Master Of All Trades: This Tastefully Modified M3-Powered BMW E30 Is Daily Driven And Tracked Hard
Photography by Naveed Yousufzai
The BMW E30 3-Series is one of the greatest lines of cars to ever come out of Munich. The fact that it’s a humble, lovable platform that also begat the first M3 also makes it one of BMW’s most diverse. Debuting in 1982 and sustaining a showroom presence for over a decade, these modern classics changed the way people perceived the marque. Between coupes, tourings, sedans, convertibles, and the mighty M3, the E30 was a masterful jack of all trades, and a perfect canvas for enthusiasts to build upon.
The E30 has generated a cult following that only seems to be growing. New generations of enthusiasts still flock to the chassis, the depth of knowledge and resources continues to grow alongside them, and the result is a platform with nearly as many individual interpretations as there are in the 911 community.
Some E30 owners have turned to building off-road and rally cars, weekend warring track cars, full track-only DTM and Group A replicas, always-polished show cars, while others have opted to restore their cars down to the correct OEM nuts, bolts, and washers. For fabricator Evan Nessim, the ethos behind his build centered around an approach that incorporated a little bit of everything; a daily drivable street car that can outperform most on track while looking quite pretty in the process, and rather than dropping it off at a shop, he’s done it all himself. You won’t find over the top aero here, but nor will you mistake this build for a minimalist sleeper aesthetic.
Evan’s Mtech II coupe is as an homage to what he believes is the perfect balance in retaining OEM appeal while also modernizing and modifying it enough to create a capable sports car with the kind of engaging analog driving experience that has made the E30 so popular to begin with. I caught up with Evan recently to shoot his car and talk to him about the process behind his creation.
Naveed Yousufzai: Where did you automotive endeavors start?
Evan Nessim: Honestly, I don’t even know anymore. My mom’s side of the family were all into American cars. They grew up circle track and drag racing, but I was never close enough with them for it to rub off on me. My dad’s side had more of a “cars are meant to get from point A to B” mentality, though some of my uncles were usually driving a nice Mercedes. Between video games like Need for Speed, the Fast series of films, magazines, and a mix of my family’s interests, it’s hard to pinpoint any single source. I just know I’ve always had an intense desire to build and create in general, and as cheesy as it sounds, I feel at this point that cars have just been in my blood.
NY: And how did that general interest bring you to BMWs? That seems to be your niche now, right?
EN: To be honest I didn’t like BMWs until I took my first corner in one. I thought they were unreliable, hard to work on, and the drivers had a certain stigma attached to them that nobody wants to be associated with. But I was a kid, what did I know! I grew up as a JDM fan reading Super Street and loving Skylines, Supras, S15s, you name it as long as it was built in Japan. I was big on drifting back then, and even had RC drift cars that I would spend hours tweaking and tuning.
When I got my license, I was happy to drive any car I could get the keys to. Nothing super exciting, a lot of practical cars like my mom’s Lexus IS250, various friends’ Camrys, Civics, etc. My driving lessons were in a Mini Cooper and I really wanted to own one, but they were far too expensive for me back then.
Which brings us to my first car, I almost didn’t even want to go see it just because it had a BMW roundel. My uncle who works for Lexus managing used car inventories brought it to my attention in the first place, because I wasn’t exactly scouring classifieds for a BMW. “I have a 330 that we just got in, you should check it out,” he told me. My best friend in high school, Michael, understood the appeal of BMWs beyond the yuppie mindset, and insisted that I at least check it out.
I didn’t even know what the car was until I showed up and had a call with Michael while looking it over. I told him it said “DEE-NAN” on the back, I didn’t even know how to pronounce it! He kind of freaked out and said I needed to buy it. I brushed it off with a, “Yeah, maybe,” but looking back that was the beginning of my obsession. Like I said, I tried to drive as many cars as possible when I was younger, and nothing I had experienced felt like that BMW; I could feel the road and what the car was doing in a way that felt like an epiphany back then.
NY: And how did you eventually land on the E30 chassis?
EN: Once my passion for BMWs grew, I realized that I loved the modern classics most of all. The E30 is the same shape you would see on a road sign with the simple animation of a car on it, just so pure and simple. After having my first E30, I knew I would need to get back into another eventually and make it my own. It was the rawest driving experience out of any BMW I had driven at the time. By then I had learned about the rare Mtech body styles and the other desirable options that makes the hunt for the right spec both longer and more rewarding.
An Imola Red Mtech II was my dream E30, and it just so happened that one of them popped up on the local classifieds at the right time. That just doesn’t seem to happen these days, and I feel luckier every day for finding this car. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but it was the perfect car for me in hindsight.
I found it on Craigslist. The ad had one terrible picture that looked like it was taken with an old flip phone. These types of ads can be the diamonds in the rough or a waste of time, but I was of course eager to find out, and kept my fingers crossed for the former. I called the owner, Tyler, to talk about the condition of his car. The body was a genuine Mtech kit that they found in a salvage yard believe it or not, and it was freshly painted, and didn’t even have the BMW badges put back on it yet. The suspension was stock, and it was wearing replica CCW wheels with small tires so it looked like it was doing a wheelie…
The interior was mismatched but came with all sorts of other bits and pieces. I explained to him that this was my dream car and that I would do whatever it takes to get down there and pick it up. Perhaps not the best strategy to start a negotiation, but hey, I was young and excited.
The car was in Los Angeles, a six-hour drive from my spot in San Jose. I was the only one of my friends with a license back then, so my buddy and I took a ten-hour Greyhound bus ride to pick it up. The drive back was flawless, and the open unmuffled exhaust helped keep me awake through the late night drive back home.
I just wanted to clean it up, get the interior all sorted and in one color, and have a clean E30 to enjoy. I didn’t have the funds or knowledge at the time to consider an engine swap, and I loved the M20 straight-six anyway, so I was perfectly content with the power train for the time being. I had a black interior in good condition and basically brand new Ground Control suspension from my first E30, along with some other small bits in good shape that helped freshen the car up initially.
Once I found some other bits and pieces and had it finally looking good and proper I put it up in the air for three months to do all the bushings, wheel bearings, and some fresh brakes and stainless lines. Just the usual 200k+ mile maintenance overhaul.
I then proceeded to drive and enjoy the hell out of the car until the engine inevitably gave up. I considered a stock-spec rebuild for a brief moment before deciding that a souped up stroker M20 sounded like a lot more fun, but the more time I spent deliberating on what route I should take, the more money I was saving up, so I finally landed on something a bit more extreme and started to look for an S54 from the E46 M3. I got even more carried away from that point, and I tore the S54 down to rebuild it with forged internals and an M3 CSL-style intake.
Not content to let the rest of the build fall behind the power plant, I also added a Wilwood big brake kit, rebuilt the limited-slip differential to my chosen ratio of 3.91, built a custom subframe and oil pan to run the motor with a dual-pickup sump, welded in reinforcements to the rear subframe and stiffened up the chassis elsewhere while adding points of adjustability, replaced all of the bushings and bearings again, and added a short shift kit to make the donor M3’s Getrag six-speed even more fun to play with. The list of supporting mods for the swap and the chassis tweaks is too long to write out, and I won’t try to hold your attention with the spec of every bushing and hose.
Cosmetically, I ditched the wheels for a set that actually fit the car, color-matched the engine bay that the previous owner hadn’t painted, swapped the cracked dash out for an intact OEM one, added a cloth BMW sport seat interior, and then after this whirlwind two-year period of restoring and modifying I just took a breather to enjoy the “finished” car.
NY: It’s clear that this car has turned into a deeply personal project, and is a reflection of what the perfect E30 should be to yours and probably many others’ eyes. Can you elaborate on what makes it unique to you?
EN: Well from the outside, the Imola Red paint and full OEM Mtech II body kit is quite unique compared to most E30s you see on the street. The silver three-piece wheels stick out as well, and since they aren’t the typical BBS baskets, “What wheels are those?” is one of the most asked questions—they’re Jongbloed 305s, for anyone wondering.
But really the S54 takes the cake, especially with the intake noise provided by the CSL-style airbox. It’s becoming a more common swap in the BMW world every year, but very few E30s have S54s in them, and I think what really sets mine apart is the little details. Beauty is always in the details, and I made sure that every hose clamp was in the best position, wiring tucked as much as possible, and anything that needed mounting was placed precisely to look like it belonged there from the factory. The goal was to build a car that looked like BMW could have produced it, all while riding the fine line of building a track car that isn’t hell to live with on the street.
NY: How do you compare it against the other cars you’ve owned?
EN: It’s by far the best car I’ve ever owned, and it’s going to take one hell of a machine to change my mind in the future. There are faster cars, more hyperbolic cars, and I’m sure there are many to love that I have yet to experience, but even if I did find myself in a better machine one day, the memories I have with this car can never be replaced.
NY: Do you think you’ve managed to create your perfect E30? Or are there things left that still need to be done?
EN: When I finished the engine swap, I thought, “Wow, this is great!” Just being able to drive it again around town and up into the mountains on weekends made me realize all the hard work and time spent wrenching on and not driving the car was worth it. Although there’s still a couple things to do, as is the case for anyone who’s embarked on the modified route with their car.
But the big picture is pretty much complete. The first track day with the engine swap last weekend made me realize that I did truly achieve more than what I wanted with this car. Its easily daily drivable, it looks fantastic, and is a pleasure to drive just about anywhere. It’s not finicky, it’s not fragile and temperamental. It’s great fun on the street, and with a simple change of brake pads and removing the subwoofer from the trunk, the car can transform into a super neutral balanced machine on track. Putting a stiffer sway bar on the front is an idea that I had in the middle of the build that actually played out without ever driving the car with the S54. It gives it just a touch of safe understeer out of the box that can be dialed out with tire pressure alone.
I was worried about the rear end snapping out of line with the S54’s power, but I think its the perfect amount for this build. But as I said, it’s not fully complete, and there is always something to fiddle with. I still need to fabricate AC lines so I can enjoy ice cold air in an E30 for the first time in my life. The black trim around the car needs a fresh coat of paint, and I need to produce a trumpet flare for the airbox inlet to mount the intake air temperature sensor.
I’ll always manage to find something to play with, but at this point it’s all just the fun little things that you can chip away at while still enjoying the car on a daily basis. In that sense, I’m not sure if I ever want to consider this car “done.” It’s been a great journey so far, and I’d like to keep it going.