BMW M3 (E30) | PH Used Buying Guide

What better time than M's 50th anniversary to buy its biggest icon?

By Tony Middlehurst / Sunday, March 27, 2022 / Loading comments

Key considerations

  • Available from c. £63,000
  • 2.3- or 2.5-litre inline four 16v, rear-wheel drive
  • A pure driving experience
  • Most cars are now restored…
  • … so prices have gone a bit silly…
  • …but good sub-£70k cars are still out there

Paul Rosche and Eberhard Künheim won’t be familiar names to most people. They should be though, especially if you’re a fan of BMW M cars, because in 1985 these were the fellows who came up with the plan for the first M3, BMW’s must-have German touring car racing challenger for the 190 Mercedes.

Back then, when Künheim was BMW’s CEO and Rosche was the head of BMW Motorsport, it didn’t take long to turn ideas into reality. When the M3 project was announced in ’85, the second generation E30 version of the 3 Series on which it was going to be based had been around for three years; it was well established as a popular and sweet-handling rear-drive compact saloon. Rosche and Künheim knew that it could be a good base for a well-engineered Merc basher.

The E30 M3 shocked and excited showgoers at its Frankfurt reveal in 1985. Its strengthened, heavily-bodykitted, box-arched shell was quite literally something else. Only the doors and the roof were standard E30 items. Under the bonnet was a boxy black S14 engine with individual throttle bodies and ‘BMW M Power’ embossed on it. It might just as easily have said ‘Make My Day, Mercedes’.

Based on the 1960s BMW 1500 2.0 M10 unit (whose block ended up at the heart of the 1,400hp turbo M12 motor that BMW used in Formula 1, sort of), the S14 was bored and stroked to 2.3 litres and fitted with the four-valve cylinder head from the 3.6 straight six that powered either the M1 supercar or the E28 M5, depending on how exotic you wanted the story to be. Built to produce reliable power over long periods, it produced 200hp right out of the crate – a lot back in 1986 – with 300hp on tap in race trim.

Imagine having a Touring Car engine (sort of) in your regular runabout. And run about the M3 certainly did. Weighing just 1,165kg, it could do the 0-60mph in as little as 6.1sec, depending on the model. Even the first 200hp would easily cover it in the mid-sixes. Quick times for any nat-asp car from 1986 or 2022, but what made the E30 M3 really special was the overall balance of its performance. It was fast out of the blocks but it was just as fast around corners thanks to its taut chassis, pin-sharp steering, standard limited slip diff and that low, well distributed weight (52/48 front/rear).

Sales were brisk. The Group A racing homologation target of five thousand road cars was easily reached in the first year of production despite the fact that the M3 was twice the price of a 320i. The rest, as they say, is history. Almost always against more powerful opposition, race versions won both the DTM and the World Touring Car championships in 1987 with Eric van der Poele and Roberto Ravaglia at the wheel, with serial wins at the Spa 24 Hours (four) and the Nürburgring 24 Hours (five, four of them on the trot from 1989 to 1992).

Following on from that initial 5,000 run, around 13,000 more M3s were built. Fewer than 800 cars from the full five years of production were convertibles. All M3s bar some US models (more on that later) had Getrag five-speed dogleg gearboxes. All came out of the factory with their steering wheels on the left. Well, almost all. Two ‘Japan spec’ RHD factory cars were specially built for customers who evidently knew the right people. Fifty more LHD cars were converted to right-hand drive by Birds of Uxbridge, a sanctioned mod, and a handful more were switched to RHD for British rally drivers like Austin McHale.

The Evolution I of 1987 was accompanied by 40 Tour de Corse edition cars for the French market. In 1988 a run of 148 Macau Blue Europameister editions was released to mark Ravaglia’s European Touring Car Championship title win. A 220hp non-cat Evolution II was followed in 1990 by the Sport Evolution III. It had a bigger and more powerful engine (2.5, 235hp), new brake vents where the foglights used to be plus adjustable front splitters and rear wings. 600 of these were built, fifty of them coming to the UK and split evenly between Brilliant Red and black. In race trim the 2.5 engine eventually reached in excess of 360hp.

Many consider this E30 M3 to be the best BMW ever, an assertion solidly backed by 2022 used values. A rot-free E30 Three of any description is very hard to find at the best of times, and you certainly won’t find many you’d want to drive or carry heavy-ish shopping in for under £5,000. £10k is a more realistic starting price, but even that’s nothing compared to the money you’ll need in exchange for an E30 M3 today. Six years ago, you could get an E30 M3 for under £30k and even the best cars were under £70k. Those days are long gone. Now, £70k is pretty much the starting point, and lower mileage cars are generally in the £90,000-plus range.

Collector-grade low-mile cars have long been in POA territory, especially if they’re the 215hp Cecotto and Ravaglia Editions from 1989, named after touring car drivers Johnny Cecotto and the aforementioned Roberto Ravaglia. 560 Cecottos were issued, 80 of them with slightly reduced power for the Swiss market. None came to the UK, or not officially at least. We got 25 Ravaglias instead. 505 Evolution cars featuring the catalysed 215hp engine from the 1989 Cecotto and Ravaglia were released in the same year, plus bigger wheels (7.5 x 16) to replace the first car’s 15-inch BBS items.

US auction prices for Evo IIIs have ranged from $138,000 (£105,000 at current exchange rates) to more than $256,000 (£195,000) over the last five years. Bagging something at vaguely sensible money is still possible though. We found a 108,000-mile ’89 non-Evo example for sale in Britain at £63,000, a number which, against those US auction prices at least, might suggest to you that there is some investability headroom in the E30 M3 market. More interestingly, perhaps, it might also suggest to you that one of the all-time great driving experiences might not yet have passed you by.

But should you pass on that buy? Do cars at the cheaper end of the E30 M3 market constitute a risk? Let’s don our Persols and stringbacks and investigate.

SPECIFICATION | BMW M3 E30 (1986-1991)

Engine: 2,302cc, four-cyl
Transmission: 5-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): [email protected],750rpm
Torque (lb ft): [email protected],750rpm
0-62mph (secs): 6.7
Top speed (mph): 146
Weight (kg): 1,165
MPG: 37 (see text)
CO2 (g/km): 192
Wheels (in): 7 x 15
Tyres: 205/55
On sale: 1986-1991
Price new: DM 58,000
Price now: from £63,000

Note for reference: car weight and power data are hard to pin down with absolute certainty. For consistency, we use the same source for all our guides. We hope the data we use is right more often than it’s wrong. Our advice is to treat it as relative rather than definitive.


ENGINE & GEARBOX

Few would apply the adjective ‘sonorous’ to the M3’s Bosch Motronic-injected S14 engine. Taking its name from the number of days it took to get it working with the M1’s four-valve head, the S14 was more of a fighter than a lover. It told you clearly, but not that musically, what was going on inside its dark walls, i.e., making power. Haul it up into the 5,000-7,000 band and you’d find yourself making thrilling progress.

Like the other Evo, the one with the Mitsubishi badge on it, the S14 gave you the feeling that it was built from strong stuff and wouldn’t let you down. It was quite reliable and, as you’d expect, amenable to tuning. You had to monitor the valve clearances and the rubber block intake gaskets which could split, causing poor idling, but many of these engines have been taken over the 150,000-mile mark without major mishap. They are old now, so you shouldn’t be too surprised or overly worried by the sight of a little oil around the sump, head and gearbox. Infrequent use could make that worse. Just keep an eye on the levels.

Some cars suffered from cooling issues that, in the worst scenario, could lead to head gasket failure. These were sometimes traceable to a faulty viscous fan on the water pump or to a blocked coolant return line from the cylinder head to the catch tank, or it could be something as simple as a malfunctioning thermostat or a busted coolant temperature sensor, a common E30 fault. At the engine’s normal operating temperature, the needle should be about a third of the way around the dial. Over time, the double-row timing chain did stretch, and you were supposed to change it every 100,000 miles, but it wasn’t a cheap job so not everybody did it.

The action of the initially alien dogleg gearbox quickly became natural and kind of made you wonder why all shift patterns weren’t like that. A heavy clutch pedal meant wear, and that would create knock-on wear to the release bearing, which wasn’t what you wanted if you were M3-ing on a budget. A noisy or baulky transmission meant a gearbox rebuild, again not cheap. Whining when lifting off from motorway speeds could be the kids complaining about you choosing the wrong services to get off at, but in an E30 M3 it was usually an indication that you needed a new differential pinion bearing and oil seals, not a massively costly operation.

German go-faster outfit Lotec did a well-rated turbo kit for the E30 M3. If you took the entirely reasonable view that you shouldn’t mess with a good naturally aspirated motor, bolting a carbon airbox onto it was a good way to hoist the hairs on the back of your neck to new levels of attention. The urban figure was given as 24.4mpg. If you factored in the test numbers at a steady 90km/h and 120km/h and took an average of the three you got an unrealistic sounding 37mpg. We found an NEDC combined figure of 32mpg for the Evo II.

CHASSIS

The striking looking M3 was most definitely not mutton dressed as lamb. It was a properly developed performance machine. The basic suspension layout was MacPherson coil and strut at the front and semi-trailing arm at the back. Compared to regular E30 Threes the M3 had a wider track, stiffer springs, Boge dampers, beefier anti-roll bars and brakes (280mm front, 282mm rear) and a faster steering rack.

That last item wouldn’t fit in Birds’ RHD conversions for the UK market, so they had to go with the somewhat slower 325i rack. Over time, E30 enthusiasts realised that the 1.9 Z3’s rack was quicker than the 325’s. That became a popular mod in the general E30 community but we’re not sure how many M3s were given the Z3 treatment. Given that the RHD conversion had already done away with some of the factory purity, you could understand a determined M3 owner of the day sacrificing a bit more originality for an enhanced driving experience with the Z3 steering gear. They probably wouldn’t do it now of course, not with the values being what they are.

Rumour has it that BMW did look at creating a factory RHD car, but it turned out that not hitting the steering column with the new manifold and exhaust and getting the gas flow right was an either/or option, so that project was abandoned. Steering pumps occasionally die and excessive noise from the steering is probably telling you that you need a new drive belt.

M3s used 5 Series stub axles to permit five- rather than four-stud wheel fitment. Bushes, ball joints and any other will naturally wear out in any car. You’d expect these to be in tip-top condition on properly cared-for M3s. Don’t be put off if a car you’re driving feels a bit wandery because a refresh of these consumable items won’t cost the earth to source and fit. Subframes are vulnerable to track day damage. If the fusebox cover has a crack in it be suspicious. Sometimes braking judder was nothing to do with the brakes but actually a symptom of worn tie-rod ends. Brake master cylinders and servos leaked. Handbrakes broke.

BODYWORK

The M3 was designed from scratch to run with a rear spoiler, but BMW’s development team found that the normal E30’s C-pillars and rear screen were too upright to function properly with the wing they had in mind. To achieve the right airflow to it they had to fit a more raked rear screen and a rejigged bootlid. To do that they had to redesign both C-pillars. The result of all that work was an appreciable drop in the drag coefficient figure from 0.38 to 0.30.

Most of the doggy M3s that were giving the car a bad name a decade or so ago have been weeded out of the system by now, either consigned to a rusty grave or professionally restored to minty fresh condition, but for your own peace of mind and to prevent unseen corrosion from transforming your dream into dust it would be crazy not to have an engineer’s inspection carried out on anything with a less than utterly transparent history. Rust attacked the entire floor (cabin and boot), engine mounts, window areas, rear shock mounts, the panel at the base of the windscreen and anything metal that was hidden behind a bit of bodykit.

Some cars had shorting issues with the main front winkers. Early M3s didn’t have wing-mounted indicator repeaters. Sport Evolutions had brake cooling ducts where the foglights had been. Ravaglia and Cecotto editions came in Nogaro Silver, Misano Red or Macao Blue with full or half-leather interiors.

INTERIOR

As long as you didn’t mind sitting on the wrong side of the car the M3 driving position was primo BMW from the good old days: small, grippy seats, classic three-spoke wheel, airy glasshouse, and needles that glowed red on the main instruments. The shift pattern on the gearlever did that red glow thing too, which was handy if you were having trouble remembering that first was down and to the left. Owners of early US M3s didn’t have that problem because their cars had a standard pattern 5-speeder with wider ratios and a shorter final drive.

M3s gave you electric windows, an electric sunroof and central locking, but they didn’t give you air-con or audio. Down the years they might also give you wonky dash displays but there are fixes for that. Wet carpets anywhere in the car meant that the sunroof or the rear lights, or possibly both, were letting water in. In the case of the roof, the normal culprits were bunged-up drain holes.

PH VERDICT

You could consume quite a few beers with your pals arguing about the best car BMW ever made. If the criteria for the discussion were straightforward and old-school, backing the E30 M3 for the win was a smart move. Besides being BMW’s first volume-produced M car, its racecar pedigree is impeccable and studded with evocative names like Hans Stuck and Steve Soper.

The M3s that haven’t rotted away will have been expensively stored, expensively mollicoddled or expensively restored, and quite often all three. Either way, the key word is expensive. Keeping any 30-odd year-old car in peak condition is going to cost you, especially such a great driver’s car as this. Knocking on from that, trying to keep the value high by keeping the mileage low will be a tough ask. Fun or profit? Profit or fun? Hmm.

Of the ten live cars on PH classifieds at the time of writing, two were ‘POA’. One of those was up for auction at an NEC classic car show running from March 18-20, 2022, so it might still be available depending on when you’re reading this. Imported from Japan in 2015 this all-black non-Evo car from 1987 stands at under 36,000 miles having covered just 300 miles or so in the last four years. It has/had a guide price of £55,000-£65,000. If it comes in under the top estimate that will make it the cheapest M3 on PH.

The next most affordable was this 58,000 mile Alpine White car from the same year (1987) which we are told will be given a PDI and Inspection 2 service along with a new water pump and thermostat, new suspension bushes and tyres, new hoses throughout (coolant, heater, fuel), and a quality rustproofing job – a perfect package really for an owner looking to get straight out on the road in an M3 and without too many worries. A nice starter M3 indeed, for £72,000.

Very much at the other end of the PH Classifieds spectrum is this Sport Evolution 2.5 at a fiver under £190,000. It’s advertised as having 492 miles. In fact it’s done that plus nearly 154,000 miles, but it has also had a full rotisserie restoration in Portugal and as a result looks as near to new as makes no difference.


Search for a used E30 BMW M3 here

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