The Learning Curve – Ethan Sexton's 1990 BMW E30 318IS

Words & Photos by Henry Phull


Looking back on 2017, I think it’s fair to say that the E30 has easily been one of the most fashionable cars in the ‘stance’ scene, which is kind of weird, considering how much prices have soared. That said, buying one now would be a justified investment for the future, as values are only going to continue to rise, so maybe that’s what everyone’s doing? Or could it be down to the fact that the E30 is still one of the most enjoyable, driver-oriented, and beautiful, cars that money can buy? Probably a mixture. Well, with so many examples out in the wild, you do have to filter through them to find the real gems, which brings us to Ethan Sexton’s gorgeous 318is, one E30 that’s been on our radar for a while now. Having owned the car for almost five years, Ethan has put it through several guises during his ownership, but it wasn’t until earlier this year that I felt the car was at its best, so, naturally, I was eager to set up a shoot.



Ethan’s story is like that of most BMW owners, it was a family affair. His dad happened to own a beaten up 325i Sport for a brief period, but long enough for Ethan to fall in love with BMWs… “I’ll never forget drifting around in it and realising how fun cars could be” he exclaims. The E30 was the car that truly sparked his interest in all things automotive, and when he turned 18, Ethan bought an E46 318ci. Although he loved the car itself, he was disappointed with its lack of power for a new, heavy car. That constant want of an E30 was at the back of his mind, and after seeing lots of modified examples online, he knew he had to have one for himself. The search was on!



It’s worth mentioning that before buying the E30, Ethan had no experience with modifying cars. It was the BMW that changed everything and allowed him to learn so many new skills. “I’ve had access to a fairly big workshop for the last few winters and I’d spend pretty much every evening there with friends just messing around with each other’s cars”. So the E30 that Ethan ended up buying, was a 1990 318is, which he selected over the normal 318 due to the “is” model being a fair bit quicker and sportier looking. Unfortunately, a straight-six model was out of the question at the time because of high insurance prices. Amazingly, Ethan found his Alpine White example under an hour away from home, owned by a Volkswagen enthusiast who had only owned it for a short period.



“I literally knew nothing about cars when I bought the car” Ethan explains… “But I had seen a white E30 online, it was slightly lowered and on BBS RS’. At the time, plans to get the car looking anywhere near similar to the one I’d seen online seemed very unrealistic, but things soon spiraled out of control!”. Ethan started out by doing everything cheaply to get the car looking how he had imagined as quickly as possible, but soon came to realise that it was worth investing more money when buying parts, especially considering he never wants to sell the car.



At first, Ethan fitted some cheap JOM coilovers, but quickly became sold on the idea of air suspension. “It gives you the flexibility to use the car practically, as well as being able to have it looking exactly as you want it when aired out” Ethan explains. Plus, his girlfriend was living in Birmingham at the time, so driving up from Southampton regularly was out of the question for a very low static car, and the 318is M42 sump sits incredibly low, too. “I still find it surprising how many people expect a car on air suspension to handle extremely poorly… to me at least, I think it’s perfect for a road car. And not soft/sloppy as many people expect.”



Ethan decided to go for an Air Lift Performance setup with AutoPilot V2 management for his air suspension package. At the time, he wasn’t clued up on air ride, and had heard plenty of great reviews of Air Lift products. He opted to visit his local installer, Shakey at Studio Incar who ended up fitting a completely custom setup, as an E30-specific kit hadn’t been released at the time. Shakey had experience with E30’s, having bagged Nick Sahota’s M3 previously, the first bagged E30 M3 in the UK (Click here to check out that feature!). Shakey also created a bespoke hardline boot setup at the same time, although Ethan eventually wanted his spare wheel and boot space back. As a result, he’s reworked the installation and is now running an air tank mounted on the rear parcel shelf which looks super cool.



Getting a classic car sitting right isn’t usually just as simple as installing the bags. Ethan has fitted a new shallow sump to allow the car to air out even lower. Plus, the rear subframe was dropped to fit a CAtuned camber kit, designed to remove negative camber which the E30 chassis naturally gains once lowered. Ethan mounted the kit in the opposite way to gain more negative camber. At the same time, he fitted Revshift poly bushes on everything, along with Powerflex front lollypop bushes. The car now sits extremely well. Evidently, it was worth the extra effort!



Looking into the cockpit, “It’s always been a bit mix and match, due to me always changing my mind about things and cheap seats coming up for sale” Ethan laughs… The E30 actually started off with the standard “is” interior, then to a set of OMP retro/classic bucket seats, and finally to a pair of Recaros removed from a Rover. These grace the car currently, along with a Nardi Deep Corn wood steering wheel and matching gear knob. Ethan then sourced a new carpet to update the original retired example, and dyed it from grey to black, along with the rear bench. Being a bit of an audiophile too, he wanted to update the retro audio system, opting for Hertz component front speakers and a JL Audio subwoofer.



Believe it or not, the first wheels that Ethan purchased for the car were a set of BBS RS’ reps.. yes, REPLICA wheels. Although we’ll forgive him, as he later saw sense and fitted a set of brand new 17″ Schmidt TH-Lines which he ran for quite a while – they looked great. Now, however, things have been switched up again with a set of 16″ Carline/Dyna CM2’s. “I knew I wanted some new wheels but couldn’t decide what to go for, until my decision was finally influenced by Sean Crompton’s E36 on Carline CM6s, so when I saw that Prakash Thanky was selling his CM2s off of his E21, I just had to go for them” Ethan explains.



After roughly measuring the car, Ethan let excitement get the better of him and went to pick up the CM2s regardless of not being sure whether they’d fit. Often with second-hand wheels, they don’t. Amazingly, the rears did fit just as he’d imagined, but the front wheels did have to be rebuilt with 3″ lips, changing them from 8J’s to 9J’s, and still required 15mm spacers to get them to fit exactly as he wanted. “Fitting tyres to them was a nightmare, due to the inside design of the barrels, the usual tyre shops were unable to fit the tyre sizes I was after and I ended up driving back to Luton, where I’d bought the wheels from, to see Faz at Specialist Tyres, who had come up with a method of fitting the tyres and got them on with no issues” he recalls. The wheels are now 16×9 up front with 195/40 tyres, and 16×10 rears with 215/40 tyres. As a result of the wheel building and work to get the front end lower and having the arches rolled, Ethan now has that glorious arch-to-lip fitment he desired.



Bodywise, Ethan has replaced the bonnet and both front wings due to their poor condition. At the same time, he had the “is” bootlid spoiler removed, although he now slightly regrets doing so. Various front lips have been fitted over the years, including a Reiger-style lip, which ended up in two pieces! He’s now settled for a genuine “is” lip and side skirts. Aside from that, you’ll also notice the euro-style yellow lights which compliment the Alpine White bodywork nicely. The M42 engine remains stock (other than the shallow sump, and the addition of a K&N air filter), but he did, however, have a complete custom stainless exhaust fabricated by Powerflow in Totton for a sportier driving experience.



Having recently bought himself a remapped BMW 123d daily driver, Ethan can now keep the E30 on the driveway and tinker with it as and when he pleases, without having to worry about it every day. With no plans to get rid, I get the feeling it will be a forever ongoing project. With a car like this, there’s always something do to, and Ethan absolutely loves a challenge and admits that the car is constantly changing (there are even talks of an M50/M52 swap in the future). Props to him for keeping at it for so long, his hard work has definitely paid off and he should be proud to have built himself one of the most eye-catching E30’s in the UK. Let’s see what next year brings!





More info on Ethan Sexton:

@ethansexton on Instagram

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