Things don’t always turn out the way we intend them to, and that’s often a good thing. A few years ago, when I had decided that I was finally ready to take on a BMW project of my own, I did what many other in my position do: I tried to hunt down an E30.
Naturally, I wanted a later plastic-bumper coupe. Engine and transmission didn’t matter, since I wanted to swap in an E36 M3 drivetrain; nor was I too hung up on interior trim or exterior colors, since I planned on changing both. The body was to wear an M-Tech II kit, inspired by my love of the E30 320iS. Come to think of it, the only thing I never decided was which wheels I’d put on the car.
While I had a specific idea for a build in mind—and still do—I found myself becoming increasingly more and more desperate, while widening my search considerably. Friends all over the country were on standby, ready at a few days’ notice to go pick up a car for me, bringing it either under its own power or straddling a U-Haul tow dolly.
As desperation grew, plastic bumpers gave way to chrome, sedans were considered, and I began to lose sight of the build. However, in reality, I had actually lost sight of myself. This isn’t easy to tell you folks, but I need to come clean: In the grand scheme of things, I’m not really that much of an E30 person.
Before you take up your pitchforks and gather the townspeople for a midnight raid on Castle VanDerHorst (cue ominous thunderclaps), allow me to explain myself. I love E30s. I enjoy looking at them, working on them, and driving them. And I still do want to build one of my own someday.
But I’ve never been one to eat, sleep, and live the E30 the way the die-hard E30 faithful do. To me, they’re reasonably attractive, reasonably competent cars that are perhaps a bit unreasonably priced currently. In some ways, I feel like I missed the boat, having been priced out of the market before I even had a chance to discover their magic, if any truly exists (I’m almost certain it does).
What I’m really getting at here is that at the time, I didn’t really want an E30 nearly as badly as I thought I did. I needed something different—something more me. The answer fell into my lap one morning in the form of a text message from a former work associate who now found himself the finance manager of a large BMW dealership nearby. “Check out what just pulled into the service drive,” was the message, beneath a photo of a what appeared to be a remarkably clean E34 Touring.
Instantaneously, I knew that this was the BMW for me.
I responded within minutes and was put in touch with the owner, with whom I struck a deal to become their beloved Bimmer’s new caretaker. While I appreciate E30s, I had spent most of my life madly in love with E34s—even before I considered myself a “BMW person.” I always saw them as sort of a post-pubescent E30, giving up very little of the E30’s notorious nimble agility for a larger, more luxurious interior, a sultrier, more curvaceous exterior, and an overall design that combined the best attributes of 1980s and 1990s BMWs.
To me, a proper BMW is not an all-out racing machine, but a car that offers rich luxury with only the slightest compromise for driving enjoyment and performance—a car one would want to grow old with, while being provided comfortable, engaging daily transportation and spirited weekend enjoyment in more or less equal measure. In this way, the E34 represented my Platonic ideal of the BMW experience in a way that no E30 ever could.
This E34, a 1994 530iT, had lived a more or less pampered life, originally owned by a tennis pro (the faint impression of a crossed-rackets insignia still visible on the rear doors in some light) who traded it in after the M60 engine began exhibiting a litany of problems familiar to anyone who has spent more than a few minutes researching the checkered history of that power plant.
Then the car received a new engine and a new lease on life; it was purchased by a Department of Defense employee and his wife, who kept it for years before selling it to me. Always dealer-serviced, it has weathered the last two decades remarkably well, although frequent car washes meant that water collected in the usual places and caused the usual E34 rust.
Over the course of my ownership, I’ve attempted to maintain the previous owners’ high standard of care, as well as fix a few of the car’s issues. Staying in touch with the previous owners intermittently, I feel a duty to them to do right by the car they loved so well and for so long.
Having collected a garage full of parts over the last two years, I’ve decided to buckle down and begin work on the project in earnest. The purchase of a home meant that a rusted gas tank sidelined the car for nearly a year, while encouragement from Satch, Nick, Rob, and others here at the BMW CCA have reignited my love for the car and my desire to see the project through to completion.
I’ll be chronicling my work here—and I’d like to ask for advice from you, the reader, in making decisions about the project’s direction. It might be as simple as asking what shift knob I should use, or it might be soliciting opinions about recovering my own headliner in lieu of finding an upholstery shop. In your own small way, you—and the rest of the BimmerLife readership—will be helping me to build the BMW of my dreams. I’m eager to begin this journey together.
Let’s get started. —Cam VanDerHorst