Bob Harper unearths a brace of fully-refurbished E30 Sports, drives both and charts their restoration and upgrades. Life begins at 30.
DO BATTLE BMW 325i E30 or BMW 328i E30? Restored cars tested to find out. Classic shootout Bob Harper samples a pair of beautifully-restored E30s with different engines but that same, back-to-basics, fast-saloon appeal.
There’s something about an E30 that almost makes you fall back in love with it every time you see one, and that’s not as often as it used to be; they’re becoming an increasingly rare sight on our roads. No doubt the doyen of the classic car market, the E30 M3, has assisted the more run-of-the-mill examples in becoming increasingly desirable, and you only have to flick through the virtual pages of any of the country’s innumerable classic car auctions these days, to find them littered with the venerable E30.
What’s more, it doesn’t really seem to matter too much what sort of E30 it is, as you’re just as likely to see an M10-engined 316 up for grabs as you are a Motorsport 325i Convertible. The M3 is now so stupidly expensive that only those who bought one a few years ago are able to really enjoy them – most, I fear, are now static exhibits in collections, never to be driven in anger again. A crying shame for a machine whose sole purpose was to be driven flat-out on track.
But the fact that the M3 is now so unaffordable has turned the spotlight on the next best thing and, when you’re talking about E30s, that has to be the 325i Sport, if you ignore the offerings from Buchloe (home of Alpina), which seem to be headed in the same direction as the M3.
I suppose that the E30 325i Sport could be classified as the ultimate yuppie machine, most likely to have been owned by a red-braces-clad city spiv, wielding an oversized brick phone into which ‘buy’ and ‘sell’ commands were aggressively barked while standing at the bar in a pretentious city drinking hole. Whether that’s an entirely accurate representation of a 325i Sport’s first owner is open to debate, but that the car itself was a cracking machine is less disputable.
It might have had no more power than a standard 325i, but a close-ratio gearbox and a limited-slip differential, plus sportier suspension and a smattering of sporting accessories – body kit, wheels, seats, steering wheel – made it an instant hit. It was produced in two different phases – pre-facelift (now known as the ‘Tech 1’) and post-facelift (unsurprisingly, ‘Tech 2’) – and a glance at the pictures will immediately demonstrate those differences, with the Dolphin grey machine sporting the Tech 1 look, while the Granite silver example wears Tech 2 appendages. Which you prefer is obviously a personal thing, but I struggle a little to make my mind up, so vacillate between the two!
Both these machines are up for sale at Hampshire-based specialist, 4 Star Classics and, remarkably, they’re both the work of the same man – a serial E30 lover and collector who happens to be a submarine engineering officer, so you can just about guarantee that he was more than up to the job of restoring this brace of E30s. They might look like standard examples but, delve a little deeper and you’ll find some rather interesting work has gone on underneath their perfect exteriors.
Chronologically-speaking, we should start with the Dolphin Tech 1… so let’s kick off with the Granite Tech 2! Sitting in 4 Star’s showroom – packed full of mouth-watering machinery – it nevertheless grabs your attention. After all, when was the last time you saw an E30 Sport looking this perfect?
Bar the Hartge 16in alloys it looks, to all intents and purposes, as if it’s just rolled off the Dingolfing line. This illusion is immediately quashed, though, the moment the engine fires – that ain’t no M20 soundtrack that’s emanating from the discreet exhaust! Having already checked the car’s spec on 4 Star’s website I know what to expect, but popping the bonnet and revealing the source of the unlikely hubbub is still illuminating. Nestling in the engine bay is a 2.8-litre M52 straight-six, that would more usually be found in an E36 328i. The install is good enough to look almost ‘factory’, and the attention to detail has to be seen to be believed.
The engine was fully rebuilt as part of the restoration process and, what the owner wanted to achieve was the classic E30 look with a power delivery slightly more suited to modern road conditions. Performance needed to be more readily available, and a torquier engine than the old M20 was required.
The M52 certainly fits the bill, offering 193hp and 207lb ft in standard form, compared to the M20’s 172hp and 167lb ft. As part of the rebuild, the engine was given an enlarged throttle body plus a remap, the result of which has been a boost in power output to a very healthy 215hp.
Upgrades didn’t end with the engine, though, as the motor was mated to a six-speed manual gearbox, sourced from an E39 M5. In addition, a lightened flywheel and a taller differential were added, to make motorway cruising less of a frenetic affair. The car now pulls just 1,800rpm in sixth gear, at the legal, motorway limit. Given the extensive modifications the owner had planned, he didn’t start with a 325i as the basis for his Sport recreation, instead using a remarkably rust-free 318i shell. Nevertheless, this was stripped back to its bare bones before being treated to a professional repaint in Granite silver. The Tech 2 bodykit was added to create the Sport aesthetic, while a nigh-on perfect black leather Sport interior was fitted, too. Suspension is the correct 325i Sport set-up, while stopping power comes from a set of larger, front discs, clamped by four-pot calipers.
In a nutshell, it’s as thorough a restoration as I’ve seen on an E30, and just about the only question remaining was whether or not it would drive as well as it looked? So, once it had been extricated from 4 Star’s showroom, I got my chance to find out. Hopping into the cockpit, I was immediately reminded of the quintessential ‘rightness’ of the E30. Everything you could possibly need is there, right at your fingertips. The seats hug you in all the right places, the dials are simple and easy to read, the controls all operate with a pleasing heft that’s just right, and there’s a pleasing compactness to the whole vehicle that’s missing from more-modern machines.
What’s more, it’s as easy to drive as any other E30, with a nice weight to the clutch and accelerator. Pulling away from 4 Star’s premises and out on to the open road, was simple as you could wish for. My first impressions focused on the torquey and tuneful engine, as well as the gearbox, which has a lovely, short throw; it snicks between cogs far better than any factory E39 M5 ever did.
The car feels quick, too, even while it’s still warming up and before I start using many revs. But, once the engine’s fully up to temperature, and I’m able to use the full rev range, it really does come alive. It feels far faster than just about any E30 I can remember, bar ones fitted with really wild engine conversions.
Third gear proves to be more than capable of pulling you from more or less walking speeds up to the legal limit and, as the engine’s so flexible, you can almost leave it in this gear and make very rapid progress on back roads. This left me free to concentrate on other important aspects, such as the steering, grip and handling; factors which, once again, were all up there with the best of E30s. It turns in sweetly – I’m pretty sure there’s a faster-than- standard E30 rack at play here, or my memory’s playing tricks with me – and, while grip levels aren’t up there with today’s levels, it does hang on tenaciously before you feed in more power and slingshot off to the next corner.
This car is just about everything you could wish for from a modern-day E30 and, as you’d expect, it sounds a treat as well. More or less the only fly in the ointment is a slightly noisy power steering set-up, but it really doesn’t detract from the overall experience. I could have happily driven this car all afternoon but, sadly, my time with it was up and, after taking some photographs, I headed back to 4 Star, to collect the equally delectable, Dolphin Tech 1 E30.
Hopefully, you should already have the impression that the owner of these E30s doesn’t do things by halves and, as I collected the Dolphin 325i, this was again hammered home by the flawless finish. It really does look like it’s just driven out of BMW Park Lane’s showroom back in 1987, with the only giveaway being the set of 15in Ronal alloys, although even these are pretty similar to the cross spokes normally found on a Sport.
Those among you with eagle eyes might also notice that the car now wears chromed bumpers, while a Tech 1 Sport would normally have the chrome-style items painted in body colour, but the originals are with the car should the new owner prefer that look.
Whatever the lucky buyer prefers, you can guarantee that they’ll be getting their hands on another exquisitely-restored machine. This car has been through a similar process to the Granite example, although the focus for this car was on a more OEM ethos.
Unlike the ‘328i’, this one started life as a genuine 325i Sport, but it’s been similarly stripped back to its bare shell before being professionally resprayed. The attention to detail is again superb, and if any proof were needed of this, the fact that the owner purchased every single new nut, bolt and washer direct from BMW, should go some way to explaining its perfect finish.
As you’d expect from such a thorough renovation, the engine on this car was fully rebuilt, too. Prior to the current owner buying the car, the original M20 had been rebuilt to contemporary Alpina 2.7 spec, so it now sports a 2,693cc unit producing about 210hp.
To ensure the longevity of this engine, the current owner completely stripped and rebuilt it with new ancillaries. Consequently, the alternator, power steering pump, radiator, cooling system and sensors were all replaced with new items. As with the 328i, a taller (3.46) limited-slip differential was fitted to ensure more refined motorway progress. Naturally enough, the suspension was fully refettled, and the car also benefitted from a set of refurbished brakes.
Slipping behind the wonderful Tech 1 steering wheel, I’m once again reminded of just how lovely the E30’s interior is, especially as this machine’s original hound’s tooth cloth and seats are wonderfully preserved. It’s my ideal interior for an E30, with the cloth gripping you better than the leather which, even in Sport guise, can be a bit slippery at times. There’s a superb retro Blaupunkt stereo too, complete with period graphic equaliser – the Granite example is also fitted with a period Blaupunkt, but no equaliser.
On the road, the Dolphin ‘327i’ drives just as you’d expect from a machine that’s received a fastidious, nut-and-bolt restoration. The engine pulls well, the gearbox is slick but with a longer throw than the 328i, and it stops and steers very well indeed. Despite their similar power outputs, after the 328i the 2.7-litre Dolphin machine doesn’t feel quite as rapid, although it’s still a quick machine. It doesn’t quite have the immediacy of the car with more modern mechanicals but, at the same time, it still feels very refined and more than capable of keeping up with, and perhaps embarrassing, some more modern machinery.
Choosing which one to take home is the tricky bit. In truth, I’d be more than delighted to have either of these gorgeous E30s gracing my driveway and certainly, if I was purchasing with a view to an investment, it would be the Dolphin Tech 1 I’d drive away with.
It must be one of the best – if not the best – E30s I’ve seen when it comes to condition, and its rebuild cost was certainly in excess of its current, £19,995 price tag. Even if you could do all the work yourself, you’d be hard-pushed to buy and restore one to this sort of standard.
Despite the fact that I think I prefer the look of the Tech 1 car (and absolutely adore its interior), it’s the Granite Tech 2 that would be coming home with me. It’s an absolute hoot to drive and, while it might not be the purist’s choice, it would be the one I’d buy. Classic E30 looks, a fully-restored body and a seriously entertaining drive – what more could you want? Oh yes, and it’s £5,000 cheaper, too!
I suppose that the E30 325i Sport could be classified as the ultimate yuppie machine. This Granite Silver, Tech 2 E30 ‘328i’ looks immaculate and original (apart from the Hartge 16in alloys), following its painstaking restoration.
This Dolphin metallic 325i Sport really does look as though it’s just been driven out of BMW Park Lane’s showroom, back in 1987. Unlike the ‘328i’, this one started life as a genuine 325i Sport, but it’s been similarly stripped back to its bare shell before being professionally resprayed. The attention to detail is again superb. Far left: Before the present owner bought this car, its engine was rebuilt to contemporary, Alpina 2.7 spec; it now produces about 210hp. Left: The car’s original M20 engine was replaced with a 2.8-litre M52 unit which, in turn, was treated to an enlarged throttle body plus a remap. Power output is now a very healthy 215hp. A Tech 2 bodykit completed the Sport aesthetic. This car was built using a remarkably rust-free 318i shell that, nevertheless, was stripped back to bare metal and professionally resprayed. I’d be more than delighted to have either of these gorgeous E30s gracing my driveway. There’s a superb retro Blaupunkt stereo, complete with period graphic equaliser. Right: Inside, behind the wonderful Tech 1 steering wheel, this E30 offers an all but faultless interior. I love the original, hound’s tooth cloth-covered seats, which grip you so much better than leather. This car’s been subject to as thorough a restoration as I’ve seen on an E30; the result is superb. The interior is a great place to be. Additional modifications included the addition of a six-speed manual gearbox, sourced from an E39 M5. Just about the only external giveaway that it’s not an original model are the 15in Ronal alloys, although even these are pretty similar to the cross spokes normally found on a Sport.