Over eight years ago my partner Calvin Cooper and I watched a BMW E30 3 Series fly through the forest at the 100 Acre Wood Rally. We were bit by the rally bug immediately and it hasn’t let go of us since. The next year we crewed for the team in the E30, and then purchased their car and began racing it ourselves. In 2021 we added another rally car to our stable, the Z3 coupe. Over those eight years we won a couple of class championships, learned what makes a capable rally car, and discovered how to successfully organize a team.

But the 2022 rally season would be the last for our beloved E30. It had competed in over 30 brutal rallies and had more battle scars than anyone could count. It was time for a new generation of rally car. We decided to use this opportunity to grow the Cooper Autoworks racing team and hopefully the sport as well. Calvin decided on the BMW E46 3 Series chassis for the new builds. That’s right, I said “builds” as in plural. We didn’t plan to build just one car, we prepared to build two. When I asked Calvin why he chose that specific chassis, he had quite a bit to say.

Photo by MELE Media

“I cut my teeth working on these cars when I first started working on BMW’s and have owned many over the years. They are excellent handling and well-balanced cars and don’t require re-working the suspension or drivetrain to be competitive in rally. The E46 is the refined evolution of the E36 chassis. The E46 was sold in larger volumes so donor car availability is very good right now as well as lots of parts support. The main goal of choosing the E46 was to keep the overall build and running costs reasonable. Or at least as reasonable as a rally car can be,” he said.

Parc Espose in downtown Salem Missouri

Our goal was to build two cars that could be competitive in the American Rally Association Limited Two-Wheel Drive class (L2). For those wishing to start a rally career or just enjoy the sport for a weekend the L2 class is perfect. The limited class requires that cars are powered by a 2.5 liter or smaller-displacement engine using a drivetrain that was available in the model series. Having spent the first few years running an M50B25 engine in the E30 rally car, we thought it only made sense to choose the more modern equivalent of the M54B25. 

Step By Step

The process of taking a production car and turning it into a fully prepared stage rally car is highly involved and every step was done here in our shop, Cooper Autoworks, with both cars side by side. The majority of the build progress was completed within the last six months up until the night before the race. Building a rally car can take several years for some teams so building two cars in such a short time is a testament to Calvin’s dedication and hard work. This also meant the team was working to button up all the odds and ends on the car up until the night before the rally. 

Rally happens on closed gravel roads and the build process happened so quickly we had no time or opportunities to practice or test the car ahead of the event. Instead of considering this the RallySpec E46’s debut we considered it a shakedown to keep our expectations realistic. The goal was just to test the car, so we set no expectations on finishing on the podium. The car passed the pre-race technical inspection with flying colors which meant our weekend was off to a good start. 

Fans were excited to see the Cooper Autoworks team back in action.

Rally Day

Friday morning the sun was out for Parc Expose as the cars all lined up in downtown Potosi, Missouri. Many of our team fans and followers were excited and surprised to see the new car. Calvin and his co-driver, Michel Claiborne, headed out to the first stages to see how the car would perform. I received media credentials for the race so I packed a camera out with me. The first few cars zoomed past as I anxiously awaited to see how our car was doing. I avoided looking at the times from the first stage so I had no idea what pace Calvin was able to set in the new car. Off in the distance I finally heard the sound of a singing M54B25 motor and fired away with my camera as they slid around the corner past me, disappearing down the long straight into the forest. The car looked quick and, most importantly, seemed to be handling the stages beautifully.

I met the guys back at service after completing three stages. They put the car on jack stands and did a thorough inspection and found no issues. Calvin checked the scoring and we were all shocked to discover they were leading the Regional Limited Two-Wheel Drive class with a five-second lead. They didn’t feel as though they were setting that fast of a pace so it was surprising to see how easily the car was putting down such great times. The boys headed back out to complete the last three stages of the day, planning to continue the same pace they had set in the morning. Unfortunately, on the final stage of the night, they caught up to a slower car which cost them a bit of time before they could safely pass.

The next morning we headed to Downtown Salem for Parc Expose. The street was crowded with fans excited for another day of racing. They had managed to complete over 105 miles of rally stages drama-free and with an almost seven-second class lead. As they were backing into their parking spot, a Rally Marshall noticed fuel leaking underneath the car. Calvin reacted quickly to contain the leak with our spill kit while his co-driver Michael began grabbing tools from the back of the car. Unfortunately, the cracked fitting on the fuel tank meant there was no way to safely reseal it in time to rejoin competition, forcing the team to withdraw.

We were disappointed the race weekend was cut short, but had reason to be proud. We set out to build a competitive car on a budget that could be accessible for drivers of all skill levels interested in the sport. This weekend proved that the E46 platform was the perfect chassis for the job and showed us the potential our newly-built cars have.  

Photo by MELE Media

The second car will be competing in its first event in April 2024 at the Olympus Rally. We look forward to seeing how it performs in the infamous slick and muddy conditions the Pacific Northwest. Rallying is an experience like no other and we are excited to help make this sport more accessible by helping push development of BMW’s E46 platform for rally use.




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