An unusual one this month as we take a look at buying and importing the baby M3, an E30 320iS. We never got the E30 320iS in the UK but if you want to bag yourself a slice of M3 without the price tag to match you might want to consider finding one… Words: Simon Holmes. Photography: KGF Classic Cars.
When it comes to sharing their models, BMW has always been pretty kind to us in the UK. Aside from a few exceptions we’ve been well catered for over the years but one model we did miss out on was the 320iS version of the E30. It’s actually a little ironic that this gem never came to the UK due to the fact we already had what were considered the superior M3 and 325i models. Italy and Portugal weren’t so lucky, though, or at least their tax laws for cars with over 2.0-litre displacements meant severe penalties, which made the high-end E30s other countries were blessed with hard to justify.
So, keen to let those two countries in on sporty 3 Series action, in 1987 #BMW
kindly built a whole new model to specifically cater for those looking for a sportier alternative to the six-cylinder 320i, which was otherwise the range-topper there.
Available only in left-hand drive format but in both two- and four-door platforms, the 320iS was essentially a hybrid mix of 325i Sport and detuned E30 M3. There were no swollen arches, splitters or spoilers in place and despite sharing the iconic M car’s powerplant there were no M badges present.
Virtually all of its major running gear, exterior and interior trim parts were shared directly with the 325i Sport but at the heart of the car was the twin-cam, 16-valve S14 engine from the M3. From the outside the engine looked identical to a regular S14, complete with #BMW-M-Power
cam cover. But inside it was different. To conform to the sub-2.0-litre tax stipulations, capacity was decreased and instead of the usual 2302cc displacement the 320iS’ S14 had a shorter stroke of 72.6mm compared to the regular M3’s 82mm. This brought capacity down to a more tax-friendly 1990cc and the all-important free-flowing head and individual throttle bodies were left untouched. Despite the fairly substantial drop in displacement power wasn’t affected as much as you might have thought. The peak figure was listed at a slightly lower 192hp compared to the M3’s 200hp and it made that power at the same point in the rev range at 6750rpm. Torque did decrease more substantially, falling from 177lb ft to 155lb ft at 4900rpm but the healthy power output still equated to lively performance, although not quite as sharp as its M related brother. From rest, 62mph came in 7.9 seconds, just over a second slower than an M3 but a second faster than a 318iS, whilst top speed was an impressive 141mph.
The engine was attached to the same M3 derived five-speed dog-leg gearbox and transferred its power to the wheels via a slightly shorter ratio 3.46:1 differential, complete with LSD. The power-assisted steering rack was the same ratio as the six-cylinder 325i at 20.5:1, making it very slightly slower than an M3’s rack but with less weight up front response was slightly improved. The brakes were also shared with the six-cylinder E30 models, which meant 260mm discs all-round that were solid at the rear and vented at the front, whilst ABS was standard fitment on all cars. Covering the brakes were 14-inch alloy wheels, although the four-door featured slightly narrower sixinch wide items compared to the two-door wheels, which were half-an-inch wider.
The two-door also featured a full M Tec body kit, shared with the UK-spec 325i Sport. This was made up of a larger front spoiler that covered the whole front valance, side-skirts and upper and lower rear spoilers. The four-door version was a lot subtler, featuring only a basic splitter and spoiler. Aside from the rear badging, there was nothing else to tell the 320iS apart.
Inside, the interior was standard E30 specification, although the rev counter was similar to the M3 version, which meant it also featured an integrated oil temperature gauge, but without the M badging or red needles. Specification otherwise was fairly basic but central locking, electric windows and mirrors were all standard. The two-door also came fitted with sports seats, an M Tech steering wheel and matching gear knob, which were all options on the four-door. Other options for either model included larger 15-inch alloys, leather trim, heated seats, air-con, an electric or manual sunroof and an on-board computer, among a few other little things.
Production ran till the end of 1990 and the model was not replaced. Less than 3750 were built in total, around two thirds of those being two-door models.
As you might expect from a car that was made in limited numbers and only officially available in two countries (both outside of the UK), these cars aren’t exactly easy to find. If you plan on finding one in the UK then be prepared to wait. There are a handful of 320iS’ already living here but no more than a dozen or so and they rarely come up for sale. But if you don’t want to tackle the task of finding one abroad and importing it then it’s worth putting the feelers out with the specialist modern classic companies such as KGF Classic Cars, who supplied the car pictured here some time ago. Munich Legends, 4 Star Classics and Classic Heroes are also worth a contacting but as it’s very much a seller’s market prices tend to start at the £12,000 mark and a really good example will cost nearer £15,000 from a specialist.
Your other option is to source a car abroad and import it. Sourcing one isn’t too hard and Italian used car websites such as www.autoscout24.it are a good start. We found six for sale relatively easily and prices range from £6500 to £11,500 depending on condition, mileage and specification.
Once you have found a car and, ideally gone to see it, then getting it back to the UK can be done one of two ways. The easiest solution is to get someone to do the hard work for you and there are plenty of specialist companies that will arrange to bring the car back and do all the paperwork for you. Prices will vary depending on how far the car is from the UK, so get a couple of quotes.
The other option is to do the legwork yourself by finding a car and then bringing home on your own. If you’re doing this and also want to drive the car home then make sure it has the valid equivalent of an MoT and that it is insured. Insurance can be done through a UK classic car specialist as the E30 is old enough to qualify as a classic now. The car can also be insured through its VIN number, as the foreign registration plate will not be valid. Make sure you get a receipt of the sale and equivalent V5 registration document during the purchase and once back in the UK you will need to send the car for an MoT. When it has passed that, a V55 form from the DVLA is required to register the car, as well as a document to show vehicle type approval, which is available from BMW itself. An HM Revenue and Customs form is also required but, as the car is coming from a European country, it should be void of any VAT charges, although a fee of around £55 will be due. The DVLA may then want to inspect the car but after everything is approved it should be issued with an age-related plate. Taxing it is then a normal procedure and there are plenty of specialist insurers to cater for imported classic cars, too.
Sadly, over the years the E30 has tended to succumb to rust. Okay, the 320iS has a better chance of being rot-free than a UK car due to the climate but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be thoroughly inspected, especially as there isn’t exactly a wealth of cars to choose from.
Check the front end over carefully. The twodoor cars wore the larger M Tec lower spoiler, which helps protect the front valance but try and feel behind it to make sure it’s not rotten or damaged. The four-door cars featured a simpler lower spoiler, so the valance is exposed making it susceptible to both damage and rust. For either car, make sure the spoilers are intact.
Working backwards, the wings tend to start rotting by the bottom edge where they meet the sill. Also check to see if the plastic inner wheel arch liners are still in place, as these protect the inner wings from rotting. If they are missing then inspect up above and around the wheel for signs of corrosion. The bonnet doesn’t usually rust but what’s underneath it does. With the bonnet open, inspect the scuttle panel by the wipers and vents and down in the corners of the engine bay where the header tank and fuse box are located. Whilst you’re there, also check the condition of the paint nearest the exhaust manifold as it can burn away over time.
The doors themselves are solid but blocked drainage holes will make the bottoms rot from the inside out. Above the doors, if the car has a sunroof then check for signs of rust and corroded seals. Below the doors, check the sills for corrosion, particularly around the jacking points. On the rear arches, inspect the outside lip for signs of bubbling, which may require a comprehensive repair. Lastly, open the boot and check for signs of damp behind the bootlid seals, inside the spare wheel well and behind the carpet on the rear strut towers.
Inside, the E30 is very much back to basics and there’s little to go wrong. However, wear and tear is more of a problem and some parts of the interior don’t take the miles or years too well. All cars came with cloth trim as standard but leather was an option. The driver’s seat does tend to show signs of age first but it can be repaired as long as the seat itself isn’t damaged. The dashboards are known for cracking if they’ve spent some time in the hot sun, which is more likely given the model’s origins, so inspect the area nearest to the windscreen, particularly on the passenger side. Sourcing another E30 dashboard wouldn’t usually be too hard but the fact it’s left-hand drive makes it a little tricky as it will need to be sourced abroad.
There aren’t many electricals to worry about but check that anything it does have works as it should including options such as the on-board computer or electric sunroof. Make sure the gauges aren’t temperamental and the windows operate as they should. If they don’t work but make a clicking noise they are likely stuck from lack of use. Try taking the doorcard off and lubricating the motor itself, which also helps if there’s a slow moving window.
Wheels, tyres and brakes
The standard wheels were cross-spoke alloys measuring 14 inches and the two-door and four-door models had different designs and widths. 15-inch wheels were an option but plenty of cars seem to be running the alloys from other models, which isn’t a problem other than the fact that they aren’t original.
Brake lines corrode over time, so it’s worth getting underneath to at least get a visual. If the car has been looked after well it’s quite likely these have already been replaced but whilst the parts are relatively cheap, fitting them is a labour intensive task. The front flexi-pipes are also prone to corrosion, particularly if the car has been laid up in storage for any amount of time. Lastly, make sure the ABS light goes out on the dash. If it doesn’t, it’s likely to be a faulty sensor but if you’re unlucky it could the pump, which is more expensive.
Being an engine essentially developed for racing the S14 is generally a strong unit and serious failures are few and far between. It’s also an engine that can cover big miles happily just as long as it’s been looked after well. Maintenance is key here, so look for signs it’s been cared for. Regular oil changes are vital and although these engines are naturally a little loud and lumpy on tickover, make sure neither is excessive. If it seems particularly rough or hesitant at idle then it may well be down to perished vacuum hoses that cause air leaks to the inlet. Faulty HT leads, idle valves or split breather hoses are also common poor running issues. Slightly more concerning is the possibility it’s been abused particularly hard on track, as it’s possible to bend valves through over-revving.
If the top-end is noisy then it’s likely the tappets will need to be re-shimmed as these need adjustment from time to time. If they haven’t been done in a while it can be a sign the engine has not been well maintained. Also listen out for excessive timing chain noise. The double row duplex chain has no fixed mileage for when it should be replaced, so it’s best to keep a vigilant ear and if it sounds too loud for comfort get it replaced. Whilst its apart, it’s best advised to replace the tensioner with the upgraded item from a later E36 M3 Evo.
Elsewhere, exhaust manifolds can sometimes blow but check the studs aren’t just loose as it’s a fairly common cause. The valve stem seals are also known to wear out over time and will show up with a puff of smoke on overrun during a test-drive. Also on the test-drive make sure the temp gauge doesn’t go past the middle area as water pumps, thermostats and radiators all degrade over time. Last of all, check for oil leaks from the sump and front cover gaskets.
Steering and suspension
Upgrades are fairly common here and it’s not unusual to see aftermarket springs and dampers fitted. As long as the car is level and not sitting too low then it’s not a major issue. Maintenance-wise, the E30 likes to go through its rear sub-frame bushes. If this happens you will know about it as the car drives strangely, as though the rear is trying to steer by itself. A rattle from the rear end indicates a rear shock mount which, again, is a common E30 fault.
At the front, the outer track rod ball joints tend to wear out and cause odd tyre wear, so check to make sure all looks normal. Inspect the steering rack gaiters to see if they have any oil in them as this is a surefire sign the rack itself needs replacing. Also check the steering column for play and listen for odd wheel bearing noises at the same time.
Transmission and drivetrain
All 320iS models will have been fitted with the M3 sourced #Getrag
dogleg gearbox, which means first gear is located down and to the left below reverse and all other gears move down a place. It’s a motorsport-derived ’box that is generally strong although, over time, a worn layshaft will develop a rattle at idle. It can be rebuilt easily enough and it’s worth upgrading the gear linkage, too, as these can also wear, giving a clunky and in-direct feel.
Elsewhere, check the differential to see if it’s weeping oil. If it’s a little damp, then that’s acceptable but if it’s physically wet, get it looked at straight away. These are known to weep from both the input and output seals, both of which are easy to replace and worth doing before the diff runs low on oil and begins to whine.
If you want a slice of #E30-M3
without the inflated price tag then the #BMW-320iS
is it. In some ways, it could even be considered the better car; it does a lot of what the M3 can without shouting about it through spoilers, flared wheel arches and aerofoils. Then there’s the fact the car is rarer than an M3. There are typical #BMW-E30
related issues to be aware of but the rest of the car is easy enough to maintain, although expect to pay M3 prices for an engine build if it does need one. Last of all, there’s value to think about. With the way prices are going for all of the particularly desirable E30 models it’s a matter of time before the 320iS becomes out of financial reach for many people, just like the M3 has done. Then it will be too late to own and enjoy one in the same way you could do right now.
The #1990 #BMW-320iS-E30
ENGINE: Four-cylinder, DOHC #S14 #S14B20
MAX POWER: 192hp @ 6750rpm
MAX TORQUE: 180lb ft @4750rpm
0-62MPH: 7.9 seconds
TOP SPEED: 141mph
KGF Classic Cars
Tel: 01733 425140