No Box, Plenty of Flare: Six Alternatives to the Increasingly Expensive E30 M3

Carter Johnson
by Carter Johnson
no box plenty of flare six alternatives to the increasingly expensive e30 m3

Finding an E30 M3 isn’t particularly hard.

Unlike contemporaries such as the Audi Quattro, locating a good example on any given day of the week is easy. eBay has no less than seven for sale at the time of writing, all in generally good shape. Specialists such as Enthusiast Auto Group (EAG) have the same number, none of which would be unwelcome at a high-brow show. Since BMW brought over 5,000 of these homologation specials to the U.S. market, you don’t need to search long and hard to find exactly the E30 M3 you want.

Paying for it is another matter entirely.

The E30 M3 has enjoyed a wave of popularity over the past few years as 1980s cars have finally become collectible. Outside of some supercars that have greatly outpaced the Bavarian, few others have gotten anywhere near the same amount of press.

The result: the M3 market is unreachable for most enthusiasts.

That’s problematic as nearly every article about the M3 paints a picture of angels singing the moment its motor cranks, the gates of automotive Valhalla open before you and all enemies are vanquished, while half-naked virgins throw themselves before you and your discerning choice of automotive royalty.

Being in vogue costs, and the seven cars on eBay had an average asking price of $60,000. That sounds like a lot until you see EAG’s inventory, which has an average asking price of $100,000. Outrageous market gouging? Not quite. There’s auction evidence to back up the pricing. Pristine models are now near $200,000 sometimes, and even Hagerty values fair examples at a baseline of $25,000 — hardly a drop in the bucket for a car that probably needs expensive mechanical or cosmetic restorations.

But the E30 offered much more variety than just the M3. Part of what made it popular were options like the first small wagon and first convertible of the big three luxury marques, all-wheel drive options, and plenty of engine choices. On top of that, you could get M3 performance out of tuner models and alternatives in BMW’s own E30 lineup. Plus, nearly all E30s (save those built at the end of its production run) are legal to import to these shores.

With that in mind, I assembled a list of six notable alternatives to the bonkers priced, box-flared E30 M3 that offer fans performance and uniqueness without the required black market sale of internal organs.

Baur TC2

BMW’s own E30 convertible may have been the first factory ‘vert from the company, but Baur beat BMW to the punch by coachbuilding the soft-top E21. Baur’s targa top models wore the TC moniker — for ‘Top Cabriolet’ — and featured innovative multi-position roofs and pressurized air blasts above the windshield to cut down on cabin turbulence. The TC2 was Baur’s second convertible based on the E30 chassis. With just shy of a reported 11,000 TC2s built, they’re even rarer than the M3. Performance in unchanged, but any Baur turning up at a BMW meet will certainly draw crowds. Most TC2s are fairly affordable when they come to market.

Pro Tip: Leave the ‘e’ out when you spell it, but pronounce it as Kiefer Sutherland would.

Alpina C and B Series

Like Baur, Alpina has a deep history with BMW, and was responsible for BMW’s racing program in the 1960s and ’70s. In the 1980s, Alpina really came into its own by offering increased performance coupled with sportier looks and sport-tuned suspensions. So good was Alpina at its trade that it incorporated as its own manufacturer; Alpina cars carry unique chassis numbers. Alpina offered several different series, from the C1 2.3 and 2.5 to the big-motor B6 3.5 shown above. In total, according to the Alpina Archives, the company offered eight variants with M or better levels of performance and sold 1,116 modified E30s. They are often seen on the market, but expect to pay a premium as they enjoy nearly universal appeal commensurate with their performance, looks and rarity.

Pro tip: Since there is no e, make sure not to say ‘al-pine-ah.’ It’s ‘al-peen-ah.’

Hartge H Series

Hartge followed Alpina with several of its own E30 variations, all with subtle aerodynamic, engine, suspension and wheel tweaks. While they had a total of six different configurations, you’re most likely to run across the 190- and 220-horsepower 325i-based H26 or H27 models, both of which were very popular in Japan. Though desirable in their own right and harder to find, they typically don’t demand the premium of the Alpina models, yet still offer M levels of performance.

Pro tip: Since there is no second a, make sure not to say ‘hart-age’. It’s Hart-guh.


The 320is emerged from BMW’s Motorsport Division skunkworks as a special project to dodge taxes on engines over 2 liters in Portugal and Italy. As the standard M3 had a 2.3-liter inline-four and the rest of the sportier E30s had bigger sixes, this meant de-stroking a motor to just under 2,000 cc, exactly what BMW did to the current S14B20. Still, the car lost little power and it’s proportionately one of the more powerful variants of the S14 motor with 192 horsepower. Unlike the M3, these could be bought new in basic four-door configuration with cloth interiors, manual windows, 14-inch alloys and no body kit, the perfect recipe for a super sleeper. More commonly seen are the M-Tech-kitted two-door models, but even then BMW produced only 3,745 in total. Though much more infrequently seen than the standard M3 and still having the heart of a champion, these usually come to the market at half or less of the ask of their flared bigger brothers.

Pro tip: Just keep saying “Italian M3.”

E30 Touring

In 1987, BMW beat Audi (1991) and Mercedes-Benz (1996) to the small luxury wagon market by introducing the E30 Touring. Though often equipped with smaller motors and lacking the performance of the other models, the Touring model is a very popular choice in the E30 world to set you apart as it wasn’t offered in North America. Because of this, like the others on this list, Tourings are quite rare to see and will draw a crowd, yet they’re still affordable in the used market.

Pro tip: Buy one imported from England and dress up for Halloween by pretending to be a horrified passenger in a driverless car.


The 325ix is the only model on this list that BMW sold in the American market. Still, it’s unique and hard to find as BMW only sold them between 1988 and 1991. Powered by the familiar M20 2.5-liter inline-six, the 325ix offered adequate power coupled with all-wheel traction from twin center and rear viscous coupling differentials. The weight penalty was pretty minimal overall, and the 325ix featured a handsome rocker and fender flare kit to distinguish it from the standard 325i.

Pro tip: Proudly disappoint Audi owners by reminding them that the ix started production in 1986 and they weren’t the only all-wheel drivers out there. While they sulk and come up with an argument about how the Quattro drivetrain is better than the viscous differentials in your E30, check for rust.

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5 of 54 comments
  • Never_follow Never_follow on Oct 06, 2016

    Thanks for another great article. I don't post too much as I'm usually reading this at work, but that's two quality articles in the span of a week. Keep it up! Also, out of curiosity, I checked goo-net for some BMW's... there are a LOT in Japan, they seem to have loved the E46.

    • Carter Johnson Carter Johnson on Oct 13, 2016

      @never_follow - thanks! And yes, BMW did sell a bunch of very nice models that appear lightly driven and well cared for in Japan. They're a hotbed for imports.

  • Krhodes1 Krhodes1 on Oct 06, 2016

    Seems like an extremely obvious alternative was missed here - the '91 318iS. 90% of the fun for

    • See 1 previous
    • Carter Johnson Carter Johnson on Oct 13, 2016

      @krhodes; not missed, but this was for more rare alternatives that most haven't seen or don't often see. It's the same reason that the 325i/s isn't on the list. The 318is is a great car - I spent a fair amount of time in an equally underrated and equally entertaining early E36 model.

  • Lou_BC I realized it wasn't EV's burning by the absence of the usual suspects.
  • Kwik_Shift A manual bug eye WRX wagon (2001-03) would interest me more.
  • El scotto Ferrari develops a way to put a virtual car in real time traffic? Will it be multiple virtual players in a possible infinite number of real drivers in real time situations?This will be one of the greatest things ever or a niche video game.
  • El scotto It's said that many military regulations are written in blood. Every ship's wheel or aircraft joystick has a human hand on it at all times when a ship or aircraft are under power. Tanks, APC's and other ground vehicles probably operate under the same rules. Even with those regulations accidents still happen. There is no such thing as an unmanned autopilot, ever. Someone has to be on the stick at all times.I do not think MB understands what a sue-happy nation the USA is. The 1st leased MB in a wreck while this Type 3 "Semi-Autonomous" driving, or whatever it is called, will result in an automatic lawsuit. Expect a class action lawsuit after the 1st personal lawsuit is filed. Yes, new MB owners can afford and ever are lawyers.Mercedes Benz; "The best wrecks or nothing!" Oh and has anyone noticed that Toyota/Lexus and Honda/Acura, the gray suit with white shirt and striped tie, automobile companies have stayed away from any autonomous driving nonsense?
  • Merc190 Very streamlined but not distinctive enough for a Mercedes. And besides, the streetcar of the early 20th century seems a far more efficient and effective method of people moving in essentially an autonomous manner. A motor car is meant to be driven with proper attention to what's important in every situation. To design it otherwise is idiotic and contradictory.