Buying Guide – how about a classic summer soft-top: the BMW E30 325i? E30 325i Convertible. A true icon of the time, the E30 Convertible was the best car of its kind and the 325i was the cream of the crop… Words: Simon Holmes /// Photography: Drive-My
Have you ever noticed how often E30 Convertibles seem to appear on television programmes or films from the late ‘80s and early ‘90s? American TV shows particularly seemed to favour the drop-top 3 Series, and for good reason. It was a car that combined style and driving dynamics like no other convertible around at the time, which is why it quickly became a huge success. Over 101,000 had been built by 1991 alone.
It did, however, get off to a slow start as the Convertible 3 Series first appeared in right-hand drive form for the UK market in early 1986, some three years after the second generation E30 had been launched in Saloon form. BMW might have taken a while creating its own convertible version, but that’s because it took a lot of thought and planning to get right. The plan was to produce a perfect-looking convertible and there could be no compromises to the way it looked or drove. While virtually every other rival convertible of the time, including the E30s converted by German coachbuilder Baur, featured a centre roll bar and left the roof on display when down, BMW wanted a cleaner look. There would be no roll bar, or any sign of the roof when it was folded away.
The project was ambitious, largely because without a metal roof in place the structural rigidity of the car would be hugely compromised, making it poor to drive. To combat this, BMW extensively reengineered the E30 shell, adding strengthening reinforcements to the side sills, A-pillars, front arches, windscreen surround, scuttle panel and inner rear quarter panels. The transmission tunnel was made from thicker steel whilst the rear seat under sections were double skinned and the shell itself featured over 130 foot of seam welding to further reduce flex. The folding roof mechanism was also a complex piece of engineering, featuring 28 Teflon-seated bearings and a heavy-duty triple-layer hood to ensure ample insulation and water protection. Once the roof was down and hidden away from view under the rear cover, BMW achieved the uninterrupted, sleek and slender look it was after.
At first, there was just one model to choose from: the 325i, powered by the trusty 2.5-litre straight-six producing 171hp and 167lb ft of torque to boot. Despite the 110kg added weight from all the reengineering of the bodyshell, extra bracing and folding roof mechanism, the hearty six-pot ensured there was still ample performance to complement the sleek looks. The 62mph sprint from rest was covered in 8.7 seconds according to BMW, but many magazines recorded faster times.
Specification was also impressive for the time, which included central locking, alloy wheels, ABS and electric windows all-round. The roof was a manual operation, but a fully automatic version was added as an option later on.
In 1989, the UK market was treated to a special edition Motorsport version of the 325i. Available only in Sebring grey or Macao blue it featured grey leather trim, painted BBS alloys, body-coloured bumpers, M-Tech suspension and an electric hood. A second batch of Motorsport special editions followed soon after, and this time featured a host of M-Tech 2 interior upgrades and an M-Tech 2 body kit, without the rear spoiler.
In 1990 the convertible range was finally given the same face-lift that the Saloon had received two years beforehand, which meant it now featured revised plastic bumpers without the chrome and larger rear light clusters, among other changes. A third and final Motorsport special edition followed in this new face-lifted guise and these also came in Mauritius blue or Calypso red. The Convertible was eventually replaced in 1993, two years after the Saloon ended production.
You should have an idea of what type of E30 Convertible you want, as the early chrome bumper models look quite different to the later colour-coded or M Tech-equipped cars. Some prefer the earlier, simpler-looking cars and it seems more in keeping with the classic reputation the E30 is gaining, but the later cars undoubtedly look more sporting. If you’re after a Motorsport version, make sure it’s genuine by checking the chassis number with a BMW dealer.
Also to consider when buying any 325i is the transmission, as many might well prefer the manual, but there’s nothing wrong with an automatic in good health and it doesn’t detract much from the overall driving experience. High mileage isn’t a problem to be concerned about either and a welllooked- after example will always shine through regardless of what’s showing on the clock. These cars can easily cover huge miles so don’t automatically assume a low mileage car will be mint. You should buy only on condition and rust is more expensive to treat than mechanical work, so give any car a thorough look over and be aware of the most common faults.
Price-wise, you can pick up a good working car for around the £3500 mark and we found a 1989 chrome bumper model with 129,000 miles on the clock for £3600. It is, of course, possible to get a car for less than this but be aware it will likely need some attention. Really nice examples command nearer £6000 and we found a 1988 example in good condition with leather and 88,000 miles on the clock for £5900. A well cared for Motorsport version, if you can find one, will cost you nearer £10,000, but be prepared to wait around for it. Otherwise, running an E30 isn’t too much of a hardship. Road tax is £230 for 12 months, although most cars won’t be used all year round anymore, so six months costs £126.50. Whilst that might be a little expensive, the good news is that classic car insurance applies to all E30 models, so expect to pay less than £200 for a year. Servicing is also pretty cheap, but it’s wise to put some extra budget aside for general maintenance work in case something goes wrong.
Wheels, tyres and brakes Original alloys suit the car best so make sure that they’re are all standard, the same size and free from damage. Avoid aftermarket wheels or bigger alloys borrowed from other cars as they tend to upset the way the car drives.
When it comes to the brakes then you are fighting a battle with corrosion and it doesn’t help if the car has been laid up in storage. The front flexi-pipes tend to corrode and can collapse from within and so do the rest of the brake lines, both of which aren’t too costly to replace parts-wise, but the labour can quickly get expensive, as it’s quite intensive.
Also, check that the ABS system, if it has one fitted, is working as it should. When the engine is started the ABS light on the dashboard should come on and then go off. If it stays on, you have a problem with the actual ABS system, which means it’s time to start fault finding. Likely candidates range from faulty wiring, broken relays and blown fuses to a failed ABS ECU or pump. If the ABS light goes off but then comes on when driving, then it’s going to be an ABS sensor issue. If the ABS icon is in the dash but no light comes on at any time, check to see if it’s been disconnected to hide a fault.
Being an E30, you might think the biggest concern would be rust, and it is, but the good news is the Convertible was put together in a different factory to the Saloon and Touring models, and it seems to suffer slightly less. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be thorough and check all over, so start with the rear as one of the most common issues is leaking rear light and boot seals letting water in. If there are signs of moisture here, then check the spare wheel well doesn’t have a puddle of water rotting the metal from the inside out. Also check for damp carpets and rotting rear shock absorber mounts.
Next, have a good look, and feel, around the rear wheel arch lips for crusty metal, and then it’s worth getting on the floor to inspect the sills and jacking points. The doors themselves don’t tend to attract rot too badly but while you’re inspecting the jacking points it’s worth checking the door undersides, as blocked drain holes will cause corrosion over time. Moving forward, check the front wings, particularly at the bottoms where they meet the sills and then follow the edge of the lip for further signs of rot. Have a look to see if the original plastic arch liners are in place at the front, as these protect the inner wings from rusting. If they’re not there, try and have a good look and feel behind the wheel.
The bonnet doesn’t tend to rust but the whole scuttle panel area does. Inspect carefully along the bottom of the windscreen and down into the corners of the engine bay by the fuse box. At the very front of the car, check the front valance and if it’s covered by a later M Tech lower bumper/spoiler then have a feel up behind it with your hand. Aside from obvious rust, check the trim, plastics, chrome and light lenses carefully, as many are getting hard to track down lately and, as a result, are becoming expensive.
Lastly, if you can get underneath the car, it’s worth checking the condition of the metal around the rear subframe and spring mountings, as repairs here can be expensive and will almost certainly cause an MoT failure.
Things were simple when it came to the trusty M20 engine and there’s not a whole lot to go wrong, so high mileage shouldn’t be much of a concern. It’s worth looking out for a few smaller common issues, though, such as camshaft wear that can give off a rattle in the top end. Ideally, you want to hear the car start up from cold as the exhaust manifold gasket is also known to fail, which is no big job unless the studs have snapped. Other than that, it’s important to make sure the car is keeping good temperature and doesn’t get too hot.
Check to see if the coolant is low and if it is, find out why, as it should never run low. Leaking radiators or water pumps are likely suspects but the 325i was also prone to suffering with a cracked cylinder head, which causes overheating, so inspect the oil filler and dipstick for signs of mayo, indicating the oil and water are mixing. Last of all, check to see if the cambelt has been replaced, as these need changing every 30,000 miles or so.
The all-important part of the E30 Convertible is, of course, the hood. You need to make sure it’s all in working order, that everything looks to be in good condition and, perhaps most importantly of all, it has to be waterproof as rectifying faults can quickly get expensive. Start off by giving the hood a good visual inspection when it’s in the up position. You should look for tears, rips and blemishes on both the fabric and the plastic rear screen. Rear screens can be replaced separately but damage to the roof fabric will usually mean a complete replacement hood as repairs rarely look good. A new hood starts at £400 in the UK and drops to as little as £240 in America, excluding shipping and import tax, but beware of cheap single layer hoods.
Next, with the hood still up, you should be checking for general alignment and fitment issues. Make sure the side windows aren’t cutting into the roof when closing the doors or putting the glass up and check to see if the back of the roof sits flush and level with the bodywork. Also check the catches on the inside line up nicely and aren’t too tight and before you fold the roof down it’s worth pouring some water over the front of the roof where it meets the windscreen and A-pillars. If it’s leaking here, then either the front section of the hood isn’t aligned correctly or new hood seals are required, costing around £130. Whilst we’re on the subject of water leaks, check for signs of moisture on the sun-visors, seats and carpets. All are signs the window or hood seals are gone, although the E30 does suffer from leaking rear light seals too, so check the boot area.
Finally, it’s time to fold the roof down. If it’s a manual roof, then just make sure nothing feels too tight and it all moves freely enough, as the frames themselves don’t tend to go wrong as long as they are lubricated. If it’s an electric hood, then there’s much more to look for. For a start, check to see if it works at all as often they don’t anymore and a problem with an electric roof can turn into a nightmare. Expect the worse and if the owner tells you it’s a simple job then ask why they haven’t fixed it. More often than not it’s something expensive. Early roof mechanisms were electro-hydraulic and changed to electro-mechanical later on. Either is expensive to repair and many are converted to manual operation. It’s relatively easy to disconnect the roof from the motors so it folds up or down manually, but it’s harder to get the cover to open and close depending on the fault, so the handle and cable mechanism is often required from a car with a manual roof.
It’s all pretty much standard E30 fare for the Convertible, so just give it a good going over for signs of wear or corrosion first of all. Leather seats were a very popular option on the 325i model and worn seat bolsters are common but repairable. Cracked dashboards are easier to replace than repair. With the roof down, it’s worth checking the plastics around the hood cover to see if they are missing or damaged from occupants jumping in and out of the back seat without using the doors.
Otherwise, there are electrical gremlins to contend with. Very slow moving electric windows will be down to the motor, and it’s usually possible to get them going again with some speed simply by removing the doorcard and lubricating the motor. Look out for any erratic movements from the gauges, as it’s a sign the service indicator circuit board has corroded and check to make sure the central locking still works as it should. If it doesn’t, then it’s most likely the wiring connections in the sockets that pass through to the A-pillars have corroded. These are easily accessible behind the speaker holes in the front doors and it’s easy to repair the connection by removing the socket and soldering the wires together instead. If that doesn’t fix it, then it will be the central locking relay.
Steering and suspension
A healthy E30 in fine fettle should drive nicely and exhibit no strange handling tendencies, or noises, at any speed. It’s therefore imperative that you test-drive the car, as common issues such as worn rear subframe bushes will immediately become obvious, making the car feel like it’s steering from the rear. Similarly, at the front, worn track rod ends will make the car steer strangely and cause uneven tyre wear. Other common issues to look out for include play in the steering column and oil in the steering rack gaiters, which indicates a new steering rack is required. Also listen out for rumbling wheel bearings and knocking rear shock mounts. If the car has been fitted with uprated suspension then just make sure it still rides nicely, isn’t too low and sits level all-round.
Transmission and drivetrain
You shouldn’t have any trouble with the manual gearboxes and even when they feel tired and loose, or sound noisy, it’s rare to experience a failure. A particularly sloppy gear change will be down to worn bush linkages and these can be replaced. It’s a similar story when it comes to the automatic gearboxes and they usually cover high miles without fuss, so just make sure gear changes are smooth. The later autos had a control unit mounted in the boot that has been known to fail. If there are any noticeable clonking noises when pulling away then it’s likely the propshaft bush will need replacing.
Listen out for odd noises from the differential and have a quick visual check underneath to see if the cover looks wet. If it’s just a little damp then that’s fine but if it’s wet the seals will need replacing sooner rather than later.
The E30 Convertible is still an icon, and arguably always has been. Its sleek and slender looks have ensured its popularity and it’s a shape that has aged well as it enters the classic stage of its life.
Subsequently, that has made good used examples hold their value well, but it’s also meant there are plenty of other not-so-good examples for sale from people trying to push their luck. You need to be vigilant looking at an E30 nowadays, particularly a Convertible as there’s plenty to hamper the experience of owning one. Aside from serious rust and a faulty electric roof, there aren’t huge or expensive problems to be worried about, but it’s best spending as much as you can to secure a car you know to be good and reliable. The 325i is the best of the bunch if you actually plan on using the car as its effortless power matches its style, so you can enjoy all it has to offer to the fullest.
TECH DATA: BMW E30 325i Convertible
ENGINE: Straight-six, 12-valve M20 / M20B25
MAX POWER: 171hp
MAX TORQUE: 167lb ft
0-62MPH: 8.7 seconds
TOP SPEED: 134mph
Thanks to BMW E30 CLUB