This Pretty Red E30 Sedan Is My Newest Project Car

This car will become my track rat for the foreseeable future. So I need to make it perfect.

318i project
Brian Silvestro

If you’ve been following my project car series for a long time, you’ll know I have an affinity for BMWs. I’m not a huge BMW stan or anything. It’s just that short of a Miata, cheap, old BMWs offer the most fun for the least money. So it should come as no surprise that my latest project is Bavarian.

This particular BMW, an E30-generation 3-Series from the early Nineties, is a car I’ve been hunting for some time. It’s a 318i—the cheapest E30 variant sold in the States—equipped with the five-speed manual transmission. Being from 1991, it has the later, more powerful M42 twin-cam inline-four that made 134 hp and 127 lb-ft of torque when new. And because it’s a sedan (vs. the more desirable coupe) I was able to pick it up for a reasonable price.

What’s great about this car is that the core stuff, like the engine, transmission, brakes, and suspension, work like they’re supposed to. That's not always been the case with my prior BMW projects. The M42 revs to redline without issue, while the Getrag transmission shifts into all gears without any grinding. The brakes don’t pull in any direction, and the suspension isn’t sagging to bits. All of the exterior and interior lights work—well, the lights it has, more on that later—as do all of the power windows. It’s a real, usable car.

318i project
Dan Downey

No project car is without faults, of course. And this E30 has many, some more pressing than others. My biggest issue right now are the license plate lights in the back, or rather, the lack thereof. Because this car spent most of its time in the Northeast, it’s been subject to countless salt-filled winters. And that means rust. The previous owner fixed much of the rot before selling the car to me, but the spaces where the license plate lights mount weren't so lucky. The holes are rotted out to the point where you can’t mount the lights anymore, which means I can’t drive at night (or pass inspection in New York). So I’ll have to deal with that sooner than later.

There’s also the lack of power steering. Being a four-cylinder, there isn’t a crazy amount of weight over the nose, so steering the car isn’t too bad when you’re actually moving. But low-speed stuff is difficult, and I can imagine parallel parking won't be fun. My plan for now is to see if I can get used to the lack of assistance. If I find it too annoying, I’ll figure out how to put the power steering back in.

There are some smaller issues as well, like the weird wiring in the engine bay. This car was originally supposed to get parted out, but the previous owner saved it at the 11th hour. So some of the wiring was cut and put back together. The result is an A/C compressor that’s always running unless you physically unplug the grounding wire. But that’s inconvenient more than anything. I don’t plan to address it until something goes wrong.

318i project
Aaron Brown
318i project
Aaron Brown

There’s also a slight knocking sound coming from the suspension out back when I drive over bigger bumps. That’s down to a loose bolt on top of one of the struts. It’ll only take a few minutes to fix; I just haven’t gotten around to it yet.

A handful of friends and several of my co-workers own E30s, and I’ve been dying to get back into the fold since I sold my 325iX project. Being a rear-drive model with a limited-slip differential out back, this 318i is the perfect platform for autocross, rallycross, track days, and ice racing—all things I plan to do while behind the wheel. Stay tuned.

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