Anyone who's ever drooled over a prize-winning, top-quality car build has probably asked the question: "Could I do that?" As in, is it possible to give birth to a no-compromise car that turns heads on some of the biggest automotive stages in the country from one's own modest home garage? It turns out the answer to that question is "yes," as long as you have access to the resources provided by some of the best minds in the business, that is. At least, that's what a group of engineering students from University of Colorado Boulder discovered last year when they started down the road toward producing a BMW that attracted major attention at the 2018 SEMA Show.
"I'd wanted to do this kind of project for several year—something high end that would bring together a group of average car nuts, student builders, and mentors in a bid to put together the best E30 M3 possible," says Cory Rowan of Visfire, an auto-focused advertising and PR agency. "I thought it would really be something interesting to film."
As luck would have it, Cory had already met the players in what would be one of the most compelling stories from that year's show. About a year before the build began, a group of college students from Colorado had volunteered to help crew an endurance race he was running. Their enthusiasm was infectious, their dedication to all things automotive was apparent, and they immediately came to mind when it was time to get the ball rolling on Rowan's idea.
The challenge was substantial. Cory paired Zach Lagarenne, Justin Bruch, Parker Brown, Reece Cochran, Isaac Gesundheit, and Peter Golledge with lead sponsor and mentor Dori Ahart from CRC Industries and gave them the challenge of completing an '88 BMW M3 show car for SEMA—which was only 11 months away. Not only that, but the team, which had no previous experience as professional builders, would be doing the work with handtools in a simple 1.5-car garage. Although the final goal was to qualify for the Battle of the Builder's Young Guns category, the entire effort would raise awareness for the Morgan Adams Foundation, which works closely with childhood cancer research.
It was a tall order, in more ways than one. Not only would the group of students have to figure out the technical issues associated with shoehorning an F80 M3 twin-turbocharged six into the engine bay of the more modestly powered E30 model, but they'd also have to complete the work with a level of fit, finish, and quality well beyond that of your standard project.
"One of the toughest parts of the project was getting these guys in the right mindset of what it takes to build a really high-end car," Cory explains. "I'm fortunate to have had a lot of experience in that realm, so I passed on to them as many lessons as I could that I had learned from my own mentors. The key was the idea of 'chasing perfection.' As a hobbyist, or doing repair work, it's about reaching an end goal, but on a really high-end car, where you're doing something no one else has done before, there's no such thing as 'good enough,' or 'completion. '"
This concept would manifest in how the build unfolded.
"The deadline was quite pressing, but there was no point in us showing up to SEMA, or even building the car in the first place, if we were going to cut corners," Cory continues. "The students learned not to be frustrated when something didn't go well, or if they had to redo a step two, three, or even four times. It shouldn't matter how many attempts you have to make when you're seeking perfection. That's the difference between just doing a brake job and building a car like this."
Cory stresses that the difference between being able to access the significant resources of a major shop versus working with basic tools in a small, confined space is enormous. Helping to avoid frustration and keep the team locked and focused were a set of mentors drawn from the industry who were able to come in and share their experience and philosophy with the group. It was a two-way street in terms of benefits, with the veterans able to share their skills and the students getting an assist with major decisions throughout the project's timeline.
"Being able to share with and show someone else what you are passionate about and help them be successful in the same realm instead of just building a project on your own is really rewarding," Cory says.
The work ahead was considerable. In order to speed up the process, a mid-'80s E30 was brought in to serve as the test mule for drivetrain and suspension fitment while the actual M3 hero car was disassembled, blasted, and restored. By the time the engine, transmission, and wiring were ready to be transferred to their permanent home, it was only a couple of weeks before the show.
In addition to its wild engine swap (the first S55B30 to find its way inside an E30 chassis), the BMW was also gifted with a full F80 ABS system, AP Racing brakes, and MCS three-way remote dampers and coilovers. A custom geometry tubular suspension system from SLR Speed and a fully reinforced chassis help with body control, as do custom subframes and BimmerWorld components. The engine is kept cool by way of a CSF charge cooler and heat exchanger, and it has had its ECU tuned by BPM Sport. The interior is finished in BMW Cardinal Red leather, and a carbon-fiber spoiler and gurney flap work together with converted centerlock wheels from Forgeline to set off the coupe's visual appeal.
The near-year of blood, sweat, and tears immediately paid off. The E30 was transported from Denver down to Las Vegas just in the nick of time, where it was selected as a Top 12 selection in SEMA's Battle of the Builders, as well as one of three recipients of our Super Street SEMA Award with Meguiar's. It was more than the team could ever have dreamed of. After all, their goal had been to build a BMW that could stand alongside SEMA's best.
That triumphant performance at America's most significant aftermarket show was just the beginning for the team, however. The new goal is to transform the energy that fueled the initial build into a viable business model. "We were joking that 'Hey, wouldn't it be great if these guys ended up with a shop when we're done?'" Cory says with a laugh. "But a couple of the other mentors involved and I realized we had something really special going here. Some of the reactions we got from other industry folks really put the wind in our sails and gave us the confirmation that we could take this further than just a single-car build."
To that end, Rowan and a few others pulled together money, shop space, and tooling so the students who were interested in exploring the potential of their own business would have a space to do so. A full five months of teardown and re-perfecting perfection were done immediately following SEMA to figure out how to transition the E30 M3 into a vehicle that could be replicated on a production basis. A full, multistage fabrication and assembly facility is now in place, and work is proceeding on building the next iteration of the F80-powered classic.
"A number of the students have come with us into this venture, and it's so great to keep the momentum going on this Cinderella story," Cory says. "Each time I think of it, I picture Bill Murray from Caddyshack saying those exact words. Everyone who worked on this car can really look back on it and be proud of it, but doing so well at SEMA and receiving the recognition and attention we did shows you what's possible when you throw a lot of dedicated and talented people at a project. There's no way we could have pulled any of this off without the full effort of each and every person on the team."