There was a time when E30s were cheap and disposable. That time is firmly behind us – and Reece Parr’s response is to squeeze in a bona fide M Power engine and turn it into a showpiece of custom coach-built couture craftsmanship…
The cult of the E30-generation BMW 3-Series has really enraptured the modifying scene in the last couple of years. These used to be cheap-and-cheerful motors, the sort of cars you could pick up for £500 and thrash around as beaters before junking them and starting again, but it’s safe to say those days are over. Those of us who grew up seeing these things shiny and new in the showrooms will remember how impressive it was to see a boxfresh 325i rolling down the high-street, resplendent in all the M-Power options; indeed, it’s the strength of these memories that’s driving values skyward today.
Much like all the other hero cars of the 1980s, the Peugeot 205 GTIs and Renault 5 GT Turbos and Ford Escort RS Turbos and everything else, E30s have found themselves at the point whereby these starry-eyed dreamers have grown up, are in their thirties or forties, and are able to chuck a bit of cash at making those childhood dreams come true. The example you see here, however, is owned by Reece Parr, and Reece is 22. The E30 went out of production years before he was even born, which makes this enthusiasm all the more impressive. And as if that wasn’t gobsmacking enough for you, how about we throw in a couple of real headspinners: Reece built this whole thing up with his own two hands, and there’s a ludicrously muscular engine in there…
Now, squeezing surprisingly big engines into relatively little cars is always cause for jubilation. Sure, the Americans have been at it for generations with their 7.0-litre V8 coupés and what-have-you, but they have a different approach to the bhp-per-litre spectrum thanks to all that cheap-as-fries gasoline. No, we’re thinking more of the Morgan approach – they like to pair vast BMW torque-monsters with dinky lightweight chassis, melding tarmac-ripping twist with a lack of baggage. And the natural progression of this is to find incongruously large powerplants in everyday performance cars: when the E9x M3 was launched, jaws were dropped and eyebrows cocked when people learned that there was a dirty great V8 under that muscular bonnet bulge. Over-engined? Not a bit of it. ‘Awesome’, that’s the term you’re scrabbling for.
This isn’t just a game that manufacturers and marketing departments can play. The act of breaking out the shoehorns and the Vaseline and squeezing meaty engines into diminutive cars has been a stalwart of the tuning scene from time immemorial, and this concept is perfectly represented by the car you see here: it started life as a humble 316i, but you won’t find the wheezy old 95bhp M40 four-pot in there any more. No, you might have guessed where this is going… there’s a big-ass motor in there. An S50B32, to be exact. That, to the uninitiated, is the 3.2-litre straight-six that would otherwise usually be found lurking malevolently in the evil bowels of a late-model E36 M3. We’re talking three hundred and twenty-one unstressed horses right out of the box. And that, like we say, is cause for jubilation.
“I’ve always loved old cars,” Reece grins, immediately making everyone in the Fast Car office feel like a bunch of crumbly pensioners, “and as soon as I saw this 1990 316i for sale on eBay I knew it was the one. It was completely standard when I bought it. I live in Devon, and travelled to Nottingham to collect it from an old lady. The car had been garaged its whole life and was in outstanding condition.”
Well, you know what they say – always buy the best possible base car for your project. Not that Reece envisaged himself going quite this far with it, however; the plan from the beginning was to keep it as a 316i, although by the time he’d got properly in-depth with the engine bay makeover it seemed silly to keep the uninspiring old plodder in there. Not when there’s a world of hairy-chested performance motors in the BMW stable to pick and choose from.
“I started smoothing the engine bay back in January 2018, in my single garage at home,” he recalls. “I’d begun to save up a bit of money by this point, so I had a little shop around and found an S50B32 for sale on eBay. A few mates and I went over to London and removed the engine from the car that the seller was breaking. I knew it was going to be a challenge to fully smooth and tuck the bay and get the M3 motor in there, but I couldn’t wait to get started on the transformation.”
Reece’s enthusiasm is evident in every millimetre of the artfully reworked engine bay, which is so devastatingly amazing that it probably deserves some kind of medal for services to metalwork. This is the kind of bay that raises the bar and gives all other underbonnet areas something to aspire to.
“I started off fully stripping the bay, then plates were welded in on the legs,” he explains. “The strut turrets were cut and welded taller so that the wheels can sit higher up in the arches, then I smoothed off the battery tray, and literally just welded plates in everywhere! Then it was filled, perfected and primed, and sprayed in the original body colour, with all the wires fully tucked. I think the part of the car that stands out most of all is the fact that there’s nothing but engine in the bay – the only things visible in there are the motor and the brake servo… I wanted to do it a bit differently, do it properly; I always see E30s with smooth engine bays but with the wiring loom and fuse box at the back. I’d never seen an E36 S50 engine in an E30 with absolutely no wires whatsoever.”
Suffice to say that’s mission accomplished, it really is one of the sweetest bays we’ve seen in a long time. But form and function work hand-in-hand with this one – it was never the intention for this to simply be an out-and-out show car, it has to walk the walk too. You can’t have a full-fat M3 engine and not use it to its fullest, can you? So the LSD out back’s been converted to an appropriate M3 ratio, and a lot of thought’s gone into the chassis to ensure that the E30 can handle having its stock power figure increased by around 240-percent. Reece has installed a full Air Lift Performance setup, cunningly controllable by his phone, and we know how keen those Air Lift guys are to hone their suspension components on the track; he’s also fitted a shiny new rear subframe and converted the rear drums to discs, as well as polybushing everything throughout the chassis to give it the fresh and tight feel it deserves. This car, as well you may hope, goes every bit as well as it looks.
That air install is particularly cool – just look at how the eight air lines spread out from the valve block like a cartoon octopus over the leather-trimmed air tank. Indeed, the whole interior’s been trimmed in sumptuous tan leather; the only part of the build not carried out by Reece’s busy fingers. “Aside from the retrim, I’ve done everything on the car,” he proudly states, and the amount of work that’s gone into the body is just as impressive as what he’s been up to under the bonnet. The eagle-eyed may spot that all four arches have been subtly widened to happily accommodate those staggered BBS RF 3-piece splits, and there’s been a whole world of smoothing before spraying the shell to a flawless finish. The results are sublime, a car that fuses show-winning form with astounding function.
The E30 may be straddling the boundary between modern-classic and actual full-blown classic, but each wide-eyed generation of modders finds new ways to surprise us with it. “The best bit about having the car is definitely working on and modifying it myself,” we’re assured. “If I couldn’t actually spray cars or build them how I wanted, I probably wouldn’t do it. Getting stuck in and modifying everything is what I enjoy the most.”
This is how you build an E30 right, they’re not cheap-and-cheerful cars any more. Reece has absolutely nailed it.
TECH SPEC: BMW E30
Full respray in original colour, all four arches widened, smoothed aerial, smoothed wings, smoothed rear valance, smoothed fuel filler, 318is Sport splitter with custom diffuser, SRS-Tec sideskirts, gloss black grilles, headlight innards blacked out, USDM orange corner markers, colour-coded bumpers, wing mirrors and bottom seal all around, Instagram username embossed on door handles
S50B32 3.2-litre straight-six (from E36 M3), all trims painted gloss black, fully smoothed and tucked engine bay, custom exhaust system with shotgun pipe into crossover with Sport backbox, LSD converted to M3 ratio
9.5x17in (front) and 10x17in (rear) BBS RF 3-piece split rims – with 3in dish Radinox lips, gold hardware and red centre caps, 195/40 tyres, Air Lift Performance struts and bags all round, 3P management (all controlled by smartphone), 3/8 lines, 444c compressor, custom top mounts, fully polybushed, new rear subframe, rear disc conversion
Full retrim in tan leather with light tan stitch – including air tank, 3P valve block mounted over tank with 8x hard lines, air-ride control mounted in dash, MOMO Indy steering wheel
“A big shout out to all the people who help me along the way: Jake Rogers, Kurt Hall, Luke Styles, and especially my work, Exeter Bodyworks, for understanding how much I like cars and letting me use the spray booth whenever.”
Words Dan Bevis Photos Matt Clifford