Epic Restoration 1990 BMW 325i Sport Coupe E30

BMW 325i Sport E30 £50k resto

Setting the standard for future BMW restorations? A cheap high-miler 325i Coupe E30 receives unexpectedly lavish attention

This restoration story begins with a cautionary tale of caveat emptor. James Hill wanted his first classic car to mark his 40th birthday. So he bought his BMW 325i Sport Coupe E30 six years ago from an internet ad late one Boxing Day evening, agreeing to pay £3250 for it and sending a deposit before even seeing the car. We actually included the story of that purchase as a ‘Classic Punt’ piece in our July 2014 issue. As so often happens, the car was nowhere near as good as expected, but James bought it anyway. The piece was titled, ‘Should I have walked away…?’ At the time James estimated that he needed to spend another £6000 on the car to bring it up to a condition he’d be happy with – a usable car that could be improved and enjoyed. Here is what happened next.

But first we’ll let James explain why he chose a 325i Sport E30 in the first place and fell for this one in particular. ‘I started by wanting a Fiat 131 Sport like the orange one my father owned when I was young, but decided I didn’t fancy all the Italian rust. I assumed that because of the longevity of many German cars they would have received better protection when assembled. This one attracted me because from 1991 to 2011 it had been owned by the same family: the Holbrooks – Steve, then his sister-in-law Linda.

I bought it on the strength of its great service history, which included all receipts for servicing and minor restoration during their ownership. Also, unlike many of these the car had retained its originality with no changes or modifications. It was also Diamond Black – the same colour as my godfather’s D-reg E30 M3.

It also presented well externally, with invoices for paint in 2010. ‘Classic Car Restorations were both highly recommended and local to me, so I took the car there for Graham Hume’s appraisal of what work it needed.’ Bear in mind this was a presentable car that was good enough to drive home from York to Norfolk. ‘His response was blunt: to start again and get another car – the plastic bodykit hid a lot of issues. Once that was off we could see the truth. I had German rust instead of Italian. At 133,000 miles this Sport was really at the end of its life.

‘The only problem was, I didn’t want to “Find another”. By then I had been in touch with the Holbrooks, who still fondly remembered the car, and I kind of felt obliged to bring it back to life, whatever and however long that took. Luckily Graham was happy to go along with that so we drew up a plan.’ This was the point where James really committed to the project. ‘I made a firm decision that the car was to be treated as a classic car and restored as such, not just a quick patch up and paint job.

‘Work started on it in November 2014 when I worked with my friend Peter Morton of PDM Autocare to strip the car down to a bodyshell. It was then taken to Classic Car Restorations (CCR) in Norwich.’

A long-running panel game

The first task at CCR was to take the last few bits off the bodyshell and mount it on a dolly. Graham Hume was happy to take on the challenge, despite the comments in his early appraisal, but the news kept getting worse. Graham told us, ‘As the stripdown commenced the full extent of the corrosion appeared. On removing the body kit, a notorious area in hiding corrosion, we found large holes in both sills and front wings. But I’ve seen worse so just set to and got stuck into it. And once you’re into it, you’re into it – there’s no turning back.’ James accepted this, along with the realisation that he would have to pace himself financially, completing work when funds allowed. This was not going to be a quick job, but it would be a thorough and professional one. Graham continues, ‘I made a list of all the panels needed, and it was a long one including every removable panel except the driver’s door. I then sent James off to the local BMW dealership, Coopers BMW in Norwich, to see what he could get.

‘The original plan had been to get the body acid-dipped, but with all the rotten panels removed we could see the extent of the corrosion and decided to change tack and take a less invasive route. That was to cut out and replace any rotten areas while retaining as much of the original soundproofing and galvanizing as possible. Then we simply steam-cleaned the underside; gently so as not to remove stuff we wanted to keep. That would only be making work.’

Low point

‘Waiting for a new rear Quarter panel caused the project to stall for nearly a year’ Graham Hume

Those outer panels largely proved to be easy to obtain from BMW UK, and not expensive, but there were three exceptions: the bonnet, passenger door and the offside rear three-quarter panel. Says James, ‘Along with many other items, it helps that my job takes me all over the country so I could pick up parts when I was on the road. I tracked down an excellent bonnet and door to a specialist in Sheffield. The original bonnet just had rust in the front edge, but Graham said it was too hard to get in and repair it well enough – we needed a better panel to keep to the level we were working to, and the bonnet is the first thing you see.

High point

‘I found an excellent passenger seat in the right cloth from an lhd car in Germany’ James Hill’

‘But the quarter panel proved a real sticking point. It was listed as available, but nobody had one. In the end that caused the project to stall for nearly a year until BM Mini Parts managed to track down a panel in America and ship it over. At least the £268 it cost wasn’t that bad, and CCR could finally get on with putting the body together.’

Until all the panels were there, Graham was limited in what he could do but cracked on with cutting out and replacing all the rust in the basic tub. He says, ‘We fabricated sections for the floor, the bulkhead, inner lower rear quarters, jacking points and around the boot-mounted battery tray. All these were done with the correct pressings worked into them where they should be. Fortunately the notorious sunroof area was not too bad for once, but we still had to cut rust out and carefully let in repair sections.

‘Once the panels arrived it went together fairly easily, with lots of focus on getting lines and panel gaps right. Also doing things like getting the right number of spot-welds round the window channels etc, and piping on the seam sealant as the factory did rather than brushing it on, as is often done. That’s what makes the difference between a restoration and a repair.’

With that done it was time to return the body to its factory Diamond Black, which was also done at CCR. Graham says, ‘It’s always easier with all fresh panels to work with. The only finishing work needed was on the rear quarter panel to roof joints. Then it was our usual routine. We stick to Max Meyer products for all our paints so there’s no chance of a reaction between different products. Chromate-free etch primer was quickly followed by a 2K primer. That was then left for four weeks to cure properly, followed by flatting with 400, 500 and finally 600-grit paper to ready it for the colour coat. We put a black basecoat on to enhance the blackness, then applied three coats of Diamond Black base and three coats of clear. That’s all you need. That was flatted and polished within a week – it’s the golden time for doing that with 2k paint, before it goes too hard.’

The bodyshell then went back to Peter Morton to have the suspension and steering fitted so it could be stored as a rolling shell while attention turned to the engine and getting more funds together. James adds, ‘Instead of the standard steering rack we used a “purple tag” rack from an E46 M3 Club Sport. That improves it from four to three turns lock to lock and is a popular E30 improvement.’

Fitting the suspension revealed another issue, with the rear suspension crossmember that had been sent for blasting and repainting. James says, ‘On closer inspection it turned out to be too badly corroded internally to re-use, so I had to find a replacement for that too.’

The three-headed monster

The six-cylinder engine had been removed early on in proceedings and James took it to a local chap who specialised in Peugeot and race engines, but after stripping it he said he was too busy to continue.

James continues, ‘I was then lucky enough to find Scholar Engines, near Stowmarket, which was happy to take it on. It is famed for its Formula Ford and Lotus stuff but is also very familiar with the BMW straight-sixes.’ Scholar’s Gareth Whall handled the build and says, ‘The best description is “tired”. The bottom end was pretty good, but the cylinder head was cracked and the valve gear was massively worn. After discussion with owner James, we decided to up the capacity to 2.7 litres using the long-stroke crankshaft and internals from an E28 BMW 525e. Alpina did that in period and it became a popular modification for E30 325i engines.’

All they needed was a 525e E28 bottom end. James tracked one down that a tech guy at classic Jaguar specialists CKL Developments was selling for £400. Gareth says, ‘That turned out to have worn bores, so we used this car’s original block – which pleased James because it meant keeping the car’s matching numbers – and built one good engine out of the two. We also added a fast road cam, so it should be good for 200-210bhp, up from the 171bhp it would originally have been producing when new.’

That just left a decent cylinder head to track down, which was easier said than done. James says, ‘I bought one from a chap in Southampton, but on inspection that turned out to be cracked too. Eventually BMR Performance found me a good one. The two junk heads now live in my office and are used as footstools.

‘The rest of the build was straightforward – it’s easy to get the parts for these engines – and the whole build came to around £3000, which wasn’t bad.

Assembling the jigsaw

James had intended to work with his friend Peter Morton to put the rest of the car back together, but that was another plan that timed out. James says, ‘Peter had a house to build and just lost interest in the BMW project, so after six months I bit the bullet and sent it to BMW specialists BMR Performance, based near Gatwick. It was set up by two tech guys from Munich Legends and they impressed me, so I trailered the car down there in March 2018. I took the engine too, and BMR restored all the ancillary items to factory finish and put it back in the car. A big plus was that the gearbox was absolutely fine and just needed cleaning.’

After initial discussion with James, BMR estimated assembly would take 100 hours but to get the job done right it ran to almost 300 hours in the end. BMR’s Barry Sheward explains why – and why he took the project on. ‘To be fair a lot of places wouldn’t be interested in being presented with a bodyshell and a pile of parts. But I know these E30s down to the last clip and grommet so it didn’t faze me at all.

‘The problem, from our point of view, was that the car hadn’t been taken apart particularly well so our biggest challenge was going through the various boxes and putting it all in order. At which point we realised that the majority of the parts taken off the car were only fit for the bin.

‘So we began a long process in stages – as James’ funds allowed – in fitting the car up using new BMW parts with the aim of taking it back to a showroom finish where possible. It took over a year in the end. We concentrated especially in getting the engine bay right, with all the correct colours and finishes for every item.’ James helped there, having discovered pukardesigns.com which produces reproductions for all the factory stickers used on the car, under the bonnet and in the door shuts. It also made up a set of period number plates correct down to the logos for this car’s original dealer – Sycamore of Peterborough.

Barry continues, ‘We also worked on finishing off the mechanical side. The subframes had been fitted but a few of the details weren’t right so we had to redo some of that too. There was also an issue with the engine when we tried to start it which was eventually tracked down to a missing pressure relief valve on the oil pump. But it was a nice project to work on.’

While all that was going on, James was also busy chasing down interior trim, particularly a driver’s seat. He says, ‘It had the usual worn bolster and frayed seat cloth, and original cloth is very hard to find. After buying but then not wanting to use a leather interior I found – because it didn’t feel right to put the wrong materials in the car – I found an excellent passenger seat in the correct cloth from a left-hand-drive car in Germany. We just cleaned up and kept my original passenger seat – it was good enough.

‘When removing the rear seat base we’d found some fire damage, which later turned out to be from when Mr Holbrook had been welding a patch on, setting fire to the seat base. Luckily he noticed and put it out quickly. You can’t see the damage from above so we’ve left it that way as part of the car’s history.’

Putting it to bed

James says, ‘I never intended to go to the lengths we did in getting the car to the current condition. The high standard of work was driven very much by Graham of Classic Car Restorations, and it added up to around 600 hours spread over five-and-a-half years. But it has paid off and I feel like I have done the Sport justice. It’s now insured for £50,000, which is roughly what I’ve spent. So I was pleased to see that a very low mileage 325i Sport sold for over £51,000 at Silverstone’s NEC auction recently. It’s good to see the classic market still has some good news stories, though that has to be the last one left with under 10,000 on the clock.’

So is this one now going to be wrapped in cotton wool? ‘No, I’m going to drive it as often as I can and get some fun out of it. I’ve already taken it to the Silverstone Classic, where it was displayed on the BMW Car Club’s stand and we met up with its past long-term owners, the Holbrook family. They were really pleased to see it again.’


Graham Hume’s spot-welder Lead restorer Graham tells us, ‘I’ve had my SIP Spotmatic for over ten years now and it sees plenty of action. I like reproducing factory welds where possible and as this is compact and all-in-one it is easy to get into awkward spots like window apertures and sunroof openings. The Spotmatic does an excellent job reliably and I wouldn’t be without it.’

James thought the BMW needed a few grand’s worth of work. Sideskirts hid rabid outbreaks of corrosion.

Sourcing a replacement rear quarter panel held work up for a year The team walked a fine line between eliminating stubborn rust and preserving original metal Factory welds were faithfully reproduced Lower inner rear quarter panel sections had to be fabricated.

The team decided against acid-dipping the body.

The engine now boasts around 30bhp more than it did new.

Quicker rack from M3 Club Sport was swapped in.

After six weeks of prep and painting, the shell was sent off to be reunited with steering and suspension items.

Bottom end was salvagable but owner James initially had other ideas.

Six-cylinder was rebuilt using some donor parts but keeps its matching numbers.

Probably the only BMW E30 325i treated to an M3-grade restoration. For now.

New driver’s seat is actually a LHD passenger seat.

The interior looked like this for some time before James decided to keep it as faithful as possible.

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