Photography by Jeroen Willemsen
Inspiration is a wondrous mental process that comes in many forms. It can kickstart a creative project, or provide the breakthrough needed to motivate a poised finish to another in-progress endeavor. It strikes us all at different—and sometimes inopportune—times, and it’s what we do with that inspiration that makes the difference. For Julian Serna, the inspiration for his gorgeous E30 ‘M3’ Touring build didn’t happen overnight, but his decision to go all-in on it certainly did.
Julian was bitten by the automotive bug at the age of 3; he recalls driving around his neighborhood, sitting on his dad’s lap and steering the car while his dad operated the pedals. At that tender, impressionable age, Julian could already name many of the makes and models of vehicles. As he grew older, Julian’s dad not only taught him and his brother how to drive, he also took them to museums, car shows, and other gatherings.
The nail in the coffin that solidified Julian as an automotive nut came from his grandfather, a mechanical engineer who loved cars and motorcycles and always owned an exciting toy. Julian remembers BMW 5 Series daily drivers, a Benelli Sei 900, and even an MR2 project car. His grandfather eventually moved onto a Honda S2000, before purchasing his lifelong dream car a few years before he passed: a 1992 Honda NSX in bright red paint with a black roof.
“He’d take us out for drives in the S2000 and the NSX, and when he got older and eventually got sick, we’d take him out for drives in the S2000 and NSX,” says Julian.
Soon, his brother became the most significant force in his automotive life. He was always working on something with his friends, ordering parts, or fitting wheels, whether it was an S13-chassis Nissan, a few E30-chassis BMWs, or an uncommon Volvo XC90 with a V8.
“Since he was my big brother, that had a lot of impact on me, so I followed in his footsteps. Because as soon as I could, I got my driver’s license, and as soon as I got that, I got my first car thanks to my brother,” says Julian.
So, what was that first car? Well, Julian needed a vehicle for the wintertime in the Netherlands, so his older brother bought him an E30 Touring as a present for passing his driving test.
“Unfortunately, the car wasn’t in good shape, and I ended up bringing it to the scrapyard after driving 108 kilometers in it. Back then, since it was my first car, I had no knowledge of mechanics or anything car-related, so I had no choice. Thinking back on it, it still hurts. So, owning another Touring is a way for me to cope with that loss all those years ago,” says Julian.
From there, things went from bad to worse for Julian. In 2016, the week after he bought his first dream car, a 1969 Mercedes-Benz 280 SEL, the garage where he kept all of his parts, tools, wheels, and another project—a 1983 Volkswagen Jetta—burned to the ground.
“Together with 15 other cars, car parts my brother stored there, tools of other people, and the entire kitchen inventory of my father’s restaurant—that he temporarily had to store there—everything was lost. The entire erasing of my beloved hobby, combined with the news that my body had developed a chronic illness and some other factors, spiraled me deep into depression,” he says.
“So I planned a three-month-long trip to California, which literally saved my life. I visited family, I drove all over California and visited a lot of natural parks. And of course, I did as much car stuff over there as I could—meets, museums, shows, tours—and I loved every second of it.”
Before leaving on this sabbatical, Julian sold his daily Audi, then started fresh upon his return. With emotions high and motivation peaking back home, Julian found and purchased another 1969 280 SEL and 1983 Volkswagen Jetta—the exact same years and cars he owned before. He now at least had back a portion of what he had lost in the fire.
After reevaluating the 280 SEL build dream he once had, he decided the work required to elevate his new project was too extensive. At a minimum, it would need a complete overhaul of the brake system, paint and bodywork, and even interior. He made the decision to sell it, and subsequently picked up a W124-chassis Mercedes, which turned out to be a terrific daily driver.
In that time, he had gone through a few different daily drivers and ended up with an E30 316i coupe that ended up suiting his tastes more as a project car than a daily driver. So he switched up his plans and began brainstorming how involved he could get with his once-daily-driver BMW.
“I visited Montfrans Auto Accessoires [in Nijkerk, Netherlands] and discussed with them the ideas I had for it: 3.0-liter inline-six swap, big brakes, air ride, the works. They gave me a quote, and I started planning the project—what I was able to do, and what they had to help me with,” he explains.
Let’s backtrack a little here. Somewhere between turning his first car over to the scrapyard and the fire, Julian was scouring Instagram and saw @carerraboy911’s E30 Touring that replicated an E30 M3, but in wagon form. He was immediately in love, and this car caused a seismic shift in his automotive journey. He shared it on Facebook, showed everyone he knew, and told himself he needed to own one as a redemption for his first car.
Fast forward to 2019: it was now time to build his E30 316i coupe. While planning out his build, his brother found the mother lode for sale on an online marketplace that changed everything—an E30 Touring being converted into an M3 tribute. What’s more, it was built by the same shop he had visited to modify his 316i coupe. It was a sign if ever there was one. So, what did he do? He slept on it. Well, kind of.
“A few days later, I woke up in the middle of the night, sat up straight in my bed, and thought, ‘What am I doing?! I need this car!’ So I looked up the ad the following morning and gave the seller a call. They still had it, and according to them, it was in ‘perfect’ shape,” he says.
Julian wouldn’t quite describe it as perfect, as the car had been built four years before it was listed. The paint job on the car was somewhat lacking, and he noticed some runs, cracks, bubbles, and even some rust forming. However, the rest of the car was in great shape, so the exterior just gave Serna a little wiggle room in the negotiations.
“The test-drive was surprising. The M52B28 is mated to the original 5-speed that came with the Touring, but the differential was swapped in favour of a 3.93 LSD. The gearing is very short, so it accelerates like hell. The interior was beautiful and almost flawless. Right then and there, I knew I had to have it,” says Julian.
A few days later, he traded in the coupe and drove off in the Touring. He finally had a car he could be proud of, a “perfect base for an amazing build.”
With the car in his possession, he got to work planning out his new build and finding the parts to complete it. Among them was the Air Lift Performance 3H system, which was purchased through separate retailers, including Brabant Custom, and a small road trip to Belgium for the tank, compressors, and 3H management from KEAN Suspensions.
“In January, I started the build. Together with a friend of mine, Peter Bokhorst, we cut the struts from the knuckles, and he welded the Air Lift Performance struts onto them. With another friend of mine, Denis Goleszny, we tore apart the interior on a Saturday and ran the wiring. It was a bit more work than I thought,” he says.
“After working on the wiring install on Saturday with Denis, it took me about three weeks of nights and weekends to install everything by myself and the way I wanted it—clean and invisible.”
Next were the wheels, which he had picked up in the meantime from Leon van der Weide on the other side of the Netherlands. Originally built-to-spec for an E46, the wheels just happened to fit nicely on the Touring.
“So, considering the bad luck year of 2016, it was nice to finally have luck on my side. Because what are the odds? And the same could be said for the wheels. I just had to have them when I saw the pictures. I gambled they would fit, offset-wise, and goshdarn they fit like a glove. They don’t really fit the vision I have for the car, but they do look killer,” he says.
The car also has several subtle options since it was an original E30 316i Touring Edition. From the factory, it already had the M-Technic interior, power sunroof, and leather wheel, but the most enjoyable part is the metallic Daytona Violet paint. Yes, it’s the original color and was even available for the E36 M3, so it’s worthy of gracing the car’s widened M panels.
As for those widened panels, they came directly from a crashed E30 M3. The shop we discussed earlier, Montfrans Auto Accessoires, transferred all of the panels onto the Touring except the front bumper, which was beyond repair. Along with the exterior, all of the M3’s suspension components migrated to the wagon. The shop turned to an M52B28 engine out of a BMW Z3 for power—but wait, it has M paint, M panels, and even M badges, but no M engine? That’s right. However, another engine transplant is at the top of Julian’s list for the future of the car. What that engine turns out to be is still yet to be determined, but he has no shortage of ideas.
“I have so many more plans for it, and I didn’t really mean for it to go viral since it is far from finished (project cars are never finished, but you know what I mean). So, this is just phase one. Next year, hopefully, the car will be in phase two, closer to my vision,” he explains.
Still, in its current state, Julian has already amassed a laundry list of memorable experiences.
“So far, the most memorable experience with the car was the day I took it to drive on the Lekdijk. It’s a beautiful winding road on top of a dike along the Lek River, which my grandfather used to always drive his S2000 and NSX on, and sometimes I’d go with him,” he says.
“The first thing I’d do after buying another car was drive to my brother and show it to him, and then drive to my grandfather, show it to him and take him and my grandmother for a drive. So, taking the Touring for a drive on the Lekdijk was like showing it to my grandfather and taking him for a drive. It just felt so nice to sort of feel close to him again and know that he would be very proud of me and love this car as much as I do.”
And that is what it’s all about for me: paying back that inspiration, no matter what, just as Julian Serna was inspired by his family and a random E30 ‘M3’ Touring he found online. His build will continue to evolve and inspire an entirely new generation of enthusiasts with similar visions. It’s such an interesting dynamic that keeps our automotive world rotating.
The next time anyone reading this is caught up in “building for yourself,” just remember—as Julian’s brother, father, and grandfather have—there’s a whole generation following in your footsteps who need inspiration just as you did. Go the extra mile, promote quality parts, showcase excellent craftsmanship, and influence the younger generation with experiences. If all of us pitch in, we’ll have a more enjoyable world of automotive creations to marvel in the future.
Julian Serna's 1994 BMW E30 'M3' Touring
|Exterior:||Daytona Violet paint, OEM BMW E30 M3 panels and bumper conversion, custom Xenon headlight conversion|
|Interior:||OEM BMW E30 M-Technic seats with purple accents, M-Technic 2 steering wheel, custom Air Lift Performance controller in sunroof control panel|
|Engine:||M52B28 engine from BMW Z3, Simoni Racing 4-2-1 header and exhaust, Getrag 240 transmission, 3.93 final drive and limited-slip-differential|
|Suspension:||OEM BMW E30 M3 suspension arms and sway bars, Air Lift Performance 3H air suspension system|
|Wheels/Tires:||OZ Racing Futura wheels (18x8-inch +20 front, 18x9.5-inch +25 rear), TOYO Tires Proxes T1R (205/35 front, 215/35 rear)|