How We Took a $2,000 BMW and Made It Go Off-Roading, Run an Endurance Race, and More

It's the premiere episode of a miniseries we call /BORN A CAR.

There’s something heroic about taking a car whose best days appear to be behind it, and, through hard work, kind of re-animating it. On a recent episode of AFTER/DRIVE, I spoke with Ryan Symancek, resident automotive adventurer and host of /MY LIFE AS A RALLYIST about a new miniseries he produced for The/DRIVE. On occasion of the premiere episode of /BORN A CAR, we talked about the new show, the $2,000, 29-year-old BMW that stars in it, and the mechanical perils that went into making a cast-off German car into a serious weekend toy.

/BORN A CAR? What does that mean?

Essentially, it’s a play on “A Car is Born,” which itself is a play on the title of the movie “A Star is Born.” We took a car with untapped potential, a car that, most likely, may have ended up in the ground, and set about to give it a new life. Not many cars have done what this car has done for the show, and I’ve developed a massive appreciation for BMW’s E30 platform through the car’s “experiences.”

What’s the point of the show?

It was to prove we could buy a cheap car and use it like a Swiss Army knife, in as many low-budget motorsports events as we could without going broke. We’ve always wanted to feature an inexpensive racecar build, and this was a way we could do that, while upping the challenge to try and tell a deeper story.

When we first drew up the idea for the car, we focused on what kind of roll cage we’d build. That’s the most important element for competing in motorsports. Yes, for safety, but also for meeting tech requirements for various events. I knew it was possible to do a rally cage that was also legal for road racing, so we planned for the E30 to tackle a rally event and a Chump Car endurance race. Then we filled in other challenges with things we were doing in our daily lives. I’d been doing a lot of drifting at Club Loose in Raceway Park in Englishtown, New Jersey, so I thought it’d be a good idea to start the series by drifting the car. Then, the plan was to raise the suspension and prepare for an off-road excursion in Colorado for the /DRIVE on NBC Sports TV show. As soon as we wrapped the drift shoot (episode 1), I tore it apart and lifted the damn thing in a few days and put it on a truck for Colorado.

Why did you pick an old BMW?

I actually wanted to do a Nissan 240sx. I had a small background in those cars. I knew of builds covering drifting, rallying, and road racing my friends were doing, so I knew I had outlets to ask for help. I knew nothing about BMW’s at the time, so I was pretty concerned I was out of my league. But I ended up finding a huge BMW community of people to guide me though finding the right car and patching it up the best I could for each challenge.

There was a cliff-face learning curve to get over, but looking back at the process now, the E30 3-Series is a surprisingly good platform for pretty much everything. The car can be manipulated for different disciplines, parts are cheap, and the community is amazing. It seems like everybody and his brother has had an E30 at one point and knows something about them.

We bought the car at the end of June, 2016 knowing that we had a lot of work ahead of us. We were kind of flying at the seat of our pants the entire time, because we could only plan for so much. By December, the car had already drifted in New Jersey, rock-crawled through a Colorado trail, did a full stage rally in New York, and raced a 15-hour endurance race in Alabama. Seven people drove the car for the show, and we trailered it all over the country.

We originally set out to show how we could build a multi-use racecar on a budget, but what we ended up with was a grueling, but rewarding journey of biting off more than we could chew. With a lot of luck, we proved you could do pretty much everything with a cheap beater car.

How much was it?

I paid $2000 cash to my sketchy hooligan drift friend Eric Rivera in a gravel parking lot somewhere in Easton, Pennsylvania. I gave him $500 extra for some parts he gave me. I knew he beat on the car, but he’s also a mechanic, so I trusted his knowledge that he didn’t neglect it.

Was the car completely stock?

Yes and no. Yes, because it drove worse than stock. No, because when we got it I was told it had a Schrick 288 cam, Ford Mustang injectors and a tune on it. As time went on I realized that these things, although probably true, weren’t helping this car’s get up and go, whatsoever.

During the rally we had to swap the ECU, which meant whatever tune we’d bought it with was eliminated. It didn’t run any differently. Then, at the end of the rally we cracked the oil pan. When my friend Alex and I pulled the oil pan, we realized that the dipstick hole came out of the side of the oil pan, not out of the side of the block. Every single M20 motor I have seen had the dipstick hole in the block. We ended up calling local BMW expert who told us our block was not a US production part. We realized the entire car was a Frankenstein. Turns out, somebody had slapped this thing together out of bargain-bin parts. Nothing was original.

I don’t mean to bash whoever the builder was. I know how much knowledge is required to build a motor correctly, and that’s why I don’t build motors. However, I do know the motor was a bit of a hack, and ran accordingly.

On the day we bought it, the BMW had cut springs and blown struts. I pulled that whole setup off, and used Bilstein suspension for both the rally and Chump races, with different springs. Brakes were also upgraded to Hawk HP+ for the track.  But everything else besides the safety equipment was stock.

What part of the build was the hardest/most expensive?

The most expensive part of the build was the roll cage. Justin Hinman at Broken Motorsports does incredible cage work. He’s truly an artist when it comes to installing safety jungle gyms. I would also say that was the hardest part, but I didn’t do any of that work so it’s hard to say.

The hardest part for me was converting it to a rally car once the cage was finished. That was less than a week until the rally’s start, and I basically had to take a car who’s wiring and interior we pulled apart to get the cage in, and get it all back to working, street-legal order. We worked up until the last seconds. We ran into so many problems in the process, and we were so close to missing the start, that I drove the car right from the shop and made it to the rally’s start control with only seconds to spare (episodes 2 and 3). My awesome camera guy Jack Morningstar stayed extra hours capturing as much of the mayhem as possible.

What are you going to do with it next?

We really enjoyed the Chump Car race (episode 5). The BMW is currently sleeping soundly in a garage with all the components from Chump on it. Since we left the track in Alabama, we’ve been talking about entering the 24 hours of VIR Chump Car race. VIR is such a cool track, and I’m itching to go ripping around it at night in an E30. That’s a goal with the car for sure, but there’s a lot to improve before we go for it. 

The car has a log-booked rally cage though, which is an extremely expensive and overkill roll cage to just have it be a track car. So who knows. It may go back to the gravel roads.  Really anything can happen. Maybe we can dedicate My Life as a Rallyist season three to retracing the steps of “Craigslist E30 Rally Legend” Bill Caswell’s footsteps and go do WRC Mexico. Now that’d be a story.

You mentioned community help. Who did you turn to most?

There were a ton of people who helped with this project and they know who they are, and I thank all of you. I do need to mention some of my lifesavers of this project though.  First and most importantly, Alex Jagger.

I literally could not have done this project without Alex. If he didn’t exist, I would have really bitten off more than I could chew. From lending me his nice, heated garage for wintertime wrenching, to taking many days of unpaid leave from work, he was always in to see this project though. Alex saved my ass every step of the way. I used his truck and trailer to tow the car all over the place. I used his wealth of automotive knowledge to help solve stupid issues, and we worked off each other, finding humor at times I was ready to throw in the towel. I can’t thank him enough for this one, really.

/BORN A CAR is a five-episode miniseries airing on and YouTube during March and April, 2017.