are just so unnecessary though! I was sitting in my car in a Tesco carpark near where I live, when a rusty 4×4 pulled into the space next to me. Something about the condition of the car made me decide to move to another free space. As I was about to pull off, I watched in the passenger wing mirror as the owner of the 4×4 swung their door into my rear quarter panel. They then proceeded to lean on it while getting something out of the back seat. By the time I got out of the car, their door was firmly wedged against my paintwork!
After showing them what had happened (as they hadn’t even realised until this point), I told them that I’d roll my car backwards to release their door. As I walked round the car, I watched in horror as they grabbed their door and pulled! My quarter panel was dented and a chunk of paint was missing – down to bare metal.
Thankfully I was there to witness the incident and get their details. This lead to an insurance repair completed by Impact Bodywork which involved taking the rear window out, repairing and respraying the quarter panel and passenger door to blend the colour.
When I bought the E30, my intention was to do an engine swap. However, over this year I’ve decided to keep it original – as long as the current engine keeps running well. It may not be fast, but it sounds superb. Now that a lot of the mechanical stuff is sorted out (much more than I expected to do in the first year!), the next focus will be on bodywork.
While the car will need a full bare metal respray one day, this is well outside my budget at the moment. As such, I’m planning to focus on getting the sills and jacking points repaired and welded up properly. This is all covered in black stone-chip paint so won’t affect the overall paintwork situation.
Over time, I should be in a better position to decide whether this car warrants a full restoration or whether it will stay as an original, honest daily driver. There are fewer and fewer E30s on the road in the UK so it will be interesting to see what happens to the value.