The Track Car (BMW E30) / by Andrew Fails

My first reaction upon experiencing a full throttle pull from the passenger seat was to mutter, “fucking hell…”, and then burst out laughing.

I recently waxed poetically, or neurotically, about the purity of sensation. I spoke about sensation being a more prized trait than outright speed. That school of thought is what lead me to motorcycles and Mini Coopers. I used to tell everyone that the Cooper S drove like a go kart. I no longer think that. After crawling out of the BMW E30 track car built by Kingston Zellich, my little Mini feels as floaty as a Cadillac Deville. And I do mean crawling. Roll cages, plus six point harnesses, plus fixed bucket seats call for some contorting to extricate yourself.

This car represented a lot of “first times” for me:

  • First time driving anything with a roll cage.
  • First time wearing six point harnesses.
  • First time driving on r-compound tires.
  • First time driving a gutted car.
  • First time driving a track car.

There were a lot of preconceived notions before I went for my first ride. I knew exactly what I was getting into. A track prepped E30, on city streets, in late summer, in Kansas City? This was going to be rough. I anticipated a raspy, crackling, backfiring exhaust, like on the rally cars I’d cheered on at the Rally in the 100 Acres Wood. I expected steering that would be exhausting to maneuver at lower speeds, like some of the karts I had raced. I foresaw an interior so loud and full of rattles that sitting inside a cement mixer might be a more pleasant evening. Lastly, I KNEW that the suspension would be positively spine crushing. The type of ride where every little pebble or grate was in danger of knocking a filling loose, or a kidney. The kind of experience where all you want to do afterwards is lay in the shower and cry, like the little nancy that you are.

But as the blacked out Bavarian rolled up, it sounded no louder than anything else on the street. Hell, my old pickup truck had probably made more noise. Was this the infamous Siobhan? I thought we were driving a track car: a caged up, battle hardened weapon of wheel to wheel aggression. This certainly did not seem like that. But then again, he did exit that traffic circle fairly quickly. Perhaps this might be more than meets the eye.

For a little background, this E30 started out as a humble 1988 BMW 325. Things have changed a bit since those early days of fuel efficiency commuting. Since then, it has commandeered the engine and transmission from an E36 M3. In addition to the sizeable power increase, there are also the usual suspects of Eibach, Sparco, AKG, Koni, Recaro, and Momo. I won’t go into too many specifics, because this car is so much more than the sum of its parts. When heavily modifying a car, especially the suspension, it is incredibly easy to make things worse. The original engineers spent years, and millions of dollars designing the initial setup. You can ruin it with a few hundred dollars and an eBay account. Luckily, Kingston did not. Every detail of this car has been achingly fine-tuned, from the degree of camber, to the springs on the shifter linkage.

In the age of ADHD, everything has to have an infinite number of purposes. Your phone can’t be just a phone, it needs to send email, and direct traffic, and play games, and transfer money, and control your alarm, and start your car, and find you anonymous strangers to have filthy, filthy encounters with. All of that, and it tends to not be the best at making calls. It tries to do too much. It’s the same way that Applebee’s food is fair to middling, because they try to cater to every possible genre. Whereas Gates BBQ (local reference!) does one thing: barbecue. If you don’t like it, get out. Because of that narrow focus, the quality will always supersede that of a mass market appeal family restaurant. This particular E30 is the same way. It has one purpose: be as hilariously, irresponsibly as fun as possible. Not the fastest. Not the best cornering. Not even the loudest. Just the most fun. It succeeds admirably.

The experience inside the vehicle is so incongruous with that outside that it is downright jarring. The unusual decision to keep the stock exhaust keeps everything on the outside fairly tame. But inside is a different tale. All you hear is engine. Not exhaust, but combustion. This takes a bit of getting used to. There are plenty of cars that deafen by way of loud pipes. Look at anything from AMG. But this E30, with its gutted interior, pummels you with induction. The noise is all encompassing. Sit inside a Marshall half-stack, have someone hit a power chord, and you have an idea what it’s like. Everything resonates.

That powerplant is mated to the tightest shifter this side of a GSX-R. Every possible impediment to shifter feel has been removed. You hear that utterly satisfying metal-on-metal clack as you grab the next gear. But this isn’t your standard B&M short shifter. The shift lever sits up high, like the sequential lever in a WRC car. The throws are so short and tight, that it actually is worse the more you think about it. Stop fussing around. Grab that polyurethane knob, stomp the clutch to the bare floor, and bang it into another gear. Don’t ease into it. Don’t feather it. If you want a gear, reach into the whirring guts and grab it, you sissy. This is not a car of half measures.

This car rewards decisiveness. Insecurity with the throttle causes the engine to stutter. If you want to speed up, keep that tach needle above four grand. If you want to slow down, square up the wheel and bury the brake pedal. You’re not going to lock up the Toyo RA1s. Trust me, I tried. But it is possible to spin them all the way through first gear. Ask me how I know.

The ride quality is honestly better than I expected. I’ve driven $90,000 cars that were worse on the broken pavement of the Midwest. That isn’t to say that the suspension is soft. Far from it. But unlike the vast majority of cars I drive, the E30 actually has a reasonable sidewall on the tire. This introduces just enough compliancy to make things tolerable. You still feel everything, and an errant speedbump or pothole might liberate you of your oil pan, but it is possible to drive it on public streets without internal hemorrhaging.

So, is the E30 fast? Well, there’s not much top end. At the far reaches of 5th gear, you might kiss 140. But the flip side of that short gearing is that it will reach 80 or 90 much quicker than you expect it to. But remember, while this is a track focused car, it is not developed for any specific racing series. So that means you’re not chasing every fraction of a horsepower, it just needs to make you smile. Which it does every single time you turn the wheel. The combination of low weight, high revs, and short gearing makes it feel fast. And isn’t that what we want at the end of the day?

I routinely drive some fairly ridiculous cars. Less than 24 hours before climbing into the BMW, I was driving a 545 horsepower Nissan GT-R. Of course the GT-R is faster. It is a feat of engineering, and I didn’t want to give up the keys. But the GT-R is entertaining sheerly because of the technical prowess it brings to the table. Kingston’s E30 is a wonder because of what it forces me to bring to bear.

There are no traction control systems.
No torque vectoring.
No anti lock brakes.

It will do exactly what you tell it. No more. No less. Because of that, I love it. Each minute in wrapped in the deep bucket seats, surrounded by the half cage, brings that much more comfort, and confidence in the chassis. You start to get on the throttle a bit earlier, or carry a bit more speed through the chicane, or run the revs just a bit higher. That car is a blank canvas upon which you can create moving art. If you’ve got the nerves.