The contagion

The E30 M3 celebrates its Silver Jubilee at Pocono Raceway, and the enthusiasm is infectious.

The contagion 0
August 31, 2012

On the weekend that the irresistible E30 M3 was to celebrate its 25th birthday at Pocono Raceway, Hurricane Irene came bumping and grinding north, snapping off trees, torching transformers and floating the family SUV down Maple St. to the Burger King drive-thru.

But Nick Plakis is nothing if not unstoppable. The founder of the S14 Motoring Club, the 25th anniversary’s host, Plakis negotiated a rain date with Pocono; sure enough, two weeks later, 31 E30 M3 junkies streamed in from North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Canada—even Uzbekistan, for all we know. The S14 Motoring Club (named for the “S14” four-cylinder engine that powers the E30 M3) staged a concours d’elegance with catered food and live music. Twenty-five trophies (25, get it?) were awarded for Judges’ Favorite, Peoples’ Choice, Farthest Distance Traveled, Favorite Engine Bay, Most Sensible Footwear…on and on. Raffle prizes valued at $2,500 (25, heh-heh) were provided by S14, Turner Motorsports and VAC Motorsports. Everyone went home happy except the guy in the Corvette. (Which is just as it should be.)

But the Pocono weekend’s centerpiece was a track day. Perfect. The E30 M3 never looked more at home. Merely at idle, it seems to blur past at 90 mph–make that 130. Manufactured from 1988 to 1991, this coupe is one of the best reasons BMW gets away with calling itself The Ultimate Driving Machine.

We didn’t have to look far to find people besotted by the E30 M3—Nick Plakis owns six!—so we decided to gather some case histories from these victims of E30-Dependency, or “E30D,” as they’d say in clinical psychology. Surely some Twelve-Step program will come to the aid of these helpless addicts in their E30-obsessed lives!

Or maybe not.

The E30 habit

Roy Wicklund of Petersham, Mass. smiles when he relates his story. He took the slide into E30D innocently enough, he says. For his 50th birthday some years ago, his loving wife gave him a three-day pass to the Skip Barber Racing School. Like others before him, he headed to Barber having no idea how it would change his life, sapping him of non-E30 friends and dictating wild swings in his finances. (Isn’t that the way…) Still powerless to stop himself, today he owns two E30 M3s (1991 and 1989), three E28 M5s (both ’88s), an ’85 Alpina B7 Turbo, an ’85 M635 CSi and a hot-rod ’72 2002 with an M3 drivetrain.

Out of control.

In a desperate attempt to taper off gently after driving school, in 1997, he bought an E30 for autocrossing, which is like giving a recovering alcoholic near beer. The car started out stock enough, but Wicklund began sliding deeper into full-blown dependency. First it got better shocks. Then bigger anti-roll bars. And track tires. It’s an age-old story. Before Wicklund knew it, he and his drugged E30 were doing 15 driver’s schools a year!

But that’s not the worst of it. What began as an individual disaster soon became a family tragedy! In no time, Wicklund’s wife was indulging obsessively in driver’s schools. Then his son and youngest daughter got E30s of their own. Attending O’Fest in Colorado some years later, all four Wicklund M3s drove west in convoy. Four strong, they figured they could talk the Highway Patrol out of just about anything.

The contagion 1

Apparently so. They passed through countless jurisdictions but were left completely alone.

In 2004, still sliding, Wicklund built up his “beater” 1988 E28 M5 for the infamous One Lap Of America. The M5 began the event with the rest at Watkins Glen, but by Indianapolis, it had suffered a bent valve. Wicklund parked it and, a helpless E30 mainliner now, flew his co-driver home to Massachusetts to drive Wicklund’s J-Stock E30 M3 west. (They always return to their drug of choice. And denial that anything’s amiss is the keystone of the disease.) Wicklund and co-driver continued to One Lap’s conclusion, beaming as if everything was cool.

Naturally, the M3 we were sitting in at Pocono while Wicklund related his enthusiastic battle with E30D was beautifully prepared, gleaming in Diamond Black metallic. Of course. It’s ready to race at the drop of a hat, just like Mr. Wicklund.

The first apex gets you hooked

Another smiling, unrepentant American E30D sufferer is Stephen Valeski of Greenfield, Mass. Long dependent on his E30, Valeski has been a BMW CCA driving instructor for 28 years. In fact, he remembers the exact moment of onset—O’Fest 1983. Since then, like other victims, Valeski has owned multiple BMWs—five, if you must know. He’s tried hard to break free from E30-dependency, owning two different Lotus Exiges.

No soap. Today, he’s seated in his M3, prepared to lead new prospects off into the black hole of E30D-ism. Along the way, he’s followed Wicklund’s pattern. The Valeski M3 shows every symptom of E30D abuse—modified and lowered suspension, stress bars (“strut braces,” to the guy in the Corvette), raceworthy Bilsteins…the entire inventory of M3 depredation.

But Valeski claims (in vain) that his involvement with M3 driving instructorship rewards him with valuable insights into the human condition. Asked if he instructs both men and women, he just laughs. (We’ll take that for a yes.) But which are the better students—men or women? This time, his laugh is caustic, a bit world-weary.

“Women are much better.”

Oh?

“Men think they know everything before they’ve even started learning. But women are great, they learn twice as fast. Instructing women about performance driving,” Instructor Valeski says, “is the one time you can get them to listen to you!”

The contagion 2

He said it—I didn’t.

About his personal M3, Valeski has no reservations. “I’m keeping it forever—it’s so reliable! At 24 years old, with 104,000 miles on it, it’s practically original. It’s the best!”

Another reason Valeski’s car is the best: It wears the most sought-after M3 color, a rich, raucous Henna Red. It glows day and night. If he loses power in a hurricane (um, yes, that happens), he can read by his E30’s Henna glow.

All that glitter may be gold

Across the garage is another Henna Red M3, but this one looks like it just left Satan’s Personal Detailing Den. It’s too diabolically perfect to be the work of humans. And that’s the way owner Guillermo Molina, brandishing his detailing toothbrush like a broadsword, wants it.

Mr. Molina joined the BMW CCA with his Honda CRXsi in 1992 to get some time in driver’s school. Five years later, he bought a 325is but sold it in 1998 to get a 1995 M3 with major engine mods. He still wasn’t quite mainlining, though; at this point, he was what the professionals term a “recreational” M3 user. Fighting for control of his life, he drove a MINI for a year or two to prove he wasn’t M3-dependent.

But he isn’t telling us the whole truth. He admits that in 2000—very quietly—he bought an E30 M3 and spent the next four years sequestered in his garage transforming it into a track car. The most telling fact here? He bought this E30 without ever having sat in one!

The Bavarian Tug is merciless.

Dumping the MINI at last, he purchased a 335xi as his all-weather daily driver. Yet all the while, alone with his E30 M3 in the garage, Molina felt himself slip-sliding awaaaay. He admits the very vocal E30 Cult is the probable cause. (It’s not the first time peer pressure has done its worst.) It didn’t hurt, either, that his E30 already had the full Turner J-Stock suspension, a roll cage and Sparco seats. Molina replaced all the rubber under the hood, while at the same time stalking yet another E30!

The Henna Red car we were sitting in at Pocono is this “other” E30, Molina’s car-in-the-sky. (And frankly, it’s the car true M3 dependents secretly covet.) For months and years, he’d followed the car on a forum, because he knew Henna Red M3s have low serial numbers. But this particular Henna Red demon had vastly more: Dinan Stage 3 suspension, Dinan chip, Schrick cam, Schnitzer three-piece wheels, all the Evo Motorsports parts and a full custom Connolly leather interior.

The contagion 3

When he finally landed this brilliant car, however, what he found under the hood wasn’t perfect—and he couldn’t stand it! So on Labor Day, 2010, he started removing every piece of corroded metal and dried-out rubber in the engine room. At one point, he says, unconsciously defining his E30D-ism, he spent seven full hours with a toothbrush, scouring and scouring his M3 framerails to like-new condition. Last Labor Day weekend, a year to the day later, the engine bay was perfect!

So Molina drove it to Pocono, in that act rendering it once again imperfect. (You see the hell these souls live in.) But his original Henna Red M3 glitters like glass, having survived just 46,000 miles.

Struggling against the noises in his head, Mr. Molina smiles courageously. “I said I’d never sink to taking a Q-tip to my car—but I know it’s not far away.”

One little taste, just one

Don McGarrigle looks different, happier than the others. The Haddonfield, New Jersey M3 owner is upbeat, lighthearted…and no wonder. He’s been around M3s since his first buy in 1998—an ’88 E30—but in the years since, his case history leaves room for hope. He restored that first E30, kept it six years, then dumped it in a sudden sprint to freedom. He bitterly regretted selling it, and for two yours he jonesed for another. That other is his present, immaculate 1990 E30.

The reason he’s so devil-may-care today? To date, he’s done no driving events, suggesting that susceptibility to E30-dependency is not universal. For 13 years, he’s stayed clean. That’s news.

“My car’s been a garage queen until today, never on the track.” He beams in the direction of his car, which has just returned from the track for the first time.

He goes on.

“But I think I’ll be doing track events more often,” he says, “a lot more often! I’ve really got the bug.”

Oh, dear.

The contagion 4

McGarrigle has several Bimmers. His daily driver is a 1987 E30 325is with 260,000 miles, proving he’s got guts, and maybe AAA. He’s also restoring an ’89 E30 325i convertible. The only other BMW he’d like to own, he adds, having no idea what he’s getting into, is that all-new hussy, the limited-edition 1 Series M Coupe. If any BMW threatens the E30 M3’s addictive allure, it’s the 1M.

No hope for Mr. McGarrigle,

None.

The offshore connection

Years ago, the long arm of M3 addiction reached James Liu in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. He now runs the E30 M3 Special Interest Group, a BMW cover organization offering innocent-seeming tech meetings, concours, autocrosses, public meetings at the State Line Lookout parking lot on New Jersey’s Palisades Parkway, as well as innocuous day trips to attractions like the U.S.S. Intrepid in New York City.

But below the waterline where no one can see, Liu and his fellows track down contraband foreign M3s of great rarity and extreme addictiveness. His drive at a Pocono is a jewel-like E30 M3 Convertible, one of only 786 built and just the second Cabrio to come to the U.S. (The first went Maryland.) Only seven or eight such convertibles have come to the U.S., and almost all live in New York and New Jersey.

Liu bought his first BMW in 1992 and has been mainlining ever since. But with his E30 Convertible, he finally obtained his personal “It” car (his term) from his college days at the University of Vermont. If you like tales of international intrigue and fevered negotiations with the wife about selling her car to raise E30 Cabrio cash (she did it!), go to Liu’s site (bmwe30m3cabrio.com)—but keep the children well back.

Liu scoured the back streets of São Paolo and the front streets of Deutschland for five years, selecting, rejecting or being outbid for a torturous string of E30s. At last, he found his dream car—a Nogaro Silver E30 M3 Convertible with air, currently serving time in Germany. After months—nearly years—of importing the car and flogging it through the Federalization quagmire, Liu says he is, at least temporarily, satisfied. (Don’t be silly—they’re never satisfied.) He claims this costly, suspenseful, exhausting quest was actually “fun.”

Yeah. And when your daughter goes to a shoe store, she’s actually “just looking.”

Wicklund and Valeski claim driving a race-prepared E30 at track events 15 or 20 times a year is “just a hobby.” And Molina, too, slipping out of control, says Q-tipping his E30 is “not far away.” We know better. These M3 fiends couldn’t live without indulging their E30D.

Deplorable. We see no reason at all why a mature, well-adjusted adult can’t enjoy his E30 without diving into the gutter of addiction. And I intend to prove it. I made a bid on an E30 at Pocono—it seemed the gentlemanly thing to do. It isn’t Henna Red, but I’ll find one of those someday if I watch the forums. The car I bid on will tide me over until then. Of course, like any new purchase, my E30 could use a few things—stress bars, Bilsteins…you know. It’ll be perfect then. Almost. But I found a speck of corrosion on the exhaust-pipe hanger that I can’t seem to get at even with a Q-tip.

I’ll be fine, though, I’m sure. I’m only in it for the fun. Really.

Also from Issue 110

  • Former BMW Design Chief Chris Bangle
  • Drifting the 560-hp F13 M6 Coupe
  • F13 650i Coupe road test
  • First drive F30 ActiveHybrid 3 Series hybrid
  • Buyer's Guide to $8,000 BMWs
  • First drive 208-hp JCW MINI Coupe
  • Gavin Collier's big-bore 1976 2002
  • Don Dethlefsen's 1956 503 Cabrio Werk Shop
  • Art Deco 1937 R7 motorcycle prototype
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