Photos: Raphael Orlove
Patrick George and Raphael Orlove

The Major Deegan Expressway stretches out before us, the last bit of highway before we return to the stoplights of New York City. The mountain roads we found in the morning are still fresh in our mind, the four-cylinder howling past 7,000 RPM rings fresher in our ears. “The fact that speeding is illegal,” I shout over the din, “really puts a damper on this car.”

I am doing all I can to keep this thing under the legal limit, and it does take some effort. It’s not just that speed comes so easily to this car, it’s that it fucks with your brain.

The BMW E30 M3 lives forever in our minds as the ultimate touring car racing homologation special, almost instantly becoming both the dominant force in DTM in the ‘80s while never losing its position as an underdog. Down on power against its turbocharged rivals, the E30 M3 caught up with light weight, perfect balance, and a high-strung engine tuned within an inch of its life.

This is the kind of car that starts a dynasty. Its legend looms big in your mind. And that’s a problem, because behind the wheel, the E30 M3 puts your brain into attack mode.

At least this one does. It’s our friend Mike Marte’s particular car, with a 2.5-liter stroker kit from probably the top American BMW shop, Turner Motorsports.

A normal E30 M3 is already halfway to a race car. This one is a step closer.

We drove that car with the tuned S14 engine, the black one, along with a white one that had a swapped in chipped S52 inline-six with Euro headers from the later E36 M3. The latter had a six-speed manual too, a surprising combination in such a small car.

PG: I drove the S52-swapped E30, briefly, and unlike the last time, I couldn’t get into it for some reason. It made the car feel too heavy and unbalanced for the rest of it, and while it was plenty fast I had spent most of the morning driving the four-cylinder stroker M3. It was vastly more fun and rewarding, the way this thing was meant to be.

Raph: What’s surprising about it is that the car doesn’t ride or handle like something hard-edged. You’re never bouncing around in the car, either from bumps or uneven pavement. Part of that is the suspension, part of that are the racing bucket seats. The steering is incredibly direct. So is the throttle, and so is the clutch, which engages almost the moment after you lift the pedal.

The car makes you comfortable. Probably too comfortable, because all you want to do is press the gas pedal closer to the floor at all times. The car can handle it, without question. Can you? Can your license? Can your conscience? No. Most definitely not.

It’s kind of a surprise. I figured this car would be all about the chassis, but it actually comes out so competent that you sort of forget about it. You just want to exploit that engine more and more. It runs up to redline eagerly and you laugh as it does. The noise is unreal. Five grand, six grand, seven, seven and a half. The engine sounds like it’s coming apart, like it’s about to lift its head off and punch a dome in the hood, or send a connecting rod out the block and bouncing back through traffic. Part of your mind stresses caution. But that part is drowned out as the exhaust crackles when you lift off the throttle.

PG: With a cool breeze coming in through a cracked window, the E30's relatively tiny body surrounding me and no soundtrack but a four-cylinder racing engine howl, I couldn’t help but feel almost like a DTM driver. Like it was 1988, and somebody was shouting orders in my ear in German as I passed some Mercedes on the 40th lap.

Or better yet, it made me feel almost like a fighter pilot—like the other cars on the road weren’t just cars, but prey to be hunted and picked off, one by one. Being in a very good version of the world’s most-winning touring car will do that to you. It brings out the killer instinct, the racer instinct, in a way that few other cars will. I haven’t felt that way in a long time, not even from all the Corvettes and Porsches and Aston Martins I manage to spend time in for my job.

The last time I felt that way, I was at Mid-Ohio doing a race with AER—not at all coincidentally, in another E30.

Raph: Oh right, I remember that car. That was the one that I nearly got myself killed in.

As it was, Mike managed to make out of his E30 M3 just about the perfect back road kind of car, and in doing so ended up with something maybe too capable for legal driving.

I fell for it. I dreamed of it when it was gone. I got back into any other normal car and they all felt half-asleep, sluggish, sloppy, distant.

I need it in my life, and I know just as much that it’s probably for the best I don’t.

PG: It was a superb day of driving, this past weekend. Our engine-swapped E30s blitzed our way out of the city, followed by a tuned WRX STI and a 1 Series. Along the way we met an M2, a mountain-local E46 M3 whose owner Mike knew by name, a Dodge Challenger with a very excited crew of teens inside, a ton of motorcycles, a 1955 Chevrolet Bel-Air four-door wagon.

The biggest thing you should take away from this story is that spring is officially here, and with it comes driving season. Whether it’s in some fearsome E30, a new hot hatch or some old project that’s finally running right, get out there and have some fun.

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