I don’t think the 18 way adjustable contour sports seats from the E38 have been bettered by BMW in the almost twenty years since they stopped producing them.
They look great and they are probably the most comfortable car seat you’ll have sat on.
Even today, they are sought after – particularly for E39 conversions where they bolt straight in with a bit of wiring – and it is far from unusual to buy a car with them fitted just for the seats. Well, I think it’s far from unusual.
You can see why:-
If there are seats that are more desireable than the contours, it’d probably be the comfort seats with rear picnic tables and vanity headrests. These are usually found on highly specced iLs and our Cosmos Black car is fitted with these seats. Currently.
I don’t know if the tables and headrests were ever fitted to contour seats, but I’ve never seen a set from the factory. I’m not saying they weren’t, but I’ve not seen them.
The Cosmos Black iL has standard beige leather and despite the tables and headrests, the seats aren’t very good, having been badly overpainted at some point – and not using Liquid Leather products.
We were recently offered a potential breaker in the form of a 1998 740i with very little going for it at all, apart from a sweet running engine, a not unreasonable spec and standard beige leather interior. Oh…. and these:-
A plan was therefore formed.
The comfort seats are out the iL and the tables removed. It’s not difficult to do and if you need to know how to remove the tables, the best way to learn is probably to watch this YouTube video.
Always tilt the top half of the backrest as far forward as it will go BEFORE you take the seats out the car. You’ll not get the tables out without the top backrest in this position. I’m sure you can guess what makes me so certain of this?
Another top tip is that if you’re buying a pair of seats for the tables make sure the top half of the backrest moves because stripping out motors and mechanisms to get the tables out certainly adds some time and swear words to the process.
With the seats out and the tables and backs removed, you also need to get the other parts from the comfort seats that are required to retrofit the tables and headrests to the contour seats.
Our experience is that you need to remove:-
The headrest motor and as much of the wiring that connects to the pin locating socket (which powers the headrest light) as you can get. This loom will not be in the contour seat loom. You need these if you want the lights on the vanity headrests to work. Some may prefer to fit screens or DVD players as the vanity headrests aren’t particularly useful, and in that case, you don’t need the headrest motor. They’re only needed to power the headrest illumination
The two brackets at the top of the backrest that you can see here. Grind off the welds and remove the brackets, carefully noting and measuring their position.
The cross spar that goes across the middle of the seat back where two lower screws bolt in. Just cut as much of this off as you can. It’s easy to trim to fit.
And you’re left with a pile of bits and a scrap seat that looks like this:-
Now fit these bits to the contour seat.
Ideally you need to put a couple of M5 rivnuts into predrilled holes in the frame, but I’m sure you could manage with spring clips or nuts and bolts, but I put rivnuts in. That’s what the factory used and I struggled to get in to tighten a nut on the left side.
Now you’re ready to test fit the tables.
If you’ve got it right all the holes will line up and you can finish off the welding.
To wire the headrest illumination, I just ran the cable directly back to the main power and earth sources at the connector block and soldered splices in using bits of loom chopped out of other E38s to keep colours consistent.
That provides power for the illumiated vanity mirrors in the headrests.
You need to trim the leather to fit back in the tangs around where the new brackets have been fitted.
And that’s you. Fit the seat backs and you’ve built a pair of probably *the* most sought after seats you can have in your E38.
Next. Cleaning, restoring and reconnolising the seats and fitting these pre facelift seats in a facelift car.
The E38 was BMW’s range topping luxury saloon from its introduction in 1995, when it took over from the E32. It continued until 2001 when, slap bang in the middle of the Bangle era, it was replaced by the E65.
As the top of BMW’s range, it was always a large, luxury saloon and was only available as a four door saloon. No factory 7 series Touring has ever existed.
Its specification, in contrast to other models in the BMW range which were known for their miserly standard specification – in UK market models at any rate – was always generous. Towards the end of production, the standard spec included:-
Electric memory seats;
Wood trim, leather;
Park Distance Control;
IIluminated interior and exterior door handles;
Soft close boot;
Remote central locking; and, much more.
It’s always amusing to see basic “taxi spec” models advertised as, “fully loaded” or “high specification”, while the truth is that while they are highly specified in comparison with normal models, they are just not highly specified for an E38.
Take front seats as an example.
The standard electric leather seats with three driver’s memory positions could be upgraded to :-
Sports seats – with the extendable thigh bolster;
Comfort seats with the adjustable backrest and four way lumbar support;
Comfort Sports – so called “Contour” – seats with both adjustable thigh bolster and comfort options;
These possibilities ignore Individual trim and leather options and heated and massage options.
Even the rear seats were available heated and electrically adjustable.
We built the “council house” 728i into a pretty highly specced thing with Individual two tone contour seats, electric rears, electric rear blind, DSP, SatNav and loads of other good bits like the so called “porn lights”, inlaid trims, folding mirrors, reversing camera and WiFi router. It’s a fabulous daily drive, and we’ve got some other bits collected for it too – rear air-conditioning, hydraulic boot and leather grab handles are all sitting waiting to be fitted. But even with all that stuff, it’s still a bit ……well……basic.
So, to keep it company, we recently picked up a pretty late 2001 X 740il.
It’s Cosmos Black and the “740” bit indicates a 4.4l V8; the “i” bit designates fuel injection and the “l” translates into four inches longer. All of that four inches is in the rear passenger compartment.
But this one isn’t just longer. It has:-
Hydraulic soft close boot
picnic tables and vanity mirrors with rear blinds, electric sun blind, footstools, chromeline trim, double glazing, rear air-conditioning, Sat nav, electrically adjustable steering column, folding dipping mirrors, PDC, Self Levelling Suspension, DSP, comfort seats, comfort climate heated front windscreen with top tint and a rain sensor, electric rear seats, multifunction rear armrest, sunroof, and loads more that I can’t think of
When it arrived, I started to sort out its little foibles when I had some spare time and a week on and the non working sunroof had been fixed; a window regulator had been replaced (and another has since been done); a (double glazed) quarter glass fitted; the hydraulic soft close boot fixed; the pre facelift bonnet jettisoned; the slam panel that had been butchered to fit the pre facelift bonnet swapped for the correct one; the bonnet cables and catches replaced/adjusted/lubricated; a broken air intake replaced; one PDC sensor housing replaced; front bumper replaced: headlight washers repaired and swapped into the other bumper; cluster whipped out and pixels repaired; rear bumper replaced ; a set of M Parallels sent for polishing , and, all the external trim removed and the car was prepared for paint.
In the process of being painted.
And now back from paint with its wheels fitted, we need to get the interior completed to turn it into a pretty special, very late, very highly specified E38 which I’m really looking forward to driving.
Now all we need to do is find a 750ixl – and unusually for BMW, the “x” here has nothing to do with all wheel drive, oh, and a rear mounted fridge, bullet proof glass, fax machine and a drinks cabinet.
When we bought this, the seller happily told us that it had a gearbox fault and that it would go into limp mode very quickly. He wasn’t kidding! Within about 100 yards, it would go into limp mode (this provides fourth gear only – useable, but a bit of a pain, particularly taking off from standing on a hill!). Though, if you cleared the fault code, the car would drive normally until the next time you switched the ignition off.
Reading the codes showed that it had had problems with the fluid temperature sensor and gear monitoring.
We did all the work detailed in this blog entry and had reached the stage where we had to come to a decision about what to do with the gearbox fault.
BMW originally stated that these gearboxes (ZF5HP) were sealed for life and no fluid changes, checks, or top ups were required. They pretty quickly changed their tune and now suggest a fluid change and a filter at 100,000 miles.
Anecdotally, a transmission service can cure many “faults” and the never, ever wrong, ever, internet suggested that the fluid temp sensor fault “might” be cured by a fluid and filter change.
The car has only done 88000 miles, but it is nearly 20 years old and a few litres of fluid and a filter can’t go wrong
The proper fully synthetic fluid is quite dear, though the filter isn’t terrible. I reckoned about £100 at trade prices would get the fluid and filter. A DIY transmission service isn’t particularly difficult, but you are really only draining the fluid in the sump and you do leave a couple of litres in there, in the torque converter in particular. To get it all out, you really need to use a specialised pump and even just filling it to the correct level is a bit of a pain for those without the special equipment.
I phoned the local ZF agents/service centre (Mackie Transmissions) and they would supply us the correct fluid and filter from stock for just under £100. Or, they’d drain it, flush it, fit the filter and refill it for about £150. That’s a fluid change rather than just drain and refill. Go on then.
They were very professional. They asked if there were any faults and explained that there was no guarantee that any faults would be fixed and in fact, some faults were known to get worse after a service.
We dropped it off first thing – in fourth gear – and they phoned at about 4:00. It was done and had been serviced successfully, but, unfortunately, it was still going into limp mode within a very short distance. The codes thrown were gear monitoring and slippage in second gear and third gear. Only a rebuild would fix it – at a cost of about £1800!
Well, it was worth a try. I’ll look out for a good secondhand gearbox, then.
We collected it and, sure enough, it went into limp mode after a few yards. I cleared the codes and drove it back.
I used it the next day, doing the same thing, clearing the codes and just driving it. The next day, I thought it might have taken very slightly longer – maybe a few hundred yards – to fail into limp mode and after a week, I was getting a few miles. After a fortnight, it went from East Kilbride out to Milngavie – 15 miles or so. Now, four or five weeks later – and I’m jinxing it now – it hasn’t gone into limp mode in over a week.
I’ve used it in manual, auto and sports mode; driven it gently, driven it normally and red lined it more than once, and the gearbox “appears” to be working perfectly.
Now, I am not unrealistic, the gearbox may chuck its toys out the pram at any point and I may just be having a run of good luck, but my advice if your ZF5HP (fitted to loads of mid to late 90s onwards stuff, not just BMWs) is dropping into limp mode, without any obvious noise, bangs, clunks or slippage, is that a fluid and filter change is definitely worth a try before condemning the gearbox to the scrap pile.
What odds on “BONG” “Trans Failsafe Prog” tomorrow?
Recent events have made me look at the E38 question again and I thought it might be time to detail the situation which appears to be getting out of hand
Currently, there are four here. Two breakers, one just about to find a new home, and one just about to be made into what I hope will be a lovely car.
It’s all a customer/friend of mine called Scott’s fault. He obtained a free 735i and offered it to me at a price that made it very foolish not to buy a car with full electric leather and a running Motronic fed V8 (no carbs, points etc.). It also sat on a decent set of 16″ Imperial Style 5s which are sought after by metric avoiding E24 and E28 owners. In fact these very wheels now grace an E24 Highline.
But it needed a tank and brakes and a radiator. At least.
Then I found another identical car that was cheap – because the gearbox was u/s – but had had a recent new tank, new brakes and new suspension. So it would be able to provide all the bits required to repair the first one. So I bought it too.
So, now I have two 1997 735is, but neither of them roadworthy. Sound familiar? I have a car needing brakes, suspension and a tank and one needing a gearbox and a window regulator. So, I decide that I should probably build the better one – the second one – using the gearbox and window regulator from the first one.
At around this time, another local specialist trader – a motorcycle dealer I’ve know for years, literally wouldn’t take “No” for an answer – despite several attempts – and I reluctantly became the owner of a silver facelift 728i with a long MoT and a smell of petrol for about the cost of the BMW battery in the boot.
This purchase made me rethink the “two 735is into one” plan and I realised we’d spend at least three days and some consumables building a car worth about £750, so, I put the plan on hold and ran about in the 728i for a few weeks before a very enthusiastic young Polish couple acquired it at a decent profit and immediately – and I mean with 45 minutes – put it through three speed cameras on the way home to Edinburgh. Always, always email a copy of the receipt to any purchaser you don’t know personally before they leave your premises. It’ll prove handy when the Police come looking for speeding camera offenders.
So, now I’m back on the one good 735i from two plan, but it’s not really stacking up.
Then, the stack collapsed entirely when I acquired this Individual Mora metallic 740i beauty with extended leather, Individual interior, some decent spec and the now familiar smell of fuel:-
This was – is – a peach – it needed a fuel tank – spot any pattern emerging? – but it had a superb spec, quality colour, ran well and had the potential to be a lovely, lovely car.
So the two 735is finally became breakers.
Unfortunately, that potential I spoke of in the Mora monster was spotted by a customer one day, who waved cash in my face, offering me a not insignificant profit. I am sorry to say that I succumbed and, I regretted it even before its bonnet was out the gate. I still do. I should have kept it.
Then, a couple of weeks ago, another Mora Metallic E38 appeared on the scene, this time a 728i sporting M Parallels, Alpina spoilers, quad stainless exhaust, top tint screen, Shadowline, comfort sports interior, black head cloth, DSP, PDC, widescreen Nav, electric sunblind, folding mirrors, Brembos etc., etc..
However, it also came with some history – and not necessarily the desireable kind, though there’s a bundle of that too:- a colour change, faulty electrics, a smell of petrol(!), engine management light on, and a tamper dot on the mileometer.
So, it’s never going to be a retail car, but it’s got a cracking spec and because of its faults and “history”, it’s cheap. I’ve *still* got that good, new tank, despite it being earmarked for three separate cars now (this’ll be its fourth), so we’ll fix it up and keep it. I don’t care about its history. It’ll make a decent car to run about in, even if it’s just a little too “brash” for my taste. That’s a plan I can definitely stick to.
Well you’d think so. It was a plan that unravelled before the Mora car was even delivered here.
I was offered a local, one owner, 88000 mile FSH, 728i in poverty spec silver with black interior, with a gearbox problem, an ABS problem, and, surprise, surprise a leaky petrol tank, but it’s a lovely, unmolested, straight thing that has obviously never been apart, with quite a nice private number – not that I’m into them, but it looks quite good on it. The cost of this one owner, FSH potential money pit? Not a lot. That’s the plan up shit creek again and the fifth car to be promised that new tank arrives at Bavarian Retro Cars!
So, what’s the plan now then?
Well, the FrankenMora car is now even more of a bitsa and is now poverty spec with an 88000 mile complete black interior (every single interior piece except the roof lining was swapped, carpets, door cards, seats, seatbelts, all trim, stereo, etc.), etc. Externally, it took the older lights, the eBay grille, the standard mirrors – basically all of the goodies were removed and swapped for the bog standard stuff on the silver 88000 mile car. It sounds easy when you say it quickly, but there was a good three or four full days of work in that and honestly, the workshop looked like there had been an explosion on the 1999 E38 production line.
All the goodies are now scattered far and wide – well, mostly in the boot of the silver car – and all the Grey Comfort Sports interior is waiting to be cleaned and fitted to the low mileage silver car. Once we’ve fitted the tank, oh, and an ABS precharge pump, and tidied up a couple of bits of surface rust.
Here’s the Mora 728i now, ready to go to its happy new owner. I think it actually looks better with the black interior, black carpets, black head cloth etc.:-
And just to round us off nicely, and bring us back to the start, do you recognise the 415 TRX wheels it’s wearing now?
They were last seen gracing Scott’s – remember him? – E28.
E38 prices are all over the place just now. From previous experience with the E24 and, for a longer period, the E30, it seems to be a phenomenon that’s a precursor to them taking a hike. If you want a decent E38 for banger money, I really don’t think you’ve very much longer before they start to stop dropping in price. Anyone still waiting for them to bottom out is probably holding out too long.
For us, the E38/39 family is the last BMW, I’d be prepared to own, I think. Anything much newer (except the E39 based E53) is getting to be too electrically complex.
I’ll report on the build of the silver one in the next episode….unless the plan changes.
It always tickles me to see E38s advertised as “fully loaded with electric leather memory seats, air con, cruise control, etc. too much to list.” That’s base taxi spec in a car that could be had with at least four different upgrades to the basic leather, electrically adjustable, memory front seats; electrically adjustable heated rear seats; bullet proof glass; fridge in the back; picnic tables; TV; Satnav; and as many as TWO phones in the same car – one in the front and one in the back.
To be fair, Titan Silver, and standard black leather was very much poverty spec – as far as any E38 can be described as “poverty” – back in 2000, but we’ll change that.
We were left with a car with a completely stripped out interior – and I do mean “completely” – and an enormous pile of bits – and I do mean “enormous” – some of which were quite interesting wee extras.
There were a couple of surface rust blemishes around the boot, so we started by getting them attended to. We took the bumper off and sent the car off to the paintshop along with the bootlid lip spoiler we had removed from FrankenSieben.
While it was away, the plan was to refurb the interior and, incredibly, I hadn’t noticed that the grey sports 18 way adjustable contour seats were Individual and piped two tone grey. It was clear that they needed a bit of a refurb, so a couple of colour samples were despatched to Gliptone and some Liquid Leather and Scuffmaster were supplied to improve them.
We did the fronts in the two tone and I think they turned out really well.
While I was still considering whether or not I could be arsed doing the rears to match, I acquired a set of electrically adjustable, lumbar support, heated rear seats in Nappa grey. But piped. So another 250 ml of the lighter grey leather colour was obtained from Gliptone and the rears were made to match the fronts in the Individual piped two tone grey.
The interior we were using – out of, but definitely not native to, FrankenSieben – had one out of four of the door pull handles in grey stitched leather from an Individual or 750iL extended leather interior. The same source as the rear seats managed to supply a pair of full grey extended leather front door cards and the other rear handle in stitched leather. So all the door cards were stripped and the leather handles removed and recoloured in the light grey to complete the two tone Individual interior.
So, that’s the interior leather trim pretty much sorted out and now the car is back from paint. It was wearing mismatched slave wheels, so they were ditched in favour of the staggered 18″ M Parallels purloined from the Mora car.
There was an ABS fault which I tracked down to a faulty DSC precharge pump. An in stock replacement was fitted and the brakes bled.
The later lights with clear indicators and the power fold mirrors had been swapped over prior to paint and, with the wheels on, it was externally complete, and so, unfortunately, there was nothing else for it, but to start reassembling it.
Start at the back and move forward is normally our approach, and originally, in terms of ICE this basic car had only a basic radio and a fitted phone. Nothing else.
The first thing to go in was the AV loom front to back for the widescreen Nav. It was run from the boot to the front and the monitor connected to let us check the functions as we built it. Then we started adding bits. A radio module, TV and video module, GPS antenna, DSP amp, and CD changer all came from FrankenSieben which also supplied an early Mk2 CD based Nav computer and “Trimble” unit required to make it work. I managed to obtain the latest compatible Mk4 DVD navigation computer, a reversing camera that looks like a pdc sensor, and a break out lead to allow AV input and output to and from the TV and video module.
Getting it all to work, upgrading the nav computer, finding bits not working, downgrading it to the earliest workable version to get it all working and then upgrading it to the latest again is all a bit of time consuming hassle, but worth it.
Talking of PDC sensors, replacing one dead front one and one equally lifeless rear one got the PDC working again and annoying the Hell out of me.
The reversing camera was fitted to the rear bumper and wired via a relay (actually from an E30 convertible rear screen blower) so that when reverse gear is selected power is provided to the camera and a pin on the video module plug is earthed to display the output from the camera, no matter what the screen is currently displaying. This works well and is better than having to switch the display to the AV channel before engaging reverse.
With all those wires and boxes now in the boot, I decided that a CD changer was unlikely to be used, so it was jettisoned. That left a spare power feed. What to do with it? A Zoom Mobile wi-fi router that had once provided the office wi-fi also came with a 12v power supply. In it went and the car now has its very own wi-fi hotspot. The layout and wiring all took a bit of time, but it is now complete, uses all BMW parts (apart from the wi-fi) and could have been ordered from the factory.
So into the cabin and still moving from the back forward, the Mora car had an electric rear sunblind fitted, but not operational. We checked it actually worked and it was fitted and wired correctly to the switch in the front of the car. Fortunately the correct switch bank was with the Mora car, but as not all the wiring required at the plug was there, we needed to butcher plug out of a scrap E39 to add pins to the existing plug and wire them up to get power to the rear blind.
The chap with the rear seats also supplied a non working blind which luckily had an older pre facelift type of switch, so we wired that into the rear of the centre console to allow the blind to be operated by rear seat passengers independently. So, that’s the rear sun blind in and working with switches in both front and rear. If you haven’t seen one of these in action, it’s definitely worth watching:-
Next component forward is the DSP speaker box. It’s fairly straightforward and just bolts in and connects to the main AV loom. Nice and simple. Result.
Now what about the GPS antenna? Where does it go? Oh, aye. Under the rear parcel shelf. Nae bother. We’ll just take the sun blind and the DSP back out to fit a stupid wee thing no bigger than a box of matches. And put them back in again.
Moving forward to the electrically adjustable rear seats. I’ll just say nearly two days of trial fit, adjust, weld, grind, trial fit, adjust, weld, grind, trial fit ……repeat ad infinitum covers it fairly, though it ignores the time spent trimming the brackets apparently chopped out of the donor car with a blunt fireman’s axe.
Then there was the wiring, which, to be fair was, pretty quick and simple. Oh, and the brackets that have to be removed from the donor parcel shelf and fitted.
So that’s the rear seats in. The front seats have monitors in the back of the headrests, but like just about every other good bit in the original FrankenSieben, they weren’t connected. A USB bank, 12v charger and various cables and HDMI box thingy are now fitted in the centre rear armrest allowing pretty much anything to connect to the screens, which are now wired up, and phone charging etc. to be performed.
So carpets in, interior built up, seats in, dash built up with widescreen monitor and Robert is your mother’s brother. . Again, that’s oversimplifying getting the best bits of trim out of three cars – using Vinylkote 40 (matched by Technispray to a sample) to repair scuffed bits of grey trim and recolour undamaged beige to replace broken bits discovered on removal. I think the grey interior into the Mora car was the first E38 interior whoever did it had done – lots of broken bits, Tiger seal and PanelBond.
The 16:9 widescreen monitor was in the Mora car and the chap told me it was an X5 unit. That’s pretty standard. 16:9 RHD E38 units are very, very rare and while they will fit E38, E39 and E53, the reverse is not true and only E38 RHD units fit RHD E38s properly. X5 units are plentiful and work, but need the heater box modified to sit properly in the dash. Ideally the viewing angle needs adjusted too. I was preparing to make these modifications and we fitted the monitor in place. It fitted perfectly. It must be an E38 unit. Result.
There are a couple of niggles. Along the way, the boot remote release stopped working and I’m getting a “bootlid open” warning (both now fixed). The coolant level sensor is playing up. There’s a foglight out and I can’t be arsed taking the undertray off to fit a new bulb and, and this always happens – because we have a couple of breakers, whenever you can’t find a trim piece, nut, bolt, screw, clip, or whatever, it’s easier and quicker to just go and take one off – we’ve a box of hundreds of wee bits left over.
I’m going to use and enjoy it for a couple of weeks and shake down any niggling faults, then it’ll get brought back in to have the wee bits and pieces done, oh, and the tank replaced. How could I forget?
It drives just beautifully and overall, I am happy that we have turned a lowish mileage one owner, but dully specced car into a cracking well specced old Luxobarge.
It’s lived locally all its life, it has done a warranted 88000 miles and has a full service history. All three keys plus the plastic one are there. It’s on M Parallels, with clear lights. It has power fold mirrors. It has working PDC and a reversing camera. It has DSP; 16:9 screen; Mk4 DVD Sat Nav; electric rear sun blind; sports contour 18 way front seats and heated electrically adjustable rears all in Individual piped two tone grey; M-Tech multi function wheel; headrest monitors; entertainment in the centre armrest, and, wi-fi.
I’ll consider offers around the £3000 mark, but only because I’ve seen a cracking facelift 750iL, I fancy.
Well, FrankenSeiben is off to what appears to be an appreciative, permanent new home in the London area.
I’m pleased with how we managed to save a car with loads of potential and turned it into a decent car. It isn’t by any stretch of the imagination original, with different paintwork, wheels, lights and interior from when it left the factory, but I think the black interior suits it very well and it looks and drives superbly.
Here it is on refurbished 19″ M Parallel replicas which set off the Mora paintwork very well indeed
It is very interesting that the interior that is now in it came out of a car – the silver car – with a VIN number only 15 earlier than this one.
So, these two cars would probably have been together on the production line at Dingolfing, on the boat to Britain and in BMW GB compound in the UK before going their separate ways in late 1999, only to be reunited at our premises 17 years later. If only Cilla Black was still alive.
In what may have been a bout of separation anxiety, FrankenSieben shed its serpentine belt midweek. The idler and tensioner were pretty worn and both date stamped “1999”, so they were all replaced and the car prepared for its new owner’s arrival on Friday.
On Friday, on the way to the station to collect the new owner in the silver sister car, the silver one shed its serpentine belt!
Who says cars don’t have feelings?
Me. All that can be deduced from this is that the expected lifespan of M52TUb28 belt idlers and tensioners is *exactly* 17 years and three months.
You have been warned.
The upgrading of its silver sister continues – this car is like the terraced council house with home cinema, sauna, jacuzzi, guest wing, wine cellar and motor house.
Recent additions are the E60 M5 instrument cluster (actually an E53 4.8 iS cluster)
and the famed, “porn lights” – the same as the ones pictured below.
We also finally managed to remove the supposedly good tank from one of the 735i breakers and, unusually, found a secondhand E38 fuel tank in better condition than expected. It has done a total of about five miles since being fitted and is a genuine BMW tank.
It’ll get fitted to the silver council house along with recently acquired rear air conditioning, an hydraulic soft close boot and a practice putting green.
I had some difficulty persuading my good lady wife that this sticker related to the car and not to the occupants.
But putting the hardtop on again reminded me of just how well designed and engineered these cars are, particularly when compared with what else was available in the mid 1980s.
In the 1980s most soft tops had permanently damp interiors and misted up rear screens. The E30 was a step forward for both. It was well sealed and there was a blower for the rear screen. Switching on the rear demister activated what was effectively a 12v hairdrier which blew warm(ish) air onto the rear screen.
The factory hardtop has a standard element type heated rear screen.
Here’s the clever bit. Simply by fitting the hardtop, the switch no longer operates the blower, but operates the hardtop heated rear screen element. No CANBUS. No Body Control Modules. No ECUs. Just relays and engineering. And 27 years later, both the blower and the heated rear screen work.
I bet that’s not the case with modern, electronic ECU, CANBUS, BCM rubbish.
BMW were long aware of the appeal of a convertible version of their small saloon range and, from as early as 1967, commissioned Karrosserie Baur, the Stuttgart coachbuilder to provide factory approved conversions of their small saloons. These were always exclusive, expensive, niche products and sold in limited numbers.
For BMW, Baur converted the 1600/1602 range, the E21 3 series and the E30 3 series. These were Targa style convertibles (though the use of the word “Targa” was prohibited by Porsche, the trade mark holder) and the main roof skin and rear window were removed and replaced with a landau type folding canvas roof and removeable Targa top.
By 1986, the market had changed and the demand for a small four seat convertible was clear with UK offerings from mass market manufacturers like Ford, Vauxhall, Chrysler and others, all based on their saloon product range and available in numbers and, at a price much, much lower than the cost of an E30 two door PLUS the additional £3700+ required for the Baur conversion.
So, in 1986, BMW started to produce its own (Baur designed) E30 convertible based on then current, hugely popular and capable E30 3 series. While any two door E30 saloon could be converted by Baur, only the six cylinder cars could initially be had as factory convertibles, so, at launch in 1986, only 320i and 325i convertibles were offered.
The sill structure of the car was deepened and strengthened and a full convertible was provided by narrowing, the already far from expansive, rear seat and shortening the boot to provide stowage for the folded roof. The factory E30 convertible is an undeniably pretty car, particularly with the roof and all windows down.
Perhaps surprisingly, BMW continued to offer the Baur conversion on any two door saloon throughout the life of the model range, presumably working on the basis that very few people would be prepared to pay the premium for the Baur over the factory convertible, but it allowed BMW to cater for customers who saw the attraction of the Baur design or who simply wanted a model that was never available as a factory convertible, like a 316i or 318iS.
We have long been of the opinion that the E30 convertible, particularly in 325i guise, is the perfect classic car. Reliable, great fun to drive, good looking, particularly in its chrome bumpered form, easy to maintain, relatively cheap to buy and own, practical with four reasonably useable seats and still a desireable car to own today.
So, we thought it would be interesting to compare the two types of E30 convertibles which were available simultaneously, so here are two 1989 325i soft tops in Brilliant Red. One a factory convertible and one a Baur TC2.
Externally and with the roofs up, they do look very similar, particularly around the roofline, the most noteworthy differences – and they’re far from huge – are the those between the facelift Baur and the prefacelift convertible.
The saloon was facelifted in 1987 for the 1988 model year and therefore post ’87 Baurs were converted on facelift bodyshells, with the slightly different front end treatment (valances and fog lights); plastic one piece bumpers, front and rear; slightly different rear arch profiles; and, larger rear lights being the most noticeable changes. There were mechanical improvements too, mainly the introduction of the M40 engine for four cylinder cars and a much better engine management system for the sixes.
While the convertible received the mechanical improvements of the facelift at the same time as the saloons, it wasn’t until mid 1990 that the facelift bodyshell and the M40 engine reached the convertible range, so 1988-1990 convertibles, like this one, were a sort of “hybrid” of pre-facelift body with the facelift mechanics.
The factory convertible also continued in production right up until 1993 after the saloon model range changed to the new fangled E36 in 1991.
Finally, the convertible was built in a different part of the factory – the five series assembly area – and is so reputed to have slightly better build quality than the two door saloons, the Baur was based on.
The biggest, and most obvious difference, though is in the roof treatment. The Baur retains the fully framed doors of the saloon and a fixed roof frame as far back as the B posts, has a substantial hoop fitted just aft of the B post, has a fixed rear quarter light and the folding roof covers only the rear seat area. The folded roof remains external and is covered by a pop on tonneau cover. It has to be said that the roof arrangements could be considered a little ungainly, particularly when compared to the elegance of the factory car – also designed by the coachbuilder.
The convertible is open from the A post back and has different frameless doors and drop glasses, electrically retractable rear quarter lights and the folded roof is completely stowed away below a hinged cover. It is an extremely attractive design.
The convertible offers just two options:- Roof open or roof closed
The Baur has numerous options:- roof open, targa off (as pictured above – the closest the Baur gets to the full convertible); roof open, targa on (landau style) with the rear roof folded but the front two seats closed; targa off, roof closed – the two front seats open and the rear closed (probably the most convenient option for most day to day use in the UK). Additionally, the targa can be raised at the rear like a sunroof to provide ventilation. It is very versatile.
Mechanically, in on the road performance, and indeed, in almost all other aspects, they are pretty much identical.
The convertible, substantially strengthened in the sills to compensate for the roof’s removal, was lauded at the time for its structural stiffness and the absence of scuttle shake. To be fair, that was true, but only in comparison to other convertibles of the time. In comparison to an E30 saloon or a modern convertible, it is still noticeably “floppy”.
The Baur does benefit from retaining almost all of the rigidity of the saloon and to be honest, you can feel the difference on the road. It is certainly stiffer and, all other things being equal, a little more composed. The convertible is a boulevardier rather than a sports car, but the Baur can be used in exactly the same sporting manner as a saloon.
The other big difference between the two cars is the rear seat area. The E30 rear seat and passenger compartment could never be considered capacious.
The convertible’s folding roof compartment and the electrically operated rear quarter glasses ate into the the rear passenger space, while the Baur retained the standard rear seat arrangement and fixed rear quarter lights of the two door saloon.
The difference is not insignificant if you require to carry rear seat passengers.
You’ll notice that the convertible doesn’t even bother to fit the third lap belt, there being no chance of getting more than two people in the rear.
The luggage space in both cars is affected by the convertible roof arrangements. The factory convertible boot is not so deep as standard to allow for roof stowage and while the Baur’s boot is the standard size, the rack for storing the targa does take up some space. It’s cleverly designed though and you lose very little luggage space compared to the standard car and it is much better than the convertible. However putting anything into the boot or taking anything out with the targa off the car and stowed is a real pain. You really need to take the panel out to access the boot.
On the road, there is no performance difference and the question is whether you prefer the real “wind in the hair” drive of the convertible – with the roof down and the windows open, “blustery” is a good description – or the more refined open top experience of the Baur.
Basically you don’t need a hat in the Baur and it’d be blown away in the convertible.
There were hardtops available for both. The factory hardtop for the convertible is an exceptionally good and useful piece of equipment, turning the car into a two door saloon for winter use. It even provides an electrically heated rear screen. Fitting is a five minute two man job and it does add some security to the car. All UK convertibles are fitted with hardtop preparation and you should be able to pickup a good hardtop for under £1000.
The very rare Baur hardtop is a bit of a mission to fit, necessitating the complete removal of the folding roof and frame To be fair, that only takes about 30 minutes in total, but it’s something you’d want to do no more than twice a year. Again, it improves security and weather protection.
Finding one though is going to be far from easy. You’ll probably need to source one in Europe.
So, which do you choose? Baur or convertible?
It’s a simple matter of personal taste with pros and cons for both.
The Baur’s versatility, its quirkiness, its rarity (with only 1600 or so built for the UK, and probably less than half of those left), its truly coach built nature and the fact that it harks back to the older models, its saloon like driving experience and its more useable back seat are all in its favour.
However, its looks, its slightly complicated and time consuming roof lowering and stowage procedures, the use of the boot with the targa removed and a surprising number of lowly specified examples, probably because of the cost of conversions, are all in its debit column.
Whereas on its positive side, the convertible has its cleaner lines, its stowable roof and the fact that the roof can be raised or lowered in seconds, a generally high spec from the factory (all convertibles came with sports seats for example), an easily obtainable (if expensive) factory hardtop, anecdotally better build quality and rust avoidance (certainly over very early Baurs) and the longer production run, meaning that there are some very late E30 convertibles.
Its demerits include the rear seating, roof to screen sealing issues leading to wet legs in the rain, the difficulty in finding an original, unmolested one and its apparent ubiquity – there really are plenty about.
The Baur has long been seen as an oddity and unwanted. At one time, maybe ten years ago, they were probably the least sought after E30. This has led to a fairly high attrition rate and they are now few and far between They’re still largely unappreciated, and perhaps compared unfavourably to the factory convertible. But, if you can find a post ’87 Baur, preferably a 325i, with a high spec, grab it. These were cars which were bought by people who decided that they specifically wanted a Baur and who walked past the undeniably prettier convertible AND were prepared to pay a hefty premium for the privilege. These people were generally wealthy and the cars were well looked after. They make great buys now.
The cost of the conversion was so great that many Baurs were ordered in base spec, with four cylinders, and comfort interiors to keep the final cost relatively bearable. The factory convertible compares very favourably to these cars, but a late facelifted Baur 325i must be worth holding on to.
But, and here we get to the final crux of the matter, you simply can’t beat the truly open air driving experience of the factory convertible. The Baur’s targa, versatile though it is, just doesn’t do it as well as the convertible, so, for somewhere with more than 20 minutes sunshine annually, it’d be the convertible, for the UK climate, a Baur makes more sense, but,………… it’d still be the convertible.
This 1990 Brilliant Red 325i Auto Convertible with Black Leather and Shadowline trim had been languishing at the back of the restoration queue for about a year.
It was put off the road in 2012 after an MoT failure that didn’t suggest anything terribly complex or expensive to repair, pretty much standard 150000 mile E30 stuff:-
We bought it in 2015 and, on arrival, it was certainly tired. It had been sitting outside for a while and when I first saw it, I thought it would probably have to be broken for spares, but after a good half hour with the pressure washer and a good look over, it became apparent that it was a good straight, complete and totally original car. The “complete” and “original” parts were probably the key factors in it being restored, rather than broken. That and the fact that red with black interior (with rear headrests) and shadowline trim is such an iconic late 80’s combination.
Here it is as bought – though not as it arrived some months later having sat under a tree for a few months!
The card in the front windscreen says, “Not for Sale”.
Tired, grubby, but complete and undamaged black leather interior.
Obligatory cracked dashboard.
Slightly crumbly arches, but 15″ BBS with four centre caps and a roof that looks not too bad – no rips or tears and almost certainly saveable using our Protex three stage process.
An examination on the ramp showed that the 2012 MoT stuff hadn’t been done, but on the positive side, the car started and ran quite nicely. It would have been perfectly possible to just do the MoT bits, service it and put it back on the road, and that’s kind of how it started.
The original plan was to do what was necessary and just put it back on the road as quickly as possible and either sell it as a rolling restoration project or use it and leave the cosmetics till the winter.
All the MoT stuff listed is standard fare and the only unpleasant bit about it was the rear brake lines. The over axle brake lines can be done without removing the rear beam, but its always easier in the long run to take the beam out – you can replace the beam bushes and trailing arm bushes at the same time.
So, that’s where we started. Front brake lines and flexis were done and a pair of bottom arms fitted; new drop links were fitted along with lollipop bushes, ARB bushes and clamps, and a pair of track rod ends. New discs, pads and wear sensors completed the front end freshen up.
.At this point it was noted that the front valance was a little rusty and both front wings had seen better days.
Hmmmm. So now we had started rust repairs and paint was obviously going to have to be applied.
We moved on to the rear and dropped the rear beam to attend to the bushes and the brake lines. Doing that allowed us to see the state of the tank and, unfortunately, out it came too.
So one of our powder coated beams with new bushes was fitted along with trailing arm bushes, ARB bushes, drop links, top mounts, brake lines, flexis, discs and pads.
So, with paint now having to be applied, it was decided that we might as well just fix all the rust, so rear arches, rear valance, rear panel and boot pockets were all sorted:-
In addition, a previously fitted towbar had left holes in the rear panel and boot floor. These were welded up and whilst on the subject of dealing with earlier modifications, the standard two aftermarket immobilisers/alarms were discovered, removed and binned.
By this time there was no going back, so the whole car was fully sealed using brush on seam sealer and rustproofed with Dynax UB. It was then fully undersealed with Black Waxoyl impregnated underseal and Gravitex where appropriate.
The car was then stripped for a full respray with the glass out, interior out and all the trim off, and the whole car including the underbonnet and boot areas was painted in the original Brilliant Red.
While it was away for paint, the interior was treated to a couple of litres of Liquid Leather conditioner and came up very well indeed.
The standard 15″ BBS rims were refurbished, blasted and powder coated in the correct colour with new centre cap badges fitted.
The strip down revealed that the roof, though looking good, was in fact held together by gravity – all the stitching was rotten and folding it away caused it to disintegrate – a real shame – not just because of the cost of a new one, but because the actual fabric of the original was in unusually good condition.
So a new German Mohair roof was sourced and fitted.
At this point the reassembly started.
Externally we cleaned and refitted every piece of trim, replacing what we could with the best of what we had and refurbishing all the shadowline trim with correct satin black. New trim parts fitted were:-
All four scraper seals;
Gasket for Alarm magnetic key;
Rear light gaskets;
Under bonnet sound insulation;
Dealer number plates;
From the (now slightly less) overflowing “Not for Sale” box came:-
A top tint windscreen;
13 Button OBC;
Seat mounted fire extinguisher;
Hirschmann shadowline electric aerial and OE loom;
First Aid Kit;
Blue warning triangle;
M-Tech one steering wheel;
Leather gear selector;
Spare wheel fuel can;
OE Coconut mats
The interior was completed and refitted using all the original seats which had been refurbished apart from the rear seat back which had split in the usual place and was replaced with a good one we had; a perfect dash and some trim parts were retrieved from the “Not for Sale” box and the best boot carpet set that we could make out of all the pieces we have was assembled and the interior refitted.
Mechanical completion involved a new fuel tank, powder coated fuel filler neck, service, fluids, timing belt, water pump, distributor cap, rotor arm, exhaust studs (including a couple drilled out and retapped), repair to the exhaust, exhaust gaskets and a replacement instrument cluster.
Thereafter it was MoTd for the first time in four years and it performed faultlessly during a week long tour of Ireland.
I am pleased to say that it has turned into a superb wee car. It drives perfectly and rides and handles like new. It looks superb and with a mechanical refresh, new roof, refurbished interior, totally rust free bodywork, it reminds me just how enjoyable a car the E30 325i convertible is. It’s quick enough, it makes a great noise, it is totally reliable and could be used every day, it looks great and is just tremendous fun to drive and use. Everyone should have one.
I hate talk of price appreciation, but I honestly can’t see better value in the classic car market than an E30 convertible. Buy one now while they are still undervalued.
We would consider offers on this car in the region of £10,000. I know it sounds a lot, but just count up what has been done to it and how much you would need to spend to get one that is truly and demonstrably rust free with a good black leather interior, mechanical refresh, repainted and with a new roof and then think what that money would buy you if you were looking at any premium 1980s convertible, a 944 cabrio, Mercedes SL, an XJ-S, TVR, even an XR3i or Golf Convertible. A rusty project for most of them as opposed to a restored version of what is, undoubtedly, the best four seat 1980s convertible.
We also have a lovely 1991 318i convertible with low miles and low owners and huge history including the original purchase receipt that is just ready to go through the same process as this one and which could be ready for you next Spring.
It occurred to me – well someone pointed it out actually – that we took loads of photos during the restoration of the wee red convertible and documented the restoration quite fully, but we had published very few photos of the finished article.