I Bought a BMW ‘E30’ 318iS Sight-Unseen from Four States Away

What have I done? I bought a car sight unseen, four states away, over the internet? It seemed like such a fun, quirky, adventurous idea at the time. But now the money has been paid and the bill of sale signed. All there is left is to have the car shipped to me and assess the damage. Or the victory. Am I allowed to hope yet? The car is getting picked up at the seller’s house, over 700 miles away, on Friday. Hopefully I don’t bite through all my fingernails before then. 

What Did I Buy?

I kicked another car off my bucket list, a 1991 BMW 318iS in brilliant red. The 318S was available toward the end of E30 chassis production, only for the 1991 model year. BMW went back to its roots and put its newest, double overhead cam, four cylinder engine into a small two door sedan. The 318iS came as manual only, which helped drivers wring all 138 horsepower and 129 lb ft of torque out at 6,000 RPM. The engine has always had a lukewarm reception from the E30 crowd, as the six-cylinder cars offer 32 more horsepower and 38 more torques. But I’ve always loved them. To me, the 318iS is the apex of E30s: lightweight and rev-happy.

The one I’ve bought has been sitting in the previous owner’s driveway for about a decade. Obviously, it’s going to need everything: tires, brakes, belts, hoses, battery, suspension, paint correction, the works. Oh, and did I mention it had a dashboard fire in 2002? Yep. There was a short that burned the dash and everything surrounding it to a crisp, including the interior wiring harness. Thankfully, the seller is an electronics technician who repaired, rewired, soldered and shrink-wrapped everything. He also installed a new dash and cluster. Something you couldn’t dream of getting away with cheaply in a modern car.

BMW E30 318iS M42 engine

Where does one go to find a car like this? A late-night search of internet forums, of course. I give the seller credit for believing someone from Maryland would want his crispy 318iS in Chicago. However, as he sent me photos and videos of the car, we developed a rapport. He’d owned three other BMWs, including a 1976 2002 and a 1985 535i, but had moved on to Subarus and Hondas. He was more than willing to jack up the car to show the floor panels and brake lines haven’t succumbed to rust, as is common in Midwestern cars. We talked on the phone and he told me about buying the car in an eBay auction from a BMW specialist in Indiana and then painstakingly rewiring the car and scrubbing it to get rid of the soot and smell of smoke. He came across as a genuinely decent guy, selling a modern classic in need of care. 

We agreed on a price and I sent him a cashier’s check. The seller was somewhat hesitant to complete a sight unseen deal, so I knew I’d have to assume the risk. In my experience, trust goes a long way to making deals happen. Most people are good, and if you do your due diligence things tend to work out for the best. I’ll find out if this theory holds up when the car is delivered next week!  

Why Take the Risk?

I’ve been seriously looking for an E30 318iS for several months now, after wanting one for the better part of a decade. However, in the last few months prices for 318iS’ and E30s in general have been going up and up. Cars that would have pulled $5,000 on a good day two or three years ago have been going for up to $15,000. After missing the boat on $7,500 E30 M3s in the early 2000s, I want to buy my ideal E30 now before I miss the chance. Plus, buying a low-priced fixer-upper means I won’t have to worry about the car and can use it for all kinds of fun at autocross, rallycross and whatever else seems exciting. Garage queens hold no appeal to me.

Also, buying beater E30s with interesting stories seems to be my ‘thing.’ I’ve had six so far, if you don’t count cars specifically bought for parts. Thankfully I have a tremendously supportive husband who at least says he understands my fixation. I once bought a 1987 BMW 325e from the county impound auction for $225, beating out the buyer for the local junkyard. The car ended up becoming a good friend’s drift missile. Another time, I snagged a 1986 325e from my grandma’s neighbor for less than the price of a pizza. That car ended up getting traded for a car off my bucket list: a 1995 750iL. While I’m glad I got to experience a 90s BMW flagship, the amount maintenance and cost of parts made me wish I’d just kept the E30. 

e30 front

What Happens Next?

A lot of pouring over photos, fidgeting, and nervous planning. As of right now the car is paid for and scheduled to be picked up in Chicago on Friday. In the meantime, I’ve been making a schedule of repairs and a spreadsheet for the parts I need to order. Both of which are giving me something to fuss over while I wait to see if the car was worth the risk. 

Upon arrival, I’m going to do a full inspection and perform an overhaul of all major components. My goal is to have it done by mid- to late-June in time for at least two autocrosses and rallycrosses this summer, with a few road trips thrown in. I’m also building a period correct playlist to enjoy on my first few drives. If you have any suggestions, feel free to send them my way. 

All of this is contingent on it not being a total basket case when it arrives early next week. Hopefully the car gods will smile upon me. Either way, you’ll find out next week! 

BMW E30 318iS

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