Taking Delivery of My Sight-Unseen BMW ‘E30’ 318iS Was a Heart-Stopping Adventure

“Oil got all over the hood of a new white Range Rover” the transport truck driver said, as he undid straps and moved ramps into place. “Take a few pictures, if you want.”

My heart sank. After waiting over a month to take delivery of my 1991 BMW 318iS, this was a rough start. This, I told myself, is why people don’t buy cars sight-unseen. Not only had the car lost a significant amount of fluid during transport, the fluid was now all over the hood of an otherwise gleaming, white, late-model Range Rover. The transportation contract explicitly stated I’d be responsible for damage caused by my car to other vehicles on the truck. I raked my hands through my hair involuntarily, trying to remember if the damage would be covered by my Hagerty policy.

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The driver noticed I was looking panicked and shouted over to me: “Hey man, your car didn’t leak! The Mercedes above it did. Those old Mercs leak like crazy. Lucky it’s not hydraulic fluid. I thought you’d find it interesting since you like these older cars. The Rover’s going overseas anyway, so it doesn’t matter.”

I’m fairly certain I jumped for joy toward my little red car coming off the back of the truck. The emotional whiplash made the ‘new car euphoria’ especially strong so my memory is fuzzy. The driver chuckled at me and held out an inspection report with dozens of marks on it. He’d marked every single piece of dirt, scratch and ding on the car. It’d take me hours to match everything up. The car appeared in one piece and ran as advertised. Good enough for me. I signed, paid the driver, and took the keys.

I leapt into the car and…fell backwards. The seat back wouldn’t hold any weight, so I ended up on my back looking directly at the sunroof. Nothing really injured more than my pride, the delivery driver got a good laugh, and the seat would be fixable. I refuse to believe it was an omen.

red E30 318is

So, How Bad Is It?

Well, it’s a 30-year-old BMW left to sit outside, in all weather, for two decades. Every single wear item needs replacement. Dirt and debris are stuck between body panels and under the hood cowl. Scratches, dings and dents abound, particularly on the hood. The paint is heavily oxidized and is more pink than red. But all of this I knew and accepted prior to buying the car. It’s not the most neglected E30 ever to sit on jack stands in my garage, but it’s close.

The real questions keeping me up at night were: (A.) How bad is the rust and (B.) Just how good was the ‘repair’ of the wiring harness and dash after the fire?

red E30 318is

Because the car had spent 20 years in Chicago, I had nightmares of enormous rust holes in the frame rails, and hard brake lines turned to dust. The pre-purchase photos and videos showed some surface rust in the usual places, but I know what a clever photographer can do with a well-chosen perspective and some minor editing. I couldn’t wait to get the car on jack stands. Thankfully, there was no trick photography, and overall the amount of rust is similar to what you’d find on a car that had spent its life in the Mid-Atlantic. Rust is here and there, for sure, but nothing horrific.

The fire damage repairs seem to be straight-forward, as well. The original wiring harness was spliced together with a new one. The repairs sit in a taped bundle in the drivers footwell. The bundle is tucked away and is only slightly larger than normal, so it does not impede drivability. I’ll keep an eye out for any issues caused by bumps and jostles during rallycross sessions, but it looks to be a quality repair. Some of the lights and electronics in the dash weren’t working and I initially blamed these issues on the wiring harness. As I’ve begun to comb through the car, I now know the outages are just the result of burnt out bulbs and aged components.

red E30 318is wiring harness

Should You Buy Something Fire-Damaged Sight-Unseen?

I’m already counting this E30 318iS purchase as a win. I was able to buy the exact car and color I wanted, and it’s in the perfect condition to be fun at autocross and rallycross events. This car is no show piece, she needs to be driven, used, and enjoyed. The price I paid, including shipping, was low enough that I would be able to recoup most of my money parting out the car, if it had turned out not to be worth fixing. Because I kept my costs and expectations low, this has turned into a fantastic adventure. I’m glad I took the risk.

And yes, it was risky. I had to send the money to the seller before I’d ever seen the car. Once the car was delivered, there was no way to back out without paying more than it was worth to ship the car back to Illinois. I had to make judgements, based on instinct, as to whether the seller was being honest. In this case, I was exceptionally lucky. There were any number of ways a dishonest person could have misrepresented the car, and there would be no way to know until it was too late.

I almost had a deal-killing moment when I went to register the car at my local Tag and Title. The clerk told me the car could not be registered in Maryland even though it had a clean Illinois title. The car had been branded as ‘Junk’ by the state of Texas, where the fire happened. Thankfully, I was able to get an appointment the next day with the Maryland MVA office by staying up all night on the appointment website and agreeing to drive to Annapolis. The MVA clerk, who seemed to be a car guy, asked me if I knew the car was branded. When I said yes, he simply nodded and issued the title and plates. Thank goodness for car people in high places.

So, should you do something like this? Probably not. But maybe. If you do, you’ll just have to trust your gut and set your expectations low. Take your time and be patient. Antacid helps, too.

red E30 318is

What’s Next?

Right now, the BMW is sitting on jack stands in my garage. Every day I try to do a little bit of work after dinner or during my son’s nap time. Thank goodness for my patient husband who has agreed to at least one uninterrupted half-day per week for me in the garage. As per usual with project cars, my schedule keeps moving out and out. This week I’m working on brakes and hopefully next week (or two) will be the cooling system.

Hopefully, I’ll sneak in a few long drives and some cars and coffees by midsummer, as long as my repair schedule holds. I’ve got August’s Out Motorsports’ Rainbow Road Rallycross circled on my calendar and I can’t wait to see you there.

red E30 318is

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