Rally entrant lists are full of Mk1 and Mk2 Ford Escorts but unless you’re very friendly with your bank manager a fast escort isn’t affordable. Is there another option? A few years ago I tried to find out, when I bought my second rally car, a 1987 BMW 325i coupe.
This was the E30 model code of the 3 series BMW, with a 6 cylinder 170bhp engine, in a surprisingly compact rear wheel drive chassis, these old BMW’s are an absolute hoot. I found this one parked outside a BMW specialist near Southampton. Covered in mould and looking sorry for its self. I struck a deal with the owner and took it home for an absolute steal of £250. A quick wash and a poke around with a rust detector (screwdriver) revealed rather more work than I had originally appreciated. Rotten front and rear wheel arches and a couple of holes in the scuttle panel. With the car intended for the rally world and my first rear wheel drive car I decided the repairs would outlast the expected crash date. Besides, a bit of rust should make me feel right at home alongside the old Ford Escorts.
Many hours, when I should have been studying at university, were spent tinkering away in the garage. Welding and fabricating the missing metal back in to the E30. With the complete roadworthy…ish shell achieved a roll cage, rally seats, fire extinguishers, stiffer springs and a limited slip diff were fitted. The roll cage was second hand, but the rest came from various sources on the internet. All in all, approximately £2000 worth of bits later and the car was through its MSA log book, certifying it for rally use.
I did eventually attempt to tidy the old paint work up with some luminous green mirrors, brake caliper paint and pin stripes, but to start with I just wanted to go and have some fun in it.
The first outing was largely a failure, afternoon track session at Mallory Park and despite getting a few nice drifts out the hairpin in the rain the car ran really badly. I couldn’t use more than half throttle. Much fiddling with fuel filters and pumps occurred throughout the day but it still wouldn’t run right. Unfortunately this tinkering continued for the next 2 months. I even tried a later wiring loom (that worked with my diagnostic tool) but still the wonders of modern diagnostics offered no clues. Eventually we fed the fuel pump straight from a jerry can held by willing volunteer while I floored it up the road, ah success, much to the disgust of the volunteer folded round the rollcage on the rear seat. It transpired that the metal fuel tank was full of rust and this was blocking the pipes.
Now armed with a working car we went rallying. One of these cars may not be an obvious choice for rallying, but it’s certainly the most fun I’ve ever had in a budget rally car. With standard gear ratios, standard rear dampers and 2nd hand tyres it wasn’t going to be hugely competitive in the BMW challenge rally club, but one gravel rally near Welshpool completed and I couldn’t lose the smile for weeks. Navigating 90 degree corners by the looking out the side windows as the car drifts from side to side on the brakes on the way in, collecting signs and bushes with the rear bumper, then unleashing the torque of M20 BMW engine to carry the slide right through the corner and finally straighten up ready to take another gear onto the straights. There is honestly no greater feeling.
After stepping out of a Peugeot 205 the BMW felt like a well refined machine, with excellent suspension and road holding. I thought that right up until I reviewed a video of it landing from a jump.
I can conclude the suspension control was questionable but it was still a hell of a lot of fun.
Throughout a year of rallying, despite the odd missed corner run on, only one crash caused the car to actually stop. I blame my co-driver at the time and sibling rival for everything, Chris, didn’t call “don’t cut” but I did cut and a hidden log bent the rim against the front shock and (as we found out later) fired the fuel pump relay out of its socket. The car stopped a few corners later and took too long to diagnose to get back out.
One of the many words of wisdom passed down from Pat Flynn, the man who taught me about rally driving, was when driving to work or driving to the shops, to always be practicing. That didn’t necessarily mean drive flat out everywhere, but always to be thinking about applying the driving techniques he taught. This gave me the perfect excuse to drive the rally car as much as I could and eventually get myself a road car to match.
The road car was a 1990 325i touring. The previous owner was preparing to turbocharge this car but had only got as far as ruining the standard performance with a badly setup Megasquirt programmable ECU. It ran badly from the day I bought it and felt slow compared to the rally car. The spare wiring loom I mentioned earlier during rally car fault diagnosis was actually purchased for this car. One short mornings work and the standard ECU was re-instated on the touring and it made it so much better. I’m sure with a rolling road you might get the Megasquirt to work but unless I fitted a turbo the gains weren’t going to be worth the money in my opinion. Now the road car felt like the rally car except it had a radio and could take passengers. As a practice toy for the road it was perfect. Unfortunately I got a little carried away and did some gravel practice in it too. The lowered suspension and lack of sump guard resulted in the sump plug vacating the engine.
I was extremely fortunate and the engine survived running without oil. New sump plug and new oil and I carried on driving the car for another month or so. I thought the E30 3 series was the muts nuts at the time, unfortunately a friend let me drive his E36 323 and suddenly the E30 chassis felt very dated. The touring was sold to make way for the next project an E36 328 coupe.