1988 BMW M3 Convertible E30 - 30th anniversary

1988 BMW M3 Convertible E30 - 30th anniversary

BMW E30 M3 Convertible Ground-breaking M car celebrates its 30th birthday. We take a nostalgic look back at the BMW E30-generation M3 Convertible, which celebrates its 30th anniversary.


ANNIVERSARY SPECIAL  Convertible Asset? Bob Harper looks back at the E30 M3 Convertible, that celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.


Such is the incongruous nature of the classic car market that cars that weren’t seen as being particularly good in their day, are now riding the crest of the collectors’ car wave, being dragged along in the undertow of their more desirable brethren. You only have to look at the various online classic car sites to see how many folk are trying to sell shonky old snotters for premium prices!

These cars often barely pass visual muster, let alone being close to passing a MoT test. Yet the sellers seem to think that sprinkling the phrase ‘investment potential’ into their advert description will convince buyers that these are solid-gold, sure-fire money-makers.


GENUINE POTENTIAL?

The cars don’t have to be in bad condition, of course – there are many decent examples of older BMWs out there – but don’t let someone try and tell you that a 1991 E36 316i saloon is a brilliant investment, just because it has low mileage and its wheel arches aren’t crusty yet. Of course, limited production numbers help with investment potential, even if the car itself wasn’t actually that brilliant. Witness the 2002 Turbo.

It has rarity on its side, looks absolutely fantastic, and has historic interest too; it was Europe’s first ever turbocharged production car. But when compared to a 2000Tii, the latter machine was a far better car in just about every respect. And that brings me neatly on to the E30 M3 Convertible.

This is certainly a rare machine – BMW M manufactured just 786 examples, compared to over 17,000 tin-top M3s – but, in many respects, it’s an inferior car to the M3 saloon. Nevertheless, that hasn’t stopped the model benefitting from nailed-on ‘investment potential’. Well, at least it did a few years ago – if you’re thinking of buying now, it’s probably fair to say that that boat has well and truly sailed.


BACK TO BASICS

But was the model really that bad? You certainly wouldn’t have seen Cecotto or Ravaglia clipping apexes on the Nordschleife in one, but was there really anything all that wrong with chopping the roof off the iconic M3 and offering it for sale? But before we get into that thorny chestnut, we should have a look at what the car did have to offer.

The first inklings that there might be a hot version of the E30 Convertible came at the 1985 Frankfurt Motor Show, where the Convertible version of BMW’s small, sporty executive saloon made its first public appearance. It was there that the E30 M3 also first appeared and, perhaps to keep some continuity between the two new models, the soft top was dressed with the race refugee’s blistered wheel arches even though, under its skin, it packed six-cylinder running gear.

We didn’t see the full production model for another three years though, with the M3 Convertible arriving in 1988. But you do have to hand it to BMW; it wasn’t a half-arsed effort with a couple of exterior panels bolted on to a 325i Convertible that had been given an S14 engine transplant. The new model was a Full Monty M3, just without the tin top.


PROPER M CAR

Not only did the Convertible pack the M3’s 16-valve, twin-cam S14 under its bonnet, but it also featured the M3’s heavilyrevised suspension, steering and brakes.

While the M3 retained the E30’s standard layout of MacPherson struts up front and semi-trailing arms at the rear, the whole set-up was heavily modified for the M3, and these changes were wrought on the Convertible version, too.

The car also featured a wider track; the front anti-roll bar was linked to the struts, and there was significantly more castor added to the front axle. Wheel bearings were borrowed from the BMW E28 M5, while the rear anti-roll bar was uprated. Springs and dampers were changed for shorter and stiffer springs with bespoke dampers and, for the Convertible, these were modified to accommodate the greater weight of the soft-top – it was 160kg heavier than the saloon.

The E30’s rack and pinion steering set-up was retained, but the rack was marginally quicker than on the standard E30, while the brakes were the M3’s 280mm, vented front discs paired with solid, 282mm rears, all enhanced with ABS as standard. Wheels were the same, five-stud 7x15in cross-spoke items that adorned the M3 saloon, fitted with 205/55 VR15 rubber although, during its production life, some Convertibles were also fitted with the 7.5x16in wheels shod with 225/45 tyres.

As per the saloon, a couple of different versions of the S14 were used in the Convertible. When production began in mid-1988, some cars featured the 195hp catalysed version of the S14, while others were offered with the non-cat 200hp engine. Interestingly, the initial production run for these cars lasted a scant three or four months, with production stopping in September 1988. This suggests that either the M3 Convertible wasn’t initially selling like hot cakes, or that production capacity was required for another model – possibly the E34 M5 that was being ramped-up at that time.


STOPS AND STARTS

Either way, it wasn’t until the spring of 1989 that production of the M3 Convertible resumed. However, by the middle of 1989 it had been halted once again. Then, after a break of just about a year, the M3 Convertible was resurrected once again but, by then, it featured the upgraded spec of the later saloon models – still powered by 2,302cc engine, but with power output boosted to 215hp and a catalyst fitted (as per the contemporary saloon).

From then on, production was uninterrupted until it came to an end in June 1991, by which time 174 catequipped 195hp models had been made, together with 136 non-cat 200hp versions and 476 215hp examples. While the standard E30 M3 saloon was constructed on the normal BMW production line – they were built in too large a number for them to be hand-finished like other M cars – the Convertible was, like the E28 and E34 M5s, largely made at M’s facility at Garching. Standard Convertible bodies were pulled from the production line and shipped to Garching, where the drivetrain, chassis and interior were installed.

The M3 Convertibles tended to be finished to a slightly higher specification than the saloon versions – all had electric windows – and while cloth was the standard seat finish, most examples left Garching with leather seats and door trim panels. Air conditioning was a popular option and, while the hood was the standard E30 item, all were electrically-operated on the M3 variant.


INTERIOR TWEAKS

Inside the car the iconic, quad-dial instrument set-up was retained, together with the trademark, M-red needles. The Convertible also sported sill kick plates bearing the M3 logo and, depending on the production date, M3 Convertibles got either an M-Technic I or an M-Technic II steering wheel.

So far, then, it’s looking as though the M3 Convertible got all the right ingredients, so what was it about the model that generated its less-than-stellar reputation? Well, the main problem is, obviously, that it’s missing a roof. Unlike the modern crop of cabrios that were designed as such from the outset, the E30 Convertible was very much an afterthought model. As a result, there was only so much that the car’s engineers could do to stiffen the vehicle’s inherent structure.

Thicker steel was used in certain areas, the sills carried additional strengthening members and the scuttle and under-dash areas were beefed-up, too. In addition, the rear floor was double-skinned, while front and rear wheel arches had strengthening added, plus the windscreen surround was made from heavier-gauge steel. But could these changes to the shell really compensate for cutting the roof off?


DIVINE LOOKS

First up, there’s no getting away from the fact that the E30 M3 Convertible looks simply divine and, for this reason, one can easily forgive it for its slightly less than tack-sharp driving manners. Few rag tops pull off the hood-down look quite as effectively as an E30 – it’s a clean and uncluttered shape – and the addition of the blistered arches and the M3’s front and rear bumpers, give it some real attitude, too.

Slipping behind the wheel everything’s reassuringly familiar – left-hand drive only, dog-leg, five-speed manual and the E30’s intimate cockpit never looked better, especially when you drop the roof and have a glorious open vista above you. Twisting the key elicited the expected S14 starter noise, before the busy four erupted into life, then settled into a slightly gruff, less-than-silky idle. This was an engine designed for its rev counter needle to be heading for the red zone, and so isn’t the last word in slow-speed refinement.

With some revs on it, though, the engine became glorious; perhaps even better in the Convertible as you could hear it in all its glory. By today’s performance standards, it’s nothing to write home about – 0-62mph took between 7.3 and 7.5 seconds depending on which model you were driving. Focusing on the 215hp version for a moment, the soft-top lagged behind the tin top’s 6.7-second 0-62mph time by 0.6 seconds. But, over the standing kilometre, it was only half a second adrift so, ultimately, the soft top isn’t that much slower.


HANDLING BALANCE

But the E30 M3 has never been all about straight-line performance; it’s the car’s wonderful relationship between grip and handling that won it so many admirers. Provided the road surface is well-Tarmaced and smooth, this convertible could certainly hold its head high.

While it perhaps felt a touch less eager to turn-in (blame the extra weight), on the whole, it resisted understeer pretty well and followed commands from the steering wheel in a straightforward and transparent manner. Giving it some beans out of a corner brought the rear end into play, although the quick-witted steering was always capable of bringing things back into line with a modicum of corrective lock.

However, sprinkle in some more traditional, lumpy British A and B roads, and the M3 Convertible could be caught out. Its suspension was stiffer than that of the regular E30 cabrio, so potholes and road imperfections could illicit a worrying shudder through the car’s structure. While it would generally still follow the chosen path, it became uncomfortable and unpleasant when pushing on.

Ultimately, overall pace had to be knocked-back to compensate and, if you need to do that then you might as well be driving a 325i. Performance was very similar; the M20 straight-six is also a soulful unit and, while it might not look quite as aggressive as the M3 Convertible, the 325i version is still a cracking-looking piece of kit. What’s more, let’s face it, you could almost have a different 325i for each day of the week, for the price of a single M3 Convertible.

The BMW M3 soft-top has always been expensive – when it went on sale in the UK, it cost an eye-watering £37,250 – which was around £17,000 more than a BMW 325i Convertible E30, and £14,000 more than an M3 saloon. What the E30 M3 Convertible did do, though, was demonstrate that there was an appetite for such a car.

Less than 5% of E30 M3 production was accounted for by the soft-top but, by the time the last E36 M3 had rolled down the line, 17% of them had been convertibles. What’s more, a staggering 35% of the 85,000 E46 M3s were convertibles.

Over the years, the M3 Convertible has been labelled as ‘the M3 for poseurs’, but I think that’s being rather unkind. It’s not as good to drive as the M3 saloon, but it’s still exciting and dramatic; it’s probably just not worth the overhyped prices currently being asked on the collectors’ car market. Nevertheless, I’d still have one in my fantasy garage.


TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS
Car: M3 Convertible E30 / US M3 Convertible E30 / EU M3 Convertible E30
Version: 195hp cat-equipped 200hp non-cat 215hp cat-equipped
Engine: S14, 4-cyl, 16v S14, 4-cyl, 16v S14, 4-cyl, 16v
Capacity: 2,302cc 2,302cc 2,302cc
Max power: 195hp @ 6,750rpm 200hp @ 6,750rpm 215hp @ 6,750rpm
Max torque: 177lb ft @ 4,750rpm 170lb ft @ 4,750rpm 170lb ft @ 4,750rpm
0-62mph: 7.5 seconds 7.3 seconds 7.3 seconds
Top Speed: 142mph 145mph 149mph
Economy: 31.4mpg 31.7mpg 31.4mpg
Weight: 1,360kg 1,360kg 1,360kg
Build total: 174 136 476

 

The E30 M3 was never all about straight-line performance; the car’s wonderful relationship between grip and handling was what won it so many admirers. Top to bottom: Slipping behind the wheel, everything’s reassuringly familiar –­left-hand drive only, dog-leg, five-speed manual and the E30’s intimate cockpit never looked better. The ability to drop the roof on an M-car certainly had an appeal. BMW stuck with the iconic, quad-dial instrument set-up (with trademark, M-red needles) on the E30 M3 Convertible.

The M3 soft-top has always been expensive; when this E30 version went on sale in the UK, it cost an eye-watering £37,250. The E30 M3 Convertible is certainly a rare machine – BMW M manufactured just 786 examples, compared to over 17,000 tin-top versions. There were three power outputs available from the engaging, four-cylinder, 2,302cc engine. There’s no getting away from the fact that the BMW E30 M3 Convertible looks simply divine.


“Potholes and road imperfections could illicit a worrying shudder through the car’s structure”

“You only have to look at the various online classic car sites to see how many folk are trying to sell shonky old snotters for premium prices!”

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