Ever take your car on a just-for-fun drive only to have a long list of minor annoyances significantly detract from the reason you went out in the first place, to enjoy yourself? For me, the touch points—the parts of the car that I directly interact with—like the steering, shifting, pedals, stalks, and switchgear, have historically been lower on my list of priorities, but have always made a significant impact on my enjoyment of driving.
When I bought my ‘91 318iS, it had a trashed vinyl steering wheel, disintegrated shifter bushings, a ratty shift knob, broken defrost and hazard switches, and the pedals (all three) would clunk around and provide questionable levels of resistance at the oddest of times. And while it had a myriad of other issues, like a worn suspension and the fact that it leaked oil from the majority of its gaskets, having nearly all of my interaction points with the car in a poor state was a real downer.
If you have a long list of things to repair or replace like I did, it can be hard to know where to start. Well, maybe not that hard—take care of the safety related items first. In my case, many of those overlapped with touch points. Fixing the “pedal situation” involved new bushings, a new throttle cable, new brake and clutch lines, a new clutch slave cylinder, and fresh fluid. I replaced the shift knob with an OEM plastic piece and some of the shifter bushings that were missing. While I didn’t replace the steering wheel in the beginning, I did find both the steering rack and steering shaft guibo needed replacement, so fixing those items much improved the steering feel.
After a couple of years of “sorting time”, I had a safe and reliable car. And without a long list of things that needed to be done, I could start making a list of things I wanted to do. Back to the touch points.
First up, the shift knob. The OEM plastic 318iS knob was fine, but I have met a few enthusiasts at events that have raved about BMW’s E46 ZHP knob. I told myself I’d never spend that much on a shift knob. It couldn’t be that good. Well, the numerous positive reviews wore me down and I did buy a genuine ZHP shift knob. I was wrong—it is that good. It has lived up to the hype. The leather and weight of the ZHP knob make shifting feel so solid. Coupled with a Z3 1.9 shifter, a new shift cup, and new bushings all around, such small items have made a big difference in my driving enjoyment.
Next up, the steering wheel. The vinyl on the four-post airbag wheel had separated from its inner structure, so I could easily turn it like a twist throttle on a motorcycle. I found a very nice recovered E28 Sport Wheel on the R3VLimited forums, but I didn’t act fast enough and it sold to someone else. After more searching, I bought a “refurbished” E30 M Tech II steering wheel on eBay. When it arrived the new leatherwork was quite nice, but the splines were trashed and the wheel was physically bent so that one side was one inch closer to the stalks than the other. It had clearly been in an accident. Thankfully I was able to return it for a refund.
Some time later, I was casually searching Facebook Marketplace and came across the exact E28 Sport Wheel that I wanted to purchase previously. It has a unique design, so I was sure it was the same wheel. I reached out to the seller and he did, in fact, buy the wheel from the R3VLimited forum. He never installed it. It was still in the same box that he received it in, roughly two years later. Money exchanged hands digitally and I received the steering wheel in the mail a couple of days later. I’ve been enjoying this steering wheel for over two years, with some minor annoyances. First, when swapping an airbag OEM wheel for a non-airbag OEM wheel in an E30, the non-airbag wheel is positioned much closer to the stalks. Some will install the early model E30 stalks to remedy this, but I just dealt with it. Second, similar to the 385mm diameter OEM airbag wheel, the 385mm diameter E28 Sport Wheel didn’t allow me to get my hands past my legs while turning. I’m 6’5”—for the most part I do fit comfortably in an E30, but I really wish E30s had adjustable steering columns.
Could the steering wheel space issue be fixed? Perhaps a smaller diameter wheel would do the trick. There are OEM 370mm M Tech I and M Tech II wheels, but I’ve sat in E30s with those and encountered the same issues with space, so I’d need to go smaller. I have always liked the Momo Prototipo wheels for their classic look, and at 350mm it was likely the right size, but I was hesitant to order one without a test fitting. Fortunately that opportunity came at a local Cars and Coffee event two weeks ago. Javi Saavedra brought his ‘91 318i sedan, freshly equipped with a 350mm Momo Prototipo steering wheel. As it was the same year and chassis as my E30, this would be a direct comparison. After looking it over, I was sold and ordered the steering wheel and hub adapter the next day.
Installation was a breeze. An extra spacer (BMW part #32311120260) is needed for airbag cars. So the order of installation becomes: steering column -> original spacer -> steering wheel (or adapter hub) -> extra spacer -> washer -> nut -> you. Don’t forget to insert your key to deactivate the steering wheel lock. You won’t be able to remove or install a wheel with it the lock on. Make sure to line up the turn signal canceler correctly. Done.
I love the feel of the leather. The stitching looks great. I can actually get my hands past my legs when making tight turns—no more constant shuffle steering! However, I did notice a problem during my new steering wheel’s maiden voyage. It’s a good thing I like the leather and stitching because here’s my view of the instrument cluster with a 350mm steering wheel installed…
Yeah, I probably should have seen that coming. It pretty much completely blocks my view of the instrument cluster. Back to the drawing board, I suppose. Perhaps going back to a larger diameter wheel with a deeper “dish” is the solution, giving me both room to steer AND direct line of sight to the instrument cluster. For now, I’ll enjoy the Prototipo and the additional leg/steering room it provides. Sometimes “upgrades” are an iterative process.—Mike Bevels