The author recalls his experiences with two of Munich’s finest.
My partner and I had the good fortune to run as company cars two E30-generation 3 Series models for six years during the 1990s. The first was a 1990 320i convertible, which was followed in 1993 by a 325i convertible. The 320i replaced a 1988 Mercedes-Benz 190E, about which I have previously written here. I would have liked to maintain my allegiance to Stuttgart, but my partner and I wanted a convertible and the C124 was too large, with an image that suggested middle-aged Miami orthodontist rather too strongly for our tastes and ages at that time.
Needless to remark, many of my investment banking colleagues and contacts ran BMW E30s in various guises and regarded them highly. I had quite liked being an outlier with my 190E, but conformity beckoned and I couldn’t resist. Before settling on the E30, however, we briefly considered the Saab 900 convertible, but dismissed it as rather ungainly. With no other obvious competitor(1) to consider, we settled on the 3 Series and chose our specification.
Although by no means lavishly equipped, the standard 320i convertible came with alloy wheels as standard. We chose Alpine White paintwork and a contrasting dark blue fabric roof, which complemented the similarly coloured plaid cloth upholstery quite nicely. The car had to be an automatic because my partner had learnt to drive in California and his UK licence still carried that restriction.
The only extra we had to add was a radio-cassette player, since none was fitted as standard. The extra cost in monthly leasing payments for this was eye-popping, as the leasing company depreciated its value to zero over the term of the lease and charged interest on the initial cost of the unit and installation. Happily, the total still fell (just) inside my monthly allowance.
With the specification agreed, the car was duly ordered through the leasing company, without us ever approaching a BMW dealership. This reason for this was that some of the marque’s dealerships had a reputation for becoming pretty unhelpful after one mentioned that the car would be purchased by a leasing company. Apparently, this was because the leasing companies aggressively competed the dealerships against each other to secure the cheapest price, leaving little if any ‘fat’ in the sale for the ‘winning’ dealer.
Perhaps the above might account for the disappointing oversight in the car’s preparation I noticed just after the delivery driver had left in my 190E? I got in to drive it for the first time and immediately noticed that the low oil level warning light was illuminated. I checked the oil level and saw that it was just above the minimum mark on the dipstick(2). A phone call to the leasing company resulted in a request for me to take the car to the nearest BMW dealership for the oil to be topped up and this was done without fuss.
That hiccup resolved, we began to enjoy the pleasures of open-top motoring, even in London, and we would put the roof down at every opportunity. Dropping the manual roof involved lowering the rear side windows undoing the catches above the windscreen, flipping up the rear part of the roof with its folding plastic rear screen, then pulling a repurposed interior door handle in the rear quarter panel to open the tonneau cover. The roof then dropped smoothly into its well and the cover clicked shut.
The 320i was a delight to drive, much as expected. Being an automatic, it perhaps lacked some of the driver engagement of its manual equivalent, but the transmission was smooth-shifting and unobtrusive. The 2.0-litre engine was perhaps slightly underpowered and performance was fine, but not exciting.
The car duly went in for its first service. I was surprised to receive a call from the dealership asking if they could hold onto it for a couple of days, because it needed a new automatic transmission! They had discovered a small leak of transmission fluid and BMW had authorised a replacement unit to be fitted. This was done with no apparent adverse consequences.
Just a few months into our custodianship of the 320i, I was head-hunted by a rival investment bank. The car was a complication in changing jobs, because I was tied into a contract for it and would be personally liable for the remaining lease payments if I left (a subtle form of ‘golden handcuffs’). Happily, my new employer used the same leasing company for its car scheme, so was able to arrange a new contract for the car, which moved with me.
As well as our weekend leisure activities, the 320i was pressed into service by my partner as a daily driver across London’s potholed streets to and from work. This took its toll on the car in two ways. By the end of the three-year leasing period, it began to feel decidedly loose and ‘baggy’ with increasingly noticeable scuttle-shake on rough roads.
Worse, however, was that the car endured a particularity unfortunate period towards the end of its time with us, when it was rear-ended five times over nine months, with damage ranging from minor (a broken tail light and slightly twisted bumper) to major (creases in both rear quarter panels ahead of the wheel arches. In all cases it was my poor partner who was driving, but he became quickly adept at gathering the necessary insurance details from the other parties involved, apart from one incident where the car was damaged when parked and the other driver absconded.
On one occasion, the car was returned to us after repairs on a Thursday, only for it to be rear-ended again on the Sunday! We became rather too well acquainted with the proprietor of the independent local body shop who repaired it efficiently and imperceptibly on each occasion.
When the time came to replace the car, we again considered the alternatives, including the Audi 80 Cabriolet. While by no means an expert driver, even I could recognise during a short test drive that the Audi, although undoubtedly handsome, was dynamically rather inert. The reality was that the E30 was the perfect car for us, so we should just order another.
Unfortunately, the lease on our existing 320i did not expire until August 1993 and the E30 had already been replaced by the E36. The convertible version of the latter had not yet been launched, and we didn’t like it as much in any event. By pure chance, I was driving by our local BMW dealership in the spring of 1993 and spotted a new and unregistered E30 325i convertible in the showroom. This was a surprise as production had already been discontinued.
I couldn’t resist popping in to have a look. The salesman told me that it was a cancelled order. I floated the idea of the dealership storing it until August and asked if I could have the leasing company contact him. He readily agreed, with an evil glint in his eye, as he knew there would be no shopping around on this deal!
The leasing price was, as expected, suitably steep, and in excess of my allowance, but I was allowed to pay the difference, so the car was duly ordered. At least it was pretty well equipped. It was, like our 320i, finished in Alpine White, but with a black rather than blue roof and black leather upholstery. The roof was electrically operated this time, but still required the catches above the windscreen to be manually operated.
The car was fitted with BBS multi-spoke alloy wheels. Like the 320i, the 325i did not come with air-conditioning, but our preference for top-down motoring minimised the need for it. Like its predecessor, the 325i had no radio fitted as standard, so this time I paid for a Sony radio CD player outright rather than include it in (my contribution to) the monthly leasing charge.
We duly took delivery on 1st August 1993 and the 325i carried a newly-minted ‘L’ prefix(3) number plate, possibly making it the only E30 in the UK to carry such a late model plate. As one might expect, the 325i felt very similar to the 320i (at least when the latter was new) but was usefully more powerful and responsive. It also had the facelifted E30’s colour-keyed plastic bumpers and larger tail lights.
By the time we took delivery of the 325i, my partner no longer had the long commute to work, so the car enjoyed a much less onerous life. It was again a delight to drive and we clocked up many pleasurable miles in it, mainly with the top down. It was also as lucky as the 320i was unlucky, not picking up as much as a scratch until the week before its lease ended in 1996 when it was left parked. We assume that some careless nearside rear seat passenger in an SUV parked alongside opened their door and caught the top of our offside rear wing, leaving a short but deep gouge.
Other than that, the only damage the car suffered was entirely our fault. We had a bulky load to carry, so put the hood down, loaded up the rear seats then raised the hood again. All appeared fine, but the load shifted in transit and a sharp corner punctured a hole in the plastic rear window. Fortunately, repair was straightforward as the window could simply be zipped out and a replacement zipped in.
The only unscheduled repair was a replacement engine ECU. The original failed when the car was around two years old. I’ve no idea whether BMW or the leasing company picked up the, no doubt expensive, tab for that.
Both cars spent their lives with us parked on the street in central London. Contrary to all expectations, neither suffered any significant accidental damage or act of vandalism. Somebody stole two of the centre-caps off the 325i’s BBS alloy wheels on one occasion, and another miscreant drew a line the length of the nearside with a black marker pen. An application of scratch-removal polish was enough to shift the latter.
Over six years and roughly 70k miles between them, both cars were a delight and we still remember them fondly for their classic good looks, quality and reliability. Both were also notable for their subsequent longevity: the 320i remained on the road for 30 years and 138k miles before it was presumably scrapped(4). The 325i managed 23 years and 134k miles before meeting the same presumed fate.
Sadly, BMW makes not a single model today that appeals to us in the same way as the E30, but perhaps we are simply no longer in the company’s target demographic?
Author’s note: As all our pre-digital photos of both cars are of indifferent quality, images sourced from the Internet have been used instead.
(1) The Audi 80 Cabriolet was not launched until May 1991.
(2) Remember them?
(3) The former UK (but not Northern Ireland) number plate system carried an alphabetic year indicator and the year ran from 1st August to 31st July. The letter ‘L’ replaced ‘K’ on 1st August 1993.
(4) Information gleaned from online UK MOT history records.