1990 BMW 320i Automatic Touring E30
The E30-generation 3 Series is seriously hot property on the used market at the moment. And when this 320i Touring sold at auction recently for an impressive £17,000, it was a clear sign that the wagon’s time has come. Words & Photography: Dan Bevis.
The (17) Grand Touring
The E30-generation 3 Series is seriously hot property on the used market at the moment. And when this 320i Touring sold at auction recently for an impressive £17,000, it was a clear sign that the wagon’s time has come.
When a factory-standard E30 320i Touring sells at auction for £17,000, that tells us two things: firstly, that the market has very much turned a corner and the days of E30s being cheap, disposable transport are long behind us. And secondly, that this particular 320i must be something rather special.
It probably hasn’t escaped your attention that the enthusiasm for 1980s sports cars, homologation specials and hot hatches has gone a bit nuts recently. This is owing to the fact that the kids who grew up in that generation have now reached an age when they’ve forged a career, started a family, got the mortgage in order, sorted their figurative ducks into a neat little row, and now have the ready cash to splash on the cars they always dreamed of through their youth. The fact that so many desirable cars of this era were subject to the irreparable vagaries of the Max Power treatment, as well as oodles of them being wrapped around lamp-posts by over-exuberant teens, means that surviving examples are relatively few and far between, and these all-grown- up enthusiasts are more than willing to pay top dollar when a good one hits the market. This is why you see Vauxhall Nova Sports selling for £30k, Peugeot 205 GTIs for £50k, and Ford Sierra RS Cosworths for £90k.
However, this trend isn’t exclusive to sporting models. Nostalgia for the everyday cars of the 1980s and ’90s is every bit as strong; indeed, in some cases it’s even more pronounced, because the GTIs and Cosworths and whatnot were the variants that were more likely to be deemed worth saving. Cast your mind back to the average high street of, say, twenty-five or thirty years ago, and think about which cars were everywhere then but you never see today. The Mk3 Vauxhall Cavalier. The Mk1 Ford Mondeo. The second-gen Renault 5. Where are they now? They’re in your kitchen cupboard, reshaped into compact cylinders to contain your baked beans.
So it is with the E30-generation 3 Series. These things used to be on every street and every corner, but today? Well, the 325i has been wrapped in cotton wool by some, and obviously the M3 is running the numbers in high-end collections across the globe. But the everyday runabouts? Well, there was a time in Britain when E30s were cheap and abundant, but that time is long-gone. In the collective consciousness of the BMW Car office this doesn’t seem like it was all that long ago, but when we lift the rose tints and scrutinise the classifieds with a growing sense of horror, it becomes increasingly apparent that the time we’re remembering was the early- to mid- 2000s. The E46 was, at the time, the current 3 Series on the market, and the E30 was the last-but-one model – old enough to be cheap-and-cheerful, but not yet sufficiently aged to enjoy the retro chic that’s pushing up values in 2021. Back in, say, 2004-ish, it was easy to pick up a perfectly straight and complete 320i for £500, whack a set of 18” Alpinas on there (again, cheaply and easily available), and drive it like a loon until it blew up. Then you could just throw the whole thing away and start again. In hindsight, perhaps it was partly the ensuing supply-and-demand logic of this sort of frivolousness that’s led to E30s being unexpectedly pricey today… in which case we apologise, we didn’t know. It was fun while it lasted though, wasn’t it?
The long and short of it is that survivors like the 320i Touring you see before you are few and far between. This is a car that’s never been messed about with or abused; never viewed as disposable or second-rate. There are two defining features that verify its rarefied position in the strata of cosseted E30s: mileage, and paperwork. The 62,000-miles we see racked up on the clock are genuine, all of which is backed up by the documentation. This means that throughout its thirty-one year life, it’s averaged just 2,000-miles a year. That’s about five-and-a-half miles a day. Hardly strenuous. It seems apparent that these haven’t been harsh and unsympathetic miles either – with just four former keepers since it was first registered on June 26th 1990, all of the old MoTs are here to back up the mileage and we can see that the majority of its regular use happened early in its life; the 1993 MoT, for example, shows that the mileage then was 15,635, and it’s climbed very gently year-on-year since. So it was well-bought by its last owner, but what he did to it in his tenure is another story altogether. You see, the minty-freshness of the condition you see today isn’t quite how he took delivery; indeed, the path from that point to this one has bordered on obsession at times, with an incredible amount of correct and sympathetic work being carried out to get everything tip-top.
In 2017, the Touring was delivered to Arun Bodyworks & Valeting in Littlehampton, with the artisans therein charged with the task of perfecting the bodywork to make it as good as it would have been the day it rolled off the forecourt. The bodywork was already incredibly solid and tidy, with all the original panels hanging straight and true, and with no obvious dents, dings or blemishes. What Arun Bodyworks did was to address what few issues existed (including making a minor repair to the offside rear wheelarch), before repainting the shell in its original shade of Diamantschwarz Metallic, followed by various stages of machine polishing and a full ceramic coating. The pretty cross-spoke alloy wheels were then refurbished and treated to new Toyo rubber, and the overall effect is one of a car that looks like it only recently drove away from the dealership in 1990.
This level of fastidiousness wasn’t solely applied to the exterior. The cabin of the E30 is just about as close to a time-warp as you’re likely to find in 2021; the cloth seats have worn the years remarkably well, and everything in here is clean, original, and fully functional. The only deviation from factory specs is the period aftermarket radio-cassette head unit, which is surely something any connoisseur could forgive. This pampered example has clearly spent a lot of its life garaged or under cover, as the interior shows no signs of sun damage. You know how the dash-tops love to crack on these cars? Not with this one – and it’s got a tailored dash mat fitted now, to continue protecting it for the next three decades or more. The owner had a new headlining professionally fitted in the correct fabric, and the boot features its original retractable load cover. It’s really reassuring to find that everything’s as it should be and – most importantly of all – everything works: the electric windows front and rear, the electric sunroof, it’s all doing what it should.
Speaking of which, this thing is an absolute peach to drive too. As you’d hope with an engine that’s never been over-stressed and has always been properly maintained, the 2.0- litre M20 straight-six is creamy-smooth, and it’s a supremely willing companion. The automatic transmission is equally silky and, yes, we’re going to have to use the term ‘time-warp’ again. It really is that good. With a car of this age you’d reasonably expect to find the odd rattle, knock or squeak when you’re driving along, but there’s none of that here.
All in all, this E30’s previous curator estimates that he spent over £15,000 restoring the car over the last few years. And that does sound like a colossal investment into a car that arguably didn’t require any restoration in the first place, but we have to remember that such endeavours are a labour of love. Bodyshops and resto outfits may build project cars within strict budget parameters with the aim of maximising return on profit, but that’s seldom the way with private enthusiasts – the work gets done to the correct standard by the right people, simply because that’s the way it should be done and that’s what the car deserves. It costs what it costs. With the itemised spending scrutinised, one might suggest that investing £15k in a car and then selling it for £17k doesn’t represent a massive reward once time, stress and complexity (not least the original purchase price of the car itself) are factored into the equation, but that’s not really the point. This owner made the car the very best it could be, simply because that’s what he wanted to do. And when the time came to sell, the market appreciated the efforts and the quality and provided a surprisingly high selling price, through a Car & Classic online auction which attracted fifty-six bids. Which is where we arrive at the crux of the matter: £17,000 is, as the evidence here shows, the value of a very tidy and low-mileage 320i Touring. No, this isn’t the value of every 320i Touring – this particular example is an exceptional one – but it’s fascinating to see that the tide is turning this way. Cheap and disposable E30s are long gone, and it’s clear that it’s not just the sports models that will henceforth be commanding high premiums. Any E30 is a desirable E30.
Restoration work totalled around £15,000 – making the sale price slightly more understandable.
E30 Touring: Under the Hammer
We’ve scoured the auction results across as many houses as possible, and it would appear that this £17,000 selling price is unprecedented in the UK. The closest comparable cars we found were sold in late 2020 for impressive numbers, but nothing approaching this. One was a White 1991 320i Touring that sold through Tennants Auctioneers – with 40,000-miles and a full BMW service history, this extremely tidy example had an estimate of £8-10k and ended up selling for £8,000. The other was a black 1990 320i Touring that went through Anglia Car Auctions in November; that one had a manual gearbox, 70k miles on the clock, and had been stored unused between 2011-17 before a light recommissioning. The selling price including premium? £11,070. There’s an upward trajectory here…
1990 BMW 320i Automatic Touring E30
- ENGINE & TRANSMISSION: M20B20 2.0-litre straight-six, 4-speed ZF auto ZF 4HP18
- CHASSIS: OE 15” cross-spoke alloy wheels, 205/55 Toyo Proxes T1-R tyres, original 320i specification
- EXTERIOR: Diamantschwarz Metallic, optional headlamp wipers, original 320i spec
- INTERIOR: Grey cloth trim, sunroof, electric windows front and rear, Pioneer radio-cassette