Buying an E30
Buying a used car is always a chore, especially when you're looking at something that is now at least 20 years old. Even if you're not forking out for the top models (325i Sports and M3), it still pays to have your wits about you so that you don't waste hundreds or even thousands of pounds.
Before you leap in with fists full of your hard-earned, let your mind govern your head a bit. Any car being sold for a few hundred will have a reason why, and you shouldn't expect full service history from a car sold on an online auction website filled with spelling mistakes. A Sport is little more than a standard 325i, and while it may carry more kudos in the classics market, it will still be prone to all the technical issues the standard 325i does, and will cost just as much to fix, so don't let your enthusiasm carry you away.
With that said, let's get to work identifying what to check when buying your first E30.
Generally have a plan before you get there and stick to it. Get a budget in your head of what you can afford, and factor in the cost of an immediate service, no matter what the previous owner tells you regarding the car.
Before you set off, ask the owner to ensure that the engine is cold and that the car has not been used for at least half a day. Take with you some cloths, some overalls, a magnet, a trolley jack (if you have one), a torch and a metal bar or large screw driver. Ensure you have at least an hour's daylight left when you get there.
Be prepared to walk away if you find any serious fault. There are still enough of these cars about to be picky - so you may as well get the best one you can. Any fault that you do find should be pointed out to the owner as you go along, to aid with the final price negotiation.
Crouch at each corner of the car and check all edges for straightness - a poorly repaired crash will show if you look carefully. Also check each panel for ripples and dents. Next check each and every shut line - they should all be about 3mm and even along every length. Any deviations and it's been accident repaired. Now check every edge for paint lines showing careless re-painting in the past.
Rust is the biggest killer of these cars. If you can see it from the outside there'll be a load more behind it when you or somebody you're paying starts cutting it away. The Sport in particluar requires bodykit removal for a proper rust evaluation - if the owner is reluctant or unable to remove it for you ask yourself (and maybe him/her) why that is. Also check the areas noted above, especially the suspension towers in the boot and below the windscreen as these are both difficult areas to repair. Apply the magnet (protected by the cloth) to any suspicious areas - it will stick to metal not filler.
Feel the paint. Looked-after paint will be totally smooth to the touch; anything too rough is neglected. Every panel should be the same colour and shade - look carfully for different paints.
If the car has not proved itself to be rotten yet, then jack the car up and crawl underneath. You're looking for rust again but also the inside of the tyres and general straightness of all mechanicals. There shouldn't be any ripples in any bit holding wheels on or any unsecured bits hanging down and flapping in the wind.
If it's solid underneath then re-pop the bonnet and look at the engine. It should be reasonably clean but don't expect miracles - there's not many that clean under there regularly. There shouldn't be loads of any fluid over anything though. check that the radiator contains water and no oil and that the dipstick and oil filler cap shows oil and no water. Other fuilds should be at the correct level too. Ask the owner when the coolant was last changed - M20 engines require this every 2 years without fail or they become porous. A puzzled look on the owner's face means they don't know their car too well.
Now get in and start the car. This is tricky as when it fires you need to watch the oil light and the Exhaust at the same time. The oil light must go out pretty near immediately. Anything more than a second and there's oil pressure problems. The exhaust needs to not be blue or black or too plentiful. Take your metal bar and put one end against your ear and the other against all four corners of the engine in turn. You'll be amazed at how clearly you can hear what's going on. (beware of rotating bits and loose limbs/clothing). Any ticks or thumps that sound wrong are wrong.
Now's a good time to inspect the Interior. The seats should be comfortable at least (if the owner hasn't sorted out a desparately uncomfortable driver's seat then have they looked after anything at all?) the seat and pedal wear should match the mileage. Everything should work. Maybe a couple of fripperies don't work but everything crucial should work. You'll be surprised at how much a replacement trim panel that's cracked will be. Budget 150 for one worn out seat.
If you are able to, ask the owner if it's ok to lift the carpets back in both Driver & Passenger side front footwells to check for any signs of rust. If this isn't an option, as some owners do not enjoy strangers pulling their prize possession to pieces, have a good feel with your hands to check whether the carpets are damp. Make sure to check both Front and back footwells, it will indicate water coming in from somewhere. It isn't a case of 'Its just been valetted so thats why I owner thought it was damp.'
By this time the engine should have warmed up and not overheated. If this is so then take it for a 1/2 hour drive. The owner will probably insist on coming with you - that's fine but make sure that he shuts up and leaves the radio off because you're listening to every noise it makes. Drive it fast and slow and make sure it brakes in a straight line when no-one's behind you. Make sure there are no strange noises when turning at full lock too.
When you get it back re-start it to ensure it starts from warm too. Then check under the bonnet again to ensure no fluids have leaked out during your adventure.
Pay particular attention to the tyres. Four matching branded tyres in good nick with non-kerbed wheels tell as much of a story as four non-matching chinese jobs with either names you can't pronounce or can't read because they've been rubbed off by constant kerbing.
Owners tell you a lot too. rough owners sell rough vehicles. A bloke that brags about 3rd gear wheelspins thrashes the pants off it. A woman may drive it gently but if she doesn't know where the bonnet release is she hasn't looked after it. Look at the state of the house it's coming from; generally people look after everything or nothing. A work-in-progress house is better than a neglected dump. My ideal car comes from a clued up middle-aged woman from a spotless house whose husband is a car fan and looks after it carefully. You'll be lucky to find this but they do exist.
By now you'll have a good idea of what the car features and what condition it's in. For a very rough estimate, you can now compare the asking price with our own Value Guide so that you don't end up paying over the odds.
If you're still interested because it's straight, rust free and drives nicely then re-iterate the list of faults to the owner and have a good moan about how expensive spare parts and garage labour rates are then make a low but not insulting offer. If it's refused then walk away and wait 15 minutes before going back with an improved offer. Make them sweat for a while and see how much you can get off.
Finally, check the identity of the car by matching the VIN on the log book to that stamped on the scuttle. Only part with a deposit once you're satisfied that the owner of the car is who you're dealing with, and the car is what it says it is.
Good luck with it! Keep your head where it should be, and you'll drive off with your heart and wallet where they ought to be too.