Here’s Everything Wrong With My CrapCan E30 Project Car


Photo credit: Mack Hogan

Photo credit: Mack Hogan

The idea of owning a beaten-up old E30 and fixing it sounds great (to both me and one other R&T staffer). A cheap way to learn, to get some grease under the nails, and to enjoy a perfect-driving classic sedan. When I took it to a local specialty mechanic, though, that plan got a healthy reality check. Because in terms of projects, this is looking more like a senior thesis than a freshman intro course.

The mechanic noted over a dozen issues. Noticing that I didn’t seem to be the type that was going to address all of them, he helpfully categorized them under needs, wants, and further issues. Even looking only at the needs, it’s not a light load.

Photo credit: Mack Hogan

Photo credit: Mack Hogan

The first big-ticket item I knew. The E30 needs brakes all around, something that I’m hoping to do myself. Given my zero hours wrenching experience, that might be ambitious, but you have to start somewhere. Smart readers will note that maybe I shouldn’t start with something that is a safety-critical component, but given what else is available on the menu, brakes aren’t the most daunting option. That honor goes to the full timing belt change and water pump replacement. There’s no direct indication that the belt needs to be changed, but we have no record of when it was last done and the odometer stopped at 231,000 miles, so best not leave it up to the previous owner’s discretion. After all, he’s the one who was driving around on tires from 2013. Besides, the water pump is leaking anyway.

Next up, the mechanic says the radiator is old enough that I should pre-emptively replace it. It’s an easy fix, but part of me is leaning toward waiting for it to actually fail. Sure, it may strand me, but with a car this rickety replacing things pre-emptively is a slippery slope. Strictly speaking, the whole car should be pre-emptively replaced.

Photo credit: Mack Hogan

Photo credit: Mack Hogan

The health report also lists tie rods, control arms, transmission mounts, and a trans reseal under “needs.” The reseal surprised me, as the transmission doesn’t seem to leak anything even after a few weeks in the same spot, but I’ll look into which of these jobs seem doable for a novice and which I’d rather pay to have fixed. Or, you know, ignore. Last, the mechanic noted the corrosion on my positive battery terminal. He probably noticed because the terminal is missing its bolt and has to be held in place with electrical tape, but like I said I’m no snob. Anything that can be taped on is fixed enough in my book.

For those dizzied by that list, I’ll remind you now that that is just the “needs.” With the “wants” and “further,” along with the litany of things my mechanic didn’t mention, we have not yet covered a third of the E30’s issues. These issues, less dire in nature, are still plentiful. To name a few, the mechanic notes that I should replace the tail lights or at least the burnt bulbs, the antenna grom, and, as it’s listed in the official writeup, “most interior.” Can’t argue there, even if there’s no chance I take care of a request like that.

Photo credit: Mack Hogan

Photo credit: Mack Hogan

Under the low-priority “further issues” category he listed the ABS light, oil level sensor, valve cover gasket, power steering hoses, and the diff seals for the LSD. I’m not sure why they were listed this low down—we had more than enough to talk about further up the list—as some of those sound serious. But in the interest of my wallet and my own anxiety, I’ll be assuming anything listed this low down doesn’t require attention yet.

Last, there are all of the other things he didn’t mention. My rear shocks are blown, something you notice both by feel and noise on every bump. The odometer is stopped, as is the trip indicator, and the onboard computer seems to always think it’s negative 30 or so outside. I live in Southern California, so I consider that unlikely, but I bring a coat just in case. None of those are even the most serious issues in the realm of driver information displays, as the real problem is the tachometer that sometimes works, sometimes sticks, and sometimes, somehow, moves in the wrong direction under acceleration. All of this makes the business of rev-matching in a manual car a more subjective art.

Photo credit: Mack Hogan

Photo credit: Mack Hogan

The air conditioning doesn’t work, obviously, though because the fan only works on its highest setting you do get a mild cooling effect. You’d be better off just opening the sunroof, but you can’t because it’s broken. At least three of the windows work. That fourth one should be an easy fix, as soon as BMW starts making the part again. Having fixed that, I’ll only be a new set of tires, a new paint job, and an entirely new interior away from a mint E30. It’s so close that, driving the rickety car home from the shop, I could almost smell the sweet aroma of a fresh start. Unless that was just something burning.

Photo credit: Mack Hogan

Photo credit: Mack Hogan

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