There are certain cars that, despite bearing familiar outlines, cause a stir in one’s soul. Cars that, if they were less bold, and less perfect, would go unnoticed in a Trader Joe’s parking lot—but because of thoughtfulness and perfect execution, stand out from a mile away.
Brian Marks is no stranger to creating high-performance, factory-feeling builds. Marks is a Tarheel Chapter BMW CCA member and experienced HPDE instructor, who happens to be an ace at creating wagons that BMW wouldn’t—or couldn’t—build for the US market. His other wagon is an S54-powered E46 Touring, complete with M3 suspension and brakes, and last year, his E39 540iT M-Sport (complete with a 6-speed swap and an S62 V8 out of an M5) set records on Bring a Trailer, lighting forums and Facebook groups ablaze with discussion and awe.
By now, you’ve probably heard a great deal about these builds, and have probably seen glimpses of this car—a manual-swapped, twin-turbo, 335d Touring—on forums or Instagram. When the dust had settled from the sale of the E39, Brian was looking to create another one-off build—and this time, inspiration came from the duo of E70 X5 35d SAVs that Marks had build for personal use and as business vehicles. They combined massive torque with everyday practicality, and the versatile powertrain seemed ripe for a wagon application.
“The other builds were different, slightly, than this car” says Marks. “They started as proof of concept, and developed over time into slightly more perfection, more modifications, more details. Having realized that I perfected [the E39] just before selling it, I realized I wanted to build perfection into this project from the start.”
Enter the BMW E91. Like the E39 and E46 wagon variants, BMW’s long-roof version of the E90 platform has seen plenty of engine and transmission swaps, mainly transplanting the N54 and N55 motors from the 335i into the sleek late-2000s touring body. Transplanting the 3.0-liter diesel from the E90 335d, however, is a different story. Offered for just a short period of the E90 model run, the diesel E90 garnered rave reviews from auto publications of the time, and was one of the first cars to bring the European concept of a truly fun diesel sport sedan to North American shores.
But naturally, there are caveats. The 335d came with a slew of auxiliary emissions systems that proved fairly problematic, and the diesel was offered exclusively in the RWD sedan, fitted only with a 6-speed automatic. Building a manual wagon would take extremely creative engineering—something of a speciality for co-builder Nick Trapp.
Trapp has been a BMW master technician since 2006, and works alongside Marks at Fibrenew North Raleigh Wake Forest—and this was a build that would take two brains worth of design solutions.
“No one that we knew has done the manual-from-all-wheel-drive conversion” says Trapp. “So we were a little bit in uncharted territory.”
The chassis seen here began life as an 82,000-mile, California-owned 328xi. As with the E39 (which began as a one-year-only M-Sport) the key was starting with a base vehicle that was as close to perfect as possible. While it was one of fewer than 100 Montego Blue factory wagons (that is, before a complete, interior-out paint job as part of the build), it was automatic and all-wheel-drive—attributes that proved problematic as it was reengineered into a manual, RWD vehicle.
“There would be days it would be two or three steps forward, followed by the next day when it would be about 37 steps back, when we realized [for instance] the ABS unit doesn’t work, and then we’d have to take it from the 335d, and that has different fittings, and a completely different wiring harness.”
Trapp continued, “There were some really nerve-wracking moments of realizing ‘We can’t screw this up.’”
Unlike the E39 and E46, for which parts were acquired piecemeal, the pair quickly realized that due to obscure differences in brake lines, hydraulics, and electrical systems, it would be essential to have the two chassis—335d sedan and 328xi wagon—side-by-side for the duration of the build to retain all OEM functionality. Critical to the build was longtime BMW CCA Club Racing sponsor BimmerWorld, with everything from assistance in diagnosing compatibility issues, to providing access to aftermarket, OE, and BMW M components. The builders stress that without their help, guidance, and customer support, a Touring build of this caliber would not have been possible.
But for some parts, a connection in Europe was necessary. Enter Schmiedmann, the Denmark-based company that acted as the source of all European-specific parts from that market’s high-performance diesels. And then there was BPM Sport out of California, who brought the electronics together and “worked magic to get every module talking to each other and things working as if the car were factory-built.”
Part of that “factory-built” prerogative comes down to details. “A prime example is the instrument cluster,” says Trapp. “We sent that off to have that mimic the 335is, where it had that logo in the actual backdrop of the RPM gauge. There were the light-up door sills, with the 335d logo embedded. The little odds and ends that BMW has done on other models, we’ve taken reference and inspiration from, and incorporated into this car.”
But there are deviations, too. Marks wanted a bold interior, and none of the factory BMW color combinations fit the bill.
“I started looking through leather swatches, and I found a very bright orange, that I thought was great” says Marks. “Everybody told me I was crazy, but I said ‘No, I think it’s going to look good once you put it in the car and put everything together’ and sure enough, I think it came out great.”
“The leather on the seats is new, and Nick and I used our skills with Fibrenew and color-matched the door panels so they would look like they were new as well, but they’re actually the original black panels.”
Other areas where the 335d Touring is more than factory include the suspension and brake setups, the former an MCS remote-reservoir coilover setup and the latter a Stoptech BBK that, in combination with M3 suspension components, give the car an unforgettable feel on the road.
Even beyond the visual appearance and the nature of the wagon as a high-performance diesel is striking. Acceleration, I can attest, is brilliant. There is no car I’ve experienced—including Marks’ S62 E39 Touring—that has mid range punch like the 335d.
“Being a diesel it only revs up to about 5000 rpm.” Marks told us. “You get more than 400 wheel horsepower, the torque actually peaks closer to 3000 or 3500rpm, and the torque at the wheels is about 600 to 625 lb-ft.”
I’ve had the opportunity to experience all three of Marks’ wagons, and my impression of each remains the same. They feel, quite simply, like a factory car. While all have (on paper) rather dramatic exhaust and suspension modifications, each build settles into a sweet spot between a factory wagon and a current BMW M vehicle—the soul of a hydraulic-steering sport sedan, with the usability and control of a modern M4 or M5.
The 335d Touring is no exception. It pulls smoothly, and strongly, and is refined and comfortable inside despite the throaty diesel exhaust. The interior is brilliant and sharp, and is as perfectly-fitted as the factory parts would be. Even the engine bay is perfect; to the untrained eye, it looks like someone snuck a European 330d Touring into the US—an appearance encourage by the roof rail delete.
For Marks, that question has always been the goal. “I have to admit that it’s fun seeing BMW enthusiasts look at these creations and start wondering how I was able to obtain a “335d wagon” or “M3 wagon”. They say things like, ‘I didn’t know you could get this in a wagon’ or ‘Is this some sort of European import model?’ It’s fun.”
Naturally, high-performance wagons are in heavy demand right now. Brian Marks’ E39 Touring sold for more than a brand-new M4, and he’s already had offers on this 335d, although he insists it’s not for sale at the moment. Given the hot market (and new models like the Audi RS6 Avant), I asked him what his thoughts were on the wagon market, and whether BMW has a place in it.
“The enthusiast in me says yes, but the reality is that although you will always find a vehemently militant group of enthusiasts who would swear that they would buy one if BMW would just bring it to the USA, the same people will not pony up the dough if truly offered the chance. So while I’m not a huge fan of the discontinuation of tourings stateside, I understand the decision. And sometimes, it gives me the opportunity to create something that should have been, but isn’t.”
In this case, I think he’s created something even better. Whether you look at this build through the lens of a high-performance diesel, a high-performance wagon, or a high-performance BMW, the result is the same: it’s an enthusiast’s dream car, perfected in a way that only an enthusiast can.
If the power of ingenuity is 600 lb-ft at the wheels, count me in. —David Rose
[Photos by Sydney Cummings. Follow her at @YourFriendSyd on Instagram.]