Some say that the E30-generation 3 Series is God’s Chariot. That is because of its delightfully communicative handling, just-right size and weight, and simple iconic 1980’s three-box design. This makes sense, because if God were to have a chariot, I reckon it would be similar to the modest chalice that Indiana Jones picked out in the Last Crusade. But, as time has marched on and the automotive arms race has advanced, there is room for improvement. That is precisely what this 1990 BMW 325i is—God’s Chariot, but just a little better.
The Sterling Silver over black leatherette E30 started life in California as a mildly-optioned late-model 325i. The original kit consisted of a manual gearbox, cruise control, power windows, a six-button on-board computer, and a driver’s airbag. It lived in California until December 2013, with the odometer showing 169,000 miles. That’s when a good friend brought it to Massachusetts and transformed it into its present form. He started with a glass-out re-paint in the original Sterling Silver. He kept the exterior factory correct and minimal (sans the 325iS rear spoiler), but added Euro grilles, Euro taillights, clear markers, and Hella Euro “smiley” headlights with operable city lights.
The real work began under the hood, where the stock M20 engine was swapped with an E36 M3 S50 from Zionsville Autosport along with their E30 swap kit. The engine was converted with an M50 manifold, Castro custom intake, and an Epic OBD1 chip. Power steering and air conditioning were fitted, and both function correctly—the mark of a proper twin-cam 24-valve E30 swap. The exhaust is comprised of Turner ceramic-coated headers, a Vibrant mid-section, and a Stromung performance muffler. Power makes it to the wheels via a JB Racing eleven-pound flywheel and clutch kit, short throw shifter, and a refreshed 2:93 limited-slip differential with a Z3M finned cover.
The suspension was upgraded with a Z3M five-lug swap, Ground Control E30 (E36 front) coilovers, front and rear subframe reinforcement kits (with adjustable rear camber), 22 and 19-millimeter Eibach sway bars front and rear, and an MK bump-steer roll correction kit. The latter considerably shortens the stock four-turn lock-to-lock E30 steering rack’s feel. The brakes are E36 M3 front and Massive Wilwood rears with performance pads. They are framed by subtle BMW Style 42 wheels in square fitment.
Conversely, the interior is anything but subtle and was probably the most costly element of the build. Working from the top down, the headliner was swapped with an M3-style anthracite material. The stock seats were completely rebuilt with fresh foam and custom covers featuring Motorsport tri-colored cloth inserts. Heater elements were installed for those cold, ass-chapping Massachusetts mornings! The rear seat was converted to an M3-style bolstered two-plus-two design with matching tri-colored cloth. Brand new anthracite carpet was installed, along with fresh sound deadening and Dynamat in the appropriate places. The dashboard was replaced with a later-style crack-resistant material, along with the center console. Tactile elements were upgraded with a Momo Race steering wheel and ZHP shifter with matching tri-colored boots, while a Euro clock continues the European theme. Housekeeping while-you-are-in-there’s consisted of refreshing the under-dash HVAC components and rebuilding the manual sunroof.
The resulting package is a sum greater than its parts. The last ten percent of any swap is usually ninety percent of the work, and the attention to detail in this E30 is exceptional. Sterling silver is one of the best colors for an E30, and other than the Style 42 wheels, you would never know it wasn’t stock. But then, you open the door and the Motorsport-colored cloth (I love cloth seats) foreshadows the experience you are about to have once you turn the key.
The S50 fires with a nice deep exhaust note, one that builds to a wonderful crescendo under full throttle. The E36 M3 engine increases horsepower to 240 above the stock M20’s 168, but torque jumps by 100 pound-feet, and that is what you feel the most. Too much power will ruin the wonderful dynamics of the E30, but the upgraded suspension, brakes, and larger wheels handle it perfectly. There certainly is no shortage of power when you call for it. Dunlop tires with older DOT dates and a proportional slight lack of grip make stepping the rear end out as easy as thinking about it. Turn in, stab the throttle, and the E30 makes holding a little slip angle as smooth as marbles on a granite countertop. The builder exercised the perfect amount of restraint to retain the elements that make the E30 so good—this one is just a little bit better!
That harkens back to why we love and obsess over these cars so much. Driving any E30 is an experience (one that the old-school drivers out there may occasionally take for granted), but driving this E30 is an occasion. All of the common deficiencies have been addressed; there is plenty of power and agility to fend off cars of the modern world, the cosmetics (which are typically getting long in the tooth) have been refreshed and improved, and all of the tasteful upgrades (like Euro “smiley” headlights) that E30 nerds like me geek out about are present. The only thing I would personally change is the wheels and maybe add an M Tech I rear spoiler—but that might expose it from a sleeper hiding in plain sight. I say this every time I write about one, but if God were to have a chariot, an E30 is the perfect choice!—Alex McCulloch