An '80s Icon: The BMW E30

For many, the generation of BMW 3-series built from 1982 until 1994—identified by enthusiasts with the car’s chassis code, E30—represent the ultimate “Ultimate Driving Machine.” Crisp handling coupled with driver-oriented ergonomics and timeless looks make even the economy-minded “eta” model a joy to drive. There’s something about the car that is appealing to a broad range of people, even today, something that makes it a modern classic.  

Like any good racehorse, pedigree is everything, so it’s important to understand where the E30 got its start. In 1962 BMW launched the Neue Klasse, a line of compact sedans and coupes, starting with the BMW 1500. Powered by the celebrated M10 4-cylindar engine, the 1500 became popular with both amateur racers and people seeking a 4-door sports car, something that wasn’t widely available at the time. The car was so popular, in fact, the manufacturing facilities couldn’t keep up with demand. That popularity led to the development of the 1800, the 1600, the 2000, and ultimately the venerable 2002. It was also during this time that Hofmeister kink became a thing (thank you Wilhelm).

As the 2002 neared the end of its production, BMW was faced with the tough task of putting together a successful follow up act to a highly popular car as well as creating a new compact car that moved upscale in line with their new 5-series. The resulting 3-series (chassis code E21, 1975–1983) did just that and introduced the world to BMW’s newest sports sedan. The E21 helped attract a new segment of buyers to BMW and was wildly successful; despite the commercial success, the press reviews were somewhat mixed. By the time the E30 was introduced in 1982, the E21 had established a loyal fan base, but updates to the suspension and interior helped make the new 3-series a vast improvement over its predecessor.

Three months of checking Craigslist daily to find the “right” E30 and I found this one. The thing is, I wasn’t really even into cars before my E30.

Offered in coupe, sedan, cabriolet, and touring (or wagon in ex-US markets) body styles and a choice of either 4-cylinder and 6-cylinder engines and even AWD, the E30 remained largely unchanged until it was replaced by the E36 in 1994. During its 12-year production cycle in the US, the car was promoted much as previous BMWs in the segment had been—as the answer for people who wanted a sports car and passenger sedan in one. Though advertised with racing pedigree in mind, and raced extensively in Europe, the car continued its upscale evolution and increasingly became seen as a status symbol and the car for urban yuppies…heck, Blane McDonough drove one in Pretty in Pink.

With nearly 2.5 million units produced worldwide, the E30 has endured with a healthy aftermarket and a passionate fan base. But, what has helped it remain so popular among enthusiasts in the nearly 20 years since production was discontinued? To find out, I met with Sina Pourcyrous, Farzad Ghassemian, Robert Lindsey, and Anthony Lugo, members of the online E30 community, r3vlimited. We met at the Alameda Naval Air Base in Alameda, CA, and I asked them what makes the E30 special for them.

Sina’s 1991 318i was his aunt’s car and has been in the family since new, imported directly from Germany. “I remember going for rides in the car when I was younger and I always knew that wanted it. When I was old enough, I bought the car from [my aunt] as my first car. Not only is it a great car, it’s a part of my family. Even when I get in the car today, the smell of the leather takes me back to when I was a kid.”

Farzad has owned VWs and Hondas, among other makes, but it wasn’t until he got his first BMW that he truly fell in love with a car. “With the E30, everything is right at your fingertips. I have a 1987 325i that I drive and 1991 318i with an M3 (S50) engine swap—that one I’m saving for my son. We’re a BMW family; my wife even has a 2008 335i, but she’d rather drive my E30.”

A serial BMW owner, the 1987 325e is Robert’s fifth. “The driving experience—the interaction between you and the car—is like nothing I’ve ever driven. The style of the feedback you get is like no other car. Miata, STi, RSX...I can’t replicate the feeling I get with the BMW in any other car.”

Anthony didn’t know much about E30’s before he bought his 1989 325is two years ago. “I saw one on the highway and had to know what it was—I loved the overall look, especially the headlights. After a little Google searching, I figured out what it was and bought the first $900 piece of [crap] I could find. That turned out to be a mistake, but I managed to resell it at only a $50 loss. Three months of checking Craigslist daily to find the “right” E30 and I found this one. The thing is, I wasn’t really even into cars before my E30.”

The cars they drove represented a range of performance and modifications, but each of the BMW’s turned heads as we drove around the base snapping pictures. It was surprising to see that a group of 25-year-old cars could elicit a response from casual on-lookers, especially given the relative ubiquity of E30’s in the Bay Area. Then again, the cameras, the chase car, and the sound of the exhausts might have drawn a little attention…or maybe it was just the excitement that an E30 can create deep inside you. Once you drive one, you’ll understand.

If you’re tempted, check out the E30s for sale here on eBay.

Tell us your E30 story below in the comments, and click to the next page for more E30 photos.