Hartge may not have the brand recognition that Alpina has in the US, but sophisticated euro fans respect the pieces of German Kraftfahrzeuge they create.
You won’t be faulted if you aren’t familiar with Hartge and their version of the BMW E30, known as the H26, like Cody Mullenaux’s. The company was founded in Merzig, Germany in 1971 by Herbert Hartge along with brothers Andreas and Rolf until moving to their current location in Beckingen, Germany. They were not only into tuning cars but racing them as well, with many coming with that famous roundel on their hoods. Even so, they didn’t start out as a manufacturer and wouldn’t receive recognition from the Ministry of Transport until 1985.
That’s why you see that the BMW badges are non-existent on this or any Hartge manufactured vehicle, even today as they are still around and very well known in Deutschland. Despite being a 1986 BMW E30 body, this is no longer a BMW – this is a 1987 Hartge H26. It was also more than just a body kit but nothing too insane past that. These cars were more of an evolution in performance of the standard E30.
For example, the 11-spoke aluminum wheels are made specifically for Hartge by BBS and measure out to 16x7.5. The fronts arrived with a 195/50R16 while the rears were 225/45R16, usually Pirelli or Michelin. However, these are Goodyear Eagle Revspec tires. We’ll show why they have Japanese tires on it in a moment. The brake calipers, on the other hand, were original BMW E30 parts but came with a set of brake pads from Textar specified by Hartge.
That was the beauty of Hartge. The upfitting was tasteful, the performance was uplifting, but you didn’t stray too far away from what made the E30 such a great car.
The H26 was an evolution over the H23, mind you. It had a little more work done under the hood but, again, nothing overly drastic. Other than the darker taillights, badging, decal work, and a crisper exhaust note, you couldn’t really tell this was anything different. You may have thought that this was someone’s BMW E30 and went through the Hartge catalog and bought parts.
Speaking of, that was something you could do. Unlike Alpina and many other manufacturers, you could buy every part individually from Hartge. You could build your own H26, even buying a full Hartge-built M20B23 or the individual engine parts they spec’d out. Or, you could just have this Hartge steering wheel – made by Momo – installed by you or your mechanic.
Since you could just replace the gauges in an E30, you could even install a Hartge speedometer while the rest of the cluster would be the original Motometer or VDO set. Just a note, if you’re unfamiliar with BMWs or even E30s, the shift light there was present for all E30s. The point at which it would tell you to shift was more for fuel economy than for optimal performance. At least from the BMW factory, it was.
Unfortunately, this is also why it can be a challenge when it comes to purchasing a “Hartge H26.” Many people did go through their catalog and built their own. Even these houndstooth seats with Recaro LX-C style extendable leg section and the matching door cards are original to the BMW E30 and not unique to Hartge.
Again, both original and replica Hartge H26s started life as regular 325i’s; so, these cars would retain all their normal BMW-equipped parts like warning panels, dash boards, and anything else that Hartge didn’t see a need to replace.
Now, we’re not saying that these self-builders had anything unscrupulous in mind. They just liked what Hartge made and wanted to have their BMW E30 use the same parts or have the same style. There isn’t anything wrong with building a replica, just be honest about it. In fact, this car was originally an automatic but was converted to manual transmission.
This was actually a bit of a problem for this H26 that Cody eventually purchased. When it went listed on Hemmings, it was hard to prove that it was a legit Hartge H26. The seller was being cautious and not showing many of the details. Most likely to prevent future fraud but, doing it this way can make it seem like a fraud itself.
Also, being sold from Florida, where many suspicious grey market cars are sold (just ask any Nissan Skyline GT-R or Land Rover Defender enthusiast), it raised more questions. The original description even noted that it came from Japan. Remember the tires mentioned earlier? Those are only sold in Japan and you can’t find them here in the US or in Europe. Many were understandably skeptical of the seller and the authenticity of this Hartge H26.
On the front windshield, we noticed a set of PIAA wiper blades, which were mostly available in Japan - another clue to the car's time in the land of the rising sun.
While it had the right parts and look, there were also changes that could and could not be seen. We already mentioned the transmission swap. Was it legit? There was only one way to find out.
You see, there is one thing that all Hargte-built cars have that self-built ones don’t. No, it’s not the original strut bar. It along with the Bilstein custom-valved suspension could have been pulled from an original or bought out of the catalog.
Nor is it the valve cover or even the ECU. Both of those parts could have been bought aftermarket and installed later. If someone was diligent enough, it could even have been taken from a wrecked H26 and installed on a standard E30.
This is how you can tell. Every Hartge-built vehicle, from their start as a manufacturer in 1986 to today, comes with a VIN number installed behind the left side headlight after Hartge builds it. You cannot get this as an aftermarket part, and it is the only thing you couldn’t buy from them when this H26 was built. You can even see that the digits are all hand punched, making it even more unique to its vehicle.
So, yes, this car is a West Germany-built H26 that was then imported to Japan before being shipped back here to the US. Despite originally being an automatic, it could have had its transmission changed to a five-speed by Hartge or by the original Japanese owner, but we haven’t been able to verify that part. The ECU and suspension are all there, though. Nothing else has been changed. No, that’s not a VIN on the exhaust, that’s the original part number for the system. Actually, the full part number from Hartge is 18437 E for the Spezial-Nachschalldämpfer or “Special Silencer.”
While Hartge and the H26 are not well known here in the US – at least not as well as Alpina or even BMW’s own M-series – that doesn’t make it a car not worth obsessing over. It’s also one that is harder to verify by its badging and parts alone. Since you could purchase everything from the Hartge catalog when new, you wouldn’t know if you came across the real deal or a one someone replicated.
The car now resides here in the US with its new owner, Cody. It’s been fully verified to be a real deal Hartge H26 – from its engine to its suspension and everything in between (besides the transmission swap). Now, it enjoys a full life beyond the land of the rising sun and into an owner who will continue to drive and enjoy it. Just as Herbert Hartge and his brothers intended it.
Story by Justin Banner
Photos by Antonio Alvendia
If you like this BMW E30, you can find additional BMW-related content at bmw.fcpeuro.com, as well as more build features like this one, here. If there's anything specific you would like to see, or if you have any questions/comments, leave them in the comments section below.
Antonio Alvendia is an aficionado of cameras, rare wheels, hip hop, and obscure aftermarket car accessories. He bought his first E39 Touring after seeing M5 Estates on photo trips to Europe, and now has sights set on restoring a classic Mercedes. Antonio was a principal photographer on the limited edition hardcover book on Singer Vehicle Design's Porsche 911 builds, entitled One More Than Ten. Future goals include returning to the Nurburgring to shoot the N24 race and driving the Nordschleife again. ••• Instagram : @MOTORMAVENS