Breakthrough (Part Two)

Concluding the story of the seminal BMW E30-generation 3 Series.


Sales of the new 3 Series, initially available in two-door saloon form only, started briskly around the end of 1982. Renowned automotive journalist Leonard (LJK) Setright drove the new 3 Series for the first time and reported his findings in the January 1983 issue of Car Magazine. Whilst largely agreeing with Georg Kacher’s assessment of the car, published in the previous month’s issue of the magazine, he took a more nuanced view of the handling issue.

Setright acknowledged that a base 318 fitted with the ZF three-speed auto was likely to be “a dull understeerer” but the more powerful models with a manual gearbox made full use of the “cleverly designed new suspension” which made the car “a very sharp performer in the corners, however blunt it may be in the wind.” The latter was a reference to the car’s bluff shape and unimpressive 0.39 drag coefficient, which made it “directionally less secure than I would have liked” at high speeds in a strong crosswind.

The four and six-cylinder engined cars were noticeably different in the way they drove. The former was “lighter and more responsive to the steering” while the latter “had the power to be more responsive to the throttle.” Overall, while feeling a little underwhelmed by its appearance, described as “a Three Series BMW, but nicer.” Setright thought the new car represented a significant advance over its predecessor in terms of handling, weight (the body-in-white was 8.5% lighter than that of the E21), fuel consumption (a claimed 12% improvement over its predecessor), safety and corrosion resistance.

In late 1983, a four-door saloon joined the range. This retained the profile and dimensions of the two-door car and the extra doors were incorporated neatly into the side profile. That said, it lost a little of the commendable crispness of the original.


In October 1983, Car Magazine published a ‘Giant Test’ of the 320i four-door, pitched against its nearest rival, the newly launched Mercedes-Benz 190E. In the comparison, both cars had notably different strengths and weaknesses. The 190E was adjudged the better because it was “substantially more economical”, felt “considerably more relaxed at speed” and “should offer a higher resale value”. It was “an utterly forgiving car” with “better balanced suspension and a much more advanced low-drag body.” However, it was still “far from perfect” with a “noisier engine, uninspiring dashboard and interior, huge steering wheel, rather slow gearbox and cramped rear compartment.”

Against this, the 320i was “quicker off the mark and goes faster round the bends, it feels nicer inside and is more inspiring to drive fast, provided you can cope with its still slightly iffy chassis. It is also quieter and has a more refined engine.” However, it was “marred by a lack of torque at low revs, too-high top gear coupled with an extremely tall rear axle ratio. It also looks unexciting, comparatively heavy on fuel and its ride comfort is middle-of-the-road.”

In truth, the car one would choose from this pairing really depended on one’s priorities. The BMW was more about driver engagement, the Mercedes-Benz better suited to relaxed cruising. Apart from the slightly arbitrary ranking, both manufacturers should have been reasonably pleased with the outcome of this comparison, with each car playing to its marque’s traditional strengths.

For those for whom fuel economy was a priority, BMW introduced a 2.4-litre turbodiesel six producing 114bhp (85kW) in 1983. The next development for the 3 Series was the arrival of a convertible version in 1985. Unlike the Baur Cabriolet conversion of the two-door saloon, with its roll-over bar and fixed side window frames, the factory-built convertible had no such encumbrances. Roll-over safety was achieved with strengthened A-pillars and windscreen header rail, and also the insertion of fixed quarter windows into the doors, the stout frames of which provided additional bracing for the A-pillars. It was a great looking car and, with no direct competition apart, perhaps, from the Saab 900 Convertible, it sold strongly from the off.


Also in 1985, the 2.3-litre six was replaced by a more powerful 2.5-litre unit producing 168bhp (125kW) and the model designation changed to 325i. There was also a 4WD version for the first time, dubbed 325iX, and a less powerful version of the engine producing 121bhp (90kW) tuned for economy and badged 325e. At the same time, a normally aspirated version of the 2.4-litre diesel was introduced, producing 84bhp (63kW).

The 3 Series would benefit from a ‘halo’ model to exemplify its sporting credentials, and this duly arrived in late 1985 in the shape of the M3. As is often the case with such models, the M3 was originally designed as a homologation special, to qualify the car for the DTM(1) German Touring Car race series, which required a minimum run of 5,000 road-going examples to be built.

The M3 was much more than a 3 Series with a more powerful engine and uprated mechanicals. Based on the standard two-door bodyshell, it was extensively revised in a quest to improve aerodynamics. A completely different rear end was designed, comprising wider C-pillars incorporating a faster angle to the rear windscreen and a raised clamshell-style boot lid which sat atop the rear wings, raising the rear deck by around 40mm (1½”). The new rear section was grafted onto the existing roof panel above the rear side windows.

All four wings lost their conventional wheel arches and were instead heavily flared from below the bodyside crease and from immediately in front of and behind the doors to the car’s extremities. The reprofiled wings were required to accommodate the wider 225/45R16 Pirelli P700-Z tyres on 7” wide wheels. A large aerofoil boot spoiler and aerodynamic front and rear combined bumper and valance panels, the front one incorporating a splitter, completed the changes, the effect of which was to improve the drag coefficient from 0.39 to 0.33.


Power came from a new 2.3-litre DOHC straight-four which produced maximum power of 192bhp (143kW) and torque of 170 lb ft (230Nm), mated to a Getrag five-speed manual gearbox. The suspension layout was broadly similar to the standard car but significantly revised in detail to cope with the much greater performance demands. The M3 was produced in left-hand drive form only.

Car Magazine’s Steve Cropley tested the M3 on British roads and his report was published in the May 1987 issue of the magazine. Cropley was, of course, hugely impressed by the performance, achieving a 0 to 60mph (97km/h) time of 6.8 seconds and top speed of 127mph (205km/h), but even moreso by the manner in which it was delivered: “the power is intoxicating, but the true strength of this 2.3 litre four is the immediate, sensitive, subtle nature of its throttle responses.” The handling was much improved over the 325i, partly because of the many tweaks to the suspension, but also because the four-cylinder engine’s centre of gravity sat further back in the chassis than the 325i’s six. Refinement was extraordinary too, especially for a homologation special.

The only significant criticism was reserved for the Getrag gearbox, which needed quite deliberate and precise gear changes. The unusual dog-leg shift from first to second was slow, an issue exacerbated for British drivers more used to changing gear with their left hand. Overall, however, Cropley concluded that “the enthusiast who buys an M3 will be helping himself(2) to the best-handling, and one of the fastest cars BMW has ever built for the road. The wonder is that it’s so mannerly and refined too.”

There followed upgraded and more powerful ‘Evo’ models, the ultimate being the Sport Evolution with a 2.5-litre engine producing maximum power of 235bhp (175kW) and torque of 177 lb ft (240Nm). This model had a limited top speed of 155mph (250km/h). Total M3 sales were just 17,970 cars, but the ‘M’ designation became talismanic for ’petrolheads’ around the world and sealed BMW’s reputation for producing some of the best driver’s cars ever. E30-generation M3s are highly prized today with the best examples selling for anything up to £130k.

1987 brought the only significant visual update to the E30, which was most obvious at the rear end of the car. New, larger tail lights were fitted, between which was a black finisher panel that carried the rear number plate. The chrome-plated bumpers were replaced by deeper plastic items, black on lower spec cars and colour-keyed with black rubber inserts on higher spec models. The front valance was also redesigned and different fog lights installed(3).


At the same time, the five-door Touring estate was launched, incorporating the saloon’s new styling features. This was rather more a ‘lifestyle’ estate than a serious load-lugger. The tailgate opening was restricted by the use of the saloon’s newly enlarged fixed rear light clusters. While a narrow centre section opened down to bumper level, this meant that any large or wide items needed to be lifted to the same height as the saloon’s boot lip to load.

If the use of the saloon’s rear light clusters looked slightly ‘homespun’, there’s a good reason for it: the touring began life in 1984 as an entirely unofficial ‘skunkworks’ project undertaken by a BMW engineer, Max Reisböck. The prototype was a converted four-door saloon which Reisböck built in a friend’s garage. When the prototype was shown to his bosses, they were sufficiently impressed to sign it off for production. The Touring was an immediate hit with buyers who appreciated its good looks and modicum of additional practicality. The arrival of the Touring completed the range and marked the last major change to the 3 Series line-up.

The E30-generation 3 Series was a hugely successful car for BMW. Total global sales were just shy of 2.5 million over roughly a decade. From April 1991 onwards, the E30 was progressively phased out as the new E36 3 Series took over. The last variant to be replaced was the Touring, which remained in production until 1994.

(1) Deutsche Tourenwagen Meisterschaft.

(2) Unconsciously sexist on Cropley’s part, although probably accurate.

(3) The convertible model would not receive these visual updates until 1991.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

31 thoughts on “Breakthrough (Part Two)”

  1. Good morning, Daniel. Thank you for the last installment of a car that’s very special to me.

    The 325e was quite unusual for BMW as it wasn’t engineered for high(ish) revs; it stops at 4,800 rpm. It also had a higher compression ratio, different cam, 4 crankshaft bearings instead of 7 and softer spring valves, all to reduce friction and increase fuel economy. The stroke was increased too, so it was actually a 2,7 liter. There was a sportier version of the 325e, called the 325es. I’m not sure, but I think it was a US-only model.

    There also was a 318is (M42). It had 16 valves, DOHC driven by a chain instead of a belt, compared to the M40.

    1. The 325/525e engine had seven crankshaft bearings like all other BMW sixes.
      What was reduced was the number of camshaft bearings which went down from seven to four to reduce friction. Together with softer valve springs this limited the revs. The 2.7 litres came from a combination of the diesel long(ish) stroke crankshaft and the 325’s bore.

      Italy got a 320 iS with the S14 engine from the M3 (as opposed to the 318 iS which was based on the standard four) reduced to two litres (180 PS) to comply with tax and driver’s license laws without the M3’s bodywork addenda. These versions are quite rare and a true Q-car.

    2. If the numbers I just looked up are correct BMW made of 2,540 2 door and 1,205 4 door 320is. I also thought it had 192 DIN horses, which would translate to 190 bhp.

    3. The performance numbers are correct The 320iS had 192 PS, close enough to the parallel M3 with 195/200 PS with/without catalytic converter. It was a pity the 320iS didn’t get the M3’s suspension tweaks.
      I never understood why BMW never made the M3’s suspension setup generally available as an option from their M range of extras. The main difference were modified front struts giving much more castor and better steering feel.
      In M3 circles the E30 M3 is considered to have the better chassis than the E36 with its on-paper advantage of the Z-axle.

    4. Now that you mentioned the M3’s handling: I remember an article in the Dutch car magazine ‘Autovisie’ about twenty years ago. Car journalists, racing drivers, etc. were asked their top ten of favorite driver’s cars. The E30 M3 was one of the few cars, if not the only one, that was on nearly all their lists.

      Around that time I had the opportunity to buy a good E30 M3 for around € 9k. I saw one for sale for € 109k the other day.

    5. My father-in-law had an E30 325i (an early example with catalytic converter which gave lots of trouble) which I had the chance to drive quite often. Another relative had four of five M3s as company cars for BMW mangers. The cars were leagues apart in terms of roadholding and handling.
      We once even went to Corsica for a week just to drive the M3 for the sake of it to have some serious fun. The M3 is a very secial and visceral experience. You get a dark and hard edged bark from the engine, instant throttle response and excellent and secure handling, something I missed in nearly all other BMWs I tried. The M3 also has particularly good steering.

    6. He of course had four or five M3s as company car for BMW managers.
      Typing with one hand in plaster is a challenge…

    7. Hi Dave. Sorry to hear of your mishap. How did it happen?

    8. I fell down the staircase with a couple of empty bottles in my hands.
      Of course I not only broke my hand, I also grabbed a good handful of broken glass…

    9. Oh dear, that’s bad luck. It must be very frustrating, not to say painful. Hope you’re not incapacitated for too long.

    1. That’s new to me, thaks for the info.
      Did it sell in relevant numbers? Was it seen as something special?

    2. It did sell in relevant numbers (as in they weren’t hard to spot), but those things are relative.
      Portugal is small, and in the 80’s the living standards were really low…
      I’m sure it was developed for Italy, and Portugal probably came as an afterthought.

      It was definitely something special over here, specially regarding the usual fare on our roads back then… Fiats, Renaults, Citroens, mostly.

  2. I´ve just seen a few 320is for sale in , the “cheapest” has an asking price of €30,000. The most expensive, €48,000. That was M3 territory three or four years ago.
    I do not dare to watch M3 prices.

    1. Rare M3 versions like Evo ‘Cecotto’ special editions fetch up to €130,000.
      Next to our family doctor lives somebody who uses a black mint condition M3 Evo as his daily driver in summer. What a way to spend your money.

  3. This being DTW, I strongly assume someone might be able to explain why E30’s door locks seem to be exceedingly deficient, resulting in a third of all surviving examples I come across being fitted with auxiliary locks (as per white convertible pictured above).

    1. Hi Christopher. My E30 320i convertible had that feature and, if I recall correctly, it wasn’t a supplementary door lock but a mechanism for arming the alarm. My 325i convertible had a different type of alarm that didn’t need that feature to arm it.

    2. I always thought it was an extra security feature to avoid thefts…the E30 should be one of the ´80s and ´90s joyriders favourites.

    3. It was a factory option at the time. I am working now, but I can have a look later in my old brochures to see how the extra lock works.

    4. The extra lock is the switch for the car alarm.
      No remote control and no integrated systems.

    5. Many thanks, gentlemen.

      Not a terribly elegant solution, coming from an OEM, if I may say so.

  4. There was a batch of new M3s converted to RHD, but I have no idea how many, or if it was done by an English or Irish dealer – the car I saw was in Ireland.

    1. I remember seeing in a car magazine an ad from a English BMW dealer, they sold brand new M3 and 325ix converted to RHD.

    2. Exactly, Birds (they were Hartge dealers, weren´t they?)

      It says the conversion was made by Oakwood Motors.

  5. Along with the E30 M3 pick-up prototype, a few 3-door Tourings were said to have been built too. Were more E30 bodystyles looked at by BMW that never reached production?

    Speaking of BMW Sixes, read the during the M20 engine’s development (in the Dr Karlheinz Lange book) that a 1.8-litre version was schemed into the design yet destined never to be used in production. It is never explained why BMW considered this idea to begin with either for domestic tax reasons (like Ford Germany with the short-lived 1.8-litre Cologne V6) or some other reason, due to the limited benefits it would likely have had over the 1.8-litre M10.

    1. This three door touring is not made by BMW but a conversion by Dutch company Luchjenbroers BV.

    2. Correct. The Luchjenbroers car used a VW Golf rear hatch that was slightly modified at the bottom. Like the Max Reisböck’s conversion the hatch opened above the rear lights, similar to the saloons.

      As far as I know four cars were built: a silver 320i, pictured in the post above. This was the only car that had BBS alloys and a bodykit. The second was a blue metallic 316, third a white 316 and The last car was white and the only RHD version, the engine is unknown to me.

      These conversions were approved by the Dutch BMW importer and as a a consequence the original factory warranty was maintained.

    3. Good afternoon gentlemen. The origins of that tailgate is pretty obvious in these photos:

      It was a slightly awkward fit at rear wing level, but not terrible by any means.

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