“Well, I always liked to drive fast.”
It doesn’t take more than a few words to realize that Paul Tillery Jr. possesses a true Southerner’s knack for spinning a yarn. A quick question about his burgundy BMW 2002 prompts a recollection of when he was 16 and got his first car. When a Carolina storyteller starts weaving a tale, it’s best just to hang on and enjoy the ride.
Paul, a commercial real estate agent in Raleigh, North Carolina, got his first taste of four-wheeled freedom in a second-generation Chevy Corvair. The car was equipped with a four-speed manual, and that made all the difference in Paul’s mind. “The guys I ran with admired driving as an art form,” he declares. “I learned to double-clutch, rev-match and row the gearbox well. I learned driving on back-country roads.”
Next he upgraded to a Pontiac GTO, and while he loved the increase in power, he lamented its lack of agility in the corners. In 1969, Paul decided to try something different: a BMW 2002.
“I picked the car up in Germany and drove it around Europe for a while, then brought it back. It had a close-ratio gearbox, a limited-slip differential—it was something special,” he notes. “I drove it until it was pretty much falling apart underneath me, but I never forgot what a wonderful car that was.”
Fast-forward to 1983, when Paul found a used BMW 2002. He couldn’t resist another round of ownership with the plucky German sport sedan, so he modified the car a bit and drove it for several years. As his family grew, however, Paul had to make the switch to a station wagon. The BMW was retired to a spot behind his house, and for more than a decade, Paul’s driving passion was on pause.
Finding the Beat
In 2000, Paul was again in a position to put some automotive excitement back in his life. He chose a turbocharged Audi A6 for his return to auto enthusiasm. “For a big sedan, it was pretty sporty,” he notes. His girlfriend, April Curtis, knew he was a fan of speed and g-loads, and knew that he used to volunteer as a flagger for races at Virginia International Raceway before the track closed in 1974.
Paul had no idea that VIR had been revitalized and reopened, so he was taken by surprise when she gave him his gift: a track day at the storied circuit. It was a chance to drive the track where he’d only spectated in his younger days. “I didn’t even know they did that!” he laughs.
With wide-eyed enthusiasm, Paul and his Audi hit the track with an instructor in the passenger seat. “I was stoked,” he admits. “I thought I was doing pretty good, but shoot, everyone was passing me. The next day it was pouring rain. I had a four-wheel-drive car with all-season tires, and all of a sudden I was king: I was passing everyone. It was great until I hydroplaned and ran into a guardrail down where Turn 17 starts to flatten out.” Rather than focus on the negative of crashing his new Audi, Paul chose to embrace the upside: “I was having as much fun as you can have in a car, right until I hit the guardrail.”
Paul spent the rest of that day dealing with his freshly bent Audi and a “true yokel” of a tow truck driver. A lack of seating in the tow truck meant that April had to stay behind at the track. Fortunately, she was anything but bored.
“In the late 1990s and early 2000s,” Paul continues, “Lee Brantley was a fixture at VIR. He has an eye for the ladies, and he loves to flirt. He saw April standing around—everybody felt bad that I had wrecked my car. Lee took April under his wing and got her rides with various instructors,” Paul says. “While I’m having a bad day with Joe Yokel, the tow truck driver, she’s having the time of her life. We both realized this was something we wanted to do again, but the Audi was not the right tool.”
The right tool, it turns out, was still parked in Paul’s back yard. “We looked at the BMW up to its wheels in grass. We thought, ‘Let’s get it running and put a coat of paint on it.’” Shortly thereafter, the BMW was clipping apexes at VIR.
Changing the Tempo
Paul was very happy with the old BMW’s performance on track. April tried her first track day in the car and fell in love, and eventually they both became instructors with the BMW CCA’s Tarheel Chapter. They ran with NASA, the Alfa Romeo club, BMW CCA and more—in as many as 20 events in a single year.
April’s enthusiasm led her to road racing, and while Paul tried his hand at wheel-to-wheel competition for five years, he decided it wasn’t for him. “I love driving my best and being out with other people, figuring out if I can catch ’em up or get past. But I didn’t like the competitive business nearly as much as I thought I would. It was just more like work. It wasn’t fun enough to warrant the extra risk and extra money,” he says.
The hunger for increased velocity led him to try a more potent BMW powerplant. When the 2002’s original four-cylinder finally gave up, Paul decided to give the highly strung S14-spec engine from an E30 BMW M3 a shot. Steven Beckmeyer, a very talented BMW mechanic working at Shadetree Garage in Raleigh, agreed to shoulder the engineering while Paul sweated and cursed in the background.
“I am a terrible mechanic,” Paul confesses. “By virtue of not having a lot of disposable money, I’ve had to wear that hat some, but I am not good at it. I can’t get the wrench on the nut. I don’t remember what goes where. I might as well take a hammer and smash my finger, then cut my hand with a shop knife and then go ahead and burn myself, since that’s gonna happen, too,” he laughs.
Paul managed to get an S14 in the car, and it ran well for several years with the upgraded motor. A friend suggested a change from synthetic oil to a different sort of racing fluid, and the car started spinning rod bearings. Paul is now convinced that the synthetic provided just enough residual slick in the corners with the shallow oil pan, but he didn’t come to that conclusion until he’d gone through a couple of expensive S14 engines.
He was sick of working on the car. He hated pulling out engines and putting them back in. All it took was a simple question from his neighbor, Glenn Long, owner of Long Road Racing and crew chief of Grand-Am’s Freedom Autosport, to change his outlook completely. As Paul recalls, that fateful exchange went something like this:
Glenn: Are you married to BMW engines?
Paul: What I want to do is show up at the track, have it crank up and run all weekend, and then drive up onto the trailer at the end of the weekend and park it until next time.
Glenn: Why don’t you put a Japanese engine in there? They make good power and run forever.
Rhythm and Boost
Paul didn’t hesitate to take the advice. He didn’t want to burden Glenn’s shop with the task of transplanting an engine into his BMW, however, as Long Road Racing is busy year-round with racing work. “They’d have done it if I’d asked them,” figures Paul, “but it wasn’t the right fit.”
Paul knew a young tuner named Chris Sneed from his driving school experience. Chris was the proprietor of Sneed’s Speed Shop, a couple of hours up the road in Winston-Salem. After a brief chat, Paul knew that Chris and his team were the right people for the job.
Initially, Paul was tempted by the high-revving F20-spec 2-liter out of a Honda S2000. Chris convinced him that they were expensive for the power, and instead recommended the Nissan SR20DET, a popular 2-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder that makes between 225 and 250 horsepower in mild tune. Examples with about 50,000 miles of use can be had, complete with wiring harness and transmission, for less than $2000 on the used market. The SR20DET was equipped in the Japanese-market Nissan Silvia, a car sold as the 240SX (and with a much less exciting engine) here in the States.
The Sneed’s Speed Shop crew had done the basic measurements and were hoping for an easy swap, but inevitably there were snags. The first big hurdle was a known issue, as the Nissan transmission was significantly larger than the BMW unit. They cut the unibody, fabricated a new floor pan to make room for the bigger gearbox, and topped it off with a clever touch: The metal over the transmission tunnel is removable, allowing easy access to the top of the Nissan box and the slave cylinder. This will make future maintenance a snap.
After fabricating motor mounts and positioning the engine, the crew discovered that the BMW 2002’s large brake master cylinder was going to be fighting for space with the turbocharger. A Tilton floor-mounted pedal setup with dual master cylinders in the passenger floorboard freed up the underhood space. A false floorboard keeps the footwell visually clean and makes tinkering easy.
Some creative header work was also needed, as the Japanese engine’s exhaust ports were on the opposite side compared to the BMW’s. The team fabricated a 3-inch downpipe and 2.5-inch headers, a process that required significant mock-up time and plenty of mandrel bending. The BMW’s original wiring was shot, too, so Sneed’s opted to start from scratch with a 12-circuit kit from Painless Performance Products.
Paul’s BMW already had a racing radiator, but Sneed’s relocated it to make room for the front-mounted intercooler. The shop married a 240SX driveshaft to a BMW differential to transmit power to the rear wheels. Some testing led to a few changes. The crew used a smaller brake master to reduce the force needed on the pedal; they also tweaked the driveshaft alignment to eliminate some vibration. Koni Yellows were equipped on the front end, and stiffer Hypertech springs dialed out some body roll.
Crank It Up
The Sneed’s Speed folks are proud of the BMW, and Chris says it showcases his shop’s philosophy of complete car construction. “We want a car that’s balanced and predictable,” he reports. Paul handed over the keys to Chris for GRM’s 2011 Ultimate Track Car Challenge, and the car earned plenty of kudos from the other drivers for being a neat old-school addition to the field. After the day’s running, Chris reported that the car had plenty of oversteer on tap at full throttle, but it was immensely drivable with a bit of right-foot discipline.
For Paul, the car remains a work in progress, but it’s well into the sorting phase. There have been a few mechanical snags along the way, as the turbocharger that came with the used engine was in need of a rebuild. Plus, the valve guide seals had to be replaced. There’s little chance this BMW will rot away from lack of use, however, as Paul tries to run it at least once a month at tracks up and down the East Coast.
“I could’ve bought somebody’s used race car,” muses Paul, “but when it’s all done, I’ll have exactly what I want: a unique car that’s reliable and quick enough to get out of its own way.”
View comments on the GRM forums
As the former owner of a 2002Tii that I bought as a shell, and rebuilt as a modernized track-able sports car while rescuing one of the finest driving machines of its time from a tragically rusty grave and giving it a new lease on life ;) by putting a fully built genuine S14 EVO III Race motor (about 296bhp@8800/212lb-ft@5450) made the 265R16's fight for traction, I thought I would not like this, but I was wrong. It's expertly done, props.
"I might as well take a hammer and smash my finger, then cut my hand with a shop knife and then go ahead and burn myself..,"
This is the best I've ever heard this sentiment expressed. I like working on cars and I think I'm pretty good at it, and I still feel this way sometime!
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