BMW E30 325iX Touring

Right, yes, sorry, it's been a while. I'd love to say that this was because I sold my car and therefore felt hypocritical writing about others', but in actually it was just summer-inspired laziness.

This new flurry of activity must indicate something then. Actually, two things. Firstly, the poetic crumbling of leaves that indicates the beginning of Autumn, and the far more important factor that I bought another car.

Having previously owned an Audi (and therefore, by default, a Volkswagen) and a Mercedes, I decided to top off the German family by buying a BMW. But I'm not quite sure which one I've ended up with.

The one in the photos here is definitely an E30. This means that it was the 30th Entwicklung (design, basically) from the BMW studios, and specifically the second incarnation of their incredible 3-series of baby sedans, leaping forward from the roaring success of the shark-nosed E21 that had opened the market for small executive cars. But that's about where my certainty ends.

The E30 was designed and launched at the peak of the yuppy era; 1985, when everyone west of Berlin was snapping their braces against their pinstripe shirts and yelling "BUY! SELL! BUY!" into their massive portable phones. There was absolutely no way this brand of vehicle (including what's said about BMW drivers) was going to find a buyer in Poland; even the most corrupt bureaucrat wouldn't be stupid enough to display his wealth in this kind of style. Therefore, the only way a mid-80s tycoon saloon could end up here is in the murky world of grey-market imports.

Around 2004, when the EU border ballooned and absorbed Poland, a floodgate of cheap mechanical rubbish rapidly became available to those who had the ready cash to buy it. Remembering that the Germans will mortgage a kidney to afford a new car every three years, the second-hand market over there was bloated; five-year-old motors with only a few kilometres on the clock were selling for little more than scrap value, and the practical Kraut approach to business made form-filling and international transactions a doddle. And Germany actively encouraged Poles to export their junk; it added another rung to the bottom of the car trade ladder, and meant that Germany could bypass the increasingly stringent rules on car recycling and waste processing. Ho ho, das ist gut, let ze Poles deal viz ze problem, ya. Hans was chuckling all the way to the bank, and a village-born Pole could get his hands on the western motor his father could only dream about.

Which is how an utter Frankenstein like this BMW would trickle its way across the border. I'd been looking for an E30 for a few months, and every example I'd seen so far was either a turbo diesel with a blown turbine, a dog-slow 1.6 (autumn mist accelerates faster) or the excellent Invisible Edition, where you turn up to someone's house to view the car and he's not in. And his phone is switched off. At this point I'd given up any hopes of being picky or economical, and was snooping around for the wallet-draining 2.5litre 170hp thunderwagon, when I got emailed an advert to this car.

Not only was it diamond black, and had that luscious burbling six-cylinder lump under the messerschmit nose, but it was an iX. X! BMW's tentative foray into the Quattro-busting all-wheel-drive market; an exceptionally rare version of an incredible car, and often loaded with all the optional goodies too. And the price was unbelievably cheap. Deceptively cheap. I should have known, really.

I was at the buyer's house 24 hours later, in central Pomerania, being raced around a medieval city in a tatty white Fiat by a greying old Communist factory worker and his sausage dog, who offloaded me outside an unassuming lock-up where the car was stored. Examining it for the usual flaws and failings, the old tyres were kicked, rust picked at and fluids checked. Then it was time for dirty knees to check the underbelly mechanicals.

A gearbox and engine are the first things you look for, and yes, they were there. And if you've ever driven a BMW, you should know that there's a massive metal pole under the car sending power to the back wheels. That was there too. And the rear diff, sending that power sideways to each rear wheel. But this was an iX, supposedly. There should have been a front diff too, and drive shafts to each wheel to make them turn. They weren't there.

"This isn't an iX."
"Yes it is."
"No it isn't, there's no front drive shafts."
"I don't know about that, I'm not a mechanic, but look at the paperwork. 325iX."

I looked. Yes, the paperwork said it was a 325iX. A 325iX with an engine capacity of 1996cc, or a good half-litre less than it should have. Now normally this would send alarm bells ringing in the mind of any buyer who hasn't had a gearbox dropped on their head, but I'd travelled all this way, the car wasn't a 1.6 and it wasn't invisible. With standards that low, I was still interested, so we went for a test drive.

We burbled around town to test the brakes and warm up the engine before heading for the town bypass for a swift blat to get her up to speed. And by the time the speedo showed me we were thumping along at 100kmh on the skinny old winter tyres, I was already charmed. The M20 six-cylinder engine under the bonnet was free-revving and gurgling happy at cruising speed. It wouldn't wheelspin, but for a comfortable bruising cruiser, this not-quite 325 was already putting a smile on my face. But negotiations still had to be done on the price.

Summers are frequently damp in Poland, roads are new, and most Poles really have no idea to handle a roundabout. I'm English. We invented roundabouts. I knew what I was doing here.
The bypass terminated at a roundabout, and the owner suggested I turn around and head back the way we came. Which sounded good. It sounded even better to take that roundabout at a little over 60kmh in third gear, just to see how the four-wheel-drive system would cope.

At this point, I'd love to paint a magnificent picture of tyre squeal, edge-of-traction drifting and cars veering to either side with their horns blasting, but that just wouldn't be true. More accurately would be the ever-so-gentle sideways spiral we described in the outside lane as the back end stepped out and I fumbled with the slow slow slow power steering rack to compensate. I failed. Facing the oncoming traffic (there wasn't any) I looked at my passenger and reminded him;

"It's not an iX, is it."

I got 1000zl off the asking price.

I'm extremely grateful that I did. Having got the thing home and consequently torn it apart to build a repair list, the amount of Polish bodgework is both frightening and admirable at the same time. From the home-installed LPG system (which lasted all of a week before being ripped out for potential fatalites) to the piece of wood where the rear electric window motor should be, this car has had a lengthy and scarred history at the hands of owners who could not afford to maintain it. Such is the peril of owning a car like this, where even the smallest in BMW's range commanded prices of 12,000GBP for the four-door when new, and 17,000 for the estate; that's around 40,000GBP in today's money. Little wonder that Poles would wait for 15 years of depreciation to kick in before trying to get their hands on one. But even with the price reduced to its barest minimum, the murky supposition that the car has not actually had its mechanicals stripped, and is in fact a 320i and had an identity transplant, shows the darker side of this inter-EU exchange. "Come to Poland," ran an early '90s tourist witticism, "your car's already here." Stolen cars could disappear behind the Iron Curtain, where paper-based systems and non-centralised regional offices guarantee any vehicle's identity be lost beneath the rubber stamps and endless photocopies of bureaucracy.

For all that, the sharp-lined E30 was an instant classic, and the Touring even more so. Conceived by bored workers from a 2-door shell and the back half of a Volkswagen Golf, the Touring was cobbled together by bored factory workers to shuttle parts around. The story goes that passing executives were so impressed by the sporty-looking hearse that its own production line in the 5-series factory in Dingolfing was established for the more luxurious motor. Those original 2-door tourings are rarer than any other E30 (only three are known to exist), but even the humblest Tourings earned respect for their stiffer shells, all-round disc brakes and better suspension all round.

Add to that list the leather interior and turbine alloys I sympathetically upgraded to, and I can kid myself that I didn't really want an iX anyway. And once you've gone round a roundabout steering through the side window, you quickly realise, Quattro ist fur sissies.


redrisro said...

Love your writing style Richard. I think the reason that nobody is leaving comments on your excellent tales is that Blogger is requesting that commenters input their Google Account username and password. Naturally nobody wants to do that. Best regards and have a lot more car fun in Poland!