The E30 M3 is the embodiment of BMW’s ‘Ultimate Driving Machine’ philosophy. Follow our guide to buying the best BMW M car – BMW Car
No four-seater road car anywhere makes the transition into a track day hero better thant he E30 M3. It is the pinnacle of the breed, and in spite of its age has yet to be surpassed. But to think of it only as a track car would be wrong, as its fluid dynamics work equally well on the road. Of all the exceptional cars to wear the legendary M Power logo, the original M3 is regarded by many as the greatest. It is raw, focused and fast, with scalpel sharp responses, intimate feedback and a chassis that does everything asked of it.
Designed with the express intention of winning touring car trophies, this is one of the few true M cars. That is was available so readily for sale had more to do homologation rules than anything else: BMW had to build 5000 examples, before it was allowed to compete. They did so with ease. In fact, they went on to sell 17,000; not bad for such a specialised device.
Yet, this car doesn’t come with a supercar price tag. Today a good example can be yours for around £10,000, although you will see plenty of cheaper ones on sale too (we’ll come to those later). Running costs are also remarkably reasonable, especially when you consider the age of the car, and the fact that it produces almost 100bhp per litre and is sure to have been constantly driven with enthusiasm and verve. Not only that, depreciation is now non existent provided the car is properly maintained. As long as you buy the right car, there really is nothing to lose.
The E30 M3 story began in September 1985 when the model was first shown at the Frankfurt motorshow, although it was a full year before it finally started to roll off the production line. Such was the demand from British customers that BMW GB began importing them almost immediately even though this four-pot screamer cost £5000 more than the previous 3 Series range-topping model, the 325i. In catalysed form it developed 195bhp, but it was also available without the cat, releasing and extra 5bhp.
Sales continued apace, but changes had to be made to stay ahead of the pack on the race track, so in May 1987 the first Evolution model was born. For these to be eligible to race, 500 had to be built. BMW made 505 of the cars that would become known as the Evo 1; seven officially came to the UK. None had cats, and modification were mainly aerodynamic, and included a deeper front spoiler (with brake ducts replacing the fog lights) and an extra plane added to the rear wing.
The wings were lightened as part of a number of weight saving measures that shaved 10kg off the second Evolution model, which went on sale in March 1988. The work that went on under the bonnet was more important, with new camshafts and pistons and a lightweight flywheel providing 220bhp. Only available in red, blue or silver, 501 of these 152mph missiles were sold, of which 51 came to the UK. During 1988 and ’89 three special editions based on the Evo II were available, but of those only the Roberto Ravaglia edition was sold in the UK. The rest of Europe had the Johnny Cecotto and the Europameister to celebrate their touring car successes.
The best was saved until last. The Evolution III Sport, on sale between December ’89 and March 1990, featured a larger, 2.5 litre unit that pumped out 238bhp. The blistered arched were extended to allow the racer to run with 18 inch slicks, and the angel of the wings could be adjusted with an Allen key. There were 600 and only 45 of these were official UK imports, all were either black or red.
There was also a convertible, but the removal of the roof reduced the shell’s rigidity, added 353lb and robbed the M3 of its incisive composure. They are therefore not in the spirit of the rest of the range; only poseurs need apply for these.
Also worth avoiding are cars that have been converted to right-hand drive. Birds of Uxbridge carried out about 70 conversions, and while it was a very professional job, the slower steering of the 325i and a reworked braking system blunted the M3′s responses. It isn’t difficult to get used to driving a left hooker, even with the dog-leg box – half an hour should do the trick.
Checking it out
As already noted, the E30 M3 wears its age well, but as with any car abuse and neglect will take their toll. There are a number of points to be aware of and some very rough cars to avoid. Buying a bargain high miler can be a false economy as the money required to bring it up to scratch often will ultimately equate to the cost of a good, low mileage example.
These cars rarely suffer from rust, so it’s easy to polish up a bad car and make it look good. In fact, if you do find rust it’s likely to be the result of accident damage, which has twisted the chassis out of alignment. The main areas where not does occur are at the base of the windscreen pillars and the bottom edge of the wheel arches. On the subject of repaired damage, look at the front of the car carefully, as most M3 smashes are frontal. Ensure the finish looks original and the fittings are standard BMW parts. Remember, if there is any doubt about a car, walk away.
Mechanically, the most important point to be aware of is the timing chain, which must be replaced at 100,000 miles. It’s an engine out job, so will cost around £2000, or a little more if you have the top-end overhauled simultaneously (this is recommended). Although not an inconsiderable sum, it will ensure the engine will survive the next 100,000 miles. If the assembly is not replaced, the chain will fail and the bill will be in excess of £4000. There is no way to tell when it is likely to go, as everything will work perfectly well right up to the point where it doesn’t work at all. This means a 110,000 miler with the work done can be worth more than a car that has 90,000 miles on the dial. Know exactly what you are buying.
Also the rubber inlet manifold block will need refreshing bi-annually on an average mileage car. This costs about £250 and will prevent air seeping through it and upsetting the idling speed. The only other engine related problems buyers might encounter are perished mounting bushes that will collapse, and cracked distributor caps that will make the engine misfire.
Both the gearbox and clutch are robust, but a rattling noise is a likely indicator of worn layshaft bearings. Check the box for crunching that signifies a worn syncro, particularly in second gear, while the clutch may have suffered if second gear has been used to pull away – surprisingly common with the dogleg box. Look out for signs of leaks, as a rebuild will cost about a grand. Very few cars have cats now, even if they started life with them because cat front boxes cost £600 more than the non-cat items. It’s perfectly legal to do this on pre ’92 cars and, of course, it makes them quicker too. Diffs are typically strong, but listen for a whining in top gear on and off the throttle; this indicates worn bearings which will need to be replaced.
Look for dished brake disc both front and rear – they wear out fairly rapidly. Expect to have the pads replaced every time the car is serviced and the disc every alternate service. The suspension is by Boge Sport gas dampers, and it lasts around 70,000 to 80,000 miles. Older cars have often not had them replaced because being gas they won’t leak and fail the MoT. Avoid cars with stiffer suspension, as this not only ruins the road balance, it will also stress the chassis and could even cause it to crack round the strut mounting points. Tyre wear on the inside edge means the front wishbones need replacing. This happens because the bushes decay and crack, them play develops in the ball joints.
Interiors are solid and hard wearing all the electrical system are trouble-free; if there are problems here they should be glaringly obvious. That said, one thing to check is the sideways movement on the seats that can occur on all 3 Series models. Movement indicates that the frame has snapped at the base and will have to be welded back in place.
Graham Hauton-foster, owner of M3 specialist, Stratos Motorsport, firmly believes there is no greater car for the road and track than the E30. An average track day driver can take the M3 on the track without needing to spend any money on the car and be one of the quickest out there. The only thing I recommend to my customers, is that they upgrade the hoses to Goodrich and the brake pads to either Mintex or Pagid items to remove the possibility of fade.
“Spend time ensuring you are buying a good car in the first place and you will have very little to worry about. Of course, these cars are addictive and the more circuit work you do in them, the more you’ll want to do. Pretty soon you’ll want to go faster and you’ll start spending money having the suspension upgraded and making little tweaks here and there. You really don’t need to, but you just won’t be able to help yourself.”
Chris Wadsley brought his 2.5 Evo Sport two years ago. To be honest I did everything wrong when I bought my M3. I bought an imported car with a bodged respray that had absolutely no history, but I’ve been exceptionally lucky and I haven’t had a single problem with it.
Years ago I was an instructor with Club 89, which used a couple of E30 M3s for teaching and giving passenger rides. They moved onto E36 M3s, and I soon forgot just how good the E30 was. That was until 1997, when I was doing some instructing at Brands Hatch and an E30 owner asked me to show him the way round. Then, a week later I found myself behind the wheel of another E30 M3 at the Nurburgning and realised I had to buy one. Nothing could live with it round there, we were even overtaking 911s.
“It took me a while to find an Evo Sport and, as the car was mainly going to be used on the track, I wasn’t concerned that it looked a bit tatty. I got a very good deal. The car had about 90,000kms on the clock then. Now it has about 130,000, so we’ll soon have to change the timing chains. If we get time over the winter, we will refurbish it, too. Then again, I may be too busy driving it.”