Someone’s ideal build of a car usually takes years before it’s properly dialed. Yet by the time everything comes together, the plans have probably changed in one way or another. The story of Bruce and Will Atkinson’s 1989 BMW 325i has been an eight year evolution of making the ultimate daily driver e30.
The first shakedown run was thrown a curveball when it started pouring rain, which meant the s52 could easily outmuscle the little 205 tires from any remaining grip.
The story begins back in 2008 when the “i” was purchased as an upgrade to the 325 eta that started this whole e30 fascination. At the time, the car was just an old e30 that someone had modified on the cheap. From the blacked out wheels to the yellow tinted high beams, the Cirrusblau e30 was on its way towards being driven into the ground. Once Bruce and his son Will purchased the car, a large series of modifications were set into motion.
The Mod Bug Bites
For several months the car had just sat in the driveway, but when it was finally time to get to work, the first order of business was to put power to both wheels. Since the “i” didn’t have the fancy “iS” package goodies equipped stock, a 3.73 LSD and a sport interior out of a 318is were swapped in to give the driver a more appealing experience. Later in the year the car ditched its eBay suspension in favor of Ground Control coilovers. This gave the car more confident footing both around town and on the twisty backroads. However, the new ride height wasn’t getting the attention it deserved on the stock 14inch wheels, so they were swapped out in favor of 15×7 OEM “Euroweave” wheels.
By this point, the Atkinson’s e30 was a solid example of what an m20 powered e30 could be, but the curiosity for more power and reliability grew stronger, which is when parts for an m50 swap started accumulating. In the summer of 2012, the e30 got a heart transplant. It wasn’t anything crazy, but you could certainly tell it was a modern motor with plenty of potential. At 190hp, the m50 had a whopping 20 horses over the stock m20 unit, but delivery of the power made the new 2.5 a motor with some grunt. Another six months went by and the urge for more power came knocking on the door again. There were two options to solve this dilemma: build the existing engine, or let the BMW engineers take care of it. Bruce picked up the phone, and a pallet from the dismantler in Sacramento sent what looked like the same motor. This time around it was stamped 3.2 and the engine cover read M Power.
Perfecting the Recipe
Since the e30 was already prepped to receive a 24v motor, performing another engine swap wasn’t as involved this time around. A few items had to be swapped over to the new S52, such as the oil pan and electrical sensors, but otherwise it was a straightforward process. A beefed up clutch was added to cope with the additional 50 horses and torque. On Easter morning of 2013, the Cirrus e30 rose from the dead again, this time with some serious attitude under the hood. The first shakedown run was thrown a curveball when it started pouring rain, which meant the s52 could easily outmuscle the little 205 tires from any remaining grip. I’m surprised BMW didn’t build the e30 this way from the factory…
As time went on, the car received a few more updates, most notably a ZF transmission swap and 3.25 LSD from a BMW e28 535i, but the years had taken their toll on the car’s exterior. Living several years in the salt air of Isla Vista while Will was attending school didn’t help either. By the time he had graduated, the paint was officially toast. At the end of 2015, the “i” was finally sent to the body shop. Body work took nearly 6 months, but once the car was done, it was like arriving back in 1989. Cue the “Love Shack.”
Why Drive the I
Having driven many e30 cars over the years, I can say that the Atkinson’s car is the best driving example. It’s not the fastest or the best handling e30 I’ve driven, but it’s without a doubt the most balanced e30 of the bunch. Every bit of this car has been thoroughly thought out and massaged to perfection, but not so perfect that you don’t want to drive it. The S52 engine is quick, but it’s not so overwhelming that you’re uncomfortable at the wheel. Call it an e36 M3 on a 400lb diet if you will.
The suspension is what I think makes this car so much fun to drive. The spring rates aren’t overly stiff (440lb front, 700lb rear), but the suspension is very responsive and steering input is nicely weighted. Part of this has to do with the e36 steering rack conversion, but I think it’s just as much the product of fresh bushings. They’re firm enough that the road feel is transmitted to the driver, but not harsh enough that you want to avoid any and all rough roads…and there’s plenty of those. Everything is rubber aside from the polyurethane subframe bushings, which are on the softer side themselves. For a purpose built street car, finding that compromise is half the battle.
With the internet fueling the need to make every car extreme or different, we often forget what makes for an enjoyable car. It takes a certain mindset to say that they’re willing to invest the time and money to drive a classic car on a daily basis, but having a classic car that proves fun and reliability aren’t mutually exclusive is a hidden gem in itself. With well north of 200,000 on the clock, the miles will continue to climb, and that’s ok. As this e30 nears its 28th birthday, fewer and fewer are seen driving on the roads. Not this one, it makes sure to be seen on the daily. Just watch the paint!
1989 BMW 325i SPECS
- s52 engine from a 1998 e36 M3
- ZF320 with m20 flywheel & Clutch Masters Sport Clutch
- 3.25 LSD from an e28 535i
- e60 545i short shift lever
- AKG dual sheer selector rod
- AKG 24v swap poly Motor Mounts
- e21 transmission mounts with enforcer cups
- SPAL electric pusher fan
- Dr. Vanos Stage 1 Unit
- TRM custom chip
- Rebuilt & Machined head with new valve seals
- Koni Yellow Sport Shocks
- Ground Control/Eibach Race Springs, 440lb Front & 700lb Rear
- Ground Control Touring Camber Plates
- e30 Cabrio 21mm front sway bar, stock rear sway bar
- e30 M3 offset front control arm bushings
- AKG 85a Raised Subframe Bushings
- Rear subframe with adjustable camber & toe correction
- e36 non-M steering rack conversion
- 15×7 et24 BBS Style 5 “Euroweaves” with 205/55/15 Yokohama S.Drive tires
- M-Tech 1 Steering wheel
- Tan Vinyl Sport Interior sourced from a 318is
- Custom US Elipsoid HID Projector Housings
- Foglight Delete Covers
- Euro License Plate Filler
- 318ti Fixed Radio Antenna
- Euro Center Dash Clock
- Race Skids oil pan protector