Why this E30 demands your attention

You want a summer scorcher but a standard BMW lacks sizzle. Time to try two red hot aftermarket alternatives!

Words Emma Woodcock

Y

ou want a summer scorcher but a standard BMW lacks sizzle. Time to try two red hot aftermarket alternatives!

With summer in full swing, there’s no better place to soak up the rays than behind the wheel of an 1980s drop-top. The model

we’ll be using to mess up our hair today is the BMW E30 3 Series convertible, a machine capable of transporting the driver to a world of sensations, sounds and smells that modern models just can’t match.

Enthusiasts obviously agree and have voted with their wallets – the second-generation 3 Series was one of the first modern classics to gain popularity, with entry prices for a useable car jumping from three to mid-four figures in just a couple of years; they’re now in the five-figure league. It’s not hard to see why. With an airy cabin, a range of sonorous four and six-cylinder engines and heroic, tail-out handling, any E30 offers plenty to enjoy.

What’s more, even a glimpse of those bluff, square lines takes you back in time, unlocking a long-past world of thrusting ambition and rampant shoulder pads. Even more so than today, the blue and white roundel was a desirable status symbol back then – a badge of honour for the aspiring middle classes.

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As young professionals thrusted and clambered their way towards a Xanadu of material respectability, leaving behind the Sierras and Cavaliers from whence they came, only a 3 Series could provide the base camp from which to plot the path to even more, even better things. Home cinemas, Caribbean cruises, double espressos. Ray-Bans and car phones and gold Rolexes. Coiffure, not haircuts. Cuisine, not food. A BMW, not a car.

Yet all E30s are not created equal. A 316i might get you the badge and the shape, but it’s hardly the same as a six-cylinder siren with lashings of leather and bigger numbers on the boot. Once you’d ascended through the ranks of 318, 320 and 323, you’d eventually land on the 325i, a lovely automobile of redoubtable speed and splendour, but what if that wasn’t enough? What if you wanted something a little more unique? Unless you were drawn to the box arches and racy aspirations of the first M3, you had nowhere to go within the BMW range.

Enter the aftermarket – a whole team of tuners bent on producing flashier and faster E30s with more power than even the M car provided. Foremost amongst these firms was Alpina – a Buchloe concern whose reserved creations were semi-officially endorsed by BMW itself – and Hartge, an outsider firm who produced the biggest, baddest Bee Ems around. Both offered conversions that were expensive, extensive and guaranteed to catch any discerning eye. By the time E30 production was in full swing, the two firms had attained manufacturer status and each soon offered a range of BMW-based models that stretched from mild to wild. Against a background of good greed, conspicuous consumerism and an increasing appetite for customised cars, Alpina and Hartge were ready to snare more customers than ever before.

At the bottom of their respective ranges, both manufacturers offered an entry model based on the 323i and producing around 170bhp, with an intermediate 325i-based car of slightly higher power providing the next step up. To produce their B6 3.5S halo model, meanwhile, Alpina dropped the M535i’s 3.5-litre, 261bhp straight six into 325i and M3 bodies. Hartge went a step further with its offering, the H35-24: a 325i body with 286bhp, courtesy of the S38B35 from an E28 M5.

Our feature cars, Joe Vadgama’s Alpina C2 2.7 and the Hartge H27 of Iain Hamilton, sit somewhere in between – the perfect blend of useable and unhinged, the fastest E30s you could buy without resorting to an engine swap. Both tuners built its mid-range cars up from a 325i, increasing the stroke of the M20B25 engine by 6mm, to 81mm, and adding a new camshaft along with a number of other mechanical changes. The results were very similar: the Hartge producing 205bhp and 198lb-ft of torque, the Alpina 210bhp and 197lb-ft.

The parallels continued beyond the confines of the engine bay. Both models were available in any E30 bodystyle and could be specified with either a manual or automatic transmission. Alpina and Hartge both left the gearboxes themselves unaltered, although Alpina listed its conversion as suitable only for cars that had been specified from the factory with a limited-slip differential. One thing that does differ between the two cars is their final drive ratios, with Alpina opting for 4.1:1 for automatics and 3.73:1 for manuals, while Hartges generally received the 3.91:1 ratio.

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Both companies also elected to leave the brakes unaltered, instead putting work into the suspension. Alpina and Hartge each designed and fitted its own springs, with progressive items in the front of the C2, backed up in both cases by Bilstein dampers and custom anti-roll bars front and rear. 16-inch alloys accentuate lowered ride heights, the C2 wearing iconic, 20 spoke Alpina Classics and the H27 shod in the 11-spoke wheels fitted to every E30 Hartge.

The Alpina sears against the rural landscape, drawing eyes from the other side of the road with its squat and sporting lines. The stylistic modifications compared to a standard 325i are subtle but cohesive, with the floor-skimming extended front spoiler balanced by the straight-out slat of a rear wing, finished off by horizontal silver pinstripes shooting down the shoulderline to bring the creation together. It looks lower, sleeker and more aggressive – and you can’t help but fizz with an urge to get behind the wheel. The Hartge is altogether more restrained, its lipped front spoiler and boxy rear wing subtly echoing the M3’s embellishments.

Slip into the driver’s seat of the Alpina and you’ll quickly notice that you don’t notice very much at all. The steering wheel and gearlever are mildly different to standard, and there’s a plaque on the dashboard, but the interior is otherwise entirely standard E30 fare. The Hartge is very similar, with badging, a four-spoke Momo wheel and a phalanx of auxiliary dials the only noteworthy changes. Not that we’re complaining; the seats are supportive; the view out clearer and airier than you’d expect in anything more modern and it’s not at all difficult to get comfortable.

Got all that? Good. Then let’s get to the driving! Fire the Alpina’s engine, having dropped the hood and windows for full fresh-air pleasure, and your grin widens as the M20B25 warbles a soprano idle through its twin exhaust pipes. Flick down into Drive, pull away and it’s easy to cruise. The transmission holds gears to around 2500rpm, slurring each shift almost imperceptibly. At lower speeds, there’s no buffeting to speak of and bodyshell vibrations are well suppressed. Even the engine note, having hinted at its performance before moving off, is subdued enough to allow relaxing progress.

But you can only test the C2’s cruiser credentials for so long. At the next junction, a back road, flanked with ancient oaks and dusty verges, beckons. Oh, go on then. Push the throttle pedal to the floor and the kickdown drops the E30 smoothly into second. Power builds slowly at first, the Alpina only beginning to show interest above 3500rpm, as the engine tries to zip towards its upper reaches. A serrated baritone emerges from the rear, the needle touches 4500rpm and… the transmission merges softly into the next gear. Hmm…

‘You might want to try popping it into Sport,’ Joe pipes up from the passenger seat, reaching down to a dial on the centre console. He flicks it left, into Sport mode, as the next straight unfolds before us. The car immediately transforms. Now the revs climb higher, shifts coming crisply at 6000rpm, and the deep tones of the exhaust are soon overlaid with a full-blooded soprano that swells all the way to the limiter. The flat-faced Mahle pistons, modified alloy cylinder head and Alpina exhaust system combine to make an engine that urges you to reach its redline time and time again, and you can’t help but oblige. From our seats in the open-air auditorium, it’s a rapturous aria where the intake and exhaust intermingle as they bounce off the trees and walls. It’s sublime. This is 50 grand’s worth of sound with a free car attached.

Swapping to the Hartge requires a complete recalibration. Where the C2 is all sweetness and sound, the H27 delivers brutal shock and awe. That’s thanks, in no small part, to the modifications Iain has carried out to emulate and outstrip the 220bhp H27 SP. His changes include the crank and connecting rods from a M54B30 3.0-litre six, an uplift in displacement to 3051cc, a compression ratio of 11.5:1, a flowed head and an Emerald K6 ECU with wasted spark.

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The headline figure is 280bhp, but it’s the 320lb-ft of torque that defines the driving experience. Hit 3000rpm and the car pulls hard and consistently to 5000rpm, the sharp-edged oval exhaust and individual throttle bodies giving a deep metallic rasp. When the time comes to change gear, the manual shift is swift and feelsome, but the clutch can quickly throw you off your rhythm. It’s a kevlar Sachs unit, as fitted to the car during its Hartge conversion, and its mixture of excessive weight, high biting point and deleterious effect on engine revs makes it a tricky companion. You soon acclimatise, and it doesn’t matter much. With so much go beneath your right foot, there’s little point chasing the limiter and you soon find yourself driving everywhere with the gearbox a ratio higher than you would in the Alpina.

There’s less to split the cars when you reach a corner. The Hartge feels keener on turn in, thanks to a faster E36-generation steering rack, but both cars tack through bends with speed and precision. Roll is all but absent and leaning into the power causes a slight but pleasurable tightening of line. Ride quality is compliant to the point of softness in the Alpina, something the firmer H27 can’t match, and both cars primarily telegraph information about the road below through changes in steering weight. Lateral lumps and bumps are more of an issue, the Hartge feeling light at the rear and the Alpina shivering through the bodyshell and steering wheel after hitting an imperfection at B-road speed. When such situations occur, you never forget that there’s no roof.

That might sound like a criticism, I know. But believe me, it isn’t. Despite the extensive work carried out by their creators, the C2 and H27 aren’t sports cars and should never be viewed as such. They’re something else – they’re fast convertibles. Clipping through open countryside, fresh air funnelling around the windscreen, hot oil and unburned fuel scenting the summer breeze and six fine-voiced cylinders singing to you, both the Alpina and the Hartge provide the best seats in the house for experiencing summer. And isn’t that the point?

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The Modern Classics view

It’s impossible to pick a winner with a pair like this, as it all comes down to personal taste. The Alpina is beautifully cohesive: a good-looking, good-going and semi-official car that feels all of a piece and makes a marvellous noise.

The Hartge is a more intense experience, a firecracker wrapped in a junior executive, and that outrageous engine lends it more of a muscle car vibe. The extensive modifications worn by the H27 further muddy the waters, making a direct comparison impossible, but the result is a perfect car for its current owner. Pick your poison!

Values are also hard to define. Most right-hand drive H27s were converted at Birds in Buckinghamshire and Iain’s car was the only soft top to receive the full parts package, while Joe’s car – which was converted by Sytner of Nottingham – is one of only five C2 2.7 convertibles we know of in the UK. Neither Joe nor Iain would sell their car for any price, and both are ultimately worth what a marque connoisseur is willing to pay.

Whichever you choose, these cars offer a 1980s nostalgia hit like no other. The Alpina would make a great forever car, while the Hartge would be an explosive partner for a long weekend, but both are equally capable of turning back the clock. Bodykits, side stripes, bigger engines and loud exhausts: the H27 and C2 2.7 are perfect time capsules for the yuppie philosophy of more is more.

HARTGE H27 (Standard)

Engine: 2693cc, 6-cyl, SOHC Transmission: RWD, 5-speed manual Power: 205bhp@5800rpm Torque: 198lb-ft@3900rpm Weight: Dependent on specification

Performance

0-60mph: 7.2sec Top speed: 140mph Economy: 18-35mpg

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ALPINA C2 2.7

Engine: 2693cc, 6-cyl, SOHC Transmission: RWD, 4-speed auto Power: 450bhp@6000rpm Torque: 197lb-ft@4000pm Weight: Dependent on specification

Performance

0-60mph: 6.9sec Top speed: 143mph Economy: 18-35mpg

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