290bhp S52-swapped Rocket Bunny Pandem V1 wide-body BMW E30 Coupe
With this M3-powered Pandem E30, professional chef Steve ‘Chino’ Liu has stirred together something quite delicious… Words: Daniel Bevis. Photos: Viktor Benyi.
Awesome S52-swapped wide-body E30
Building a project car is much like playing a game of high-stakes poker. You’ve always got to be mindful not to give away your hand, not to exhibit a giveaway tell, not to let anyone know how powerful your finish will be until the time is right. It also requires a lot of whisky, a dimly-lit room, an opponent named Knuckles of questionable moral virtue, and… actually, no, it isn’t like poker at all.
It is all very ‘Too soon, junior…’ though; when you’re at the planning stage, it’s exciting to visualise the finished product, to rush through it and cut a few corners to show everyone your big idea. But you have to be patient, play the long game, do things properly. Otherwise, you’ll always be a little bit disappointed, like those couples on Grand Designs who blow a million on a custom-built house, then cock it up at the last minute with a cheapo caravan kitchen because they’re desperate to move in.
This gloriously aggressive E30, rocking its boisterous Pandem wide arches, is a clear manifestation of why you shouldn’t rush things and why taking your time pays dividends
This gloriously aggressive E30, rocking its boisterous Pandem wide arches, is a clear manifestation of why you shouldn’t rush things and why taking your time pays dividends. It’s been built properly, to a very high standard, and the results speak for themselves. The seeds of this project were sown for Steve ‘Chino’ Liu (@chefchino_ e30) way back in his childhood when an aunt of his had an E30 which – of course – was then a pretty new kid on the block.
A chef by trade today, he’s got a keen sense of visceral multi-sensory markers: “That car had a distinctive smell, and every E30 I’ve sat in since has it too,” he says. It’s more than pungent reminiscence that fuelled the creation of this project, naturally. There’s a whole weight of precedent here, from the 2002s his brother-in- law owned to the timeworn legend of Bavaria’s finest being ‘the ultimate driving machine’. Intriguingly, however, this ’91 318iS is the first BMW that Chino’s actually owned. “I’ve owned and modified Nissan 240s, Honda Civics and Hyundai Genesis Coupés in the past,” he explains, “but I wanted a vehicle that would inspire me to build and keep something special for my kids in the future.”
It’s fair to say that he hasn’t tip-toed into this either. In fact, with a methodical approach and a keen focus on finessing the details, Chino’s put together something really quite remarkable. Some might say that the 318iS is becoming something sufficiently obscure and desirable as to be worth preserving rather than chopping about, although such people probably ought to count up the number of survivors and realise that this isn’t exactly akin to savaging a unicorn; besides, the results we see before us amount to something way more special than a factory spec-up.
This artful reimagining is nothing if not respectful, as it’s firmly grounded in a foundation of memories. “It’s a 1991 318iS in Alpine white, the exact same model and year as the one my aunt had all those years ago,” he explains. “Getting in and driving it that first time brought me right back to when I was eight years old, riding with her in New York.”
The nostalgia is strong here, and it’s interesting to note that this retro direction appears to be a total departure from what’s come before. “I’ve only really built one other vehicle that I’ve displayed at shows, which was a Hyundai Genesis Coupé 2.0T Track Pack,” says Chino. “That car had your typical mods at the time — BC Racing coilovers, 19” concave Varrstoen wheels, Ark N1 single-exit exhaust, and a Racing Cube top-mounted 14G turbo setup. That project only lasted for a couple of years before I ended up selling it.
Clearly, he’s a man who knows how to put together a decent performance car, with a keen eye for what works both mechanically and aesthetically… and also that he’s someone who knows what he likes. And while a warmed-up Hyundai may have ticked several boxes, it’s not where his true passion lies: that part of his affections has always really been aligned with the cars of the 1980s and ’90s. “I feel that the vehicles of that time period touch on all of the senses of the driving experience,” he reasons, and it’s difficult to argue.
Honestly, in his heart of hearts, Chino knew he wanted an E30. And when he happened across one of the same year and spec that started the whole story for him back in the day, it was a no-brainer to snap it up straight away. “I found this car after searching for about a month or so in Carlsbad, CA,” he recalls. “The body was in decent shape, and the interior was pretty immaculate, with only the dashboard having a couple of deep cracks in it. The car was fitted with some BBS RC090s that were horribly rattlecanned, and in addition to that the entire steering assembly was leaking and the cooling bypass hoses were all cracked and deteriorating. So it was basically your typical E30 that hadn’t been maintained.”
It made for the perfect project base, as Chino was more than capable of fixing these things, and he also had some pretty big plans. There was no way that this car would be remaining stock. Right from the off, he had a plan; he knew that things would be upgraded for performance, although the look you see here isn’t straight what he went for. Indeed, the car’s been through a few distinct evolutions – first of all, it was built up as a track car, then, a period-spec rally car, before he just went wild and, with the SEMA show in his crosshairs, decided to build a daily-drivable race car with a show-quality finish. Because why not?
“When I started to take the project in this new direction, the body and paintwork came first,” he says. “I love the boxy look of all the ’80s race cars, so when Rocket Bunny came out with the Pandem widebody, I knew that was the kit for me. Very simple and clean over-fender look and I had the side stripes painted in authentic 1980s M3 colours by @indypaints. I then had R1 Concepts sponsor the build with six-pot front and four-pot rear brakes, and EVO61 Wheels came on board as a sponsor, providing a beautiful set of LS5 custom two-piece deep-barrel wheels. I wanted to do something different that resembled the 1980s and early ’90s race cars with a modern flair.”
With the aesthetics really coming together, the next step was to install the Studio RSR half-cage, joined by a pair of Tecnocraft carbon-Kevlar buckets, before attention turned once again to the chassis. Air-ride was the order of the day, provided by AccuAir, and with Chino’s brother-in-law working at Garagistic he was able to snaffle up a reinforced front subframe and bushes from there.
As the stage was set for track prowess, the most important ingredient could now be uncorked: the engine. Because as fizzy and amusing as the 318iS’ four-pot is, Chino had his sights set rather higher. Like, later-gen M3 higher. He wanted an S52B32 with a ZF five-speed, and frankly, that’s a delicious idea.
“The engine came out of a US-spec 1998 M3,” he says. “I got the motor pretty cheap, and it was a good start for a naturally aspirated build. The internals are all stock, and we upgraded all the nuts and bolts for the internals to ARP hardware. We rebuilt the oil pump assembly with ECS parts and fitted a new metal high-flow water pump, plus a complete gasket and seal set from ECS. The head was sent out for a mild port and polish on both the intake and exhaust ports, and there’s a rebuilt single-VANOS by DrVanos. An S50 intake manifold with OBD1 conversion was fitted, along with power pulleys by ECS, a 3.5 MAF, a custom tune by SSSquid – the result of all that is around 290hp.” It’s a very decent gain over the stock figure for a US-spec S52 and enough for some truly hilarious performance in the lighter E30.
With the looks, the power, the bigname parts and the unique approach, Chino’s mixed together something truly special here – and the devil’s in the details throughout. “My favourite part of the car is the CF Momo steering wheel and the custom gauges by @e30_dad,” he enthuses. From start to finish, the makeover from its previous guise into this SEMA-worthy spec took around two years, and it was time well spent. Perhaps not a high-stakes poker hand, but certainly a chef’s-kiss of a way to play the long game.
Pandem wide-arch kit looks awesome Rear subframe brace Studio RSR rear cage. Retro roundels. This E30’s stance is on point. Momo CF Prototype wheel IRP V2 shifter Stunning Tecnocraft carbon-Kevlar seats. Condor Speed Shop lightweight door cards.Modded S52 makes around 290hp. Racing Dynamics carbon engine cover.
TECHNICAL DATA FILE S52 E30
- ENGINE AND TRANSMISSION 3.2-litre straight-six S52B32, ARP hardware throughout, ported and polished head, rebuilt single-VANOS by DrVanos, S50 intake manifold with OBD1 conversion, ECS pulleys, 3.5 MAF, custom tune by SSSquid Tuning. Rebuilt ZF five-speed manual gearbox
- POWER Approx. 290bhp
- CHASSIS 8.5x16” (front) and 9.5x16” (rear) EVO61 LS5 custom two-piece wheels with 225/40 (front) and 245/40 (rear) Toyo Proxes RR tyres, AccuAir air suspension and management with ENDO-CVT air tank, reinforced front subframe and bushes from Garagistic, R1 Concepts BBK with six-piston (front) and four-piston (rear) calipers
- EXTERIOR Rocket Bunny Pandem V1 wide-body flares, side skirts and front lip, painted side stripes in authentic 1980s M3 colours – paint and bodywork by @indypaints, custom rear lights by @diverse_motors, E30 M3 headlights with LED bulbs by @concept3
- INTERIOR Tecnocraft carbon-Kevlar bucket seats, OMP four-point harnesses, Momo CF Prototype wheel, OMP quick-release, IRP V2 short-shift, @e30_dad custom gauge cluster, Studio RSR half-cage