Tax-refund season is like a second Christmas, a holiday where good little boys and girls who paid their taxes get some of them back. Depending on whom you ask, it’s simply the government repaying an interest-free loan, but I like to keep a more positive outlook.

Having friends in the car hobby around tax season is a lot like being kids talking about your lists to Santa during lunch period. While my friends were dreaming of new wheels, exhaust systems, and coil-over suspension kits, I went in the opposite direction: I bought a wrecked car.

Back at the tail end of the E34’s production run, BMW pulled out all the stops: more power, more luxury, more utility. It was all available, but with a catch. Want a V8? A wagon? A manual transmission? That’s fine: Pick two.

This wasn’t going to work for me. If there’s anything I love more than wagons, it’s shifting my own gears. The easy answer is to swap in a manual transmission. That’s a small sentence that describes a big job, however. Obviously, swapping an automatic transmission for a manual transmission involves a lot more than just the transmission itself; you need the clutch, flywheel, hydraulics, shifter, pedal cluster, driveshaft, differential, and a decent-size box of ancillary parts and trim.

As you can imagine, buying all of these components separately can be expensive. The most cost-effective method of carrying out this work, at least on an older chassis like the E34, is obtaining a parts car from which you can pull all of the necessary components. Then, once you’ve removed everything you need to complete your swap, you can sell additional parts from the car before finally sending it to the junkyard several hundred pounds lighter. In this way, you can recoup some of your investment and further lower the cost of your swap.

However, while obtaining a parts car is a great idea in theory, it presents several unique challenges. In my case, finding an E34 530i sedan with a manual transmission proved to be the proverbial needle-in-a-haystack scenario. I got lucky enough to find someone relatively close by who was, unfortunately, very unlucky. An E34 owner in Long Island—the Hamptons, no less—had recently invested a lot of money into his 530i, including new shocks, struts, and clutch hydraulics. 

Unfortunately, his son missed an exit, hit a Jersey barrier, and caved in the right front corner of the car on the Long Island Expressway. After the carcass sat in his driveway for several months, the owner’s wife finally told him to get rid of it.

Space, obviously, is a concern; nobody wants a derelict car sitting around. If you don’t have a garage to store it in, you’ll need a place to work on it. I kept mine in the garage until it was time to start tearing into it, at which point it sat on jack stands in the driveway under a car cover.

But even to get to that point, I had to get the car home. A friend of mine, James, is in the transport business, and I hired him to go pick the car up for me. Unfortunately, that right front wheel was locked solid, pushed deep into the body of the car, further complicating an already complex situation. James arrived at my house at 11:00 p.m.; by 2:00 a.m. we finally had the car in the garage after giving up and calling a flatbed tow truck to move it about 100 feet down my narrow, elevated driveway.

The last piece of advice I’ll leave you with is to set a deadline to get rid of the shell. I promised my long-suffering girlfriend that the car would be gone in two weeks; three months later, it’s still here under the cover. Don’t be me.

So far I’ve removed all of the sheet metal off the front of the car, cut off the header panel, and made preparations to drop the entire front subframe, including the engine, transmission, suspension, and brakes. I also removed all four doors and most of the interior, from the headliner down to the carpet.

In the next installment, I’ll finish this chapter of the build by finally removing what I need for my swap (and a few other choice components) before sending the nearly empty shell off to the scrapyard.—Cam VanDerHorst




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