Stealth flyer

Antoni Miller’s Turbo-flared hot rod isn’t the flashiest of 2002s. Instead, it’s simply perfect, with a just-right stance and period-correct details.

Photo: Stealth flyer 1
January 19, 2017

WITHOUT THOSE WHEELS, I might not have noticed Antoni Miller’s 2002 amid the sea of dazzling examples at SoCal Vintage last October. In midnight blue, it lacks the high-definition punch of a car in Golf yellow or Iika orange, the “safety” colors whose extreme visibility earned BMW owners a discount on auto insurance back in the late ’60s and early ’70s.

But those wheels catch my eye, and as I scan the field for this year’s Bimmer’s Choice award winner, I kept circling back to get a closer look at Miller’s understated hot rod. There’s no science to picking a winner—it’s all about what stands out on the day as the car I’d like to drive, the one that strikes me as embodying something essentially BMW even if it’s no longer stock.

On this day, that means subtlety, and Antoni Miller’s 2002 has it. This is a car that can fly under the radar, unnoticed by all but the cognoscenti, and I chuckle at the irony when Miller tells me he works for the U.S. Air Force, maintaining the military’s fifth-generation fighter planes.

“I keep them stealth,” he says, marveling at the technology involved with the Air Force’s latest jets. “Every day I look at things and say, ‘Who thought this up? How does it come out of somebody’s mind to do this?’ We’re creative creatures.”

Miller’s 2002 is decidedly low-tech compared to an F35 fighter jet, but it has a certain stealth element that comes down to more than just its dark blue paint. A 1976 model from the last year of 2002 production, it’s got the larger and better illuminated square taillights rather than the dim roundies of earlier examples, set above a slim bumper from a pre-’74 model. Chrome kidneys pop from the matte black grille, as does chrome brightwork against the dark blue paint. The ride height is absolutely perfect, the 15-inch two-piece wheels perfectly framed by those wide fender flares.

Photo: Stealth flyer 2

Antoni Miller found this 2002 as a bare shell already fitted with Turbo flares and spoilers as well as E21 Recaro seats.

“I do like style and stance, but I don’t like the flashy stuff,” Miller says.”I get the best of both worlds. I can get the flares on, make the car look mean but not too gaudy and still period-correct.”

Turbo-ready

Right now, the flares are just for show, providing visual balance to the Turbo spoilers and containing a quartet of meaty Dunlop tires. Soon, however, they’ll be matched by a turbocharged engine, as Miller plans to add forced induction to the M10 four built by Le Tran of 2002 Garage Werks in Ontario, California. Tran built the engine with a 9.0:1 compression ratio, a bit lower than the stock 9.5:1 but not as low as the original 2002 Turbo’s 6.9:1, and he used heavy-duty components throughout. Inside, it’s got forged Ross pistons, H-beam connecting rods, ARP bolts, a billet Turbo camshaft and oversized stainless steel valves on both sides of the ported and polished cylinder head.

Gasoline is metered by a pair of Dell’Orto carburetors—“They’re basically the same design as Webers, but they stay in tune better,” Miller says—but it will soon be fed by electronic fuel injection. Miller is also planning to install air conditioning, a factory option in 1976 but an essential feature in Las Vegas, where he lives. Also essential are the cables that connect his iPad to the audio system, which will soon be replaced with a period Becker radio that will retain the same AUX capability.

Miller didn’t build his own engine, but he did install it and do all the detail work that finishes the engine bay to near-military spec, with help from his friend Jeffrey Dietch. In addition to being, as Miller describes, both “computer-smart and mechanical-smart,” Dietch turned Miller on to the joys of ’02.

“I’d owned a 318, 325, 525 and a 633, but I was away from Bimmers for a while,” Miller says.” And then a friend of mine [Dietch] let me drive his 2002, and I was immediately attached. Of course, I couldn’t take his, so I had to get my own. He had an extra one that I bought, but it was a matching-numbers car with an automatic. I knew I wanted to do something to modify it, and I didn’t want to separate the body from the engine. Another car came up, and I traveled to Arizona, picked it up and tore it all apart. Then I found a shell, which is this car. Out of the three cars, I now have this one, and I haven’t looked back since.”

The shell had already been modified with its Turbo flares and aero bits, and its interior, too, had already been restored, complete with a set of Recaro seats from an E21 320i.

Photo: Stealth flyer 3

He added a Le Tran-built M10 four, which he plans to turbocharge, a five-speed transmission, chassis reinforcements and Ireland suspension.

“I was lucky. the interior was done, the outside was done. It already had everything I was going to do anyway. I bought it as a time-saver,” he says. “All I had to do was put in a drivetrain, wheels and suspension.”

In addition to the Tran-built engine (originally from the Arizona car), Miller also equipped the Turbo-flared ’02 shell with a five-speed transmission connected via a modified driveshaft to a 3.91 limited slip differential (with beefed-up internals), both sourced from an E21 320i.

The chassis was beefed up, too, with both front and rear subframes modified to increase their structural integrity while adding the provision for rear camber and toe adjustments. It’s riding on Ireland Engineering anti-roll bars, springs and Bilstein dampers, though Miller plans to upgrade the suspension with coil-overs in the near future. He’s also planning a rear disc brake conversion, having already upgraded the front brakes with E21 rotors on E21 hubs, Volvo calipers and stainless steel lines. The steering box has been rebuilt, and Miller plans to add electric power steering sourced from a later BMW.

Simplicity and subtlety

The power steering is a concession to Miller’s wife, Minako, who he says put up with “countless hours of absence, oily clothing, car parts clutter, budget deferment and plan cancellations” while he worked on the car.

“She’s taking an interest, but she can’t turn it to park it, so if I make it a little easier for her to drive I’ll earn some brownie points,” Miller says. “With electric power steering, it’s easy to just add it to the steering column, and you can dial it to how you want it with a solenoid or a switch.”

No matter who’s behind the wheel, steering an unboosted 2002 at parking lot speeds is taxing, especially on 205-section width Dunlop Direzza tires like the ones wrapped around those two-piece aluminum wheels of indeterminate pedigree.

Photo: Stealth flyer 4

E21 hubs hold larger brakes and stylish wheels.

“I’m embarrassed to say it, but they’re cheap wheels off e-Bay, “ Miller says. “They have the right look, kind of a CCW look. I have a set of BBS wheels that look good on the car, but I’ll save my BBSs and use these for everyday driving.”

And everyday driving is exactly what Miller does with his 2002, enjoying every mile behind the wheel.

“I like the simplicity of the car. It’s you, the gas pedal and the road,” he says. “In today’s cars, you don’t feel that any more. Everything’s computerized. The corrections are made for you. Today’s cars will let young drivers believe they are good drivers, because the car compensates. You get in an old car, you’re going to learn how to drive. I like that feeling.”

Somewhat surprisingly for a guy who specializes in stealth, he also likes a bit of the notoriety that comes with driving a 40-year-old car around the streets of Las Vegas, going to and from his Air Force job.

“Running around the city, I’m the only one out there with a 2002. It’s not a cookie cutter car these days. I feel special, in a way,” Miller says.

Asked if this is a “forever” car, Miller answers yes, unequivocally.

“This is my car,” he says. “I’m not trying to sell it. I’m not setting it up for anybody else. I will be driving this thing. Every penny I spent was well worth it to me.”

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