Project Wallet Buster – an introduction…

Given the number of years I’ve had this car (cars) and the transformations that it (they) have gone through, I figured it’s about time I put together a post to document what’s been done, how on Earth I reached this point and what’s going to be done.

This project is a great illustration of a great motorsport saying… “If a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing at least twice”  Well, not really, but I have worked at motorsport institutions where repeating work was a way of life… ;o) It is also an illustration of man-maths, frustration, trials, tribulations and all the other afflictions that us diseased souls who love cars and trackdays endure and embrace.

Those of you who know me well will know that back in the day, life was simple…  I had 2 cars – a boring everyday car and a car ‘for best’.  For quite a while, this took the form of 2 Minis when I was a poor student and poor engineer – this one being a particularly fruity turbocharged Mini I threw together:

138hp,a LOT of torque steer and a rather noisy beast

Until eventually after a lot of scrimping and saving, I broke away from Minis and after a couple of Cosworths:

I still miss this car - a crude wonderful brute of a machine

This should have been so much better than the Sierra but wasn't

I ended up with a Porsche 911 Turbo in my life to supplement the ordinary car in my life (a Ford Focus diesel – fantastic car!):

Gone but not forgotten...

I was very proud of the Porker and she stayed with me for 12 years from 2003 – 2015 (sold through auction in April this year due to it only covering around 150km per year – time for someone else to enjoy…) with various enhancements carried out along the way – more power, new suspension, trick differential, new seats and so on – as Mr Benovich puts it, ‘Copson does like a project’.  Anyway, bottom line is that I LOVED this car – challenging to drive, very fast, a classic in its own right, excellent on roadtrips and as I discovered, pretty good on track…

Oh yes, this car was the car that introduced me to trackdays – my first being at Cadwell Park in 2003, which was terrifying and exhilarating at the same time – I was hooked.  Next up came trips to the Nurburgring – just to have a butchers  – all harmless fun to begin with, a jolly out with the boys for some man bonding – nothing serious you understand, until you looked at some of the hardware in the car park and realising that the car you are in rolls a bit too much when cornering, the seats aren’t quite supportive enough, bigger brakes would be nice and so on…

And of course – as time and miles passed under the car, you learn things. For example, the independent Porsche dealer I used said to me one service time, “do you know that the rear semi trailing arms are £2000 second hand?” and, “if you go off on track, you won’t just bash 1 corner, its normally 2 or 3” and, “these engines are tough but rebuilds start at £4k”..


So, musing on this, I thought that a dedicated track car would be the way to go – doing my man-maths, I worked out that an average Porsche 911 shaped crash should everything go wrong with 2 corners walloped would cost about £10k (Jimbo, please do jump in with your comments on Porsche running costs at will) so surely I could build a trackday car for less that would be safe, reliable and fun?  Add in that (at the time) prices of old Porsches were starting to rise and that the car I owned was a very low mileage example with no rust or previous accidents – a car to be used and cherished, not abused on track surely?

Enter Project Wallet Buster…!

Who'd have thought this car would cause sooo much trouble?

Doesn’t look like a Wallet Buster, does she?  How naïve and foolish you all are…

I bought this car (a 1989 BMW 325 Sport) in 2008 from a mate of mine who was reluctantly selling for one reason and another – knowing him, knowing he owned a garage and knowing the car, I snapped it up sharpish as it ticked all the boxes – rear wheel drive, normally aspirated, pretty good handling, easy to work on, cheap parts, good forums for advice and so on.

A couple of days later I took it drifting at Oulton Park to get to know the handling a bit better at low speeds:

The filthiest any car of mine has ever been - Jimbo, take note... ;o)

And over the next 12 months I started the transformation to this:

Track ready - or so I thought.

In brief, the seats were junked, Recaro race seats installed, 6 point harnesses, a bolt in roll cage was installed, larger wheels and sticky tyres put on, larger front brakes installed, a few remedial rust repairs carried out and a darn good clean up.  Is the wallet busted yet?  Nope, partially cracked open for sure, but not busted.

After all this, I took her to the Nurburgring:

The driest day of 2009 and we weren't on track!!

Where I decided that she wasn’t brilliant – *AT ALL* – she understeered too much, she wouldn’t turn in, wouldn’t hard accelerate enough in a straight line.  The seats were fab, the cage made me feel safe and I was pretty happy with the brakes, but that was it – the weather was SHOCKING as well which didn’t help so I came back from the ‘Ring pretty unhappy.

So what to do? Sell and cut your losses? Or try and nail down the problems?  By now, I think you know the answer to that one…!

Development phase 2.0 started in earnest – coilovers, different anti-roll bars and learning a bit about geometry changes started to yield real gains in the handling department:

Shiny coilover, mucky wheel arch - must have been all that drifting!

But something was still niggling in my head – the car was starting to grip and stop pretty well, it was just lacking in grunt, specifically there seemed to be an aching gap in the power and torque as the car went from 2nd to 3rd to 4th gear – far too much of a drop in revs between the gears and the engine just didn’t really want to rev at all. I didn’t want to turbo the engine as I love the throttle response normally aspirated cars give you. Engine conversions were out of the question surely (despite all the forums suggesting they were a good way to get more power) so I thought about tuning the existing engine – forums told me that tuning the M20 engine in the BMW E30 was pretty fruitless so I just ignored that for a while and looked at the gearbox.

The holy grail of gearboxes for E30s might be considered to be the ‘dogleg’ gearbox that’s fitted to the E30 M3 (the getrag 265 gearbox) – close ratios (a direct drive top would make it more ‘buzzy’ cruising on the road but ideal on track), the dogleg first gear meaning that 2nd and 3rd gear are in a straight line for quick shifts and rumour has it that these gearboxes were used unmodified in the first years of BMW E30s being raced in German Touring Cars so surely tough enough for the job?  Surely it won’t fit? A few sums later showed that it would be ideal for track work…  If only that engine revved a bit harder. It can’t possibly fit?  It’s going to be all wrong surely – gear linkages won’t work, propshafts – come on, be serious!

Well, yes, apart from the fact that this gearbox is as rare as rocking horse shit in the land where rocking horses aren’t allowed.  EBay it appears is my friend – after some months of searching, I managed to find one – fantastic…! HOW FECKING MUCH?

After getting a local specialist to rebuild the gearbox (it really looked like it was scrap when I got it):

Would Sir like to part with many £££££s for his pile of scrap metal?

but finding that it was actually in pretty good shape – it was installed – the only pain in the backside being that the propshaft needed to be modified in length and for the output shaft.  The result was excellent – real flexibility on track and much quicker shifts – if only that engine revved a bit harder:

Now we're getting somewhere...

So, right now, is the wallet busted? Only partially…

So the car is starting to get there – but what about more power?  If only the standard engine could rev a bit more… Much to think about!  The M20 engine in the BMW E30 is an excellent engine – have a look at the link here for more info:

But the bottom line is that it’s a great road engine – it’s doesn’t respond well to tuning (in fairness a lot of BMW engines are like this) and it doesn’t like revs which I craved now for the track.  As mentioned before, turbo charging was out of the question so what to do?

Oh go on then, let’s have a look at engine conversions…  We might as well bust the wallet a bit more.

Having looked on the e30zone forums, each engine conversion has it’s plusses and minuses – I knew that I wanted a BMW engine, I wanted to save a bit of weight up front to help turn in and the balance of the car (there are HUGE debates on the forum about which car handles best, 4 cylinder or 6 cylinder), have good power density and for me to be able to fit the engine relatively easily – to summarise my options:

Make a larger capacity M20 engine (e.g. 2.8 litres or more) – tempting, but possibly costly and still a heavy engine that might have oil surge issues on corners (oil pressure drops on left handers).

BMW M52 engine (again 2.8 litres) – a great engine but ultimately a road engine – could be tricky to find a good one.  Having to swap oil sumps was also a concern for track use – fundamentally changing the way the oil system works could cause problems.

BMW M30 engine (3.5 litres) – just too heavy.

BMW V8 (3.0 to 5.0 litres) – also too heavy and potentially too difficult to fit – there’s quite a bit of fabrication involved but GREAT horsepower

BMW S50 engine (BMW E36 engine, either 3.0 or 3.2 litres) – a really great engine – I thought long and hard on this but eventually said no – it is pretty heavy and a tight fit in the engine bay.

Not getting very far am I?

But hang on a second – you’ve got the BMW E30 M3 gearbox fitted haven’t you?  Surely, surely… The BMW E30 M3 engine (called the S14) will just drop in? It’s lighter than an M20, drops straight into the car (apart from the small inconvenience of right hand drive being in the way of the exhaust manifold  – all E30 M3s were LHD – mere details young Michael!), easily makes more power and torque than the M20 and it likes to rev, rev a lot…  Surely this is the way forward? Reading more and more about the engine it was ticking lots of boxes – developed for motorsport, stories of 2.5 litre engines making an easy 300hp and revving to 8000rpm+ 

Oh yes, surely this was the engine for me!  Only one trouble – rare as rocking horse shit in no-horse-land and properly wallet busting…

Time to reconsider?  Not really – an engine came up at the right time and at the right money (sort of):

Great engine but in need of some TLC

And the wallet is taking a proper bashing now, but it’s not so bad – this is a running engine (I saw the videos) all complete – a quick tidy up and drop in surely? 

Not really…

Long story short, whilst trying to cure a few oil leaks before installation (one thing ALL old BMW engines have in common is that they piss oil from every conceivable leaking point) I pulled a few threads on the cylinder head meaning that had to come off – then I found that the cylinder head was basically on the edge of failing so in for a penny and in for a pound, I squared up the wallet and took aim with a size 8 foot for a good hoof in the spuds to give it a proper busting.

This was going to take some time…  So in the meantime, my man maths (plus an ENORMOUS amount of peer pressure – chaps, you know who you are) justified buying a whole other car to take on track and the pressure off me whilst the BMW was off the road (there are other posts on here – have a mooch):

Peer pressure distilled into one car

With an engine stripped to a bare block and doing research on it is a really dangerous thing – really was my friend in all of this giving valuable advice and counsel on various topics whilst scaring the absolute bejesus out of me at the same time.  So it would be rude not to do a couple of cheeky upgrades, right?  The wallet is busted so a little more isn’t going to hurt, right?

What I also learnt is that the sky is literally the limit with S14 engines and it is a proper engine – lots of lovely details that can only come from motorsport and in fairness, pretty easy to build.  Lots and lots of hours, many new parts from BMW and elsewhere not to mention a bit help from my dad, my first proper engine build was completed.  The resulting engine is fairly mild (plenty of time for more upgrades and power):

After TLC (and some cash..)

And I am very proud to say that the engine started first time!  Happy days! The running in miles took a while due to a few teething problems chased down.  Now, if only the bodyshell was a bit more rigid..

And after a LOT of work (did I mention the stand alone ECU, bespoke exhaust, lighter bonnet and other little tweaks?) the car and engine made it to the rolling road:

Really hoping she doesn't go BANG!

Thankfully the rolling road session went extremely well – the guys at Emerald (the folks who supplied the ECU) are really fantastic folks!  If only that body shell was a bit stiffer – right hand drive is a bit of a concern as well – that engine isn’t really designed for it – I’m sure that  rubbish exhaust clearing the steering rack is robbing a bit of power…

So with wallet fully busted and a car ready to go, there’s only one thing for it – take it to the track to see how the conversion feels. Oulton Park is my local track so an outing to celebrate was in order:

Hurrah! Oulton in the wet on R888 tyres - not terrifying at all...! :o )

The verdict? Pretty darned good – but a few niggles to sort out – the spring rates for the coilovers isn’t right  going from 6 cylinders to 4 so that car is too nervous, the diff is quite snappy in 2nd gear and I do wish that the bodyshell could be just a little bit more rigid…

What is a chap to do…………………??

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