It is true that zee Germans know a thing or two about high performance, and not just adding at the factory a few additional horsepower, or slightly stiffer chassis bits, or mild aero to an otherwise mundane base platform. We're talking about significantly rare cars that come with real muscle and athleticism; about cars with bones that can be homologated for motorsports, or at least driven on the circuit whenever you want; about cars that are just a few shades shy of being legit racecars, like the Porsche 911 GT3 RS or BMW M3 GTS. With his 2009 135i, photographer Alex Bernstein originally set out to create one of these track toys with a license plate, aiming to build "a joy in the canyons and a weapon on the track," but what he ended up with was arguably a lot more than that.
Alex described his ambitions by saying one of the objectives from the start was to put together an OEM "safety car" kind of build, which is to say specifically he wanted to assemble a car like the ones you see pacing Formula 1 or Le Mans fields when races are flagged - basically something powerful, lightweight, and track capable but with factory looks and creature comforts. Certainly, leveling up to the bar set by the BMW 1M was part of the motivation, but so was making something that could live happily on a street drive and still come home with a time-attack podium finish. After more than a dozen project cars over the years - from big turbo Audi and VW to Mitsubishi Evo to a couple of M3 - he's honed his tastes, and this time Alex wanted to build essentially a clean, factory-looking racecar.
Originally searching for a '99 to '01 BMW M Coupe — the so-called "Clownshoe," a car Alex has wanted for at least the last 15 years - this 135i popped up for a decent price and checked off a few of Alex's boxes: white, 6-speed trans, M-sport package with the black headliner. He was getting out of an E90 335i because it was too heavy for a track car and he wasn't prepared to commit to gutting and ruining it for that purpose, so he decided to find something lighter. The 135i was just that, with the same twin turbo 3.0L N54 mill he was already familiar with and more aggressive looks.
Alex dove right into the project, knocking out a suspension overhaul, StopTech big brake kits and Recaro Pole Position front seats all in the first week, but the car has evolved over time. Initially, the plan was to maximize grip within the constraints of the narrow stock non-M 1-series fenders and try to safely maximize engine power output while the coupe was still equipped with its tiny-but-capable factory turbos. The car was making around 400whp and 420 lb.-ft. on stock snails, and it was plenty fast Alex points out, but two small turbos generate a lot of heat. "Their days were numbered, for sure."
Following some success on track, Alex found the limit of what the 135i could do on already wider 255-series tires and was getting pretty tired of the car's dainty OE fenders and awkward-sized wheels. He began considering what it would take to fit the wider factory BMW 1M body work to the 135i and was surprised when his research revealed how straightforward it was. "You can order all these parts directly from BMW," he explains. "The easiest way into this was to just do the front conversion first, since it's just fitting front fenders and a front bumper, and paint of course."
He pulled the trigger on the front swap and actually kept it that way - wide front, narrow rear - for a little bit, but you sorta know where this story is going. Egged on by friends and enabled by project partners and his buddy Ivan at Strasse Sport Auto Body (who performed the body work and paint), he kicked the build into high gear and, in his words, "lost full control and just went insane."
There are easier, less expensive ways to turn a 135i into a 1M, but this car was going to see track time, which meant Alex wanted real metal rear quarters with OEM fitment and durability, not some mix of FRP flares attached to sliced rear quarters with bondo and filler. Doing it right meant removing the rear glass, and once the glass was off, he decided he'd never again get this close to cutting off the roof, so he ditched the heavy sunroof and steel roof panel and ordered a full carbon roof from IND. He couldn't just do the roof, though; he had to order the proper sliktop headliner from BMW, too, for that factory look.
"When this car left the shop, I was blown away at what we created, and I still am," Alex recalls. "From little details like the quick-release front bumper to the Trackspec Motorsports hood vent and the Seibon carbon hood and trunk, to the OEM 1M rear valence that had its passenger side exhaust outlet hole filled to be a true single-exit 1M rear bumper - this thing has such aggressive presence."
So Long, Stock Turbos
Alex added an APR rear wing and custom front splitter to the BMW, which really had a massive impact on his lap times. Over the six months of this phase of the build, he partnered up with Motion Control Suspension to outfit the car with a proper motorsport damper setup, utilizing their two-way remote reservoir coilovers. While the car was very much looking and feeling like what Alex had set out to do, after a few track days in its new form the stock turbos had reached the end of their usefulness and were blowing oil everywhere.
This was the last piece of the build for Alex, so he went all in with CES Motorsport's single turbo conversion powered by a Garrett GTX3076R Gen II. Boost is controlled via GFB electronic boost controller tucked away in the center console ashtray, and the car has been tuned to run on an ethanol blend, Alex outfitting it with a Bluetooth Fuel-it ethanol content analyzer that'll show you fuel mix on your phone. He adds, "I think we probably have over 75 dyno runs at European Auto Source. It was custom tuned by Ken Atkinson, owner of Wedge Performance. We stopped adding boost and timing once the car reach 530whp and 480 lb.-ft. of torque."
The N54 spins a SPEC billet steel flywheel that sends power through a Stage 3+ clutch before heading to a 3.46:1 128i final drive from Diffsonline and Wavetrac LSD. The motor and trans stay put, even with almost 500 lb.-ft. of torque, thanks to AKG motor and trans mounts. Every arm, bushing and bearing has been replaced and upgraded on the 135i, and the running gear Alex installed for that last connection to the road includes a square 18x10 -inch Fikse Profil-10 wheel setup shod in Nexen Sur4G 275/35-18 rubber.
At the end of all of this development, Alex's 135i went from running a 1:58 lap on Buttonwillow Raceway Park's CW13 configuration to a 1:52, a massive six-second improvement that is remarkable - but maybe it shouldn't be considering how much the coupe has been tested and improved on. Calling the end product simultaneously loud, mean and beautiful, he sees his sort of 1M-aping BMW as his hero build, and through it has arguably succeeded in proving that track cars don't necessarily need to be ugly; they can stir the soul through more than just speed. Having driven plenty of fast cars over his life, Alex sums up his burly E82 thusly: "This is the single most exciting car I've ever driven. Nothing compares to the experience of driving this thing near or at the limit."