Car shopping: what to look for? Any tips/help?


Hi there. Since my last post ( , thanks to the help of many people on this forum, I have been in touch with many E30 owners. I’m at the point where I’ve weighed my options and am ready to see a car.

What should I be looking out for when I see a particular E30 for the first time? Advice on miscellaneous forums ranges from saying that revving the engine and releasing the gas to see the car’s response is the most important test you can do to taking the rear bumper off to look for rust. I thought I’d come to the pros and find out what’s what before seeing a car.

Here are a few of my questions: what are common/uncommon but noteworthy spots for rust? Between all the posts I’ve read in the last hour, 99% of the E30 has been put on the “common rust spot” list. Should I run a compression test while onsite with the car? What knocks/whines mean I should drop the car immediately, and are there any knocks/ticks/whines/etc that are okay for a starter car/will be fixed in the conversion to SE30? Anything else I should be looking for?

Thanks! The community here has been great and I feel very welcomed in a series I’m not even eligible for yet!


This is a good subject, one that will need a lot of input from others.

A couple thoughts.

  1. Auto swaps. I’ve never swapped out a pedal box but I imagine a manual/auto swap would be harder, considering the diff has to go too, then an engine swap. It’s easy to imagine someone selling an auto e30 with serviceable drivetrain for $1500 and a manual e30 with a bad engine for $500. I’d take the manual with a bad engine. The reason I bring this up is that there’s usually more auto e30’s available then manual.

  2. A compression test is a great idea, but it requires some experience because it’s a “relative” test. So you need to have done it with the same gauge on the same model engine with the exact same test protocol numerous times. That gives you a body of previous test results to compare the test to. In the absence of that experience, all you’re going to see is a piston that differs from another. Good “relative” info, but not “absolute” info which would be ideal.

  3. Rust. The bumper rust idea is a great one, but removing a bumper that has never been removed before can be a bastard at not worth the hassle. IMO you can see what you need to see re. bumper rust simply by getting under the car and maybe using a little inspection mirror. What you want to see is that the frame rails around the shock mounts look like they’re still reasonably stout.

The rocker panels under the doors get beat up by shop lifts. There can be rust-thru there hidden by car’s undercoating. That undercoating can also hide rust in the wheel wells.

Don’t walk away from a car just because of a little bit of rust. Try to figure out how much strength remains in the steel piece that is rusted. In many cases as long as you don’t have “rust thru” you might be ok. Wire brush off the worst of the rust, brush on a “rust stopper” chemical, paint and drive on.

  1. A bunch of dings everywhere is worse than awful paint. As long as the sheetmetal is fairly unblemished MAACO will happily spray your car for $500 or so and it will look fabulous. Sheetmetal that’s all dinged up tho is a pita.

Fenders and doors are easy enough to replace, so if you see a car for dirt cheap because of a beat up fender or door, that could be a deal.

The cheap and easy way to get in a race car is to buy a race car. Or buy someone’s unfinished race car project. There’s someone in S. FL right now selling a caged shell for beer money. It’s ugly, but fixing ugly is a helova lot cheaper than a cage. I think I saw it on the NASA-FL Facebook page.


Here it is on CL. He wanted it gone by 2/15/…

CL ad


I don’t know. that thing looks pretty scary. I don’t know that I would trust a cage from someone that thought it would be fun to jump on the roof.


Another thing on bumper rust. Fred Switzer mentioned some years ago that the contact point between the steel bumper shock bracket and the AL bumper can be wasted away by galvanic corrosion. I’ve not seen a good case of this myself but I can imagine that it would be hard to spot w/o first removing the rubber bumper strip.

A prospective seller will probably not let you remove the bumper strip, but some good tugs up and down on the bumper might detect a weakened connection to the bumper shock.

This only applies to early e30 bumpers. Late model e30 bumpers don’t have to worry about being weakened by galvanic corrosion as they are by design “pre-weakened”.


+100 on looking for rust. Look south. Take a flashlight and wear clothes that you don’t mind getting dirty so you can get on the ground. Look all around from under, and also all around the engine. Look to see if chassis has ever been crumpled. Get the best built/maintained car you can afford. Local towing auctions and sometimes have bargains. Enjoy the hunt!