The car you see here is more than simply a cult classic. Much like hearing a particular song or watching a specific film from your childhood, this BMW e30 318is exists as a tangerine temporal shout. The first note, the opening scene, or this delightfully zingy four-cylinder firing up; each can transport you through time to re-fire those dormant synapses. As one of the most desirable e30 models, the 1991-only 318is stands as the archetype for weight distribution and driving enjoyment. This one, however, is beyond the ideal. This car is a time machine.
The German engineers behind new BMW cars spend each day attempting to outdo what has been done the day before, striving for more and better. You can see that BMW has been working under this assumption for decades, continually making its 3-series bigger, faster, and more capable. It has been this way since the Neue Klasse, and shows no sign of stopping. But what if, instead of reinventing the model every few years, the company had worked harder to perfect what it had built in the e30 generation? How good would that car be? In this revisionist Bimmer history timeline, H&R's creation might be the car BMW would have built.
Understand that this isn't the Back to the Future DeLorean, programmable for the '50s, or for the future, no. This e30 can give you just a glimpse of an earlier moment in your own life. Driving this car, you're a teenager again, when keys symbolized freedom. Twist that key in this car's ignition and you're transported back to the thoughts and feelings you had in the 1990s. Those moments in the past are representative of a thousand similar misremembered rose-tinted moments.
Much of our adult life is spent endeavoring toward a near-unattainable reliving of our youth. As enthusiasts of the BMW brand, we often optimistically describe new models as a "return to form," a reliving of the brand's own past. The fact is, what BMW was, it seems unlikely it can ever be again. As is often said, "They just don't build 'em like they used to."
When guided into the workshops of H&R USA in Bellingham, Washington, they'd already hoisted the fire orange German to the rafters, wheels removed, with the intent of giving me a peek at the interesting pieces of the car's underside. This view was never intended for anyone, save the engineers and mechanics. While the car as a whole is impressive, underneath, gawking upward is perhaps the best view. It always feels a bit voyeur, a bit too behind the scenes.
At first glance, you'd be forgiven for thinking it actually was the 1990s again. This car could be described as "showroom fresh," if it weren't for the handful of also brand-new non-original parts. From the moment I first saw the car, the five-lug hubs and M3 brake calipers gave it away as something other than standard, but once underneath, I saw the full scope of H&R's fettling.
What began life as an incredibly rare, no-sunroof, 1991 BMW 318is is now known as "Project U94," named after the paint code for the car's ostentatious Feuerorange II color. The transformation from the former to the latter was a two-year battle. The team in Bellingham sourced something like 830 line items of genuine BMW parts for this endeavor. The hardest to find among them being the right front e30 M3 brake dust shield, apparently. In order to get that hard-to-find dust shield to fit, however, the entire front suspension had to be swapped out for only slightly less difficult to locate M3 pieces. Refinishing the original body panels wasn't good enough for this build, so H&R ordered a set of new OEM fenders, hood, decklid, and valances. What little original body was left was given a once-, twice-, and thrice-over to ensure perfection.
Getting down to brass tacks, President of H&R's U.S. operations Roland Graef gives me the rundown on the car he's visibly quite proud of. With every impressive stat, he rattles off from memory—the kind of memory only earned from spending two years of his life on the thing—he can see my surprised reactions and can't help but beam. It is rare these days to find as deep an enthusiasm as Roland shows, and it helps ease my mind to know that a man of his passion stands behind a company that caters to car nerds like myself.
Aside from the wildly orange exterior, this isn't your average SEMA project. This Bimmer is the perfect representation of 1990s BMW enthusiasm using aftermarket parts to accentuate. Along with the M3-derived suspension, this 318is has been adapted with H&R custom coilovers, as well as off-the-shelf H&R sway bars front and rear. Additional stiffening can be found in a pair of Turner Motorsport strut tower braces, front and rear. The wheels are brand-new BBS pieces, a reissue of the magnesium center "Style E50" in 17X8.5 front and 17X9.5 rear. With 215 section width front tires and 235 rears, this e30 has significantly more grip than it would have in the early '90s. H&R also installed a couple millimeters' worth of wheel spacer on each of the rear wheels to give it that perfect visual appeal.
The twin Recaro Orthopad seats up front are upholstered in an era-appropriate sharp-edged multi-gray pattern that fits the ethos of this car perfectly. Each has an electric recline function, as well as heating and cooling systems for a touch of modern car creature comforts in a vintage motoring classic. For back-road bombing, the seats are well bolstered, if slightly narrow. The back seats have been done away with for an enthusiast approach; they were replaced with a Nappa leather-wrapped rollbar. Given that this German is perfectly suited to the track, that additional safety makes perfect sense.
The rest of the interior of this car is inch perfect. As with the outside, everything in here has been replaced or rejuvenated. Have you ever seen an e30 with a perfect gauge cluster, or HVAC controls? Have you ever seen one with a fully operational on-board computer unit? Prior to this car, I hadn't thought such a thing possible. Perhaps most impressive, there are no squeaks. Sitting in the driver seat, I see nothing that might indicate this car is celebrating its Silver Anniversary. Even though it left an assembly line in Germany under Helmut Kohl, it feels every bit a product of the Merkel administration.
When I wriggled into the high-bolstered yet extremely comfortable Recaro driver's perch, I first noticed how perfectly clear the windows of this E30 were. For years, I've been driving e30s and have gotten used to viewing the world through scratched, scraped, pitted, and pockmarked glass. It was truly shocking to see the difference that brand-new glass makes in a 25-year-old German car. Along with the glass, all of the car's rubber seals were exchanged for new, dissipating some of the anticipated wind noise and completely ridding the car of rattles of any kind. Of course, the addition of extra sound damping material under the carpet likely helped as well.
When Roland finally handed over the keys, the excitement mounted at the prospect of running this car up and down through its rev range on local roads. With the wheels reinstalled and the car back on terra firma, I mounted and pointed the bright orange hood toward the nearest semi-twisty road. Being rural Oregon, however, the roads were mostly straight-edged borders between farms of varying sizes. This was perhaps not the most punishing of tests for a chassis like this, but I retraced the few curvy roads on repeat to make up for it.
From the outset, this car felt immediately like the e30 chassis I know and love with some purposeful augmentations. The differences are subtle, but immediate. The engine is louder, but the interior quieter. The chassis is lighter and more nimble than it might otherwise be. While the engine is said to be to 100 percent stock specification, it's been refurbished to like-new condition. Because of that, it holds a bit more punch than the aged motors I've been privy to of late. It feels like more than its 138hp rating might belie.
The one-year-only 318is has garnered something of a cult following because of its superior balance, with acolytes valuing such a concept over power or torque numbers. Thanks to a lighter engine with better chassis weight distribution, I prefer this one to any six-cylinder model. This particular car feels better still, with a well-composed chassis that feels more all-of-a-piece than the average e30. While the car certainly rides stiffer than anything this side of an M3, it's difficult to describe it as "harsh," especially compared to other SEMA cars I've driven in the past.
This e30 is compliant in the way customers have come to expect from H&R's suspension products. The car isn't too low, and it soaks up bumps. Given creative license over the project, I would remove the rear-wheel spacers, as a few of the more impactful road dips did see the tire sidewall rub ever so slightly on the fender lip. There is also a slight rub with the steering wheel at full lock. How often do you need to execute a U-turn, anyway? In this car, only when you find a good section of road.
The little plastic hula girl on the strikingly perfect dashboard shakes her grass skirt with every perfectly crisp just-short-of-redline shift. Her painted-on smile matches my own enthusiasm for this moment. We're performing a dance together of sorts. The diminutive four under the hood belts out a mechanical melody for us to dance along to, perfectly a few octaves above that of its six-cylinder brethren. I'm all shoulders, arms, and hands on the steering wheel dance floor. Connected to the motion of the car, she bounces and shimmies, all in the hips. She is exactly the kind of road-going companion I would have had at 17. I feel 17. I sing along.
Driving something like this is a deeply authentic experience in a world of synthetic automobiles. The speedometer was jumpy at times, and it occasionally dipped to zero while the car was very much still in motion. Because the M3 brakes required a different type of pad wear sensor, that little light on the dash stayed illuminated for the entirety of the drive. My first drive with the car saw a light stumble on acceleration. When I took the car out for a second drive later in the day, that light stumble turned into a full-on ignition miss above 2,000 rpm. I pulled to the shoulder to attempt to diagnosis, and after pushing on some connectors and giving some components a stiff bump with the heel of my hand, the stumble simply cured itself and didn't crop up again for the remainder of the day. Thus are the joys of driving a 26-year-old Bimmer, even one that's been completely rebuilt as new. These are endearing qualities in a car that we enthusiasts have learned to enjoy. If they'd managed to rid the car of its original quirkiness, I'd question whether it was truly an old German car at all.
Despite a short list of faults, this is a lovely car that provides an excellent level of driver connectivity. When you press the accelerator, a cable actuator opens the throttle body. When you press the brakes, you're the one forcing fluid through stainless braided hoses to clamp the rotors. The steering wheel is connected directly to the rack. There's a reason enthusiasts still flock to a car designed 30 years ago. This chassis remains widely regarded as among the best driving sports coupes, so it should come as no surprise that a brand-new one is worthy of admiration.
Roland, the consummate automotive enthusiast that he is, kept track of every single component that was taken off of this car, and every single component that was reinstalled onto it. He's got painstakingly detailed spreadsheets on his hard drive documenting the cost, source, and part number of each individual piece. He completed the project over the course of two years, and he has watched BMW raise the prices of some parts he bought long ago. As it happens, he is confident that undertaking such a project today would cost somewhere in the realm of $70,000.
Though it may seem a steep price to pay for an e30, is there a price tag on the feelings this car imbues? Perfection is impossible to attain, but this car comes damn close. This particular driving experience revives memories, rekindles youth, and compounds emotion. There are new automobiles costing several times that price tag that feel hollow and shallow by comparison. If you value the experience over all else, every dime spent on this car was a sound investment. How much are you willing to spend to travel through time?