Words and photos by Zach Mayne
Tim Chinen’s BMW Bavaria is the kind of big-hearted car that makes you unintentionally utter worn out clichés, like “they just don’t make them like they used to.” And the Bavaria is rolling proof that they don’t. Everyone seems to love this model. Of course it doesn’t hurt that Chinen's example left the factory with incredible looking Agave Green paint and has a perfect stance thanks to a slightly lowered suspension over larger alloys from a later 7 Series. But even beyond the visual upgrades, there’s just something about the Bavaria’s straight, honest, uncluttered lines that is incredibly appealing. Based on the BMW 2500 sedan, the Bavaria was a U.S.-only model that originally boasted a larger 2800-cc motor.
“The great thing about this car is that almost every time I drive it someone comments on it. At gas stations, parking lots, while I’m driving in traffic,” says Chinen. On the road, this Bavaria feels as good as it looks, thanks in large part to the aforementioned lower, firmer suspension and upgraded wheels but more importantly because of the engine hiding under that expansive hood. Rather than the original motor, Chinen’s Bavaria relies on motivation from a later E28 535i, which displaces 3.4-liters. When it left the factory, this Bavaria was powered by a Zenith carbureted 2.8-liter. Certainly not a bad motor, but the larger displacement M30 really makes an older model like a Bavaria come to life, particularly when paired with a Getrag 5-speed and limited slip differential from an E28 as well.
“I’ve always had an appreciation for old BMWs and Porsches,” says Chinen. “So I thought this was such a cool car, especially since it had tasteful upgrades from newer BMW models to make it a more modern and better performing car.” Chinen got his start with BMWs in High School, when he drove his parent’s 1980, E12-generation 528i to school and back for a couple of years. Since then he’s owned a couple of E36 M3s and an E46 M3
The Bavaria was purchased from Chinen’s long-time friend Eric Ingraham, the team manager and strategist for the Flying Lizards’ race team that fields Porsches in a number of different racing championships. The first time Chinen saw the Bavaria was in Northern California in 2006 where after a brief passenger ride he was highly impressed with the transformation effected by the driveline swap. “I told Eric if he ever decided to sell it, to give me a call,” says Chinen. Ingraham had just acquired the Bavaria and wasn’t ready to part with it just yet. In early 2009 though, he contacted Chinen and told him the car was for sale. It was a purchase that Chinen couldn’t resist, despite the fact that his garage already had an E36 M3 parked in it along with the pristine, low mileage 914 that his father had bought brand new.
The Bavaria was converted to its current spec by a previous owner, Pete Schoenenberger, before being purchased by Ingraham. Converting an M30 motor to fit in an E3 is not that difficult but there are some special things that need to be done to allow the bigger motor and different fuel system work in the car. Parts like the fuel return lines and the high pressure fuel pump for the Motronic fuel injection have to be swapped over from the E28. To add some needed room in the engine bay, the brake booster was replaced with a smaller 2002tii unit. The Bavaria’s driveshaft was also shortened so it could mate up to the gearbox and E28 LSD. An E28 clutch master cylinder was also installed to allow the use of the E28 5-speed. On the cooling side of things, the stock radiator was replaced with a high efficiency one from Silicon Garage.
The Bavaria’s suspension uses springs from Suspension Techniques, paired with Bilstien Sport shocks up front and Konis at the rear. A set of E12 5 Series sway bars reduce body roll and front and rear strut tower braces sharpen up chassis feel. On the braking side of things, the Bavaria makes do with its original four-wheel disc brakes fitted with PBR Deluxe brake pads The rubber brake lines have been swapped for braided steel line for a firmer pedal feel.
Since acquiring it, Chinen has continued improving the BMW’s performance. A healthy M30 puts out around 183 horsepower and a generous 214 lb-ft of torque, but Chinen has since added an EAT chip from Mark D’Sylva. He immediately noticed a marked improvement in throttle response and horsepower, particularly in the mid-range and at high-rpms. The “coke bottle” alloys that were on it have been replaced with16x8-inch Style 32 alloys from an E38 7 Series shod with 225/50-16 Kumho Ecstas. “With the 225-width tires I have to run seven millimeter spacers in the front so that the tires don’t rub on the strut,” Chinen adds.
The Bavaria’s Dark Tan interior complements the Agave exterior, and while the seats are slab-sided and offer little in the way of real bolstering they are very comfortable. With the exception of an early E28 steering wheel, the airy feeling interior remains in stock configuration. Once we’re seated behind the wheel, outward visibility is terrific thanks to the generous greenhouse.
On the road, the Bavaria offers a beguiling combination of of vintage refinement and updated performance. The increased displacement from the 3.5-liter really brings the car to life. It revs smoothly and cleanly, aided by the D-Sylva chip, and sounds terrific. The exhaust has a muted, metallic howl at higher rpms. And though the Bavaria is not fast by modern standards there is something extremely gratifying about running the engine up through the gears. Thanks to the addition of a short shift kit, shift action feels quick and positive with no excess slop in its action that most older Bavarias suffer from.
Around corners the Bavaria corners with a little body roll but also provided confidence inspiring stability. Once the suspension takes a set, the big BMW feels surprisingly nimble, though it lacks the finesse of a later E12 or E28 5 Series. There’s not too much feedback from the extremities of the long wheelbase, but the tires feel latched to the pavement. About the only thing that dulls the experience is the boat-like steering, which is neither quick nor all that responsive. Overall, the Bavaria still feels great to wheel around, whether it’s around a series of sweeping bends or simply crusing down the boulevard.
“With the running gear, it performs very well, especially on the freeway,” notes Chinen. “It will cruise at 80-mph all day long with no effort, even 90 to 100-mph. It’s not a fast car, but it’s acceleration could surprise people since it looks like an old classic... it’s difficult to describe, but it just has the classic BMW characteristic and is very enjoyable to drive.” We’d have to agree with that sentiment wholeheartedly. Here’s hoping that Chinen preserves and keeps this old classic on the road for years to come.