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.
14 thoughts on “Living with the BMW E30-Generation 3 Series”
Good morning, Daniel. Thanks for sharing your E30 ownership history here. My first car was an E30 318 Touring Automatic. A one-owner car from an affluent family (the other car they had was an E32 750i). It was nine years old when I got it.
There was a little oil leakage, which was caused by a failed seal somewhere at the gearbox. The dealer replaced it at no charge. It was a faithful companion for the nine years I owned it. I had a crack in a vacuum hose and the central locking module went bust, a known fault on the E30, but that’s about it.
At one time I was visiting a Mercedes Benz dealer, because there was an event with vintage cars. on that particular occasion my E30 was rear ended and the perpetrator driving a Citroën ZX Break tried to escape. One of my friends was there and he honked the horn of his C124, which caused the officials that were there to stop the Citroën driver. The E30 was fixed and the bill paid by the Citroën driver’s insurance company.
My E30 is still on the road today. Sometimes I wish I still had that car. I loved it.
Shocking that both the cars were scrapped with relatively fresh power-trains.
Very interesting to hear about your experiences with the BMWs, Daniel. Three things surprised me:
1) that the cars had been scrapped after all that time; I would have hoped that they had made it to ‘classic’ status.
2) the 320i being delivered with a low oil level. I assume that the car left the factory with the correct amount of oil and I wouldn’t have thought that there’d be much scope for loss thereafter. Very sloppy for it to be delivered like that.
3) aside from people driving in to you, that the cars remained relatively unscathed in London, especially as that would have been at the height of car thefts.
I’ve always vaguely fancied having a convertible, but various things have put me off – lack of security and also feeling a bit vulnerable when driving along. I secretly quite like the T-Roc convertible – quite practical, good visibility, quite good value in the right spec. It takes all sorts, I suppose.
I wonder what the equivalent chariot would be nowadays for the upwardly-mobile young investment banker about town. An X6/Velar/Macon perhaps?
In terms of convertibles, perhaps a Z4, TT, one of the Porsches? There are quite a few available.
Good evening all. Sorry I’ve been a bit inattentive today but I am currently out of the country.
Yes, it is a bit disappointing that neither car survived to attain classic status, particularly the 325i which had a easy life during our tenure. The problem is, I suppose, that all cars go through a period of neglect when they occupy the dusty wasteland between contemporary and classic, and only a small number survive well enough to be viable restoration projects. I’m guessing that they were scrapped because of increasing decrepitude, but either or both could have been involved in an accident that made them an insurance write-off.
We did spot the 320i parked on the Kings Road in Chelsea in the late 1990s, when it was approaching a decade old, and it did look a bit shabby and neglected, even then. Bearing that in mind, I was actually surprised that it survived for another couple of decades.
Regarding their survival largely unscathed on the mean streets of London, yes, that surprised us too at the time. The first one spent two years in Wimbledon, then we moved to Blackheath, where the second one spent its time with us. We would never have contemplated buying cars like that ourselves but, as company cars, the insurance wasn’t our concern. We did think about buying the second one outright at the end of its lease period, but the quote I got for comprehensive insurance was…£6,400! This was roughly a quarter of the car’s value.
The 325i was replaced with a Land Rover Discovery, reflecting a change in our lifestyle and priorities, but that’s a story for another day.
Regarding car security in London. Having lived here on and off (mostly on) over the past 30-odd years, I would adjudge the situation to have been somewhat mixed. Yes, car crime did occur, but having lived in both North and South London during that time, no car I was custodian of was broken into or stolen, despite largely being parked on the street. (Mind you, there were a couple which I would have paid the miscreants to have taken from me…) Vandalism was a more likely occurrence, or one’s vehicle being side-swiped by someone, whilst innocently parked.
That isn’t to say that car thefts didn’t happen (I did take precautions); a relative of mine had their car taken from their driveway one night (the thieves broke into the house while they slept, took the keys, the car and nothing else), but that’s about it.
I think on balance that London got a bad reputation, but it isn’t one I can on balance endorse.
Speaking of convertibles, has anyone driven the Peugeot 205CTI or the Peugeot 306 cabriolet? I’ve just been offered two CTI (one is a project in pieces, the other one is complete) or I can have the 306 (from a different seller) instead. I’ve driven the CTI. It isn’t as sharp as the GTI and it doesn’t feel as rigid (which makes sense since it is topless and the suspension isn’t the same either). But what is the 306 cabrio like in comparison to a regular body 306 or one of the GT cars (such as the 306GTI6)? If you’ve driven them or know someone who has, please let me know more about it.
J T, the 306 cabriolet will have more flex than the saloon, too and possibly more than the 205, as it doesn’t have a roof hoop for bracing. My advice would be to try before you buy and buy the one which is in the best condition.
That said, all things being equal, I’d go for the 205.
By way of torturing myself, I had a look what I could find and turned up this immaculate 23k mile, Roland Garros edition 205 Cabriolet in green with a cream hood, for £13.5k on AutoTrader.
Having driven all of these cars, I can confirm that the rigidity difference between a 306 cabrio and a 306GTI16 would be about the same as between a 205CTI and a 205GTI, or maybe more, as the 306 has no roll hoop. There is definitely more scuttle shake on transverse ridges in the roofless versions.
That was something that surprised me. When I first visited London I was amazed at how easy it was to find exotica simply parked out on the street. The first rarity encountered was a red Aston Martin V8 Zagato. The car was parked on a regular side street and the owner was nowhere to be seen. I saw it again a few days later in the same area, again parked on the roadside. Perhaps the owner lived locally or he had a sugar-daddy pad nearby. Ferrari were easily found as were all manner of Porsche. Rolls Royce and Bentley were not as common as I’d expected them to be. A surprise was that Corvettes were more common than TVR. I only came across one Lamborghini on that visit. That one was a black Countach S. I guess it must have been safe to park these cars by the side of the road otherwise the owners would not have done that. So, it seemed safer then what I’d expected. Now it is some years since I was last in London. I wonder if it is still possible to do this. What is it like presently?
Thanks for your advice and recommendation.
Re 306 Cabriolet
I’ll go take a drive in the 306 and see what it’s like before deciding what to do.
Re 205 CTI
They have a different suspension set up from the 205GTI. I had wondered whether converting to the same spec as the GTI would be a good thing to try. The lost chassis rigidity suggests it might not work. Perhaps Peugeot altered the CTI for this reason.
So many cars. So little time. And soon beginning to run short of space. The 205 vs. 306 evaluation all started out because I came across a cheap Citroen C5 and thought to investigate it a little (there was a long conversation on DTW some months ago and I became curious about C5). One thing led to another and I got a Xantia Activa (with lots of problems to solve) and then that led to another thing and then…
So many cars. So little time.
Tell me about it. The Gamma Coupe and Civic Shuttle are finally getting the rust done, the C124 is getting the dents done and 2 other W124s are having transmission servicing, the CX needs new headlights , as does the Espace Mk 1, and one of the Rovers has broken a front spring. It doesn’t rain but it pours.
I used to be driven around (as far as Puglia, in fact) in an E30 as a child. Obviously, I’d only get to drive it myself decades later, but I do remember that it never failed us – not even once, over an unusually long period of ownership (five or six years). Quite unlike my father’s succession of 7 series (E32/38) business cars, by the way, which were a very mixed bag in terms of quality and reliability.
The feeling of robustness of our 320i convertible (to a young boy unaware of the concept of scuttle shake), the hint of petrol fumes, the analogue clock on the centre console and the sound of the straight six are memories I’ll take with me into the grave.