Monday, December 14, 2015

Turn an unassuming BMW E21 into a V8-powered pro-street monster-Auto News Blog


Back in the day, the quickest factory E21 you could buy was the 323i. It was quite some car, with great lines and a character defining, potent and seriously sultry six-pot. It was also a car that required a gentle touch when the going was wet or greasy, and it didn’t quite possess the charm of its predecessor, the 2002. But the 323i certainly melded style with substance and helped pin BMW to the aspirational and high-performance maps.




My sister had a 323i, but hers was an Alpina C1 with a tuned 2.3. Suffice to say, I ‘borrowed’ said Alpina whenever the keys were ‘available’, relishing its free-spirited and seamless 170hp. For the most part, I even managed to keep this Bavarian beautypointing in the right direction. Fun times. Which is why I've always held a candle for the E21... and who I scan classifieds from time-to-time. Just in case!


Like me, Andy Tidy’s a big fan of the E21. Plus he’s a long-time devotee of drag racing, and is particularly fond of the ‘pro-street’ scene. And, as you can see, he’s managed to morph these two passions quite brilliantly. Over to Andy for some background info: “I’ve been in and around BMWs for years. Especially E30s and E36s. I’ve got a thing for the E21 too. It’s got such classic styling and you don’t see many around. Then there’s my drag racing interests, hence the pro- street. Pro-street is basically a car that has the shell modified from the firewall back, typically referred to as a back-half (tubbed)  car. The arches are kept standard, the axle is narrowed and wide rear wheels are fitted within modified wheelwells.  Its also usal to have interior trim and cars can often be road legal too.  I'd been contemplating building a pro-strate E21for sometime but things only started to take shape in 2010. 



Things actually started to take shape following a visit to Santa Pod, where Andy happened to bump into his good mate, and pro-street legend, Winston Sewell. Fuelled by the on-strip action, and the heady and high-octane atmosphere, imagination went into overdrive. “Winston, who’s a good friend of mine, is well-known and respected in the pro-street world,” explains Andy. “He’s the man behind Gimme 5 Racing and has a superb pro-street Rover P5 and an equally nice pro-street Cortina Mk5. Anyhow, I was caught up in the heat of the moment and mentioned that I’d like to do something similar with an E21.”
To cut a longish story short, a plan was hatched and Winston, and a bunch of other mates agreed to help out. Enthused, Andy went in search of a suitable E21. One that was ripe for conversion... but not too ripe. “The E21 is a rare car nowadays, which is why I didn’t want to convert a really nice example,” he elaborates. “I’m a classic car enthusiast too! Luckily, through the E21 forum, I found one that had failed its MoT, been stripped, and then laid up. What’s more, it was just three miles away! It was minus its engine, box and interior, and had been sitting outside for some months, but was surprisingly sound. Perfect for what I had in mind.”
As already alluded to, what Andy had in mind was to convert this forlorn farmyard find into a pro-street machine. What’s more, it was going to be of the highest calibre and blessed with a lot of power. “As well as being built to the best standards, it was always going to be a high-power car,” says Andy. “As soon as the project was mooted, I knew I was going to fit a V8, a small-block Chevy V8 in fact. It made sense!”
With the kind of power he was aiming for, and with the distinct possibility of the E21 seeing some action on the drag strip, Andy also knew it made sense to get the shell and chassis race-prepped. So, heeding good advice, he headed in the direction of the supremely-skilled and delightfully-named Guinea Pig Racing.
“A mate of mine, Mick Melford, suggested that I took the car to George and his son Kai, at Guinea Pig Racing,” continues Andy. “Happily, they agreed to do the conversion. They started by fitting new sills, a new rear panel and repairing the A posts. Then they fabricated a tubular rear chassis, fitted a ten-point roll-cage, moved the front bulkhead back by eight inches and modified it, and fabricated the engine mounts, gearbox tunnel and rear floor. They also supplied and fitted the narrowed Ford 9” axle and ladder bar suspension. The end result is astonishing. They had the car for around four months and brought it to life.”
George and Kai certainly breathed new life into this E21, giving it a whole new purpose, and there’s no denying that the transformation has been beautifully executed and well integrated. But it’s also important to appreciate that many of Andy’s friends contributed to this project too; bringing with them a wealth of knowledge, skills and, importantly, enthusiasm. “After the car came back from Guinea Pig, Dave Gunther came over and welded in a new front panel, cross-member and front valance,” adds Andy. “Dan, Rob, Kenny, Winston, John and Lenny all pitched in too. I used to be a panel beater/sprayer and the paintwork, which is Ford Monza blue, I did with the help of John Gale at his bodyshop in Rainham. To be honest, I’d never done anything remotely like this project before and I certainly couldn’t have done it on my own. This car is a real team effort.”
A team effort for sure. Yet it’s important to remember that Andy, who’s very modest about what he’s achieved, came up with the idea, masterminded the project; and spent every spare minute working in his cramped single garage or, whenever the weather was clement, working outside on his drive. The work included the engine build, transmission fitting and most of the running gear install. The end result is a car that has been finished to an exceptionally high standard, looks drop dead gorgeous and is kitted out with high quality components.

“I was never going to skimp on quality,” mentions Andy. “Every part is the best I could afford and more than fit for the purpose intended. The narrowed Ford axle is fitted with Strange halfshafts and a Detroit ‘Locker’ diff. It’s good for 1000hp apparently. The transmission is a Chevy TH350 auto, but with manual valve bodies. This means it will ‘flat’ shift. Mixing and matching the parts we had, Rob Knibbs and I built the Chevy V8, which is stroked to 5.8 litres. We did have a small problem early on, with low oil pressure, so we pulled the engine. With the help of John Tudor, it was rebuilt with a roller cam, roller rockers, monster-sized valves, and AFR heads. The carb is Holley 650 ‘double-pumper’, and there’s a Mallory distributor and MSD ignition. The headers and system were made by Powerspeed.”
To be honest, the engine didn’t really need any power, but the upgrades added another 100hp or so. Power is now in the region of 500hp and Andy reports that the performance is stunning and the torque colossal! Thankfully, the chassis revisions including the ladder bar rear setup, the huge and exceedingly grippy 325/50 15 Mickey Thomson tyres, and the aforementioned Locker diff, ensure that this E21 handles the power and torque with ease. In drag racing terms: it ‘hooks up’ very nicely indeed.
It steers well too and in-keeping with the pro-street look, the front tyres are much slimmer. Wheels are Image three-piece splits all-round. “With pro-street, and drag racing in general, the front wheels/tyres are much narrower,” reveals Andy. “I went for a 185 width because the car doesn’t have power steering. It drives really well, very manageable, and it stops well too. There are Hi Spec discs and four-pots up front and Mercedes 190E discs and Wilwood calipers at the rear.”
So, this E21 is blessed with sublime bodywork, goes like the proverbial off a shovel and has seriously effective brakes. It even sports a very purposeful interior: one that’s been kitted out for the strip... but not quite stripped out. “I wanted the race car look,” says Andy. “But I also wanted some creature comforts. It has Perspex side and rear windows, but it is fully carpeted (by James Allitt) and has carbon door trims. The seats are Steve Tillett carbon, which I bought as ‘slight seconds’. Lenny Millet did the wiring and the instruments are from Autometer. I’m really delighted with how the car has turned out. It’s exactly as I envisaged. It’s perfect in fact – and most definitely a keeper!”


Little wonder Andy is so pleased... and little wonder that this E21 is a keeper. It’s something of a sleeper too. True, when viewed from the rear, the gargantuan tyres and sizeable silencers are something of a giveaway. However, from many angles, DJF 737Y provides few clues as to its stratospheric performance potential. This is a truly fabulous creation and the perfect embodiment of a pro-street machine. It exudes quality, has masses of street presence, yet is still very much an E21. It’s a family classic... with attitude. Speaking of family, Emily, Andy’s daughter, has nicknamed it the ‘Bavarian Beefcake’. Great name, great car 

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