Just so you know, I don’t scare easily.
I’ve worked as a bouncer in a dive bar in Spain. I’ve played cards with unsavory characters in Hamburg’s Sankt Pauli neighborhood (and won!). I’ve eaten Thai food in Bangkok’s darker alleys. I’ve gone down Kitzbuhel’s infamous Hahnenkamm near-vertical downhill (on foot, mind you, but nevertheless), and in the more reputable parts of my past I’ve raced open-wheelers, motorcycles and many a jalopy unsafe at any speed. I’ve also suffered physical contact with guardrails, as well as with competitors’ vehicles, on tracks all over Europe.
But I’d never been scared by a car…until I met the Frankenbimmer.
This, my friends, is a vehicle whose concept stems from a seriously twisted mind. It is, simply put, mind-bogglingly insane. And I mean that in the best possible way.
It started as a perfectly nice E30 M3, but it was transformed into a screamingly aggressive, unabashedly violent and utterly wonderful monstrosity by having a 650-hp 5.7 liter S85 V10 transplanted into its engine bay, along with the same E60 M5’s six-speed manual transmission and the entire suspension from an E90 M3.
Terrifying speed and pure, unadulterated fun, the same kind of fun you’d get from going over Niagara Falls in a barrel, or from barely surviving some kind of glorious weekend orgy. You get out of this car with the equivalent of a skull-splitting hangover, but boy, did you have fun!
Look what turned up in Marc Norris’ garage…
My introduction to this monster happened almost accidentally. I’d popped in to Marc Norris’ Bavarian Workshop, a well-known hangout for Los Angeles-area BMW aficionados, when the car just happened to be up on the lift. As I checked out the underbelly, I was a tad underwhelmed. It was tidy enough, but it didn’t really look like much from underneath.
Marc noticed my nonchalance and asked, “But have you ever driven the Frankenbimmer?”
Of course I hadn’t.
I’d heard rumors about it, of course, but until I saw it for myself the Frankenbimmer had been the stuff of urban legend, a story to sit alongside those about E30s fitted with Corvette V8s. Preposterous engine swaps had always seemed to me to be something approaching blasphemy, maybe mortal sin. The idea of an E30 M3 being powered by an S85 V10? Well, that was just too ridiculous to be true. No one would do such a thing, would they?
And yet, there it was, right above me on Marc’s lift: Frankenbimmer itself, the Real Thing.
“Of course, I haven’t driven it,” I told Marc. “I didn’t even know it really existed!”
Well, Marc said, it belongs to a friend of mine, and maybe, just maybe, I could make a phone call, and we could go out and do some driving.
A few hours later, Norris and I are hanging out at a viewpoint on one of the twistier mountain roads just north of Los Angeles, catching our breath after having broken the sound barrier on our way up here…on several occasions.
I owe Marc big time, I tell myself.
But first I have to bring my trembling hands under control again.
Eight years ago, Piper Motorsport got a request…
The Franken-M3, to use its official moniker, first came to life about eight years ago. A client of Piper Motorsports in Leesburg, Virginia, approached the shop with an idea.
“He was a good client and friend of ours,” recalled Piper’s Roger Clements. “We had built a number of cars for him, because he liked the aesthetics of older cars and the performance of the modern ones. He wanted us to build the ultimate BMW, a car that embodied the best from three different generations: the E30 M3 as the best car of its time, the superb suspension work of the E90 and, of course, the best motor ever built in his opinion, the S85 V10 engine from the E60 M5.”
Over a bit longer than a year, the shop spent a thousand man-hours building the customer’s dream car, not including paint and bodywork. The original E30 M3 was stripped of everything suspension, engine and drivetrain-related, leaving the basic body shell, a few exterior panels and some interior trim.
To that, the Piper boys installed the front and rear subframes from an E90. Accommodating the new parts required removing the stock E30 frame rails and constructing new ones that could secure the E90 subframes. Up front, the shock towers were raised and relocated to allow proper suspension travel and geometry. At the rear, this meant cutting away just about everything, then installing new shock towers, spring perches and wheel hubs.
Piper sourced the S85 engine from Dinan. It’s one of Steve’s infamous 5.7-liter strokers, installed after the first 5.0-liter V10 blew up during a test run. To complete the drivetrain, the engine was matched with the M5’s ZF GS6-53BZ six-speed manual transmission, plus the M5 differential and half-shafts.
None of that stuff fits into an E30 without modification, of course, so the firewall and transmission tunnel were removed and new panels built to accommodate the much-larger engine and transmission.
Quarter-million dollar custom
Tackling the intake and exhaust systems took still more serious engineering. The exhaust utilizes modified factory headers and a stainless steel dual exhaust system that terminates closer to the middle of the car rather than on both sides.
“Having both canisters exiting through the center of the rear bumper just made sense,” said Clements.
A custom intake manifold and air boxes were fabricated to fit within the factory hood—which they do, sort of.
“To accommodate the stroker motor, a new manifold was fabricated, and to make room for it we cut an opening into the hood,” Clements explained. (That airbox is the black piece you see poking out of the hood.)
All the wiring was done in Gardena, California by Apex Speed Technology, which installed a Pectel SQ6M12 management system and wired the car headlight to taillight. In addition to the usual features, Apex used an Ole Buhl Racing power management system to give Frankenbimmer programmable and adjustable traction control, multiple ECU maps including valet mode, variable camshaft control for all four cams, electronic control for both throttle banks, driver selectable anti-lock brake system. A digital Pi OMEGA dashboard controls all of that, with multiple pages to monitor all vital functions.
In New York, Ai Design applied a minimalist touch to the car’s interior. Ahead of the black leather Sparco seats, a digital dash display takes the place of the original clocks. The rest of the controls are similarly modern, from the switches on the dash to the three-knob panel on the transmission tunnel aft of the shifter. The roll cage has been fitted into the A and B pillars, which were sectioned and removed for this purpose, then reinstalled. But for the cross-members behind the seats, the cage is all but invisible, adding to the understatement of the interior.
The exterior is similarly subtle, at least at first glance. For all its technological Wunderwerks, not to mention the 5.7-liter engine under the hood, the outside of the car seems almost diminutive. Yes, there’s that cut-out in the hood where the “breadbox” sticks out. But other than that, the Frankenbimmer favors visual restraint.
Look closer, though, and you’ll notice that the fenders are way, way fatter than on a regular E30 M3. The car rolls on huge Toyo Proxes R888 tires (265/35ZR-18 rear and 225/40ZR-18 front) mounted on a stunning set of Fikse wheels, and such things do need plenty of room. So do the big Brembo GT-R brakes behind the wheels, which we’d term a necessity in combination with a Dinan V10 engine.
All that stuff gets expensive, of course. Piper’s Clements estimated Frankenbimmer’s price tag at around a quarter of a million
“Every last nut and bolt was brand-new. We didn’t use any used components when we built it,” he said.
Whoever had Frankenbimmer built must have an impressive amount of disposable income, but Clemens wouldn’t reveal his name or his profession. Fair enough.
Neither would Will Turner, who in 2012 helped broker the sale of Frankenbimmer from its anonymous original owner on the East Coast to its next happy home.
“Well, that original owner is not today’s owner,” Turner said. “I know him very well, he’s a collector of cars, and he sometimes likes vehicles that are a bit over the top.”
I’ll say! So, too, does the car’s second owner, who also wished to remain anonymous except to say that he’s a co-founder of The Thermal Club, the private motorsport facility near Palm Springs.
After three years with the car in California, he’s ready to send it even further west.
“It’s now going to Asia,” Norris told me, to a collector in the Philippines who bought it on e-Bay.
650 horses to pull 3,000 lbs.
As we catch our breath at the top of a mountain above Los Angeles, I can sort of understand why this car keeps changing hands. Driving it is demanding, and your arms tend to get tired after four years.
I’ve only got today, however, and I’d rather drive Frankenbimmer than look at it.
“You ready?” Marc asks.
With a roar, the car springs back to life.
I’ve been forewarned, having followed Marc up the road for a few miles and watching the immense display of power whenever he hit the gas, fishtailing under acceleration even at speeds beyond the legal limit. Even so, nothing prepares you for what happens when you put the transmission in first and let the clutch go.
This thing just goes wooommmmm.
Calling Frankenbimmer’s acceleration “breathtaking” might be the understatement of the year. When I regain my composure, I feel the car chomping at the bit until it hits around 4,000 revs.
Above that, all hell breaks loose.
650 horses propelling 3,000 lbs. make for an interesting driving experience. I keep reminding myself to breathe and thank the gods for those Sparcos.
And the amazing thing is that Frankenbimmer never stops. I’m in fourth gear and the projectile-on-wheels still accelerates wildly. You need big cojones when you press the throttle at the apex of a fast corner—or any corner, for that matter, even slow ones.
There is no understeer to warn you that things might be going too far. Instead, the rear comes around with amazing swiftness and a neck-breaking dynamic, but the excellent steering actually lets you control the thing. The over-sized Brembo GT-Rs—a cut above the usual Brembo aftermarket brakes, of course—pull out your intestines and wrap them around the steering wheel.
On the next corner, I wait until I’m way beyond the apex before hitting the throttle, and still those rocks behind the bushes come very close, very fast. I’ve never driven another car that gave me this same feeling, like I might lose it any second…even on a straightaway.
Like a real race car, but crazier
The thing is, though, I don’t. The Frankenbimmer reacts like a real race car—immediate, immensely direct and yet delicate. After only a few miles, I get the feel of this monster.
And I start to like it more and more.
I could do this all day.
Geez, how I would love to take this car on a track where some (very) spacious gravel beds would reduce the risk of turning a quarter-million dollar investment into pile of scrap metal.
Who did our guy sell it to again?
You don’t want to make the Filipino equivalent of the yakuza angry ‘cause you wrecked their drive.
Subjectively speaking, Frankenbimmer feels like one of the fastest cars I’ve ever driven. It’s a bit humbling, I admit.
Cars like this are crazy, of course, and they’re also addictive. I hear that Frankenbimmer’s original owner has a new project in the pipeline: Piper is building him a Mercedes 190E with the heart of an AMG 63. And Mr. Thermal is said to have another BMW transplant in the making.
If it’s as scary as this one, I want to drive it!