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.
The only answer is to have one of each.