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BMW 3-Series (E30) Performance Guide: 1982-1994

BMW 3-Series (E30) Performance Guide: 1982-1994

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BMW 3-Series (E30) Performance Guide: 1982-1994

5/5 (8 évaluations)
425 pages
3 heures
Aug 14, 2020


The photos in this edition are black and white.

BMW has always had a reputation for quality in the cars it has exported to the United States. The BMW 2002 developed a cult following of loyal enthusiasts, and properly cemented BMW as a quality manufacturer of sporting sedans with this forerunner to the 3-series. BMW replaced the 2002 with the 3-series models in the 1970s, which heralded a new design, and new improvements annually, each one better than the last.

The model that truly launched BMW into the performance arena in the United States were the second generation of 3-series cars, the E34; E30 & 34; chassis cars. These 1980s and 1990s era cars were offered with a wide range of engine/transmission combinations, but the basic chassis was so well engineered that owners were able to enjoy an outstanding combination of comfort and handling performance regardless of the powertrain. Today, the E30 family of BMWs are both readily available and affordable, and are popular with enthusiasts wanting to personalize them.

Whether for on-track duty or simply improved street performance, the E30 series cars have proven to respond to well-chosen upgrades. Each specific section of the car (chassis, engine, transmission, etc.) is showcased and suitable performance upgrades are discussed in detail. Exterior appearance items are also covered, as are maximum wheel and tire sizes for the entire family of 3-series E30 BMWs. This book offers current and future owners a wealth of important information, including a buyer's guide, year-by-year upgrades and changes, and more. This book is a valuable addition to every BMW owner's library.

Aug 14, 2020

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BMW 3-Series (E30) Performance Guide - Robert Bowen



This book is written for owners, prospective owners, and lovers of the US-market BMW E30 3-series models made between 1982 and 1994. Whether you are a hardcore racer, restorer, daily driver, or just curious about what makes these cars special, you’ll find something you can use. I’ll help you find, restore, modify, and even race your E30.

Although I’m based in the United States, and concentrate on the cars available to me, much of the information I’ve collected also applies to cars in other markets. There are enough small differences that no US-based author could hope to cover them all, however. Where such differences are important or useful to know for upgrade reasons, they are noted. Otherwise this book focuses on the US-market 318, 325, 325es, 325e, 325is, 318is, and to a small extent on the 325ix and M3 models.

What is an E30?

Because you are reading this book, you probably already know what an E30 BMW is, but just in case, here’s a little background. The simplest answer to the question What is an E30? is actually the least informative. E30 is the BMW chassis code for the 1983–1991 3-series coupe, convertible, sedan, and wagon. In typical German fashion, even the chassis code has its own logic. Until recently, all BMW chassis codes followed the same format: the letter E from the German word Entwicklung (development) with a sequential number.

Each BMW project, from concepts to prototypes to full production vehicles has its own unique E-code. The first production E-code cars were the 1968–1977 New Six models, dubbed E3. Each following BMW project got its own E-code, including the E9 coupes, the E12 5-series, and the E21 3-series. When it came time to develop the second 3-series, E30 was the next number to be assigned. The rest is BMW history.

More informative is the E30’s place in history as the car that catapulted BMW from second-tier European manufacturer to yuppie status symbol, at least in the United States. Early exports such as the 2002 were very popular for their combination of performance, practicality, and price but some later cars failed to capture buyers’ hearts the same way.

In particular, the E30 predecessor, E21 3-series, was never particularly popular. Available only as a two-door sedan and only with a four-cylinder engine, such as the 2002, it lost something of the former’s soul (and performance). At the same time it was not impressive enough in technology to attract new, aspiring buyers the way the E30 did.

Here’s another way to look at the E30: It’s a good-looking car with clean lines, decent performance, and a kind of simplicity that has been absent from the car market for many years. Once upon a time cars were light, simple, and rear-wheel drive, not like the heavy, bloated, and complex cars that dominate today’s freeways.

The E30 is also an easy car to modify, with many thousands built in many different configurations over the years, and easy parts interchangeability with other BMW models. Throw in a racing pedigree, retro-cool appeal, and a healthy dose of aftermarket parts support and you have nearly the perfect enthusiast car.

Amazingly, more than twenty years after the last E30 rolled off the assembly line in Germany, there are still thousands on the road. They are even competitive on the racetrack, with an entire race series dedicated to the car. There are no other cars from the era that have survived—and thrived—quite as well as the E30 BMW. (Photo Courtesy Turbo Charging Dynamics)



The E30 was the second generation of 3-series cars from BMW. To understand its design and historical place, it helps to look at the cars that preceded it, particularly the E21 and 2002. Many of the ideas that first appeared in those cars remained in the E30’s DNA and influenced how the car was laid out, built, and even marketed.

The very first 3-series sold in the United States was the E21 320i in 1977, one year after its European launch. The E21 was basically a development of the astoundingly popular 1960s and 1970s BMW 2002. The E21 stayed broadly the same until 1984, when it was replaced by the E30 3-series (the subect of this book).

The E21 shared the 2002’s four-cylinder engine, but with fuel injection in place of the carburetors, and fewer horsepower. Underneath was the same semi-trailing-arm independent rear suspension with MacPherson struts up front. The resemblance is notable and, in fact, many parts are interchangeable. The E30 maintained the same chassis DNA despite its greater weight, power, and performance compared to the E21.

The outside, however, was a different story. The E21 was a significant styling break from the Italianate and very 1960s-influenced 2002. The E21 lost the prominent beltline of the 2002, replaced with simple, clean lines and flat sides. The greenhouse with its slender roof pillars and Hoffmeier kink (named after the stylist who created it) at the rear edge of the side glass was distinctively BMW and well proportioned.

BMW really became a household name in the United States with the launch of this car, the 2002. Basically a two-door Neue Klasse with the 2.0-liter M10 engine from the larger 2000 sedan, the 2002 was a hit for BMW importer Max Hoffman and laid the foundation of sporty sedans and coupes that led to the creation of the E30 3-series. (Photo Courtesy Grassroots Motorsports/Per Schroeder)

E21 styling was so good that most of its look continued to be shared by many thousands of BMW models that followed. The E30, in fact, was only a very minor styling evolution of the E21; it shared the first 3-series’ squarish profile and three-box shape along with its double-kidney grille, thin roof pillars, and flat sides. Only a squared-off front and rear treatment and minor exterior detail differences separated the car from its predecessor.

In the United States, at least, while the cars looked similar they had vastly different model lineups. In place of the only available E21 model (the 320i, a four-cylinder, two-door coupe) the E30 came as a choice of four- or six-cylinder coupe in 1984, joined later by a four-door sedan, and a convertible. The only thing missing was a station wagon (Touring in BMW-speak), which was sold in other markets.

Somewhere in the region of 2,433,000 E30s were built, according to BMW sales figures.

Evolution of the E30

The E30 launched with just one model in the United States, but by the time the car was no longer in production it had been fitted with four different engines, had come in three different body styles, and had at least one facelift. In other countries it was available in even more variants. The following details the US-market cars one by one.


The initial E30 was similar to the E21, with only a two-door available. However, the new car was available with a choice of engines. The 318i was the four-cylinder model, with a

1.8-liter M10 engine. This was basically the same 101-hp engine used in the E21 320i but with electronic fuel injection.

This was the price-leader model, intended to smooth the transition from the outgoing E21 to the more expensive and better equipped E30 series. At more than $18,000, the new car was vastly more expensive than the E21; the original 1977 320i had sold for less than $10,000. It was more money, but this was a better car: faster, tighter, and better assembled than any E21 ever was.

The 1984–1987 cars are recognized by their aluminum bumpers, which are large and distinctive. The earliest of these cars also have chrome around each door window and windshield, along the beltline and roofline, and on the rub strips down the side of the car. The heavy use of chrome and large bumpers make them less desirable to some people but as this clean coupe shows, they can look as good as any E30. (Photo Courtesy Ground Control Suspension Systems)

Starting in 1988 (1989 model year) the E30 was given a more modern look with plastic bumpers replacing the aluminum diving boards that awkwardly afflicted the North American cars. In addition, the chrome around the door windows disappeared, as well as that on the rub strips and around the windshield. These cars are preferred by many people but it is completely a matter of personal preference. (Photo Courtesy Ground Control Suspension Systems)


The second model, the 325e with its six-cylinder engine, was the big news. While the E21 was available with a six-cylinder engine in other markets, this was the first time that such a powerplant was offered in the US 3-series. Reviewers were thrilled with the option, which meant that the 3-series now had a serious competitor to the Mercedes 190 and similar six-cylinder European compact sedans.

The engine was a conventional, single overhead camshaft (SOHC) of

2.7 liters. It was an evolution of the late-1970s M20 six-cylinder engine family, which had been used in various displacements in the 5-series and 3-series cars in other markets. In the US market the new 2.7-liter M20 was used in both the new E30 325e and the recently introduced mid-size 528e sedan.

The model suffix e stood for eta, the Greek letter signifying efficiency in engineering. It was meant to reflect the engine’s tuning and intended use as a fuel efficient, torquey engine designed for daily driving in American traffic conditions. Overall it achieved these goals, although it left enthusiasts cold with its weak high-RPM performance.

The engine had a relatively high compression ratio (9.0:1) and a relatively low redline (4,750 rpm) and put out 121 hp at 4,250 rpm and 170 ft-lbs of torque at an easy-to-reach 3,250 rpm. The stroke was 81 mm, the bore was 84 mm, and the head was basically the same as used on

2.0-liter versions of the engine sold in Europe. The valves were small, but this was designed to be a smooth and fuel-efficient rather than a sporting engine, and high engine speed was not its intended use.

Fueling was provided by a sophisticated (for the time) Bosch Motronic EFI that gave the engine exceptionally smooth starting, smooth running, and good fuel economy. The

2.7-liter M20 eta engine received praise for its great street manners and bountiful torque, but not its performance. At around 9 seconds for the 0–60 sprint, the 325e was pretty slow even for the mid 1980s. With 21/28 EPA-estimated MPG, however, the engine made up for its lack of power with a fuel-sipping nature.

In 1985 the 3-series lineup finally received the long-awaited four-door sedan, along with an automatic transmission option. The four-door shared the same equipment as the six-cylinder coupe, with added practicality in the form of two rear doors. The overall length and wheelbase were the same. Of course the price crept higher, matching the concurrent rise in the strength of the Deutschmark versus the US dollar.


For 1986, the base two-door 325e lost its eta suffix to become the 325, although the 325e name was retained for the four-door with standard luxury features such as ABS brakes and leather upholstery. The big news was the addition of a sportier two-door coupe with standard front and rear spoilers and bolstered sport seats dubbed the 325es. The loss-leader 318i finally disappeared from the lineup, continuing the upward march of BMW’s US-market positioning and leaving the 3-series without a four-cylinder engine option. Few reviewers lamented the loss, since the eta engine had near-four-cylinder fuel economy with more torque.

Improved suspension tuning (stiffer front shocks, springs, and a limited-slip differential) gave the new 325es coupe better handling and looks than the 325e. The carryover 2.7-liter gave the car the same engine performance, for better or worse. BMW had yet to fall into the performance-at-any-cost philosophy that took hold in the 1990s and the 325es was more balanced than just about any 3-series since. It perfectly reflected contempory thinking with its moderate performance, good fuel economy, excellent handling, and well-thought-out overall package.


With a big shift in thinking, in 1987 BMW introduced the 325i and 325is, with a new variant of the M20 engine, dubbed the M20B25. This engine was designed to answer performance complaints about the 325 eta models.

The new engine got a new head, new cam, and bigger valves (42/36-mm-diameter intake/exhaust vs. 40/34). The combustion chambers were significantly revised to provide better flame travel and airflow, with more resistance to pre-ignition. Pistons were redesigned to match the new head and the published compression ratio dropped to 8.9:1.

Finally, in a move that might seem counterproductive, BMW destroked the six-cylinder engine from 81 to 75 mm, giving it a drop in displacement to 2.5 liters. This made it more reliable at higher RPM, giving engineers the freedom to tune for a higher horsepower peak and more lively performance. The new 6,200-rpm rev limiter reflected that fact and the new horsepower ratings were just as impressive.

The end result of all this tweaking was 168 hp at 5,800 rpm and 140 ft-lbs of torque at 4,300 rpm. This was a completely different engine in character than the previous M20, with performance that matched the 3-series looks and handling abilities. All in all the new 325is was a completely different kind of car than the 325es, despite its exterior similarities. With a 0-60 time under 8 seconds, the 3-series finally felt as if it had the performance warranted by the car’s growing price tag.


The year 1987 also saw the introduction of the 325ic convertible, which became one of the best-selling models in the lineup. It was based on the 325is coupe, but according to press materials of the time, the convertible was a significant redesign of the E30 chassis with added reinforcements throughout the body. In fact many body parts are not interchangeable with their sedan counterparts. Even the doors were redesigned to accommodate the higher sills needed to increase the car’s torsional rigidity.

The M20 engine finally gave buyers all the performance they were looking for in 1987 with the launch of the 325is. The M20B25 was a completely different engine in character than the previous M20, with performance that matched the 3-series looks and handling abilities.

Besides the coupe and sedan, BMW imported one other body style to the United States: the 325ic cabriolet. Available beginning as a 1987 model and selling well into the beginning of E36 production, in 1992, the convertible was also available for a short time with the four-cylinder M42 engine as the 318ic. For convertible fans they are a good alternative to the coupes, with only a 300-pound weight penalty to overcome. (Photo Courtesy Metric Mechanic)

In 1988, BMW brought out the ultimate E30. The M3 was a special car designed strictly to help the company dominate European Touring Car racing. Nearly every body panel on the car was different from a standard E30 coupe, starting with the front bumper, fenders, and quarter panels. Each was stretched to allow much larger tires than the standard E30 could squeeze under its fenders. Even the windshield on the M3 was unique, designed to be glued into place with urethane adhesive instead of being carried in a rubber seal.

In back it’s the same story. The only things in this photo shared with a normal E30 coupe are the taillights, doors, and roof panel. The rear window is a completely different shape than usual, and requires a special filler panel. The trunk lid is raised compared to ordinary E30 models, and the rear bumper is a different shape. Even the taillight filler panel is shaped differently.

Inside, the M3 was basically a standard E30 coupe, with a few differences. The instrument panel had an oil-temperature gauge in place of the economy page. The neat three-spoke steering wheel was available as an accessory for other E30s. The sport seats were basically the same as the 325is sport seats.

The original 2.7-liter eta engine was revised for 1988, when it inherited the improved cylinder head from the M20B25. The original 2.7-liter stroke, compression ratio, and most of the tuning was kept. Horsepower increased to 127 at a slightly higher 4,800 rpm and the redline bumped up to 5,300. Torque remained the same.


The year 1988 saw the return of a four-cylinder engine in the form of the amazing, homoglation-special M3. With its race-developed 2.3-liter engine pushing out 192 hp, this was the fastest E30 ever built and the fastest BMW until the E46 M3 almost ten years later. Although based on the M10, the engine program was an offshoot of BMW’s F1 experience and the top end was completely different from the SOHC engine used in the 318 and 320.

In fact almost nothing on the M3 was the same as on the

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  • (4/5)
    A great book for mechanics, as one in training my self I enjoyed it to the fullest. It gave me a lot of insight to the engineering of the classic, and I had to fight people to get a chance to read it. Great book, I recommend it to anyone into cars.
  • (5/5)
    I got a free copy of this book from the Library Thing Early Review program. It is a wonderful book. The pictures and instructions are detailed and full of interesting information. Thank you.
  • (5/5)
    In so far as automobile designers can explain what they do, the author has gotten about as close to the meat of the process as one can. A deep dive, and a fresh approach to many of the big design questions--completely different from the usual macho car journalism. Insightful and most interesting. Graphic design and page layout are as outstanding from a readability standpoint as text is excellent.I was given this book by LibraryThing
  • (5/5)
    This is a fantastic book if you have a BMW. Full color pictures, detailed information, what more could you want??? I have always been a huge fan of SA Design/Cartech books. I have several of my own. They are great for detailed pictures and each book is very specific to what you want without getting to technical.
  • (4/5)
    This book has quickly become the featured coffee table book in my house, thanks to its full-color glossy pictures (and my Bimmer enthusiast hubby!) While it is not quite the encyclopedic resource my husband had hoped for, it is a very, very good resource for the beginner or intermediate e30 collector. A worthy addition to a specialized collection or a high school that has an auto tech program.
  • (5/5)
    If detailed pictures help you when you are working on your BMW 3 E30 series then the performance guide for BMWs built between 1982 & 1997 is perfect for you. I am not a professional auto mechanic, but my father did teach me how to complete basic repairs. My dad's books always had a long description, but the pictures seemed to be missing steps. This books pictures are clear and easy to follow. It has many great ideas. Really makes you want to repair your car or purchase one to rebuild. I recommend the book.
  • (5/5)
    An extremely thorough book for people who own or are interested in this make of BMW. The pictures and instructions for repairs or modifications are very detailed. There is also a good discussion of the collectibility of this model and what to look for when shopping for one of these cars for restoration. Excellent.
  • (5/5)
    I lost my husband for a week after BMW 3-Series (E30) Performance Guide 1982-1994 came into our house. He was long gone in fantasies of performance upgrades for his 1987 E30 and dreams of getting a second E30 he could paint Inca Orange and add Euro-spec bumpers to. With the flashy pictures, eye-grabbing layout, and techie lingo, this is the perfect book for an armchair mechanic like my husband, who wants to plan modifications to his E30 but hire out the work.