Hella Sweet Lemons Car of the Week: LemonAid Racing’s BMW-Powered Geo Metro

Ah, the lowly Geo Metro. With paper-thin sheet metal and a 1.0-liter, three-cylinder engine, the badge-engineered Suzuki Swift was the thrift-seeking driver’s dream in the 1990s. However, 24 Hours of Lemons teams have looked at the lightweight construction and thought, “Yeah, let’s put a powerful engine in it and see if we can’t shake it apart.” And perhaps no team more thoroughly shook their Metro apart than LemonAid Racing.

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We’ve highlighted the twin-turbocharged Charnal House Geo MetSHO (with Ford Taurus V6, above) before and many words have been written about the famed bike-engined (Honda CBR) Geo Metro Gnome that started this. We’ll have another roundup of the Knoxvegas Lowballers’ Geo Metro SVT (Ford Duratec V6), soon as well.

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But LemonAid are unique among the Metro “tuners” in that they left the engine in the front of the car and before that, they raced for years on the stock 55-horsepower engine.

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The team pulled their commuter-spec Metro from a barn in Iowa, where it had retired after years of merciless beating by University of Iowa students. One team member was involved with the Wildwood Hills Ranch, which takes at-risk children and helps teach them leadership skills. After getting the car running and installing the safety equipment, the team let kids from Wildwood paint the Metro with their handprints. The team then raised thousands of dollar for Wildwood at the car’s races with per-lap donations.

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On the track, the stock Metro was far from quick and passes came few and far between. However, they drove cleanly and the fuel-sipping engine meant three-hour stints where the car seldom went quick enough to even use the brake pedal. Immediately, LemonAid team began cleaning up at Midwest races. The little econobox won Class C three times and also took home an Index of Effluency. After the first two class wins, Lemons judges threatened them with promotion to Class B, but they balked at it from the mere line of thinking “How could you ever put a 55-horsepower jellybean into Class B?”

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At last, the third Class C win sealed their fate. They’d be in Class B, but Lemons’ cruel Supreme Court Chief Justice Murilee Martin told them they could turbocharge the little Metro. In the meantime, the team had also prepared a BMW E30—themed as a tribute to Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha at Murilee’s insistence—because, frankly, they were tired of spending entire stints in the car without passing anyone. The E30 has turned out to be pretty successful with four overall race wins, including the narrowest Lemons win ever.

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Eventually, it came to pass that instead of merely turbocharging the little engine that could, LemonAid wanted to join the growing cadre of six-cylinder Geo Metros. Unlike the MetSHO and Metro SVT, however, they went with the BMW inline-six from a wrecked 3-Series. What followed was akin to an old-school hot rod build: In a fairly simple garage, the three-person team of a mechanic, a doctor, and a businessman—there’s a joke setup in there somewhere—hand-built everything needed to repower the Geo.

It turns out there’s no template for this kind of swap. With no CNC and mostly CAD (Cardboard-Aided Design), they endured more trial-and-error than most teams would ever have put up with. All told, it took more than 18 months to install the engine, transmission, subframes, differential, and suspension in addition to making major modifications to the unibody.

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The goal had originally been to finish the car in time for the Six-Cylinder Geo Metro Battle Royale at Autobahn Country Club in 2013 against Charnal House and the Knoxvegas Lowballers. However, the swap proved incredibly time-consuming and they were far from done rebuilding at the time of that race. Nevertheless, they brought the work in progress out for a pre-tech inspection.

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In fact, it still took another year of work from there. Fitting the engine had meant cutting the firewall and then rebuilding it entirely with more heft. When the finished product showed up for the race at Autobahn in 2014, it weighed considerably more than their E30. However, with far more engine, it also went much quicker…until its newly installed fuel cell leaked and then the one thing they cheaped out on, brake lines, left them with total brake failure. Whoops.

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They rebuilt with better quality brake lines and hauled it back for more at Gingerman Raceway. This time, the Geo kept together for a whole race to win Class B. If you’ve ever wondered how to get a healthy BMW inline-six engine into Class B, it turns out you must first spend nearly two years slicing up a throwaway econobox to house it.

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At the car’s next race, the team had the opportunity to become the first team to win all three classes and the Index of Effluency with the same car, a feat that this author coined the “Lemons Quadrangle of Emaculance.” They struggled through a handful of races and couldn’t get it done as the result of either mechanical failures or the car’s wicked handling bring out black. Instead, the Knoxvegas Lowballers’ own six-cylinder Geo Metro got their first.

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After several tries, the LemonAid Metro became the second (and to date only) Lemons car to nab the Lemons Quadrangle of Excellence. The car only just managed to eke out the win at Barber Motorsports Park in 2016.

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With only a few minutes left in that race, the radiator mount broke and the car started overheating. The Metro hung on, barely, to cross the finish line and then make a victory lap with the radiator dragging on the ground.

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When they got it home, LemonAid soon realized that the car’s front end was coming apart at the seams, despite the several hundred pounds of structural steel. With the front end needing some re-engineering and the engine cooked, the Metro has been placed on the backburner—perhaps retired, even—for a couple years.

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Whether it returns to racing is to be determined, but it remains one Lemons’ crazier builds (along with the other three Metros). We’ll let the team have the last word on it: “The Metro was heavier [than our E30], harder to drive, and very uncomfortable to sit in,” LemonAid driver Chris Crome told us. “I’ve driven several race cars, [but] none have made me smile more than that car.”

Roadkill Fall 2016 Cover