This Custom BMW E21 Is Breaking The Mould In More Ways Than One
Photography by Florence Walker
I’ve been getting to know Becky—known by her online pseudonym “Queen B,”— over the last few months for two reasons: we’re both women, and we have a shared enthusiasm for cars. There aren’t very many women around these parts if you haven’t noticed. When we find our kind we tend to stick together like sugary sweets in a jar. Especially when one of you drives a red 1983 BMW e21.
She recently invited me to join her and her BMW on a supercar drive one Sunday in Northampton, England. Along with getting some time away from London with my friend, I wanted to find out what happens when you show up to a meeting of modern supercars in a classic with a fraction of the power and a wholly different style.
Our hosts on this run are supercar megaliths. Turns out, the ability to wrap a car in plastic adorned with superheroes is big business in the middle of England, which proves the adage that no one ever lost money underestimating people’s taste. They’ve made careers wrapping and tuning cars for celebrities and have grown audiences on social media so that they own their marketing channels. It’s a smart play, and at the same time it looks exhausting. At this event are big names and big shots both bonafide and not, and they’ve got big balls and they drive fast, loud cars. They live the dream they’re selling: live fast and make money to live it faster.
And then set against this is Queen B, but she is anything but timid. She gives good talk, our Becky. She’s streetwise and sassy, and I wouldn’t want to be pit against her either physically or on wit. But by contrast to these R8s, Huracáns, and slew of new Ferraris, Queen B is an Audrey Hepburn-like figure of pose and decorum.
With a demure nod and a wave to the owner of an Audi R8 who asked if we could swap cars, we headed off along the set route to Wrest Park. As the turbocharged, wild-revving, maxed-out supercars roared off into the distance, Queen B told me about her car and its place in the supercar community.
She bought it a few years ago for an absolute song: “I got it when I was 21. My mum had an E21 in Polaris Silver, so when I saw this car, I knew I had to have it.” She lives in London, an introverted city for extroverts that without some kind of release will send you mad. Queen B’s release is her BMW. She leaves it with her dad during the week and then takes the train up on weekends to take it out for Sunday drives.
“This is a 1983 E21 BMW. It was the first of the 3 series, a 316 with the original M10 under the hood—4-cyclinder, 5-speed, with a choke.” Becky rattled off while checking the wing of her eyeliner in the rear-view mirror, “I’ve been a car fan all of my life. My dad is into drag racing and now writes the rules for drag racing in the UK. I’ve been around American cars all my life but I fell in love with the classic shark nose design.”
“For me, supercars are great. They’re aspirational. But they’ve got no character. I have this real thing about cars with character. I like heritage, I like history, I like driving something that transports you to another time.” And then there’s the level of care required: “It’s another level of dedication and respect to own and restore a classic car. You can’t just go out and buy one of these. You have to search for it. It’s a labor of love.”
That’s all great, but why on earth is she hanging out with this lot in their quirk-deficient clone-mobiles? “I appreciate supercars and the engineering that goes into them. I’m going to own a supercar one day. I know it.” Queen B says, “But until then, I’m pouring all of my love into this.”
A love for speed and engineering is in her blood. Her father not only writes the rules for drag-racing in the UK but spent his career in the safety division of Rolls-Royce. He refused to drive his children in old cars above 40 MPH. That respect for safety has stayed with his daughter… to a degree. “You don’t really want to be going to fast in these cars because it feels like you’re doing 60 MPH in a fag packet.” Especially if you don’t have seat belts in the car yet, “Yeah, sorry Dad.” Queen B apologies as we zip up a ramp to join the M1 heading northbound.
She loves driving fast, and has picked up tips for taking corners around the narrow country lanes of surrounding Northampton. But if you want to go really fast on the road and do it safely, Queen B reasons that you can’t beat modern engineering.
The elephant in the room here should be addressed sooner or later. This car has a stance far removed, and lower, than it had from the factory. It’s a thing, a whole culture which is deeply respected round these parts, “The bigger your balls are, the lower your car is.” Queen B’s balls must be pretty enormous. While the stance isn’t what I’d consider a tasteful cup of tea, you’ve got to hand it to her for beating the boys at their own game. And she’s doing it in a car that cost a fraction of what these wild supercars do. Having endured the pain of a static lowered car in the form of a MK4 Golf, she has an air bag system on this car to set its height depending on the situation. The car when fully laid out is basically on the floor, and when the ride is raised up a fraction from that full drop the car feels tighter, allowing her to take sharper corners faster. I begin to understand why she’s chosen this system.
Balls and general machoism is something that comes up in conversation several times, which isn’t surprising. Getting standing within this group and in the wider community doesn’t come from being a wallflower. The comments she gets on her videos when she collaborates with some these guys should probably be reported to the police. But the negative reactions she gets on the internet are mitigated by working with and around cars and the joyous reactions she gets when people come across her car in a sea of new McLarens and Ferraris.
At Wrest it becomes apparent why Queen B’s fight to get noticed on YouTube as a face and a presenter is important. At least three small girls, one called Senna and dressed in a mini racing suit from Goodwood, come over with their fathers to meet her. All these girls—just as Becky did when she was little—love cars. And were it not for people like her, there wouldn’t be any other women around to show them that it’s possible to be a girl in this environment. By putting herself out there in the firing line, Queen B is chipping away at the assumption that cars are just for boys, or that supercars are the only cars that can get you fired up.