If you thought high-end BMW restorations could only be born out of clinically-clean, showroom-like workshops, think again.
Based in the town of Vereeniging, South Africa, you’ll find Custom Restorations, a shop run on pure passion. It’s also a shop renowned for some of the best classic BMW rebuilds anywhere.
Custom Restorations’ owner Luis Malhou is a real character. You might recognise his name from our recent feature of his work on the magnificent 530 MLE, BMW’s first true M car.
As mentioned in that story, Luis’s quality of work and attention to detail is so spectacular that BMW South Africa themselves enlisted him to restore their prized possession. That particular car was essentially restored from a bare shell.
I first met up with Luis at sunrise to shoot his personal 530 MLE, and after that freezing early-morning encounter we headed to his shop, situated in an industrial area.
Arriving at Custom Restorations, I first noticed the remains of a 2002 Touring and an E9 which sacrificed themselves so that other cars could live on.
Believe it or not, Luis never planned to have a shop at all. He had been working on and restoring his own cars at home, and on the odd occasion helped fellow classic BMW owners with their cars too. Luis restored his father’s 530 MLE in 2010 after he had sold it in 2004, and then found it again and bought it from the owner in 2007. This is the same car we featured, and pre-restoration was in awful condition. In order to bring it back to life, Luis started looking for spares and along the way bought a number of shells.
During this parts-hunting time, he also ran into a number of 2002s, so bought those too. You know, just in case. Soon enough, he was using a friend’s warehouse as storage for a lot of them.
At this time Luis was running a Nandos franchise restaurant, but in 2017 he decided he needed a change. His brother actually told him to take some time out from work and restore some of his cars, which he could then sell as a means of income. And that’s what Luis did.
Luis started working on his black 1600 02 and posted his progress on Facebook. He ordered and sourced spares from Germany, and got stuck into a full ground-up restoration. Very quickly Luis amassed an online following, which then turned into a number of South African classic BMW owners phoning and messaging, asking if he’d work on their cars. Off the back of this, Custom Restorations was born.
To get things rolling, Luis had to find a panel and paint shop able to do real metal work – something easier done in the modern era.
The shop that’d worked on his 530 MLE was too far away, so Luis asked around in the classic community and ultimately met Orlando of Redline Repairs & Customs Center. Like Luis, Orlando had been working from home, but had just opened up a proper shop due to a high demand for his work.
Luis’s black 1600 became the guinea pig, and Orlando and his son Marco did an outstanding job of it. In the time since, Custom Restorations and Redline have worked together on more than 35 cars.
Luis also collaborates with another local automotive artisan for his interiors. Dewald from Auto Leather Care looks after all the reupholstery and trimming work, but Luis does all the final installation work at his shop. As you can see, he’s got quite a collection of seats; some are spares and others are awaiting Dewald’s experienced touch.
This E30 that I found in the back of the shop is one of Luis’s newest projects and obviously quite a major one. It’s a very rare 325is Evo I, a South Africa-only model created by BMW SA to replace the 126kW (169hp) 2.5-litre 325i in Group N production car racing, as a response to Opel’s introduction of the Kadett 2.0-litre 16V in the Class A category. The 325is was launched in the first half of 1990 and was powered by an Alpina-fettled, 2.7-litre M20 engine which produced 145kW (194 hp)
This specific car was ordered by BMW Malawi, and spent all of its life in the southeastern Africa country, changing hands a few times in its three decades of existence. As you can see, it’s in quite a state; the red paint looks hand-painted. The good news is, Luis will be restoring it back to as-new condition, so I might have to come back and check it out once it’s completed.
All Luis’s six-cylinder motors are built by one of the greatest M30 engine builders he knows, Paul Casson. Luis says that in the local BMW fraternity, it’s all about using the right guys for the job and trusting each other. Basil is another name that popped up in conversation; he handles all Luis’s four-cylinder rebuild work, and is also the go-to guy for carburettor building and tuning.
Over the years, Luis, his assistant Isaiah, and the people Custom Restorations outsources work to, have built a number of concours-winning cars, and along with the previously mentioned 325is, there are three other potential future winners under the knife in the shop – a 635CSi Alpina replica, an E30 325i four-door, as well as a rare E9 3.0CSi.
Luis says that it generally takes anywhere from 12 to 18 months to restore a car, and that’s in between the other jobs that comes through the door, including specialist repair work that other panel shops aren’t experienced enough to do.
Luis owns quite a few BMWs himself, some completed and others still being built, like his 2002 Touring. There’s also a 1979 E12 535i, a 1972 2002tii ‘Roundie’ and a 635CSi, and at home Luis has a 530 MLE , a 850Ci and a ’94 E36 325i in as-new showroom condition with 340 000km on the clock. He’s also working on an E36 318is Motorsport which he’s just painted M2 Atlantic Blue.
The entire shop is littered with spares, many of which are all but unobtainable now, and have been sourced from all over the world. There’s even a spare store room offsite full of rare wheels and hard-to-come-by body panels.
What makes an operation like Custom Restorations so great, is that it’s not about making money, it’s about loving what you do.
The feeling of handing a client the keys back to their newly-restored car that came in as wreck and leaves as their new pride and joy is immense for Luis. He really can’t see himself doing anything else.