The beauty of the BMW E36 is its simplicity. One of the last analog-feel cars produced, I’ve really enjoyed Project 345 over the past few years and roughly 10,000 miles together.
Not only is it fun to drive on a winding back road, its mechanical systems are straightforward enough that you can take a wrench to it yourself in most cases if you have to. Though, thanks to fastidious previous owners, I have had a very trouble-free German car ownership experience thus far. Instead of fixing things, most of my time has been spent just enjoying the car, adding miles and doing boring stuff like washes and oil changes.
When I picked up the car in Montana a couple of years ago and promptly drove it 10 hours back to Portland, Oregon there were a handful of things that I wanted to address straight away. Namely, the headlights, the headliner, the hood latch assembly and the windshield. Some of these things happened over time, but somewhere along the way I got a bit lost and ended up at the track…
The M3 isn’t quite ready to run hot laps with the cool kids in the fast groups yet, but I wanted to cover the ground between my first Project 345 story and my first track day in the sedan. Really, all an E36 M3 needs to enjoy it at the track is a set of good brake pads and some attention to the cooling equipment.
Rewinding to 2019 when I purchased the car, these and the other service items I mentioned should have been pretty quick and straightforward. But, as these things often go, we get sidetracked when we see something big and shiny, and we lose our way.
The big and shiny objects in question were a set of used BBS RS-GT forged 3-piece wheels, 18-inch in diameter with staggered widths and titanium hardware. I would have much preferred to go the 17-inch route for this car, but the deal I got on these was simply too good to pass up. And, despite my reservations about their size, I was surprised how good they looked on the car. Though, I shouldn’t have been.
A German wheel installed in a slightly-larger-than-stock size on a 20-plus-year-old German car sounds like a match made in heaven. Well, they looked great in the rear, and after a few photos of the back half I decided the car desperately needed a wash after being thrashed on Washington’s damp (but silky smooth and pothole-free) backroads.
That out of the way, we can return our attention to the front of the vehicle, where you’ll see that the resulting ride height (up by 13mm with the 18s) was totally unacceptable. I was told when I purchased the car that it had Dinan springs all around, though I have my doubts. Either way, the wheels came off and went back into storage.
I’ll also point out that the stock brakes looked quite puny inside the spacious 18-inch wheel frames, and I started to wonder what direction I was actually going to take this car. Do I run the 18s? Do I get a big brake kit for the street? Do I track the dumb thing? I definitely need coilovers. Or, should I just start like I planned, by addressing the hood latch, cracked windshield, sagging headliner and halo lights?
I did sand, buff and polish the crap out of the stock plastic headlight lenses that came with the car, but for whatever reason I never ended up putting them back on.
Life got in the way, projects came up around a newly-purchased house, and the whole Covid situation really put a damper on things as well. And I got a very small kitten called Fuji. There he is.
Other cars became a priority too, and with the ability to squeeze four into the garage and two more out front things got out of hand very, very quickly. But more on that a different time…
2022 & Beyond
Fast-forward to today and I find myself back in California, working in a slightly decrepit but spacious side yard. Here, I replaced all the under tray hardware ( much of it was missing), only for the driver-side flap to start flapping around again on the highway anyway. Excellent!
I do still have that glorious garage up north, but it’s inconveniently located approximately 660 miles away from the M3, so at the moment it does me no good when I need to work on the thing.
I covered other little odds and ends in the side yard as well, like my exhaust hangers. Someone on Instagram had accurately pointed out that my muffler was located in a different ZIP code than my rear bumper, and they were right. Sick burn too, I must say. However, they kindly recommended me the excellent RevShift kit with polyurethane inserts from FCP Euro.
Like most things related to this car I didn’t install these for a year, and when I went to grab the parts for the job I found that I only had one of the two hangers. I remembered that these had shipped separately, and since the second half of the order wasn’t with the rest of all my car parts, I asked FCP if they could check if it had actually been delivered. Since a year had passed, they couldn’t, so they simply sent me a replacement.
How good is that service?
Moving on, I also removed the smoked Euro-style taillights in favor of the amber US-spec units, and I swapped out the clear front corner lights for ambers at this time as well. It’s amazing how much of a change little things like this can make.
But don’t mind that bent strut bar, and please ignore the other project in the foreground here. We must stay focused.
In the spirit of maintaining momentum – like my friend Evan Brown, aka ITEM-B says, “One thing a day” – I did a brake job to correct a vibration under heavy braking and opted for EBC Yellowstuff pads since I didn’t plan to track the car just yet. They felt great on the street – which they are designed for – though my tired suspension was rubbing at the rear and beginning to feel a bit less sharp than when I acquired the car.
Getting Cool At Trackspec
But first things first, if you’re going to track an E36, you’re going to have to replace the cooling system. Actually, scratch that… If you simply own an E36, you’re going to have to replace the cooling system.
The prospect of tackling this very wet and dirty job in my side yard with limited tools, no lift and a very un-California amount of rain did not seem appealing in the slightest. Instead, I brought the car straight to Trackspec Autosports, where I knew I would be in good hands.
I wasn’t the only one in for upgrades from CSF, and I’ll need to stop back in soon to show you in more detail some of the other projects that Trackspec is working on. Hint: race cars and K-swaps.
But for now, back to my dirty E36’s cooling job. My new very best friend Mike Moreno was making good progress on the car and thankfully nothing alarming had cropped up along the way. That is, besides the lovely sticker my friends at Illumaesthetic stuck to my fan shroud while I was storing the car in their shop sans bumper after towing it from Washington.
With some of the accessories in the engine bay removed, I figured this would be a good time to tack on another job: replacing my broken hood latch cable. I’d had the cable the entire time I owned the car and finally admitted I simply wasn’t going to do the job myself.
For the water pump, I went for a high-end Stewart Components item from Bimmerworld, and Trackspec Autosports recommended I replace the pulleys and my drive belt along with the thermostat and water hoses at the same time since everything would be apart. The idea here was just to address as much as I could along the way so that I don’t need to revisit any of these E36 pain points. And that’s where CSF comes in.
I was a bit leery spending hundreds of dollars on cooling components when I’ve never had the slightest problem with the cooling system, which had mostly been replaced under previous ownership. But as soon as I unboxed the all-aluminum CSF radiator I knew I had made the right choice.
The best part is, every last tab, boss and fitting has been accounted for by the engineers at CSF, so it really was a plug-and-play OEM replacement that gave us no trouble. This is key, especially when you’re paying for a shop to do the work as opposed to fiddling around on your own time.
I do eventually want to switch over to an E30-style overflow tank, which will require me to remove the air pump and some other smog equipment. All in all though, it was an afternoon at Trackspec that was well worth it.
Shortly thereafter, I finally found myself experiencing the historic twists and turns of Laguna Seca with my friends from Corsa Club, who I have been shooting for as of late.
It had been close to five years since I had driven here in my 10AE Mazda Miata (a different one than pictured earlier in this article), and I was surprised how different the M3 felt. First off, the E36 weighs approximately 900lbs (~408kgs) more than the Miata, and you really do feel that on the track.
Also, simply put, I think a large part of it was that I now am five years older. As such, I found that I have a much stronger sense of self-preservation than I did when I was in my 20s. With the Miata, I had fully accepted that if the car got binned, so be it. But I really did not feel that way in the E36, and I certainly didn’t feel like having a bad off.
In other words, while I was somewhat quick on track before, I now found myself to be a wise and apprehensive (read: slow) old man instead.
Despite my own shortcomings, the car felt quite good overall. At least, it did at first. Late into my first session I began to feel my brake pads depositing unevenly on the rotors, and after a few sessions hard braking generated an unacceptable vibration through the steering column. While fantastic on the street for many miles, the EBC Yellowstuff pads were simply melting at the track with the fat Bimmer working them too hard.
After an hour of track time, I had to call it quits. Couple this with the slippery stock seat, the large factory steering wheel, the squishy suspension and some 560-treadwear all-season tires, and the car didn’t overly inspire confidence. I knew full well that I should have further upgraded the pads and switched to a set of real track tires first, but I just wanted to get out there after such a long time.
My friend Erick drove my car as well, which meant I could get some photos of it on track. In turn, I grabbed a shot of him flying down Laguna Seca’s famous Corkscrew at the end of the day is his own M3 sedan.
Afterwards, Erick gave me some guidance on better track pads, bushings and much, much more. These things will be covered here as soon as they arrive, along with some more substantial components that are currently making their way across the Atlantic from Germany.
The car has been a ton of fun over the last three years, and now that I’m actually diving into it in a semi-serious way I like it even more. There’s no doubt in my mind that the best part of my ownership is still to come, as are many more exciting miles behind the wheel of this old German sedan.
And if you’re wondering, Fuji has grown up to be quite the dapper shop assistant. No mice have a chance around these parts.