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BMW E30 RALLY CAR: THE RIGHT STUFF

Posted by Matt Bell on 4th December 2020

Built to perform rather than look good, this rough and ready, Mitsubishi Evo-powered BMW E30 rally car is the real deal.

Feature taken from Performance BMW. Words & Photos: Robb Pritchard

It’s not the prettiest-looking BMW as not many of its body panels haven’t been attended to with a panel beater’s hammer or been subjected to the attentions of an angle grinder. It started out life as a 325i but is currently powered by a Mitsubishi Evo engine so it packs a bit of a punch. This battered little Beemer is worth a lot more than its rather second-hand parts though. Not only has it managed to survive 30 years in Tanzania which, with its bad roads, even worse drivers and poor quality fuel, is a pretty notable achievement in itself, it’s a rally car… And not just any rally car either. This is the 2016 national Tanzanian two-wheel-drive rally championship winning car and is well worth the trip up from Zanzibar to the foothills of Kilimanjaro to check out.

The dirt road got rougher so the taxi driver had to be careful to straddle the ruts so that the car’s bumper didn’t crunch on the central ridge. Over some bridges that were just half sunk concrete pipes laid across the road and then we turned off onto an even smaller track. We pulled up at an enclosure with a huge metal gate and the sounds of baying dogs coming from the other side… But fortunately the Alsatian pups were all soppy and Monica Lyimo’s wide smile was most welcoming.

My arrival was what prompted Monica to tell the mechanic to stop fiddling with the tractor and go and get the BMW started. The first couple of batteries were dead but with the third one it fired and, with the Evo engine, sounded unlike any BMW I’d ever experienced. The Tanzanian rally championship doesn’t have a big enough pool of entrants to have a class system so there is no real distinction made between homologated cars and classics, or even hybrids. Basically, if you can cobble it together and it passes a rudimentary safety check then you can compete with it.

The E30 wasn’t Monica’s and driver Issack Taylor’s first choice of car, but a terrifying accident at 110mph when a sheared ball joint pitched their Evo IV off the road into a barrel roll that ended the other side of some spectators’ cars left them without a functioning rally car. Luckily they weren’t seriously hurt and, despite it being only being Monica’s third rally and her first major crash, it didn’t dim her desire to pound cars at speed through the African countryside.

Ready-to-race rally cars are rather hard to come across in Tanzania but they did find the shell of a 325i that was going to be a drift car before being abandoned after being stripped and having a sturdy cage fitted. It wasn’t quite what they had in mind but, with their options limited, bought it and went around a few workshops finding all the parts that had been stripped off and stored in different places and spent the next few weeks rebuilding it. The first test drive revealed that everything worked as it should, so they began to get the car ready for their first event.

If the Tanzania rally championship might not be too well-known on the international scene the tracks it uses certainly are. For many years the area around the Serengeti and the Kilimanjaro basin was used as part of the legendary Safari Rally, an event famed from its earliest days to its last for its car-destroying brutality. No sliding around on graded gravel roads for this BMW, it was about to have a very hard life indeed. Obviously standard road car suspension couldn’t hope to cope with the rough stages so a set of Prolinx coilovers were fitted, two surviving ones from the Evo and for the front a pair of second-hand ones that hadn’t been through a barrel roll. Extra bracketing was added to the turrets, although it is not quite precision engineering. A rough shape was cut out of 3mm plate which was then tack-welded on, hammered into shape and welded in.

The chassis was seam welded and extra engine cooling added, with an additional pipe leading straight to the intake of the straight-six engine, as for the first few rallies they ran with the original M20B25. With the car standing 5” higher than normal, a set of 205/65 Dunlop Motorsport Direzza 87R tyres mounted on steelies could be fitted but the rears stuck out past the bodywork, so the arches had to be extended to accommodate them. Cue tin snips, a big hammer and lots of body filler. To funnel air into the cabin an Impreza bonnet scoop covers a roughly-cut hole in the roof… Yet, surprisingly, everything else is stock 1987 BMW. The interior too is purely functional. Loose wires hang out of the dashboard and, because of the new engine, the only things in the dashboard that work are the speedo extracted from the Evo, wedged into the air vent, and the oil pressure light. Meanwhile, a makeshift switchboard is housed in the lower dash valence.

The fourth round of the championship was held up in the highlands around the misty foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro, around coffee plantation access roads. It was very slow compared to most rallies and rewarded good handling and nimble cars… which is how Issack and Monica managed a creditable 11th overall, but more importantly netted the 2WD class win. In doing so Monica became the first-ever female winner in the 50 year history of the Tanzanian rally championship. But that’s only part of the story.

For the next event a rival turned up in a Tuthill-prepared Porsche 911 and on the fast, sweeping roads of rounds five and six he was absolutely untouchable. He even finished fourth overall in one event, in a field of Imprezas and Evos. Issack and Monica finished second in class both times but a long way back, but on the seventh and penultimate round the Porsche got stuck in a ditch for a DNF, letting the BMW team through to their second class win, which set up the final round as a showdown. A stock 325i against a professionally-prepared Safari-spec 911 was a very uneven fight, but Issack had an idea of how to level the playing field slightly. The only undamaged part from the Evo was the engine so out came the stock straight-six and in went the Mitsubishi motor with plumbing that would make any Scrapheap Challenge competitor proud. With both hands and a grimace from the effort to show the glorious sight, the mechanic unhooked the industrial grade bonnet clips for us to see the swap for ourselves. It’s not pretty, with bits of random pipe starting to rust and corner tubing clamped with jubilee clips filling the engine compartment, but it’s exactly what the team needed. In testing it made a huge difference but was so powerful mid-corner that they had to weld the diff up to give it more control. Scoops were cut into the bonnet, both to enable it to fit and for extra cooling, and in the newly named B-Evo they entered the last rally.

With the extra power they were much closer to the Porsche but although not outclassed by it were still out-driven, and for the first few fast and flowing stages the lead slipped away. But in the days leading up to the rally it had rained so heavily that the plain was temporarily flooded. It was still muddy but passable, although the original track had been decimated under the locals’ wheel tracks as they found ways around the mud pits. In the middle of it all was a junction, which now didn’t look anything like it did on the recce. Many crews missed it, including the Porsche. But Monica didn’t. A five-minute deficit suddenly turned into a five-minute lead and, with just a few stages to go, Issack drove flat out, Monica kept calm and they won both their class and more importantly the 2016 rear wheel drive championship with Monica becoming the only woman champion in the more than 50 year history of the Tanzanian Rally Championship.

Growing up in Wales I used to stand in the forests of North Wales with freezing feet watching the RAC Rally. It was the Safari Rally that passed through Monica’s town of Arusha in the heartland of Tanzania and she remembers Mehta, Mikkola, Waldergaard, Kankunnen and other greats covering her in dust, and she always had the mantra in her head of “One day that will be me.” Her dream was to just be speeding through the landscape in a rally car but the championship-winning reality turned out to be far beyond anything she could ever have imagined. As for the team’s trusty E30, it just goes to show that looks aren’t everything and having the right tool for the job is far more important. It might be far from the prettiest machine we’ve ever featured but it was built with a pure purpose and it’s damn good at what it does, as are Monica and Issack and, with one win under their belts, they’ve got a taste for victory and are hungry for more.

Tech Spec: BMW E30 Rally Car

Engine & Transmission:

2.0-litre four cylinder single-turbo 4G63T, custom straight-through exhaust system. Getrag 260 five-speed manual, welded diff

Chassis:

15” steel wheels with 205/65 (front and rear) Dunlop Motorsport Direzza 87R rally tyres, Prolinx coilovers (front and rear), 5” lift, reinforced suspension turrets

Exterior:

Modified bonnet with scoop, industrial bonnet clips, protective radiator mesh, extended wheel arches, roof-mounted Subaru Impreza bonnet scoop for cabin ventilation

Interior:

Sparco Evo carbon fibre seats with five-point harnesses, master cut-off switch, oil temp warning light and Mitsubishi Evo speedo, full custom roll-cage