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enginenerd Reader
11/29/17 11:17 a.m.

Since 3 active vehicular projects wasn't enough, I've decided to take on one more. This is also my 2nd attempt at getting my wife interested in cars. When we got married, her definition of a nice car was one "with shiny paint". Since then she has happily put up with a dozen or so project cars I've dragged home, but hasn't shown much interest in driving them. 

However, some time ago we were at a diner and she commented "That's pretty cool..." about a ratty E30 convertible parked outside. Since then, we've looked at a few but most were in pretty terrible shape requiring new tops, serious body work, and rust repair. I happened across this one on Facebook and ended up driving it home a few weeks ago:

It's an '87 325i with the manual transmission. It has 102k miles and the odometer works! According to the previous owner it was used as a vacation home car and spent most of the last 10 years sitting. 

Compared to my last few project cars, this thing is nice. Usually I bring home the absolute bottom of the barrel examples of cars. (My last big project car was an '07 STi that needed a new engine, center differential, and paintwork!) However, because of all the deferred maintenance, I'm sure I will be putting a good chunk of money into this car over the winter. The goal is to have it safe and reliable for the wife to drive come springtime. 

Found a receipt for the top being replaced


Dash isn't cracked! Seats do have some tears in the usual E30 convertible spots



Came with the original owner's manual, an extra window switch, and a handle to fix the broken convertible top pull:


Onboard computer...amazing how far cars have come:


Car feels unsafe over any speed limit now, but it has an old radar detector installed:


Probably going to need some help from you BMW gurus out there. This is the first BMW I've owned that I actually planned on fixing.

02Pilot Dork
11/29/17 11:46 a.m.

Timing belt is not an optional service. Do it first if you have no record of it being done in an acceptable timeframe/mileage. M20 is otherwise simple and solid. Cooling system components can be fragile with age.

The suspension is easy to deal with, and at this point if it were my car I'd just rip everything out and replace it all. OE parts for the control arms and steering linkage, please. I like Bilsteins for dampers, and the car will respond well to mild lowering and big sway bars.

Other than that, just change the fluids and drive it.

enginenerd Reader
11/29/17 12:07 p.m.

In reply to 02Pilot :

First course of action planned is the timing belt, valve adjustment, and valve cover gasket. The car definitely needs dampers, but the control arm bushings, ball joints, and tie rods look pretty good.

It's my natural tendency to do all new everything but I have to remember this isn't my race car, nor will excellent handling really be appreciated by the primary driver. 

Any suggestions on springs? Not looking for much lowering, but perhaps something better suited to a quality damper. 

02Pilot Dork
11/29/17 12:21 p.m.

Not up on what the E30 options are currently for springs, but the usual suspects should have some decent options. Factory springs aren't bad either as long as they're in good shape. Big sway bars would be a better match for the intended use you describe IMHO.

Bear in mind that the bushings my look OK, but age and miles take their toll. If you're doing dampers anyway, the additional labor to do the control arms is minimal (front especially). The rear is a bit more work. If you decide to go down the replacement path, don't forget about the diff bushings, which can cause clunking. Engine and transmission mounts should at least be inspected; the trans mounts are prone to getting really soft with any oil contamination from output shaft seal leaks. I know the primary driver isn't looking for race car handling, but a solid-feeling, clunk-free suspension is nice to have. A convertible is only going to magnify chassis flaws.

enginenerd Reader
11/29/17 12:37 p.m.

Recently, I bought a MaxJax on sale so most of my time had been spent installing that. I started cleaning the car up during that time...it has years of gunk that has accumulated. I powerwashed the exterior, vacuumed the interior, and began attacking the engine bay:

Here's some contrast...it's taking forever to get this stuff off:


I'm not entirely sure how to remove this stuff. For now it's staying:


Actually started another post asking about this gunk. Turns out it's cosmoline (or similar) from the factory. It's going to stay for now as well. 


The good, bad, and the ugly. 

Last night, I finally got the car up in the air to take a look around. The good news is that there is no major structural rust that I can find anywhere. This is a huge win for a car bought locally here in Michigan. The bad (but expected) news is that there is a ton of maintenance work that needs to be done. This seems a little overwhelming, but I think most of this stuff will go pretty quickly over the winter once I order parts. 


Evidence of light collision damage to the FL fender. According to the seller, this repair is > 10 years old. 


Missing reflector. NBD


Muffler is gone. Again, this didn't come as a surprise.


Big old leak from the engine. I think it's from the valve cover gasket, but will need to clean things up to figure it out:


Old leak from tail of transmission. Suspected output shaft seal. Mounts are perished and will need to be replaced as well:


Crusty fuel system stuff. Not sure which line this is, but it's looking pretty bad.


Dampers are all blown. The ride is very vague/bouncy to say the least.


Brakes looked pretty good on all four corners. No lip on the rotor. Some grooving but nothing I'm concerned about.


Check out the date code on these tires!


I'm not sure what this is. It's on the passenger side rear wheel well. Besides the exhaust and misc fuel system components, it's the only really crusty thing on the car. 

Is it sad that I still consider this a very nice project car?

enginenerd Reader
11/29/17 12:49 p.m.

In reply to 02Pilot :

Agreed. Thanks for the solid advice. 

I didn't notice any clunks or weird noises on the ride home, but will likely end up replacing most things. I'd like this to be a car we'd be comfortable taking on a shorter road trip across the state and the peace of mind will be worth it. 

cmcgregor Dork
11/29/17 1:01 p.m.

That cover in the passenger wheel well is for the vent lines for the fuel tank. Super common for those to rust out.

Realoem.com has all of the factory diagrams, parts availability is very good for these cars so you should be able to find everything you need. Pelican parts, bavauto, and fcpeuro should have anything you can't find on rockauto.

stuart in mn
stuart in mn UltimaDork
11/29/17 2:04 p.m.

Despite the few things pictured it looks pretty nice overall.  It seems that no matter how nice a BMW you buy there's always some amount of maintenance that will be required once it's in your hands.  smiley  My last 325ix had that same radar detector, my understanding is it was a popular dealer add-on back in the day.  I tried turning it on a few times, but it only sort of randomly beeped now and then - I figured it was just picking up stray signals from garage door openers or something, and not actually detecting any useful information.

enginenerd Reader
11/29/17 6:23 p.m.

I found some service records from BMW a few minutes ago and learned some interesting things:

  • Timing belt and front lower control arms last replaced at 62150 miles in 2003
  • Valve cover gasket, valve lash adjustment, driveshaft coupler, and transmission output shaft seat done at 71,800 miles in 2005 (interestingly, all seem to need replacement again)
  • Major cooling system service and tune up done at 73250 miles in 2006
  • A/C converted to R134a in 2006
  • Convertible top replaced in 2006

Since the last records I have available, the car has accumulated another 40k miles. I think the previous owner took it to an indie mechanic at that point and didn't save those receipts. I'm assuming I will do most of this work over again anyway, but it's fun to learn the history of the car. 

Jerry From LA
Jerry From LA SuperDork
11/29/17 7:00 p.m.

The oil from the output shaft seal may be from the last leak.  From the pic, the seal itself looks okay.  The rest of the car looks great for Michigan.  One thing I've learned from my attempts to "improve" a car for the non-hobby-significant-other is they usually could care less.  Actually, any changes you make that create a harsher ride or increase oversteer may mean your wife might not drive the car at all or loses interest in it.  Do the maintenance, replace the wear items, put in a nice set of shocks, and leave the springs and ride height alone.  If it runs and steers as BMW intended, she'll enjoy it.

Having said that, anything that keeps the shifter from buzzing or improves the action/feel might be the one caveat. 

enginenerd Reader
11/29/17 7:12 p.m.

In reply to Jerry From LA :

This shifter is a bit vague so that is one area I'd like to address. Adding an AUX port would likely be noticed and appreciated far more than flatter cornering. You are probably right in that regard. 

enginenerd Reader
11/29/17 7:14 p.m.

Here's a mystery for you guys:

I've found four separate instances of a five digit code written down in the car. At first I thought it was the code for a gated residence, but I'm seeing it written on papers hidden in service records so that doesn't make a lot of sense. 

Could this be BMW related...perhaps a security code for the stereo or something? Or am I reaching for something that doesn't exist?

Mr. Lee
Mr. Lee UberDork
11/29/17 7:20 p.m.

subbing to watch this. Old BMW's are an interest item. laugh

Jerry From LA
Jerry From LA SuperDork
11/29/17 7:48 p.m.
enginenerd said:

In reply to Jerry From LA :

This shifter is a bit vague so that is one area I'd like to address. Adding an AUX port would likely be noticed and appreciated far more than flatter cornering. You are probably right in that regard. 

GRM ran an article years ago about an improved bushing kit that made the shift action more positive and dampened the resonance buzz.  I'm sure the kit must be around.  No doubt an aux input would be appreciated.  Whatever improves her "driving experience" (not necessarily yours) is what counts.

stuart in mn
stuart in mn UltimaDork
11/29/17 9:58 p.m.
enginenerd said:

Could this be BMW related...perhaps a security code for the stereo or something? Or am I reaching for something that doesn't exist?

That's most likely it.  If you have the owner''s manual in the glove box it will explain when you need the code and how to use it.

enginenerd Reader
12/4/17 10:34 a.m.

I decided to dive into the timing belt and cooling system refresh last night. Usually I don't like to start this stuff until I have parts but I took a different approach on this project; I'm glad I did because everything is broken! 

There were four main issues I noticed on my drive home and initial inspection:

1) Intermittent stumbling, trouble idling, etc. 

2) Burning coolant smell when warm

3) Noise from cooling fan

4) Oil leak


Here's the answers:

Distributor cap cracked in half. Also I kind of doubt this was the issue but most spark plug wire boots have a small hole or tear in them.


Coolant reservoir overflow drain emptying directly into the exhaust manifolds:


Cooling fan self machined clearance in the loose distributor cap cover:


Camshaft seal leak for years. I'm guessing this seal wasn't replaced during the last timing belt service. I don't have a good picture, so here's a spider that's been rolling around in the timing belt tensioner instead:


The timing belt looked okay-ish, but it will be worth replacing. Plugs all looked like this, but I don't suppose that means much as this car has mostly cold started and idled for the past few years. 

So now I get to go through the parts list and order everything I need. I always overthink this and build a spreadsheet comparing suppliers, shipping, part numbers, etc. 


jr02518 Reader
12/4/17 1:03 p.m.

The oil pan gasket is a ware item on these motors.  Like the timing belt, they just need to be changed.  But it does give you the opportunity to service the power steering rack hoses and reservoir, when you drop the front cross member.  The engine mounts should also be on your list of parts to replace.

Then there's the transmission.  They leak at the shift shaft seal. That drips on the glibo, that turns the transmission mount into goo.  Google "BMW money shift". Your purchase of a thin wall 30mm socket allows the RnR of the rear seal on the transmission and yes you have to remove the exhaust system to drop the drive shaft.

But they are a blast to drive.   


stuart in mn
stuart in mn UltimaDork
12/4/17 7:08 p.m.

Include Blunt Tech Industries in your parts spreadsheet, I've been happy with their prices and service on BMW parts, plus they know e30s pretty well.  https://blunttech.com

enginenerd Reader
12/13/17 2:21 p.m.

Parts are here! 

It's been a long, snowy week but I've managed to get a few things done. I ordered parts after compiling a ridiculous spreadsheet. (However, I did start out at $431 from one supplier and ended up at $316 for the same parts ordered from a variety of sources.)

 First is the continued (and unpleasant) cleaning of the engine/engine bay. I don't have many pictures because I don't enjoy getting 30 yr old crud on my phone. 

Cam seal, valve cover, misc leaks:

Thick coating of nastiness:

Some cleaning and I feel  a little better about bolting new parts on:


Unfortunately RockAuto sent me a water pump that is very different from the one pictured on their site, so I returned it and ordered another. The OEM design has a plate on it to reduce cavitation. 


Besides cleaning a minor but annoying task I finished was replacing the convertible top release handle. The owner included a handle which I was pleased to learn is just the door handle flipped upside down. Put the convertible top down and up just to see if everything worked. The storage compartment dampers are shot, but everything else seemed to work well.


I'm hoping to get out there tonight but I have 6-8 in of snow to clear. sad

enginenerd Reader
12/21/17 2:05 p.m.

And we're back! Like all my projects this one has grown due to some nasty suprises. Try to ignore the cringe-worthy engine sludge (I'm guessing the previous owner hadn't changed the oil for years and only started it up in the driveway occasionally) and focus on what's missing:

Yeah...there's an absent head bolt. Unless this failure mode results in sudden and catastrophic engine failure, it apparently isn't as big of a deal as on some other cars like, let's say, a R63 AMG. (Hi mazdeuce!) According to the Bentley Service Manual, BMW changed the design in April '89 to an external torx style bolt head. Also according to the manual, you can change bolts one at a time in order to avoid having to replace the head gasket.

My natural instinct is to pull the head and meticulously clean and replace everything. I know this is the best approach, but I currently have two other cylinder heads on the bench from different projects to go through first, and I don't want to disable this car long term. Compression test looked great (4% between all cylinders) and there are no other signs of head gasket failure so I think I'm going to do my best to clean things up and install the new spec head bolts.

I've put in an order to the local dealer for the updated bolt kit; they should arrive tomorrow. Until then, I'm going to pull the oil pan and start trying to clean out a bit of sludge the best I can. 


Campbelljj New Reader
12/21/17 5:03 p.m.
  • Looks great. We picked up a 1992 325i e30 vert for $1,000 with less than 70,000 miles a few years ago.  We're in Florida so rust is not a big issue. Great car to drive and easy to work on (easier than my 951 or my w124e500 was).  I went through the engine (head, water pump, belt rollers, pan gasket etc.). Next was full suspension rebuild. Last summer since mine was automatic I did manual swap including LSD. Also did Miller PSIK MAF kit with Ford 19lb injectors.  Currently working on the body repairing prior accident damage to core support.  I'd recommend you replace suspension bushings including rear subframe, and diffential mount, motor mounts, shocks with bilstein or Koni SRT drive and enjoy. Let me know what you decide to do with exhaust. I'd post a photo or two but don't know how. 
enginenerd Reader
12/21/17 11:44 p.m.

In reply to Campbelljj :

Wow, that sounds like a steal compared to prices around here for something that isn't a complete rust bucket. To post a photo you have to use an external site to host photos. I use imgur.com but there are a number of sites available for free. Once you create an account and upload your photo, it will supply a link that you can copy/paste in these posts. Hope that helps!

Apexcarver PowerDork
12/22/17 2:45 p.m.

had one for awhile, beware straddling any road hazard as the first thing to hit is the oilpan which can (and did on mine) shatter.  Pulling it with engine in car was a pain and I cut myself once or twice.

Best thing I ever did for mine was a whole weekend going around cleaning every electrical connector and applying dielectric grease. So many dormant things woke up after that. 

enginenerd Reader
12/22/17 5:24 p.m.

In reply to Apexcarver :

Yeah I had fun pulling the oil pan today. It wasn't as bad as I thought but I'm going to struggle with getting both motor mounts seated in crossmember again. 

CyberEric Reader
12/22/17 5:44 p.m.

Cool car. I have a 1991 convertible w/ 230k miles that my father in law gave me and my wife as a wedding present. It's in pretty rough shape, maybe rougher than yours, but it's been reliable for the past 9 months after I pulled the fuse to the stereo/OBC, which "solved" the wiring issues galore. The car has leaks aplenty (oil pan and maybe head gasket too, coolant, and water from the old ratty top.)

I've put new rear shocks and mounts, cleaned the ICV and it drives pretty nice. It needs a lot of love, including every bushing, and a new top, but you can see why this car made BMW what it is today (or perhaps better than what it is today).

Good luck with the wrenching and I can see why your wife likes it. I get comments regularly about ours. There's something about a ratty 80s BMW that gets people.

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