Saving Two Lives: How My Brother And I Rebuilt My BMW E30 ‘Student Car’ Into Something Greater
Story by Michael McDonald
Photography by Clemens Althof
What wonderful trips we’ve had with this car during my three years as a student in Paris. Cruising down the Loire Valley, with a stop-over in Bretagne for some fresh oysters and sea breeze; the weekend jaunts up north to Deauville and Honfleur; the trips down to the Ardèche valley, and then further south to the Cote d’Azur; driving through the French Alps, enjoying some meals of poulet de Bresse on the way back.
This car is a 1986 325e (the “e” stands for eta, the Greek character for efficiency) that I had bought from an elderly gentleman in Berlin. It took me on long trips with no mechanical complaints or much petrol, never acting up, always ready to go even during the harshest of Berlin winters. And that was another enjoyable part, as odd as it might sound to say I liked driving my car in the winter when salt and snow turn metal into rust. The rear-wheel drive car with its light weight and analog controls made it easy to indulge in more than a few episodes of drifting during the snowier months of the year—modern cars just don’t give you that feeling.
But alas, it was the year 2013 and the upcoming vehicle inspection was looming at the local TÜV, with a likely negative outcome. Several parts were rusty (winter fun comes with consequence), and would have needed to be changed if I had a hope of passing. The motor needed some work as well, and altogether the repairs necessary meant that my student budget would need more than a stretch. But we all remember our old cars we drove in school, and don’t we miss them, at least a little bit? Trips down memory lane and all that?
It was a coincidence that in the same year my little brother had to undergo some serious surgery. His intestines where under attack from an autoimmune disorder that put him close to death more than once, and the entirety of his inner workings “under the hood” had to be cut, rearranged, and put together in a new way to keep his system running. Very much like the car’s requirements for staying alive, only a bit more dire.
It was my gut feeling that it was important to stick with my sentimentality that gave the spark to this project. The plan was to make only the slightest changes at the exterior, however a complete renovation of the guts was in store. Pretty symbolic, it was also the ideal project for my little brother Clemens to focus on something constructive while being forced to take a break from life and his architecture studies. And it would mean my “college car” as the Americans call it, would become a longer term member of the family in the process.
BMW’s 325e had an atypical setup than most E30s: a relatively large capacity for the engine (2693cc. the biggest of all the non-M E30s), but focused on high efficiency. That meant it offered a lot of torque at lower RPM, where it outperforms the sportier 325i six-cylinder models. However, those cars outperform at higher RPM due to the greater horsepower and longer powerband on the “i” models—could there be a way to combine the two?
In fact that is almost exactly what Alpina did with the C2 2.7, and it was entirely possible to reverse engineer their work so our project started taking place! The motor was completely reworked, and combined with the 325i periphery and cylinder head, the original Alpina C2 engine control unit chip, and of course new pistons, a thorough honing of the block, and porting the valves and heads to allow for optimal air flow beyond the factory design.
The interior design we kept entirely as it was, albeit using fresh materials, and it was a cumbersome process to find the correct colored carpets and seat covers. In fact it took a few years to put it all together and ship it to a nearby car upholsterer for the installation.
The chassis suspension had to be sharpened up to provide the more dynamic driving package we wanted from the car and not just its motor (we went with Bilstein), and the exhaust pipe needed to allow for better flow (it has an Eisenmann exhaust now). Lastly, the brakes needed to be optimized for the correct balance of speed and stopping power, and we found original Alpina units to fit behind the wheels. To top it off, we managed to obtain a set of original Alpina C2 wheels—completing our small homage to the tuner that inspired us!
The result is as you would expect: a big grin as you accelerate up mountain paths, swiftly shifting up and down, a slight drift here and there. What a pleasure this car is. It was, too, but now it’s a different experience than my old university road-tripper.
It was just last year that we finally managed to register the car, and the exact same year that my brother finally managed to overcome the darkest parts of his disorder. That first drive together with fresh number plates will forever be attached to my little E30 and our memories. It’s a car that had already given us so much joy during all these years, in fact decades, and the prospect of many more to come is something that more than makes up for the process of building the car.
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