Nissan SR20DET-swapped drift BMW E30 Coupe

BLUE PLANET  SR20-swapped drift E30

“I’m a 1980s child, I just love cars from the ’80s,” David Stewart tells us, standing proudly beside his Estoril blue 3 Series. “I like the shape of the E30 and have always admired them – but I could never admit that, being a Ford man!” Sorry David, the cat’s well and truly out of the bag now. They won’t let you back into Dagenham after this… Interestingly, it was drifting that got him into Bavarian motoring; David’s owned a Ford Orion for 17 years, which was rebuilt from a bare shell and has a 2.1 ZVH turbo – but FWD saloons aren’t renowned for their proficiency in sliding matters, and when Driftland (the UK’s only dedicated drift track) opened up down the road from his house, our man started thinking about interesting ways to get his tail out.

“I was looking for something to learn to drift in, and having never owned a RWD car I purchased an E36 328i – it was the cheapest car to learn in at the time,” he reasons. So why the switch to the E30? “A mate I worked with in a garage a few years ago had a Dolphin grey 325i M Tech 2, slammed with five-spokes on it and it just looked perfect. It was his fault I started reading Performance BMW, as he used to buy it every month and leave it in the office! Which I read when no-one was looking, obviously… and like I say, I’ve just always loved the E30 shape.”

With David’s drifting skills improving, it was a happy collision of circumstances that saw a car he’d always admired appear for sale which had already been set up for drifting – the perfect complement to the new hobby. The hunt had already idly begun to seek out an E30 to fit a turbo’d motor into, and when this one surfaced it was a no-brainer: it’d already been fitted with the Nissan SR20 engine, and was essentially a road-legal skidder with a full interior. The base car was a 316 with 70k on the clock, so a pretty decent starting point. As it arrived into David’s possession, there was a little remedial work to do as the bonnet had blown open at some point and smashed the windscreen, and he had to bring his own steering wheel to collect it as it didn’t have one! “It was a bit rough, but it was all there,” he says. “Well, most of it anyway! The standard of work wasn’t up to my own standards, that’s for sure – so I knew I’d have to sort a few things out, which turned into pretty much the whole car…”

This is often the case when we hear of people buying up other people’s projects. There are always things that you would have done differently, and it’ll always feel like someone else’s car unless you do it right. So the initial plan to simply give the E30 a lick of paint and get drifting in it rapidly went out of the window; the more David dug through his new acquisition, the more jobs he found for himself. “It wasn’t looking good,” he recalls with a grimace, “as the man-hours and list of jobs were so long, I wished I hadn’t bought it. I used it for about a year trying to sort all the issues, but kept falling out with the car as it just felt terrible to drive. I really thought about selling it.”

He’s made of sterner stuff however, as the finished product before you suggests. Rather than throw in the towel, David drew up a to-do list and set about building the thing his way. The first order of business was the engine: although the SR20 conversion was serviceable, the wiring needed thoroughly reworking to tidy it up and make good, and then a whole host of other improvements rapidly followed. The boost pipes were renewed and the intercooler re-mounted lower down, while the aluminium radiator received new fans; David replaced the brake pipes and flexis, and added new fuel lines that now run inside the car. A custom exhaust system was fabricated, the gearbox was refreshed and treated to a quick-shift, and an SLRspeed Mini steering kit was fitted. This is a nifty setup which replaces the original outer ball joint with a Teflon-lined spherical bearing, using the SLR steering plate to correct roll-centre while adjusting bump-steer to match. It also hugely quickens the rack, and in this instance it’s running with E46 arms and Powerflex lollipop bushes.

With the further addition of some new buckets and harnesses, as well as the relocation of the battery to behind the passenger seat, David had the E30 in an improved and drift-worthy state.

“I ran it like that for about a year, and the list of other things I wanted to improve kept growing,” he laughs. “The car came with Gaz coilovers, adjustable top mounts and cut springs welded to the rear axle, and E46 arms with a homemade lock kit. However the steering was really bad, and actually felt dangerous as it did strange things mid-drift… I would say it was on the verge of killing me at some points! This had to be addressed, so I fitted a new custom steering UJ and standard hubs, then upgraded to the SLR Mini steering kit which transformed the car. It had a hydraulic handbrake plumbed into the rear drums but it was on the wrong side of the tunnel for me to reach, so I relocated and replaced this; I also wanted rid of the drums, so I sourced a set of rear suspension arms to convert it to discs. Grip was also a big issue – like all E30s, when you lower them you get a lot of camber; I sourced a rear axle that had been modified to adjust the toe and camber, and this was all powder coated and fitted back up with new wheel bearings, calipers, back plates and so on, and refitted with the factory handbrake as it didn’t have one before.”

With a proper four-wheel alignment and the rear camber zeroed for improved grip, the refreshed chassis was ready to deploy those rampaging Japanese horses. David happily admits he can’t take credit for the engine itself, but nevertheless it’s an impressive unit: fully rebuilt with ACL bearings, it’s got a larger T28R turbo and front-mount intercooler, Nismo 555cc injectors and a Horsham Developments Stage 2 ECU, which is good for somewhere in the region of 280-300hp. Plenty for Driftland high jinks in such a lightweight car, and that new 3” turbo-back exhaust system from Pipe Dynamics certainly has it making all the right noises.

Now that the fundamentals had been taken care of in order to harness that power and artfully smear it across the tarmac, David was set to tackle the thing he’d been planning to start with in the first place: the aesthetics. Beginning with the wheels, he replaced the Rotas it arrived on with a set of Azev A 16s, on the grounds that they’re a period-perfect addition to a hot E30. No arguments here. And then it was time for that lick of paint he’d been talking about…

“The car was originally blue but every panel was a different shade due to all the rattle can blow-ins and drift damage,” he says. “It also had single headlights with a modified grille, standard bumpers, and the bottom back panel and boot floor cut out. I hated the way the car looked really, but had to use it like that to get it mechanically sound first before I attempted the bodywork. So it gave me plenty of time to decide on a total colour change and some body modifications! When my mate rocked up at my house one day with his E46 M3 in Estoril blue, I knew right away that was the colour it was going to be.”

With more of a keenness for cleanness than body kits and spoilers, David sought out old-school crispness rather than ostentatious embellishment; he stripped the E30 down and addressed the minor rust that hid within, replacing the wings and rolling the arches, before handing it to a panel-beater mate to perfect the details; after the fuel filler, aerial and sunroof were deleted it then went off to Toole Design for its fresh new coat of Estoril blue. “The guys did a great job and got it back to me in no time,” he grins. “I then fitted fibreglass M Tech 2 bumpers, which look so much better, and when I built it back up and fitted the freshly powder coated wheels it looked like a totally different car – it was exactly how I imagined it would look!”

The final flourish was the reworking of the insides, as while the car arrived in David’s possession with a full interior, power-to-weight is key when it comes to tyre-slaying. There was one over-arching plan, and that was to gut the car and bin it all, and that’s basically what he did; cream seats and brown carpets didn’t exactly scream ‘drift’, so the necessary buckets, harnesses and roll-cage were bolted in and that was essentially job done. Additional gauges help him to keep an eye on those all-important vital signs, with function dictating form throughout – while also working hand-in-hand with it. There are arguably few things in the automotive world as attractive as functionally necessary parts that have been chosen, finished and installed thoughtfully.

All in all it took David around two years to get the car the way he wanted it, and it was not without its headaches and tribulations. The roll-cage, for example, was an extraordinarily tight fit; coming from an E30 hillclimber, it involved cutting out all of the sunroof gizzards to get it in. And the exhaust that came with the car, that was a total mish-mash which snaked about and exited from the side.

And the wiring, and… well let’s just say it wasn’t an easy ride. But the finished product is exactly what David imagined from the start, with the added bonus that he’s re-engineered it to work properly too! While some might argue that running a drift car with a flawless body is asking for trouble, this fella’s not too worried about that. Having rebuilt it once, he knows it inside-out and it really was built for one thing: drifting. As you can see from our boisterously smoky shoot, he’s using it precisely as intended­.

DATA FILE SR20 Drift E30

ENGINE AND TRANSMISSION 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo Nissan SR20DET, fully-rebuilt with ACL bearings and gasket set, Horsham Developments Stage 2 ECU, Nismo 555cc injectors, T28R turbo with 3” elbow-back exit into custom 3” pipe, Pipe Dynamics stainless exhaust system with 3” twin inward-rolled tips, Forge front-mount intercooler, blue silicone boost hoses, aluminium radiator with twin fans, Ramair induction kit, braided fuel lines, LSR 60-litre baffled fuel cell, twin Flutra high pressure pumps in LSR cradle, two-litre swirl pot, Nissan 350Z fuel filter, adjustable boost control running 1-1.5 bar. Nissan five-speed manual gearbox with modified mounts, Stage 4 competition clutch, quick-shift, custom prop, 4.10 welded diff with Powerflex diff mount

CHASSIS 9×16” ET15 (front and rear) Azev A wheels with 205/45 (front and rear) Uniroyal RainSport 3 tyres, stud conversion, Gaz coilovers with adjustable top mounts (front), Gaz adjustable shocks with PI 60mm springs (rear), E46 purple tag quick-rack, custom UJ from Dan Harbow, SR20 power steering pump, SLRspeed Mini steering kit with E46 arms and Powerflex lollipop bushes, modified rear axle for adjustable toe and camber, fully poly bushed with rear disc conversion, drilled discs with Mintex pads (front and rear), braided lines

EXTERIOR Estoril blue, all chrome and trim painted satin black, rolled front and rear arches, fuel cap, aerial and sunroof delete, spare wheel well removed and jacking point installed, M Tech 2 fibreglass quick-release bumpers, aero bonnet catches, front and rear tow straps

INTERIOR OMP TRS side-mount bucket seats, STR fourpoint harnesses, fully-stripped interior and doors, Perspex windows, black Perspex front and rearquarter door cards with alloy door handles, deepdish steering wheel, boost, oil pressure, oil temp and water temp gauges, carbon-style battery box with main cut-off switch, Kode alloy gear knob, McGill Motorsport hydraulic handbrake with extended lever, custom six-point bolt-in roll-cage powder coated in anthracite

THANKS Thanks to Driftland, DG Automotive, Toole Design for the paintwork, Derek for the panel work, E30 Street for parts, LSR for alloy products

LSR 60-litre baffled fuel cell. OMP TRS side-mount bucket seats Kode alloy gear knob. Classic 16” Azev As. E30 looks stunning in Estoril blue.

“It’s an impressive unit: fully rebuilt with ACL bearings, it’s got a larger T28R turbo and front-mount intercooler, Nismo 555cc injectors and a Horsham Developments Stage 2 ECU, which is good for somewhere in the region of 280-300hp”

“There was one over-arching plan, and that was to gut the car and bin it all, and that’s basically what he did… the necessary buckets, harnesses and roll-cage were bolted in and that was essentially job done”

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Jean-Claude Landry
Jean-Claude is the Senior Editor at, and, and webmaster of He has been a certified auto mechanic for the last 15 years, working for various car dealers and specialized repair shops. He turned towards blogging about cars and EVs in the hope of helping and inspiring the next generation of automotive technicians. He also loves cats, Johnny Cash and Subarus.