The BMW 128i Is a Criminally Underrated Track Car

Lower power than the 135i, but also fewer headaches.

When it comes to BMWs that are excellent to hoon around a track, there are plenty of classics to pick from though opinions vary. Some say E46 and older is where it’s at exclusively, others say the F80/82 M3/M4 are the ultimate, others make jokes about the M8 and brand-new M3/M4. Though one BMW that rarely seems to be brought up for track use is the 1-Series. Well, to be more specific, the 128i. The 135i usually gets all the glory when it comes to E8X chassis.

The 135i also gets all the guff when it comes to track reliability. Its complex twin- and single-turbo N54/N55 engines can be the source of great joy… and tremendous heartbreak. Just ask my poor colleague Chris Rosales about that some time.

The 128i, on the other hand, is largely missed by all of this. That’s because its heart is an honest-to-goodness, naturally-aspirated N52 inline-six engine, thus doing away with all the forced induction complexity and heat. And yet, this version of the 1-Series really doesn’t seem to be on people’s radar as much. There are several reasons for this, one of which being that BMW just didn’t really make many 128is with a manual gearbox. I couldn’t find actual production numbers, but anecdotally, they’re just way rarer than models equipped with the (allegedly horrendous) GM-sourced automatic.

I wanted to learn more, and find out if they do indeed make not-good-but-rather-great track cars. So, I hit up some folks who are known for successfully racing a 128i in National Auto Sport Association club racing for many years.

Endurance Racing Championships Are a Good Measuring Stick

The BMW 128i Is a Criminally Underrated Track Car
Image: HQ Autosport

HQ Autosport has been in the game for a long time. Its members have a lot of experience racing BMWs under their belts, which has amounted to a lot of winning. I corresponded with them recently over Facebook Messenger and email to get some more insight into their racing program, especially their nicely-prepped 128i. “We’ve won the NASA 25 Hours of Thunderhill, the NASA 6 Hours of Utah (three times running), and the NASA WERC Series Championship in the E2 class for the last three years as well” reports Rob Henretta, member of the team.

Endurance racing is a great test of any car. As is inherent to its name, it’s a test of a car’s endurance under prolonged racing conditions. Fuel consumption, parts longevity, overall reliability, how it accommodates different drivers, and more; there’s a ton that gets put to the limit. HQ Autosport has found the 128i to be a great platform to win with for a number of reasons.

“The 128i is basically a short-wheelbase E90. The N52 inline-six is very reliable. We’ve had the car run as hot as 240 degrees on the first lap of a six-hour race, and still win our class by four laps” continued Henretta. “The cars are very robust and well-made; we’ve had just 1 DNF due to a failed power steering pump.” Plus, since it shares many parts with the E90 3-Series, a much more common BMW, parts availability is very good. “Because it shares the suspension and driveline components with the E90 family, parts are easy to find. No challenges there at all.” This is crucial for keeping spares for both wrenching between races, as well as emergency fixes during races.

On the Whole, No Big Qualms

I continued to ask Rob about the E8X in general; how it handles, what its reminiscent of, and what kind of power one can make.

“As far as handling goes, the only challenge we wrestle with is eliminating push” explained Rob. “The car tends to understeer and we chased it for about a year and a half before we made some setup tweaks with springs, rear sway bar, and aero, but adapting to new tires is a challenge.”

But what about dual duty, street and track? “I think they would make a great dual-duty car. Our endurance-specific race car still has heat and AC, but the interior is fully stripped otherwise. The cars are fun to drive; the first time I drove it I was surprised how much the handling reminded me of an E30.”

Being reminiscent of an E30 is a good sign. When it then makes modern power north of 200 horsepower, that certainly helps too. When asked about power output, as well as how it compares to the better-known 135i, Henretta had good things to report. “Our N52 motor is a naturally aspirated I6 and can reliably make 230-245 RWHP with minor mods. The N54 is turbocharged, so you deal with a lot more heat and complexity from the turbos, intercoolers, and direct injection. As in most mechanical systems and all other things being equal, simpler is normally better.”

My anecdotal knowledge of manual transmission models being far less common was somewhat verified as well, as that’s something HQ Autosport has dealt with. When I asked about this, Henretta replied “Yes, it was. This car was actually an auto to begin with so I had to do the six-speed conversion. There is plenty of documentation on what parts to get, but re-coding the ECUs in the car was a bit of a challenge.”

Worth A Shot?

From what I’ve learned from both correspondence with Rob, as well as my own research, the 128i makes an excellent dual-duty or sole track car. It has that wonderful I-6 power and tone that defines the Bavarian brand, hydraulic steering, rear-wheel drive, and good handling characteristics. Its short wheelbase is more akin to an E30 or even E36, and has a factory power-to-weight that’s near an E36 M3. Plus it’s more modern that an older 3-Series and has huge parts availability thanks to BMW’s solid platform sharing.

Here’s to hoping more people take their 128is on track, or buy and have fun with them. Especially before the BaT crowd finds out manual versions with M Sport Package are quite rare, and end up squirreling them away in collections.

If you’re interested in the 1-Series and want to learn more, we’ve written a whole Bible about it – take a look here!

Peter Nelson

Peter NelsonPeter Nelson has been wrenching on and playing with cars since he started driving them quickly between the cones at Chicagoland autocross events in his late teens. Nowadays, he can be found wringing out his Mazda2 at tracks all over California. His writing background includes Winding Road, Donut Media, and Autolist.com. He's also an avid cyclist and '80s/'90s action film connoisseur. Contact the author here.