I couldn’t get the title out of my desk, out the door, and into the hands of an acquaintance fast enough. It was the title for a 1995 Volkswagen Golf K2, originally a special edition with heated seats, skis and a ski rack. It was a rust free car that showed well and on which I just had some serious work done. It had all the right ingredients. It was a five-speed Volkswagen hatchback with one of the most reliable engines Volkswagen has ever made, the 8V four0cylinder ABA engine. I’d swapped it from an automatic, in hopes the five-speed Golf I’d always wanted would tide me over as a daily driver. I just couldn’t get over the malaise of it.
Driving it around felt like some sort of character building exercise. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5... repeat. I could hear an older, wiser man congratulating me on my responsible decision and putting a star on a chart somewhere every time I got in and fired it up.
I got the text message in the afternoon. “I have an offer for you,” it said. He wanted to trade me a right-hand drive 1990 BMW E30 320i Touring wagon, plus a little cash, for my K2 Golf. It was a standard Touring. Base model.
It had a plebeian 320i engine, no AC, an automatic transmission, and crank windows in the rear. The wagon had been imported from England a few years earlier and driven by a few acquaintances since.
I’d had a couple cash offers in the several thousand range for the Golf but I love E30s. I’d owned one a few years back, and generally it was one of the better vintage cars I’d ever driven. The wagon made the trade almost irresistible. For years I’d seen them on Facebook, Instagram, and in books and magazines. Yet the impossibility of owning one in America—it was never imported here—always disappointed me. But here I was. I had to give the trade a chance.
I met up with the guy and had a look at the wagon. I’d seen it a couple years or so earlier, in photos and in person. It wasn’t perfect by any means then, but a few ill advised salty winters had taken its toll.
The fenders and rear quarters had serious rust. The car sat high on no name wheels with snow tires. It was not a good look. Still, the trade had merit, and I went through with it.
I imagined myself swapping a huge engine in and doing immensely smoky donuts in the cul-de-sac of a quiet upscale suburb. Children playing hopscotch in front of their parents’ starter castles would drop their ropes, staring out at the spectacle. Their mothers would run out of their open concept-kitchens to cover their eyes. Blinds would be swiftly drawn. Cops would be called. I’d film it all in ultra-def slow motion. The video would go viral and the internet would herald my name as the ultimate God’s Chariot pilot.
Predictably, the entire ownership experience was not what I expected.
I got home and decided to take a deeper look into the car. The power steering leaked. The rust was worse than I thought, and there was a large dent in the hood that was bad enough it needed to be replaced. The seats front and rear were destroyed, and the headliner drooped down and nicked the button on my hat. My wife, who is not an objector of my hobby and regularly enjoys driving odd cars, turned her nose up at my trade.
Determined to make some sort of headway on my wagon version of God’s Chariot dream. I slipped onto the internet and ordered some coilovers, and some wheels from my friends at Fifteen52. I ordered some new fenders and a hood from eBay. I even bought a new old stock hatch from BMW for a mint. I thought even in black primer panels, the car would look better than it would with rust. I couldn’t get the rusty stuff off the car fast enough. I pulled the fenders out of the box, slapped them on and moved on to the hood. I slid it out of the box and held it up. It was for a Toyota Starlet. I strapped the hood back in a box, and sent it back. The original hood, though beaten up, would have to do. Thanks eBay.
With the back seat repaired, wheels, coilovers, and fenders installed, and a thumbtack in the headliner, I felt moderately confident I could drive the car around without embarrassment. I finally had the E30 Touring looking presentable to my car buddies. With adjustable dampeners and nice tires, the Touring ripped through cloverleafs. A little rubbing on the fenders reminded me of my younger days where low was king.
I bombed around for a couple months listening to podcasts through a paper coned speaker appreciating the novelty of driving a right hand drive E30 Touring. I loved how the car looked, and enjoyed the rarity of it. Aesthetically, I think it’s probably the best looking E30.
The only real issue I couldn’t get used to was the right-hand drive setup. RHD Sucks. Car washes and drive-thrus are a pain. I always had to get out and walk around to go push the numbers on the keypad. Trivial, but I wash my cars a lot, and it got old. I buy a lot of chicken nuggets on the go. After a while, the giggle and look you get from the drive-thru attendant isn’t worth getting your pocket stuck on the shifter as you try to lean over to grab your milkshake and Happy Meal.
Driving and maneuvering around are a real issue as well. Generally my subconscious keeps a car between the lines based on the position of my body in the lane, on the left. With the E30, if I wasn’t paying strict attention I would cross the centerline to the left in order for my mind to stick my head where my subconscious thought I should be. I got into the wrong side of the car countless times.
I repeatedly would tell friends “I can’t stop getting in the passenger side” and then would proceed, a mere fraction of a moment later, to get in the passenger side. The habit was unbreakable. I’m sure the novelty of RHD would be good for some, but it just made me resent driving the car. The only redeeming quality of RHD was getting the mail.
The real problem, however, was that the car had a dopey engine coupled with an automatic. I went back and forth on an engine swap or transmission swap. Maybe an S50, or even an M50. Anything to get the thing to move.
I contacted a few local suppliers and no one was really able to come through with a solid price, and list of what I would actually need to do either thing. The pedal cluster was an issue, and I couldn’t find an easy source for one with a clutch pedal. People were unsure about drive shafts, transmissions, and other miscellaneous quirks.
The E30 is a brilliant car. Well balanced, and worthy of its place among the all time greats. Unfortunately, this car, as it sat, isn’t one of them. I finally realized I didn’t like the car enough to warrant all the work to make it great, so I sold it. It took a total of 45 minutes to sell, (way too cheap apparently) and went to a true E30 enthusiast, of which I have discovered I am not.
Low and slow just doesn’t get it done for me anymore. Maybe someday I’ll find an E30 that can be sewn into the fabric of myself and my garage.
Kristopher Clewell is a journalist and photographer from Minneapolis. He writes about motoring, motorsport, and politics.