Building Cheap Performance With A Wankel When Style Points Are King

It has two hoods, machine guns made out of PVC pipe, and reading the dash’s switchboard is akin to watching a Mel Brooks movie. In the words of its owner, Chris Kamradt, “The car used to be a 1984 BMW 318i. We’re not so sure what you’d call it now.”

But, what else would you expect from a vehicle hand-picked to compete in the wacky but wonderful 24 Hours of Lemons racing? With notable events such as the “Arse-Freeze-Apalooza” and the “Tony Swan Never Say Die Memorial,” you know that serious racing is NOT taken too seriously. Why else would you have two switches — one for Ludicrous Speed, the other for Ludacris Speed? Don’t worry, there are pictures to help you decide if you’re one of those folks who order-by-number off the big, overhead board.

Lemons being what it is, our first action was to make things worse. – Chris Kamradt, Flaccid Chassis Racing

The Art Of Lemons

Lemons racing is a mandatory low-cost, one-finger salute to the typical racing wallets found on many racetracks today. We could go through and point out all of the highlights and rules that vaguely regulate the Lemons series, but just do yourself a favor and read them for yourself HERE.

The primary rule, to which everyone is held with strict irony, is that each competing vehicle cannot cost more than $500, not including safety equipment and tires. That means Craigslist is your friend when searching for your next race car.

Chris and the team of Flaccid Chassis Racing have been prepping their little-Bimmer-that-might, for the lavish lifestyle only enjoyed by those who win at Lemons. He explains about walking the razor-thin line between following the rules and complete anarchy on a budget.

“Lemons being what it is, our first action was to make things worse. The rules state you must have at least 2-inches of headroom above the tallest driver. My co-owner is something like six-foot-three, so we had to cut the roof off to clear his head.”

We can only imagine what might be controlled by the switch who’s description is conveniently veiled by the eight-ball.

Making The “Mods”

While ripping things off a car helps keep the insanely-low cost of Lemons racing to a minimum, there ARE times when adding things creates a better show. “The rear wing is from a junkyard Mitsubishi Eclipse of unknown vintage, which is held up with aluminum bar from Home Depot,” Chris explains. “It was painstakingly bent ‘by eye’ because tape measures are for lesser men.

Only the best Tell-Lemon-try will do in this race series!

“The Krylon flame-job doesn’t look a bit like $30 worth of blue painter’s tape, does it? Lemons officials like teams to have a theme, so we made it resemble the Red Baron’s famous Fokker DR1, complete with PVC machine guns.”

As you can expect, customization runs amok to the tune of necessity. “Because we hate wearing the mandatory arm restraints [due to the lack of a roof], we recently installed this sweet hood to serve as a roof. I think it was from an Acura. It’s painted to match and comes complete with the Texas ‘Love Bugs” that flew into the still drying paint – where they’ll forever remain.”

Who doesn’t love re-purposing when it clicks off the safety, stylish, and wildlife boxes all at the same time?

Roof? Check. No more arm restraints? Check. Love Bugs? Check!

When Gremlins Arise

Of course, when a 12-pack of cheap beer is the major currency in your latest purchase, you can expect there will be some subtle gremlins along the way. “Unfortunately, the tired M10 4-banger can’t generate enough power to achieve takeoff,” Chris said.

“The car came to us with a cobbled-together fuel injection that featured a Megasquirt ECU controlling original injectors and fired by a Ford EDIS ignition. It wouldn’t rev, and generally, just didn’t work. Us being [mostly] old farts, we decided to put a carb on it.”

Several iterations to try and fuel the little four-banger were met with mediocre results, even for a Lemons race car. The fuel-spitting fire hazard was just the beginning of the engine’s downfall.

Of course, simplifying the issue only created a simpler problem. “We ripped-out the injectors, JB Welded pennies over the holes, cut a hole in the top of the intake and the hood, and bolted on a 350CFM 2-barrel Holley. That worked, shockingly! But, what we found was a harmonic from the engine rattled the carb so hard that fuel would slosh up and out of the bowl vents upon deceleration. This created a huge fire hazard when raw fuel came out of the carb and onto the windshield.”

As you can imagine, safety folks weren’t thrilled. Chris goes on to explain, “We put a hose on the vent and routed it back into the engine, which only made it run hella-rich. So much so, it actually blew the muffler off the car!  Looked cool, though!”

Team Flaccid Chassis doing their best attempt at hiding the little Bimmer.

If you didn’t think that a couple of guys with a Sawzall, two hoods and a cheap car could be creative enough to overcome a little fuel sloshing issue, you’d better re-read this entire story again. Ingenuity, inventiveness, and a lack of the realization that it shouldn’t work can go a long way. In this case, that meant installing a Weber carb atop the shaky, spitty, little-engine-that-almost-did.

We put a hose on the vent and routed it back into the engine, which only made it run hella-rich. So much so, it actually blew the muffler off the car!  Looked cool, though! – Chris Kamradt, Flaccid Chassis Racing

Chris describes the slippery slope they were riding with nary a helmet, retainer, or even somewhat supportive shorts. “The motor ran pretty well, but was still way down on power,” he begins. “This little rig is an absolute go-kart through the corners, but we got gapped by everybody down the straights. So, we bought a reground cam to try and get a few more ponies – and this is where the problem started.”

He goes on, “This little block is so tired [it was a flood car, with the corrosion line still visible inside the block!] that it just couldn’t take the torque of reinstalling the head one more time. We’ve stripped-out 6 of the 10 bolt holes, fixed them with Helicoils, and stripped out 3 more of those — twice each! We even tried studs instead of bolts and those pulled out too!”

So, a new engine was in the cards with the hand dealt to the team. Of course, when you have machine guns on your hood, and a hood is now your roof, OEM components are the furthest from your mind.

Even King Arthur shivers at the sight of a broken, hardened drill bit embedded deeply into a block's bolt hole. When all was said and done, the little engine just couldn't keep its head on straight. A swap to a rotary engine is in the little BMW's future.

Finding The Perfect Swap

Scouring Craigslist with an emphasis on asking price, the team located an engine and transmission out of a 1988 RX7. That’s right, what this car REALLY needs is a Wankel! The engine is complete with a 5-speed and even has the A/C compressor, should the team ever decide to counter global warming.

Chris explains the “There WAS a box?!”-style of thinking which makes the swap such a no-brainer. “The weight of these two engines is almost exactly the same, at around 250 pounds,” he begins. “The Mazda transmission weighs a bit more than the BMW Getrag, but the rotary puts out almost 50-more horsepower, which is what attracted us to it. The Wankel is shorter, top to bottom, than the M10 and about the same width.

“Fitting it into the BMW’s engine bay shouldn’t be a problem at all, and the transmission tunnel on the car seems plenty large. A driveshaft is probably the only real pricey item; it’ll have to be custom-made.” Chris emailed us, asking about getting the little rotary running. He surmised, “whether it’s a Wankel or LS, if the donor engine has all the wiring/ECU’s/sensors in place, the swap should be as easy as just getting power to everything, right?”

Calling For Help (This Is Where You Come In)

Knowing a fair amount about nuts and bolts, but nothing about rotary engines, we agree with Chris — in theory. But, there have been many fatal crashes at the intersection of theory and reality. So, we’re reaching out to the entire TURNology tribe for any assistance that might help Chris and the team make this Bimmer a Wankel-powered wonder.

We know folks have modded and swapped these engines successfully, and we’re reaching out to that community. If you have experience putting a rotary in a Bimmer, you likely also have photos of Elvis and Bigfoot partying with Amelia Earhart and are not interested in helping mere mortals. But, if you know how to make one of these spinny-piston engines run in a less-than-orthodox chassis, the team would love to hear from you! You can email them at [email protected]

About the author

Andy Bolig

Andy has been intrigued by mechanical things all of his life and enjoys tinkering with cars of all makes and ages. Finding value in style points, he can appreciate cars of all power and performance levels. Andy is an avid railfan and gets his “high” by flying radio-controlled model airplanes when time permits. He keeps his feet firmly grounded by working on his two street rods and his supercharged C4 Corvette. Whether planes, trains, motorcycles, or automobiles, Andy has immersed himself in a world driven by internal combustion.
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