Three Generations Of Family Memories Live In My 1983 BMW E30 318i
Photography by Mathieu DEWAELE
The story of my car is definitely family related, and while he’s involved, it’s not just another version of “my dad got me interested from a young age.”
My maternal grandfather bought this car new in early 1983, just a few months after the E30 generation 3-Series had been introduced as a successor to the original, the E21. At the time, the recently opened Saint-Merri dealer based in Chantilly, north of Paris, offered its clients an E21 320i at the same price as the later E30 318i, but after a little back and forth my grandfather eventually decided to go with the newer model. He took delivery of the car—then priced at over 80,000 French francs—the very same day my mother celebrated her 20th birthday, but alas, the car rolling into the driveway was not part of her gift pile that year.
Seeing as my grandmother worked as a teacher right across the street from the family home, and because my grandfather preferred to use his 1984 Ford Fiesta on an everyday basis, the BMW was left in the garage much of the time in between longer road trips when my grandfather would drive the 900 kilometers down to the south of France to his hometown.
They decided to retire in the south of France in the early 1990s, the car traded its black 1983-issue “1045 ST 60” registration plate for a contemporary “7775 XH 83” plate from 1993 with the newly introduced white in the front and yellow in the rear scheme, similar to the one still in use in the United Kingdom. The BMW was only seldom used, still used for the same long journeys across France, only now in the opposite direction since the move. They came up north in the BMW twice a year, but eventually they began to use the train service to Paris instead, and it seemed their E30’s heyday was coming to an end.
They still owned and purchased a few cars though, and when they got a then-modern three-cylinder 1997 Opel Corsa, the E30 was used even less often, and it sat covered in dust in the back of their garage almost year round now, seeing as they preferred the Opel for their trips to the nearby ski resorts in the Alps. My grandmother admitted that she pushed my grandfather to take the Opel rather the BMW; she didn’t want to think of what my reaction would be should they hit some ice and put it into a guardrail or a ditch. They knew I had been in love with that car since they brought it home.
For longer than I can recall, I have had a special connection to that lovely four-yellow-eyed lady. When I was a child, my grandmother played my passenger for countless hours as I was pretending to be her driver. We weren’t going anywhere in a literal sense, but that’s not how fantasies work is it? As I can see in the photos taken back then, the smile on my face is very much the same than the one I have today while driving it for real.
Despite the years that went by and my grandparents’ relocation, the very special relationship (or even love, I dare to say) remained as strong as it ever had, and when my grandfather decided to replace both of his cars (the Bimmer and the Opel) for a contemporary VW Golf back in 2001, it was clear that selling the car to a stranger would not be an option. Aged only 12 at the time, I then became the car’s new owner, and it was moved back to my parents’ house in northern France in May of 2001. At that time, the 18 year-old car had only covered a mere 125,000 kilometers.
As I could not drive it yet for some time, I made regular trips in it as the passenger while my father was behind the wheel. For most of my Christmas and birthday presents, I would receive parts to replace some of the tattier bits that needed to be replaced or restored despite the overall very good condition of the car. It was seldom used, spent most of its life in a dry garage, but still, trim clips, interior bits, all cars need a little sprucing up after enough time’s gone by. So this was why rather than say an R/C car or something else more age-appropriate, I would unwrap something like a grill piece on Christmas morning. I couldn’t have been happier about that. Over the years since, I reckon that there are only a few pieces of the car that have not been changed for some newer or more efficient parts, but to me it’s still the same car it’s always been, the first one I really fell for.
The E30 has always been the best excuse to spend time with my father too, who is another true petrolhead. He was very encouraging and optimistic and helpful, and together we sort of fed off of each other’s enthusiasm for classic cars. He used to drive Peugeots mostly, things like 104 ZS2s, a 205 GTI, and other memorable cars from the French automaker, but the BMW served as an introduction to the world of classics for both of us, and he is now a happy driver of a 1977 MGB, a 1981 Fiat X1/9 (currently undergoing a complete restoration), and one the more modern end, a Porsche 911 997.
Besides just mechanical things and exterior pieces, we also replaced the BMW’s interior (which had the characteristically worn driver’s seat) with a more high-end set of seats and panels from a six-cylinder model of the same era (earlier models had a distinctive cloth pattern); the wheels (at first we fitted the period-correct “bottle-cap” alloy wheels, but recently changed them back to the steelies, however these were sourced from a Mk2 Golf GTI to keep the 6” width of the alloy-equipped models); the suspension setup (the BMW guys’ go-to of Bilstein shock absorbers coupled with H&R springs); the rear differential (it has a shorter ratio now); and countless other parts. The front wings were restored and repainted. As was the bonnet, the front spoiler, the roof (damaged by the cheap roof racks my grandfather used at the time); and the trunk lid. Front headlights with the distinctive French-specific yellow color were replaced for new ones two years ago, and they were fitted with later E34-sourced chrome trim rings to give the front end a bit more detail. Underneath is the set of period-correct fog lamps that marked my very first BMW-related Christmas present back in 2000. We have most recently also fitted a stainless steel exhaust and a new fuel pump this past winter.
With my driver’s license in hand now, I have been using my car to travel around Europe for the last ten years. Being a student in Paris, I didn’t have the opportunity to drive my 318i on a regular basis, (nor would I particularly want to park it in the streets just to have its mirror taken off by an errant moped!) and holidays were my excuse to use my classic car to travel. Together, we have been to Belgium, the Netherlands, England, Wales, Scotland (three times and counting), Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Liechtenstein, and of course, Monaco. The 318i recently celebrated its 35th birthday and passed the 190,000-kilometer mark and she’s still going as strong as ever. I do my best to maintain it to the very best standards, and I am sure to only use genuine or higher-performance parts whenever things need attention. The mythical M10 engine, sometimes overlooked in the past by other drivers who preferred the sixes, already had a great reputation under the hoods of 2002s, but it pairs just fine with the E30 too, if you ask me. I just love its strong, I’m-up-for-it personality, revving happily towards the red line whenever I ask it to, and always more than willing to perform in city traffic or on the backroads. I might not be owning the fastest variant of the model, but the point of driving lies somewhere else for me, it’s not purely performance-seeking, and my E30 remains the most fun I’ve driven.
Having moved to Belgium after school, I took the car with me where priority one was to quickly found a dry, and heated garage. I now drive it quite often around Brussels, and all around greater Belgium, which has countless backroads that are a delight to travel on as a major motorway alternative. Any sunny day off tends to be excuse to take at least a short drive in my E30, and I even dared to drive (very cautiously though) on snowy roads to visit the Antwerp classic salon last March. I have plans for upcoming road trips (so many options means its tough to make a decision on just one at a time), but even quick trips are enough to bring that same childhood smile back.
Over the years, I have noticed a strong and growing interest for BMWs and their peers from the 1980s, and despite the E30’s growing value, I cannot imagine ever parting ways with it. How could I? With all the work done to it, with all the patience invested in it, I now feel I have achieved ownership of my dream car, with its original looks and optimized performance. I could spend hours just looking at it, detailing it in my garage or just thinking of the next few things to be done; even though the list seems to be shrinking, there’s always something to be done to our prides and joys. There is always a thing to get fixed here or there, and that’s what makes owning a classic car such a special thing, these connections we form through more than just the drives we take in them. It’s a long term commitment for me, and the journey so far has me excited for whatever’s next.
I am also very fortunate to be close to my father, with whom I share so many projects. At the root of any modifications or work I’ve done to the car are hours of talk and tons of messages: we are closer than ever now thanks to our common interest in classic cars, and I think the E30 is to thank for that. The next thing on our list? The Goodwood Festival of Speed in 2019. Family trips with our cars (the latest one being Scotland) are the best experiences I’ve had in them, and among the most valuable memories I have in general. Now, I am really looking forward to acquiring all the knowledge my father has gained so I can play that role myself when the time is right. All of this makes my family car extremely special to me. M3s are nice, but I wouldn’t swap my 318i for anything in the world.