First love Australian Keith Olsen bought a tired 3.0Si 15 years ago. Since then, it’s undergone a full restoration and sensitive modification, on an Alpina theme…
To paraphrase Mick Jagger, you can’t always get what you want but, sometimes, you get what you need. This was very much the case with Keith Olsen and his stunning, 1974 3.0Si. Purchased 25 years ago, back when he was a third-year mechanic’s apprentice at a BMW specialist, it wasn’t the car that he wanted, but the price difference between it and his dream CSi was just too great.
But carrying out most of the necessary restoration work himself taught Keith a huge amount, and helped him grow as a mechanic to the point where he and his friend, Andrew Brien, could feel confident about opening-up SouthernBM, which is now Victoria’s largest BMW specialist workshop.
Going back to when he bought it, Keith says the E3 was clean, but needed a bit of work. The previous owner purchased the car new in 1974, and ran it as his daily commuter, racking up 130,000 – mostly highway – kilometres, before selling it. As with any wellused daily-driver, there were plenty of sins to fix before the car would be anything like the condition you see it in here.
“It had the good bones to be a nice car,” Keith explained, “but it had the usual rust areas – the bottoms of the doors and a little bit on the sills and stuff.” The paint was also faded from years of exposure to the harsh, Australian sun, so that would also have to be dealt with. Initially, though, Keith simply ran the E3 as his own daily, tidying things up here and there, and enjoying the car for about a year before deciding that he would pull it off the road for a full restoration; something he could do easily at his workplace at the time, thanks to their focus on older BMWs and the on-site paint booth.
At least, a restoration was the initial plan. Once he got started, though, his love for all things Alpina won through, and he eventually decided that, while a genuine Alpina may have been difficult to get in Australia (they only started official imports very recently) and thus prohibitively expensive for a young enthusiast to buy, he could at least build a tribute car in his own style.
“As far as I was concerned, BMW’s close and productive relationship with Alpina, meant that I simply loved the turning specialist. Its modifications, tasteful design work and such like, simply inspired me to make a few little changes to my car. And the Si was a car I thought would be nice to transform, as it was my own car. That’s where the performance changes and small cosmetic changes, plus things like the instrument binnacle inside, come from. I could have done a lot more, but I do still appreciate the classic look of the car as well. I didn’t want to make too many changes. Like a true Alpina, I wanted to keep it tasteful.”
And that he has. There are 16in Alpina wheels, Alpina badge and lowered stance thanks to Bilstein dampers and custom springs. However, you’d be hard pressed to see this as anything other than a nice restoration job from anything more than 10 feet away. The original Ruby red paint has been applied beautifully over the refreshed panels (complete with leading work to replace the plastic filler in some places) and sparkles in the sun like its namesake gemstone, and all the rubber seals and mouldings are fresh and new.
Anything that hasn’t been replaced, like the rear window moulding, were apparently in such good condition, and cleaned up so well, as to appear new – to the untrained eye anyway. It basically looks better than ‘factory fresh’.
As for the interior, aforementioned binnacle aside (which Keith hand-formed and fitted with VDO gauges), there’s been little changed either. The front seats were treated to new Nappa leather by Blackman Auto Trimming, but matched to the rear pew’s stock vinyl in terms of colour, quilting and perforations, and the rest is either new factory or cleaned-up original.
Obviously, the 1990s-spec Clarion head unit and Alpine speakers weren’t there when it left the showroom back in 1974, but they’re relatively subtle changes, even if Keith still kicks himself for throwing away the mint, original Blaupunkt AM radio, when in his 20s, acknowledging that it’d be worth a mint now. So, if the exterior and interior are basically stock, albeit with some Alpina flourishes, what makes this more like an Alpina than a regular Beemer? Well, it’s the mechanicals, as you might have guessed. Although it does more to cars these days, Alpina in the 70s was more about subtle, yet substantial mechanical mods than anything else, and this car follows that path.
Obviously, you have the upgraded suspension and stickier Bridgestone rubber on those Alpina wheels, but the biggest change, in true Alpina style, comes from the engine. Having pulled it for the body respray, Keith decided to go down an unusual, but again, near-factory style of tuning.
He replaced the original motor with the ‘big-bore’ M30B34 block from an E24 635, and fitted it with the 88.4mm stroke camshaft from the 3.3-litre E3 L, thus creating a 3.8-litre monster. To make it all work, he needed some custom-made Mahle pistons, but that was it, at least mechanically. Everything else inside, from bearings to rods, is as it was when it left the factory.
Electronically, as one might expect, things are rather different, with Keith deciding on a first-gen Motec M48, which debuted the company’s sequential ignition system, to run everything. “I bought it because I thought it would be a perfect match for the 3.8,” he says. “There was nothing that you could use from the factory that would cater for the capacity change – the BMW or Motronic systems just didn’t put enough fuel or timing in there, so the full sequential, aftermarket set-up was the best option.
“Of course, these days you can buy much more capable ECUs for a fraction of the price I paid back then”. Indeed, demonstrating just how much technology has evolved over the years, Keith says he still has the floppy discs needed to run the tuning software in his toolbox. Not that you could run them easily today if you needed to update the tune.
Having got the short block sorted, thanks to Crankshaft Rebuilders in Blackburn, and picked out the electronics, Keith then set about making the rest of the engine a little stronger too, with a 282-degree Schrick cam, 1mm oversized valves and head machining by Eddie Wood at HSD.
The beautiful, heat-wrapped and HPCcoated custom headers (a big deal back in the early-mid 1990s) finished off the hot side in style, while Keith splashed out on a Swedish TWM intake kit for the cold side.
“They were big bucks, back in the day. I think that particular throttle set-up cost about six grand in the mid-90s. I could buy a car for that, but it was cool!” he laughs. Rather strangely, he then went and manufactured an alloy cover and filter box to quieten it down again, but Keith mentions that this will go eventually, as he does want to hear it.
As you might expect, the result is very much the ‘iron fist in a velvet glove’ feeling that Alpinas are known for. “It has great torque,” Keith states. “Like a modern turbo motor, you can just pull away from 1,500rpm, and it goes. M30 motors always a had good reputation for torque, and the 3.8 just ups that.”
The reasonable cam also avoids the lumpiness problems some tuned M30s are known for, further enhancing that Alpina-like feeling. If you’re wondering about power, it’s a dyno-tested 315hp at the flywheel but, thanks to the simple, stout driveline, Keith also only had to fit an M5 clutch to ensure the whole thing could handle the extra grunt. The factory four-speed Getrag and 3.25 LSD rear-end remain intact.
What’s perhaps sad, though, is that while this car remains Keith’s first love, and a lot of work has gone into the restoration and upgrades over the eight years or so the whole process took, he hardly uses it. It never gets driven in the rain and, apparently, heading up into the lovely Dandenong Ranges, north-east of Melbourne, for the photo shoot was the first time he’d driven in it many moons.
“Since I’ve owned it, I kid you not, I’ve probably only done a total of 15,000km,” he says. Admittedly, Melbourne’s propensity for rainy days aside, Keith does have other reasons for not using it; namely, the fact he can take any number of tuned company demo cars home whenever he wants, plus he has his own Mora metallic E60 M5 as a daily driver.
But the E3’s lack of use will no doubt be a sore point for plenty of readers. Not that Keith himself is too fussed about it. He says he just enjoys owning it more than anything else, as it’s still his first car – one that taught him a lot – and is there for sentimental value now. Having said that, he acknowledges he still loves driving it, saying “on the way back from the shoot, just giving it a few squirts here and there, it just came alive, and just wanted to keep going.
“It hardly gets those sorts of drives regularly, so it felt really good.” Indeed, that drive seemed to remind Keith enough of its charms to make him use it a little more afterwards, picking his daughters up from dance classes and so on, the following weekend. Of course, he parked it again soon after, but at least it got a little exercise.
As for that dream 3.0CSi? Well, thanks to lady luck, Keith recently bought one; a beautiful Turkis green example with grey leather to match his sedan. Like the Si was when he first got it, there are a few things (mainly in the cabin) that need fixing straight away, and there are plans for a full restoration in about “10-15 years’ time”, but he’s content for now.
“It’s sanity, in a way. Owning these cars is what keeps me happy and motivated to do what I do. I obviously love BMWs, and a lot of customers see that. When you have a passion for it, they tend to want you to work on their cars, because you have that same sort of passion towards their stuff as well.”
Subtle, Alpina-themed modifications and ruby red paintwork combine to produce a striking-looking E3.
Right: An unmistakable profile. The car sits slightly lower than standard, on Bilstein dampers and custom springs. Below: Alterations to the interior have been kept to a minimum, although the most obvious feature… below centre: … is the centre instrument binnacle, that Keith made himself and fitted with VDO gauges. The main instrument cluster – as with most of the interior – remains standard. Left: At the heart of this car is the ‘big-bore’ M30B34 block from an E24 635, fitted with the camshaft from a 3.3-litre E3 L, creating a 315bhp-producing, 3.8-litre monster. Note the beautiful, heatwrapped custom intake manifold. Above: Keith splashed out on a Swedish TWM intake kit. Although the E3 doesn’t get as much use as Keith would like, it’s still the number one BMW in his collection.
It wasn’t the car that he wanted, but the price difference between it and his dream CSi was just too great.
He just enjoys owning it more than anything else, as it’s still his first car – one that taught him a lot