E30 M3 Road Trip

The following article was submitted by Rocky Mountain Chapter’s own Alex McCulloch. Alex and fellow RMC member Eric Long just returned from a cross country road trip to retrieve Eric’s recently acquired E30 M30. Enjoy.

-RMC

It’s no secret that I have had a huge love affair with the second generation BMW 3 series for years.  My first one, bought sight-unseen from a shirtless man with a mullet, planted the seed of old BMW obsession. The E30 (as that generation is more commonly referred to) was offered in the American market from 1984 to 1992.  It’s small, perfectly balanced, predictable, and has excellent visibility. It has a power deficit, by modern standards, requires a talented driver to exploit its other assets to out-drive the hordes of mediocre drivers fumbling along.

The E30 

The M3 version of the E30 (the first M3) amplifies everything good about the regular E30 to the next level. It was born from homologation requirements that forced BMW to produce a certain number of street legal cars to race in the European Touring Car Championships. The result was literally a street legal version of BMW’s racecar. Even though it looks identical from a far, almost every body panel is different and each serves a purpose. The fender flares accommodate larger brakes, wheels, and revised suspension geometry. The front splitter and sealed body gaps aid the suspension with more down force. Rear down force is accomplished by a little bump on the rear of the roof that creates a low-pressure area over the shallow raked rear window to channel air over the raised trunk lid into the rear wing. The high-strung, four cylinder S14 engine reduced front-end heft for a near perfect 50/50 weight balance. As a result the E30 M3 was immediately successful and dominated many forms of racing, contributing to a pedigree that has followed BMW Motorsport GmbH ever since.

An Original E30 M3 Ad

Excerpt from the Owner’s Manual

Last month when my buddy Eric called and asked if I wanted to co-drive an E30 M3 he recently purchased across country my answer was an immediate “F’ yeah!” Eric’s new beast was not just any E30 M3. It was an early 1988 example in Henna Red with a swapped Euro-spec S50B32 six-cylinder engine. In the U.S., Henna red was offered only in the first few months of M3 production. At the time the market wasn’t receptive to the orange-red hue, but styles have since changed. The limited production combined with modern trends has made Henna one of the rarest and most desirable M3 colors. The 321 horsepower S50B32 engine was used in the European version of the second generation M3 (1993-1999) and was never offered in the U.S.  Mechanically, it’s a predecessor of the S54B32 engine that is arguably the greatest normally aspirated six-cylinder motorsport engine BMW has produced. The one in Eric’s car has a CSL style carbon fiber air intake manifold that is designed to feed cold air directly to each cylinder’s individual throttle body.

Eric’s 1988 Henna Red S50B32 Swapped E30 M3

Back in the Touring Car Racing days BMW would make small changes to the E30 M3 to improve power, grip, or down force.  Each change (called Sport Evolutions or Evo’s) was required by homologation to also be made to the street cars. Eric’s car has a few of these rare upgrades, notably an Evo II front spoiler and an Evo III rear spoiler with a carbon fiber adjustable gurney flap. An Eisenmann race exhaust, Ground Control Coil-Over suspension, Z3 linear steering rack, short shift kit, Massive 6 piston front and 4 piston rear brakes, Recaro SR3 seats, and a Momo Champion steering wheel complete the package to make Eric’s car a highly capable E30 M3.

Evo II Front Splitter w/ Evo III Lip

Evo II Rear Wing

After being thwarted by several East Coast “polar vortex” blizzards we found a weather window to do the drive in early March. It had snowed the day before shutting down most of the Mid-Atlantic region, but it was a dusting compared to the Colorado storms we are used to, so we laughed and continued with the plan. Eric picked me at 8:00 pm at Dulles International Airport. The pick up area was a ghost town due to the storm. I walked out of the terminal and there it was, idling in a deep baritone. The bright streetlights and concrete backdrop made the Henna color pop. With no TSA in sight we took our time admiring the machine and taking pictures. Our immediate plan was to get out of the police state of Virginia, where radar detectors are illegal and traffic fines are significantly higher than the rest of the country. We made cautious, but good time through the Blue Ridge Mountains, stopping about 30 miles short of the Tennessee border.

Our Route

The Journey Begins at Dulles International Airport

My first impression driving the car was on par with other E30 M3’s I have driven. It’s just a little bit better than a regular E30 in every way, but there is something else – something intangible. It’s almost as if you can feel all of the little bits working to produce a sum greater than their parts. The M specific suspension articulating under flared fenders, the complimentary front and rear aerodynamics, and the incessant tweaking and tuning done by engineers of a past generation seeking perfection. Perhaps the feeling is a sense of purpose. Modern M GmbH street cars are highly capable, but their GT racing cousins are far removed from anything you can buy at a dealer. The E30 M3 was different; it was built with a purpose that modern M cars lack. Maybe I’m just nuts, but I felt it. Purists be dammed, this feeling was only heightened by the alterations to Eric’s car. The smooth revving six cylinders of Euro S50 breathing through the carbon air box and a rather loud free flow exhaust imparted a sense of immediacy. The slightest caress of the throttle was met with an exacting response. There was no lack of low-end torque suffered by the stock S14 engine, yet it was still purely mechanical. There was no S54 throttle-by-wire delay either, just a continuous link between thoughts, feet, revs, and exhaust note. The coil-over suspension compensated perfectly for the increased weight of the big engine up front and the Z3 steering rack (the single best mod to any E30) put the car exactly where you wanted it to go. In a word, it was telepathic, like an E30 M3 should be.

Enjoying the E30 M3…

…From All Seats

We woke up after a brief sleep and pressed on for the real treat of our trip, the great driving roads of Southern Appalachia. Just across the Tennessee border we veered south off Interstate 81 towards Asheville, North Carolina. From there we headed west on two-lane roads meandering through the rolling hills of the Great Smokey Mountains. The time-aged features of the oldest mountain range in America were clearly visible through the blanket of barren, leafless trees. The homogenized world of the interstate system gave way to unique small towns in various states of economic health. We stopped a few times at good photo locations, lured in by the character of disintegrating structures slowly being consumed by vegetation. As the miles wore on, the turns tightened, the smiles grew, and the M3 increasingly delighted both passenger and driver (we switched at every fuel stop).

Entering 2-Lane Roads

Small Town Landscape

Photo Shoot!

At Santeetlah Lake we followed the Little Tennessee River North towards the Tennessee border. Looking out the window, suddenly the blur of trees gave way to a daunting concrete form. I had seen it before, but it took a minute to place it. The dark, weathered concrete looked like that from the Rock Eater in The Never Ending Story (Google it Millennials), but it wasn’t because Rock Eaters aren’t real and they certainly don’t live in North Carolina. Nope, it was the Cheoah Dam, the one that Harrison Ford’s stunt man jumped off of in the movie The Fugitive (Millennials better Google that too). We thought about stopping, but the road was just too good. We pressed on to the peak of our driving journey – The Tail of the Dragon.

The Cheoah Dam

(from The Fugitive)

The Tail of the Dragon, known locally as the Dragon, is the name of the road that traverses a mountain pass called Deals Gap on the North Carolina / Tennessee border. It supposedly has 318 turns in 11 miles. I didn’t count, but I would believe it.  The Dragon gained fame as a popular driving and motorcycle road in the 1990’s. Before driving it, we stopped at small motorcycle resort and restaurant on the North Carolina side. In the parking lot there was a “tree of shame” which had the wreckage of a thousand motorcycle crashes strewn along its trunk and branches.  The late winter sunlight cut a pale and ominous hue through the thick forest onto the shiny buts of metal. A close examination revealed shattered mirrors, cracked helmets, dented gas tanks, and what looked like the remnants of plastic big wheel with a motor. We were not dismayed. The gruesome wreckage did little to undermine our steadfast confidence in our collective driving ability and our machine. Eric has over 300 laps on the Nürburgring (mostly in E30’s) and I can finesse an E30 at blinding speeds over the snowiest of Colorado’s deadliest mountain passes on bald summer tires with questionable brakes. Bring it on Dragon!

The Tail of the Dragon

The Tree of Shame

(the wreckage of 1000 motorcycle crashes)

This was a motorized big-wheel!

Friendly Local

What did undermine my shield of armor was a rather greasy chicken sandwich and French fries. Don’t get me wrong, the hospitality and food at Deals Gap Motorcycle Resort was great, but two-days worth of road trip food had culminated in what I would politely describe as digestive insecurity. As we mounted cameras and prepared to face the Dragon I couldn’t help but feel a terrible sense of impending doom brewing deep in my gut. We fired the up the M3 and it settled into a deep clinical rumble. I had been warned earlier of a heavy police presence on the Dragon, but the lady behind the counter assured us it was the off season and if we did encounter the “PO-lice” we’d probably be alright as long as we respected the double yellow line. Tires still warm, cameras rolling, and burping up chicken sandwiches we rolled past a giant steel sculpture of its namesake to slay the Dragon.

Lunch

(and my undoing)

Tee Shirt Covered Restaurant Roof

 

The Dragon Sculpture

The next three hundred and eighteen turns were a dizzying blur of tire shredding, exhaust shrieking, Euro S50 screaming sensory overload. Eric handily sliced and carved the heavily cambered, comically tight turns of Deals Gap with skill clearly honed on The Ring. The road had an almost cartoonish quality defined by undulating hills and seemingly unnecessary circular arcs. If Willie Wonka were to draw a road for his Chocolate Factory, it would be The Dragon. Some turns were so tight that sighting through them required looking back over one’s shoulder. I did my best to lodge myself in the narrow Recaro seat, while holding the camera steady and suppressing the chicken sandwich increasingly trying to free itself from the bonds of my gut. We emerged from The Dragon in what surely was a record setting time, which is odd, because for the purposes of this writing we never exceeded 31 miles per hour. Crazy how that works!

The First Turn

Eric Carving up the Dragon

My Perspective

Time Lapse of All 318 Turns

North of the Dragon the road straightened out and paralleled the Little Tennessee River where the sun had transformed from harsh and hollow to a brilliant golden hour hue.  Eric pulled over and handed the keys to me. The Henna M3 was glowing in the warm sunlight quietly ticking itself cool. It was begging to have one more go at The Dragon. In a completely unexpected move, I turned it down. At the moment I needed fresh air and a nap more than I needed to slay The Dragon. I would certainly regret not taking the opportunity to drive such an iconic car on one of the best roads in America – but maybe I wouldn’t. Maybe it was best to be satisfied with experience of watching Eric get to enjoy his new ride. We’d had a successful run — maybe we shouldn’t be greedy. Every living thing in three counties was now awake from the Eisenmann race exhaust reverberating at redline through the valleys. Rather than drive while fighting a war on two fronts, one against my gut and one fending off any recently alerted fuzz, perhaps it was best we kick back, take some pictures, and enjoy the sunset. That’s exactly what we did.

The Little Tennessee River

 Panorama Collage

   

Back on the Highway

(with a new Jaguar F-Type)

Tennessee Valley Authority Electricity

As night fell we got back to the business of expeditiously traversing the Southern U.S.  Darkness engulfed us and the weather began to deteriorate.  At the next fuel stop we repaired shoddily mounted headlights. A broken driver’s side low beam adjuster was repaired with a Reese’s Pieces box and electrical tape. It lasted the duration of the trip. We connected inoperative high beams with Walmart bullet connectors between the incompatible Euro and U.S. wiring plugs.  Having functioning lights was a good thing, because the weather was turning. A thick layer of fog had blanketed Western Tennessee, dropping visibility to hundreds of feet. I used my instrument flying skills to see through the fog – as if that is actually possible.

Headlight Adjuster Repair

High Beam Wiring

Into the Night

When we crossed the Mississippi River into Arkansas we drove into the carnage remaining from a severe snowstorm a few nights earlier. The medians were littered with capsized trucks, stranded vehicles, and considerable snow banks. The M3 was wearing heavily worn (dare I say semi-slick) Dunlop extreme performance summer tires. The resulting loss of grip on the cold snowy road surface was significant, but the E30 chassis was so composed it was easy to keep the drifting in check.

Fog and Snow

At midnight we stopped for dinner at the only open restaurant in sight, Waffle House.  Rooming would be more difficult. Unfortunately, all the hotels were in crisis mode from the storm. When we tried to get a room the desk clerk said there was no vacancy and that people were sleeping in the lobby. I looked over at a family tucked away in the corner just in time for them to wave at me. We pondered our options. Option one, join them (might not have been so bad), option two, press on in the snowy darkness.  We chose the latter. One hundred and twenty miles later we found a room on the other side of Little Rock.  It was a hell of a day.  Sleep came quickly.

Delirium

Premier Parking (at 2:00 am)

When we woke up on Thursday we had one day left to get home and a little less than half of the total distance to go. Road trip delirium time warped the long flat miles across Arkansas and Oklahoma into a convenient blur. In Oklahoma City we met up with Eric’s friends Louis and Rachael at an eclectic Mexican joint called Big Truck Tacos. After dinner we stood in the parking lot and coveted the Henna lines of the M3. Eric took the opportunity to remove a dog leash we had discovered supporting the exhaust.  “Who does that!?” he exclaimed.  As the sun sank low into the horizon we headed north for the final push across Kansas into Colorado fueled by a healthy dose of caffeine and taco-induced methane.

Stuck Behind Cross-Overs – Grrrrrr!

Big Truck Tacos with Rachael and Louis

Sunset

The darkness of night spared us of the monotonous Western Kansas plains. Instead, the tunnel vision glimpse of 300 feet of illuminated road ahead gave us a sense of heroic progress. The moon had been blackened out by the clouds of an approaching snowstorm that we were now racing to Colorado. Any tread left on our semi-slick tires was long gone. Negotiating snow with slicks would be a real threat compared to the night before. In fact, it was worse than just a lack of tread. Excessive negative rear camber had worn through the first layer of cord on the inside of the rear tires. Nursing the M3 home before we literally blew out the rear tires would require slowing down slightly, but that put us closer to the arrival time of the snowstorm. It required steady discipline to slow down while staring the storm in the face. In typical fashion we made it just in time, pulling into the employee lot at Denver International Airport at 2:00am.  After an obligatory shot with my E30, I headed north and Eric headed south. As we parted ways I paused at a traffic light to watch the Henna beauty disappear into the darkness.

Excessive Camber Wear

Obligatory Shot with My E30

After 2200 miles and 72 hours of driving Eric’s new steed was home safe. We had dodged blizzards, evaded the fuzz, slayed the dragon, and experienced a large variety of American roads in the car that quite literally defined the Ultimate Driving Machine.  The E30 M3 was a car born of racing homologation requirements in a time when the BMW Motorsports badge had a meaning and purpose beyond horsepower and fancy bits of kit. Don’t get me wrong, modern M cars are fantastic feats of engineering, power, and efficiency, but the broadening of the M brand into SUV’s, grand coupes, and M Sport lines for every model have diluted the pedigree of the M badge. As a result, the price of E30 M3’s has been skyrocketing on an almost hourly scale. Eric caught the reasonably priced E30 M3 ship just as it was leaving port, literally jumping the gangway. Driving it across country is an experience I will never forget.

-Alex McCulloch

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