Most of the time when the term “classic BMW” is thrown around it refers to an E30 M3 or some other kind of M car, or maybe even a Z, like a Z8. While those cars are excellent and indeed helped shape the BMW brand during their respective production years, it’s important to remember that BMW has successfully, for decades blended the line between performance and luxury. That said, in order to have a classic BMW you don’t need the M or Z badges, and especially not the high insurance rates and less than ideal reliability. Furthermore, the range is spread wide.
About as close to an E30 M3 as you can get is the 325is from 1987-91. With sports suspension, disc brakes all around, and a limited slip differential these cars were nimble and balanced. The 3.0-liter inline-six cylinder engine produced about 170-hp, and while that won’t win any drag races against anything other than a VW Beetle, it’s plenty for the chassis to handle and the car is still able to be tossed into a corner and come out clean on the other side. These cars are going up in price, but won’t break the bank. You can find one for about $5,000 or less.
There’s a hard truth to face, when considering an 8 series BMW. The 850i housed a V12 under the bonnet, and while that might sound cool the car was a heavy, brutish thing that crawled across the pavement. While driving one, don’t be surprised if you look in the rear-view mirror and don’t see a truck trying to pull you backward. It even had two batteries. One thing that isn’t arguable though, is how cool the 8 series BMW looked. The back of the car was in the air and with a mean slope slanted down to a pointed nose. The car looked like a wedge, when other BMWs at the time were more straight, and that lends itself an iconic precedent. Depending on its condition you can find an 8 series for less than $10,000.
The true performance executive sedan, the E38 750iL was equipped with a V12 producing more than 300 horsepower and could even have a manual transmission. It wasn’t the fastest machine, but having such a big powerhouse inside of an unassuming car made the 750iL a proper sleeper. Today’s equivalent is probably the 760Li (L for long), a massive twin-turbocharged V12 7 series with more than 500 horsepower. A bit more powerful, but make no mistake just as prestigious.
BMW’s bread and butter, the M30 inline-six engine first entered production as the powertrain for the E3, at one point the highest end BMW. It was also the first BMW to implement quadruple headlights. In North America, the 2500, 2800, 3.0S, 3.0Si, and Bavarian model E3s were sold and at one point produced more than 190 horsepower. Despite its performance, the E3 was still designated as a full-sized luxury car.
The M10 was an inline-four engine assembled with an iron block, aluminum head and a forged crankshaft, with a displacement ranging from 1.5-liters to 2.0. A turbocharged variant of the M10 was and remains the most powerful engine in Formula 1s’ history, producing an estimated 1,400 horsepower for qualifying sessions. In road cars, the M31 variant produced 170 horsepower with a turbocharger and was in the 2002 Turbo from 1973-75. You can find the non-turbo version in BMW 2002s, which will run you about $15,000 or less, or more depending on condition and how much of it is original.
All of these cars are possible to find in the United States, albeit some harder to find than others. The E3, for instance, isn’t going to be an easy find, but if you come across one, which is possible, don’t hesitate to snatch it up. You’ll notice none of these cars have an M or Z badge, which goes to show you can get a lot of fantastic, top of the line classic machinery without taking a second mortgage.
Avid Formula 1 fan and motorcyclist, I enjoy chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream and long rides to the beach.