COAL: 1990 BMW 316i – Sensible German Shoes, But Still Pretty Good Fun.

Last week’s post generated some healthy discussion and each of the six contenders had plenty of things in their favour and supporters in their corner, but in the end my choice was the one that I felt best meets my needs out of a hobby car at the moment.

Like a lot of you who commented, I absolutely loved the Cappuccino and actually committed to buy it at a price that the owner indicated he would accept, but it turned out that he was simply playing a few buyers against each other and another guy offered him significantly more for it than I could justify paying, so I missed out. That was sad, but on reflection the Cap would not have been a great choice considering its tiny size and complete lack of safety, especially since I want to be able to take my wife and kid out in the car for a drive.

The 155 was sorely tempting but parts availability is rather patchy and I feel like I would just wish I bought a 156 instead  (the 156 is a bit out of my price range). So the decision ended up in favour of the small Bavarian, and I’m hoping it will be the right one. 80’s BMWs have always appealed strongly to me; a friend of mine who was a few years older used to own an immaculate E28 5 series back when I was around 16. It really was a beautiful car, a 1988 South African built example so at the very tail end of E28 production, I would drool over it every time we met. It was nothing special, just a 520i automatic, but man I loved that car!

Photo circa 2002, excuse the quality, had to pinch it off my friend’s facebook

He sold it within a couple of years, but of course I had no money to buy it at the time and the car has now disappeared. But it left a huge impression on me and because of this,I was drawn to the E30, which had many of the same qualities but was a lot easier to find than the E28, of which Sri Lanka only had around 5 cars at most. In fact when I wanted to move on from the Beetle I really wanted to replace it with an E30 and looked at several, but the financial equation didn’t work out so that idea was sadly forgotten. By 2021 good E30s had become very rare indeed, so much so that I didn’t even initially think about it as an option.

Then this car popped up one Saturday evening on Facebook Marketplace when I was idly looking around. It was advertised as “Immaculate” but even from the pictures that description was not quite right. Still I had nothing much planned for the next day so I enlisted a BMW enthusiast friend and went to have a look, not expecting much. In person, the car looked ok but certainly far from “immaculate”, with a dent on the right side front fender, a missing front lower lip and a hideous set of Chinese knockoff alloy wheels.

On first glance, not that great.

But on closer inspection things started looking surprisingly good; the engine bay was extremely tidy, the interior looked pretty decent and all the fragile plastic bits that most Sri Lankan E30s had long since lost were all present and correct. Even the dash was mostly in good order apart from a couple of tiny cracks. The 1.6 litre M40 four cylinder fired up instantly and idled fairly quietly without the tappet noise that 99% of them seem to have, and there was no smoke or anything leaking.

The owner volunteered a test drive and on it the car felt very decent, with good power and smoothness and no suspension issues. The shifter was a bit sloppy and there was a clunk from the front end over certain types of bumps but otherwise it felt really nice indeed. The basic excellence of the E30 chassis shone through, with lovely and talkative steering, eager turn in and well controlled body motions. So overall, it seemed like a solid car.

My friend quietly told me that it was the best E30 he’d seen in years and if I didn’t buy it he probably would. So after having another poke around and a check underneath (which revealed no rust, again very surprising for an E30), we started negotiations. The owner wanted a price that was very high indeed but he was willing to talk sense so we managed to settle at a figure that was a bit saner but still high for an E30. Nevertheless, the fundamentals of the car were solid enough that I felt it was worth it.

This view looked pretty good.

The first order of business was getting it looked at by a BMW workshop, to sort out all the small annoying issues that I noticed after picking it up. Only one of the four electric windows was working, the fog lights were not either and the driver’s door lock had an issue that meant the door needed to be slammed multiple times to close it. So I ran the car over to a workshop that my friend used and got them to do a drive and an in depth inspection. That inspection turned up a few more items but the main takeaway again was that it was one of the best kept E30s they’d seen in years. The sloppy shifter needed new bushings, the engine mounts needed replacing because although the previous owner had put new ones in they were bad quality parts and finally the steering clunk was revealed to be a worn U-joint. So I left the car with them with instructions to take their time sort it out.

That turned out to not be the best idea, because they certainly DID take their time and it was just under a month later when they had run through the majority of the list. Three of the four windows were now working (fourth needs a new motor), the shifter was much better, and all the other electrics were checked and working. The sound from the front end though, was an issue because they did not have the U-joint in stock and had no way of getting it because the part is no longer manufactured by BMW.

The great thing with the E30 is that there is an overwhelming amount of information online and parts are also not at all tough to find, especially in the UK. So I got in touch with a company that specializes in parts from the UK and within a couple of days they had managed to locate a good used part. Since my steering rack also had some issues, I asked them to find me a good unit as well, which they managed to do and as of today I’m waiting for the parts to arrive, which should be in the next week or so. In the meantime, the car drives fine.

Used, but said to be in decent shape. Fingers crossed.

While the car was at the workshop, I wanted to do something about the wheels and tires which were both Chinese and to put it mildly, quite crap. Since the look I wanted was factory, the “bottle cap” BMW alloys were what I decided to go with. These wheels were everywhere a few years ago, since E30 owners pulled them off for upgrades but somehow they all must have been turned into scrap metal, because nothing could be found.

Then I enlisted my friend who spends a lot of his time on wheels and tires and we spent one weekend visiting every single alloy wheel shop in Colombo and turned up nothing. However my friend was not ready to give up and after badgering a shop he knew well to look harder, managed to turn up a set in the very back of their long term storage, so that was a score! Ebay helped me to replace the missing bumper lip, which I found for a reasonable price in the UK. There are aftermarket alternatives but this was a good condition original BMW item, which is said to be more durable and fits better. Those two simple changes and a good clean and wax improved how the car looked by an incredible amount.

Not bad…

Not bad at all actually.

Another rather odd issue that I discovered was that the car seemed to be infested with ants. There was no clear reason why, but there seemed to be hundreds of them. Multiple vacuuming attempts didn’t entirely solve the issue so I decided to take it to an upholstery shop I know to sort out. The guy ended up having to yank everything out to get rid of them, so since it was out we decided to do something about the upholstery. The seats had a set of covers on them that were kind of like the original pattern, but not quite and they were fitted quite sloppily.

I was hoping the original fabric would have survived underneath but it turned out to be unsalvageable, being ripped and discolored beyond redemption. So the only option was to re do the seats completely, which was done using material that was as close a match as possible. The end result is pretty good, if not exactly identical to the OEM fabric. The owner of the shop also took it upon himself to sort out my door lock as well, since he took great offense at the price of a new lock. After a bit of machine work and several hours of adjusting, it seems to be sorted for now, but I suspect I will eventually need a new one anyway.

I’m pretty pleased with how these came out.

As it stands today, the E30 is running and driving well and is doing what it was supposed to do, providing a fun but also practical alternative to the daily drivers that gives me a genuinely pleasant feeling every time I get behind the wheel. Speaking of wheels, the standard four spoke steering wheel feels just a bit bus like, so after almost overpaying on Ebay, I got lucky and found a used M Tech 1 three spoke wheel for a pretty good price through a cousin in the UK, which is also on the way down. Since it will likely arrive at the same time as the other steering parts, they’ll all go on together. Until then, I’ve been enjoying driving the car and getting to know it properly.

The M tech 1 steering wheel.

Every expert online seems to say that the 316i is underpowered but honestly because the car is pretty light it feels fine, especially from the perspective of a classic car on Sri Lankan roads. On a recent classic car drive I got to open it up a bit and it had no problems whatsoever showing a clean pair of heels to the majority of the pack. That doesn’t mean I haven’t started thinking about upgrades of course, since it appears that almost every engine imaginable has been dropped into an E30 somewhere in the world, there’s plenty of inspiration!

If I do eventually decide on an engine upgrade, I’ll stick with BMW parts and put in one of their six pots, or a twin cam 318is engine, which is a lot less work. Of course if that happens I also need  suspension and brake upgrades and so on so that can turn into a bit of a rabbit hole which will probably result in needing an entire car to be brought over. Given that I have plenty of other things to focus my attention on at the moment, this won’t happen any time soon and I’ll just concentrate on keeping it maintained and driving it as much as I can.

Photographed on a recent drive. 

Well, that brings us right up to date as far as my COALs are concerned, so I guess this wraps things up. I really enjoyed sharing these stories with everyone here at CC and hope that you enjoyed reading them as well. Thank you for all your comments and the great discussions, and of course for reading in the first place. I hope to bring you more CC content from our sunny island and COAL updates if and when there is anything new. Until then, happy motoring, and see you around!