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.
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.”
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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