Highway Star


Written by David S. Wallens

From the Aug. 2015 issue

Posted in Features

In a sea of clean, perfectly primped imports, this battered, road-worn BMW stands out.

It wears chrome bumpers.

It’s dirty.

It oozes attitude.

It was built to be driven, and each scratch, each sticker tells part of the story. Meet Nick Watkins and his BMW 5 Series.

“I’ve never really had any vision with the car. I’ve just gone with what I thought up,” he explains. “It has been through so many stages and iterations because I can’t make up my mind. It started as being something I wanted to keep nice and preserved, but somewhere down the road it turned into a car that I just wanted to have fun with and just experiment.”

Slower Traffic Keep Right

Nick wasn’t the first person who saw this fuel-efficient, eta-powered 1983 BMW 528e as a great highway companion. “I bought the car about five years ago from a man that only used it to drive from Atlanta to the military base where he was stationed in North Carolina,” Nick explains. “All-virgin car, white with Cardinal interior, and the body was in top shape. The price was cheap, so it was a deal I couldn’t pass up.”

About two years later, though, the engine “threw a rod in spectacular fashion.” Nick says the damage was intense: “Completely tore a hole around the block from one cylinder wall, through one side of the block, down through the oil pan, and back up the other side of the block to the opposite cylinder wall.”

At the time Nick was working at a vintage BMW shop, so the fix was obvious: swap out the fuel-sipping, low-revving engine for something a bit sportier. “It was a from a buddy’s 325is,” he recalls of the replacement. “He pulled the engine in favor of a 24-valve swap.” Nick rebuilt the engine to stock specs before installing it.

“The block and all basic accessories were the same as the 528e engine’s, so aside from adapting wiring, the engine was a straight swap,” he continues. “In all it ended up being a pretty cheap way to get another 60 or so horsepower into the car.”

Then the modifications followed. Nick’s favorite? The wheels, he says. “Nobody runs 14-inch wheels on anything anymore. It’s always all big and flashy new stuff,” he explains. “The BBS were perfect for the look of the car.”

Look closely and you’ll notice that the wheels are secured with giant studs–race car surplus. Nick, now 21 years old, works for a Porsche prep shop located in the shadow of Road Atlanta. “My life pretty much revolves around cars and motorsports,” he says. “If I’m not in the paddock at any given track or at the shop during the week, I’m usually finding something to mess with on one of my cars.”

Behind those wheels are his next-favorite modification: adjustable coil-overs. They’re inexpensive pieces from Nex– nothing special, Nick admits, but they completely changed the car’s demeanor, especially on those mountain runs.

Scenic Outlook

The BMW’s visual package is hard to miss. Call it Nick’s practical vision for racking up the highway miles.

To get more air to the front brakes, Nick removed the turn signals and stuffed them behind the grille. Giant Hella lights hang below the front bumper. Beneath the rear bumper lies a castoff NASCAR side exhaust pipe.

The interior is now race-car stark– mostly. The driver gets an interior door panel. The passenger? Not so much.

Nick chucked the headliner and relocated the Active Check system–the warning lights, basically–from the ceiling to the dashboard. A zip-tie holds it in place. What the car lacks in polish it makes up for in personality.

The dashboard is now dominated by a pair of CB radios. “So many people ask why I have so many radios and antennas,” Nick says. “It’s just for the fun, being able to cruise down the highway and listen in on truckers and communicate while on the road. It can really make a road trip more interesting.”

Then there’s the stickers. “Some people hate them,” Nick admits. “I think it’s fun having them. There’s so many on the car that it becomes a conversation starter. They’re almost all unique from friends or trips that I’ve had, so they all have a story.”

The biggest logo belongs to HighwayStar Garage, a Central Florida car club. “They were such a welcoming group, and they really keep in mind what being a car enthusiast should be–just all about having fun and no B.S.,” Nick recalls.

“I met them on a Friday last year and ended up painting the door logos on the car with them in a hotel parking lot the next day at a car show in Helen, Georgia. I think the logos really just look good on the car, and the memories behind them just make it that much better. I love the old hotrod scene, so I think having painted door logos was a good way to pay homage to that era.”

Detour Ahead

Despite all of the work, this one probably won’t see too many more miles. What was once a pristine tub now shows its age. “It’s actually sitting behind the Porsche shop I currently work for,” Nick explains. “I went through the car and have decided, with the amount of rust work and whatnot the car needs, it’ll be best to find a clean chassis and start fresh.”

Future plans? “Swap all the parts I want off this car and get a cleaner start. Do some track days, road trips–really enjoy the car.”

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Reader comments:

NickD HalfDork
Jan. 7, 2016 4:00 p.m.

Met this guy and his E28 down at the Dragon 2 years ago. Very laid back guy and super cool car. Almost made my friend wish he hadn't scrapped his E28. Almost.

fasted58 UltimaDork
Jan. 7, 2016 5:33 p.m.

Oops. Thought you old rockers were goin' somewhere else

But here ya go:


noddaz Dork
Jan. 7, 2016 5:37 p.m.

Hmmm... I like it. Hmmm.

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
Jan. 7, 2016 7:14 p.m.

That was a fun one to do. Also, Nick is worth a follow on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/thenickwatkins/

He works for a prep shop and posts lots of motorsports photos.

CarLava New Reader
Jan. 7, 2016 8:11 p.m.

kinda looks rugged but we can say it's the car's battlescars

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
Jan. 7, 2016 8:15 p.m.

Let me know if you guys want to hear the backstory as to how this car actually got featured in the mag.

Tyler H
Tyler H SuperDork
Jan. 7, 2016 8:26 p.m.


ssswitch HalfDork
Jan. 7, 2016 8:36 p.m.

In reply to David S. Wallens:

Always up for a story.

Jerry From LA
Jan. 8, 2016 7:09 p.m.
David S. Wallens wrote: Let me know if you guys want to hear the backstory as to how this car actually got featured in the mag.


Toyman01 MegaDork
Jan. 8, 2016 8:01 p.m.
David S. Wallens wrote: Let me know if you guys want to hear the backstory as to how this car actually got featured in the mag.

Pretty sure most of us hang around here waiting for the next cool story. Be it the as teller or the listener.

We're listening.

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
Jan. 8, 2016 8:26 p.m.

Okay, I'm back at the computer. We have the Roar Before the Rolex in town, so I was at the track this afternoon.

A year ago I went the Simply Clean car show here in Daytona--yes, I know, a "stance" show. I found a very cool, diverse crowd and some quality workmanship.

I also noticed that tagging the photos on Instagram with #simplyclean usually received a nearly immediate thank-you. That BMW 5 series caught my eye. Actually, I noticed it the night before at the pre-event party held at CCW wheels, which is two blocks way from GRM HQ.

It was a cool car with a cool attitude. So I Instagramed a photo and got a thanks. So I asked the owner if he was interested in doing a shoot for the mag. His reply: definitely!

How about tomorrow morning? Sure.

The show took place at the giant Harley dealership in town, and that's where we met. The detail photos were taken in the shade of their pavilion. The exterior photos were mostly taken at the truck stop next-door. I figured it went well with the Highway Star theme. Plus it was right there.

Maybe 90 minutes after we met, we had the shoot in the can, and he left for home.

Morals of the story:

Connecting via Instagram is a thing.

Having a cool car is cool.

Sometimes things just fall into place.

Being nice goes a long way, too.

Rubens New Reader
Feb. 7, 2016 10:05 p.m.

I don't really like 80s cars but this one has some attitude.

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