When most people think about building a dedicated track car, their knee-jerk reaction is to strap on a turbo and churn out some big power. While it’s always fun to go fast, a true racing enthusiast will tell you that your engine should be the last thing you touch in the pursuit of faster lap times. Though you might be able to shave a fair amount of seconds on the back straight, there’s no replacement for well-thought-out suspension modifications, a good set of tires, and as much time behind the wheel as possible.
Jeff Ho’s E36 BMW M3 may not look entirely like a full-blown dedicated track car, nor is it intended to be. In fact, to the casual onlooker, it may look like nothing more than a classic Bimmer with a set of Japanese rollers tossed on it. But don’t be fooled—this M3 is more than capable of hunting down the likes of Evos, STIs, and even the occasional unsuspecting 911 out on the track. When you peel back the layers, you’ll find that this E36 has been enhanced in all the right areas to maximize handling and turn some seriously quick lap times.
It all started after Jeff participated in a few track days in a BMW—but not the E36 you see before you. Surprisingly, Jeff’s previous ride was an ’08 BMW 335I coupe with simple bolt-on modifications. Even though the car was tuned to put down a stout 380 whp with almost no lag, it felt like the car was missing something. While fast in a straight line and decent enough in the twisties, the heavy German coupe felt a bit lethargic without a limited-slip differential. Even with the addition of coilovers, brake upgrades, and tuning, the 335 lacked the raw “driver’s car” feel Jeff was looking for. At this point, there were two options for a suitable replacement: the E36 M3 or the E46 M3. The two M platforms were at vastly different price points, and with Jeff’s desire to put some wrench time and a decent chunk of change in modifications into whichever car he decided on, the E36 made most sense.
Like most serious track car enthusiasts, Jeff understands that it doesn’t take a host of engine modifications to have fun and greatly improve your driving ability. “No engine work has been done simply because I’ve decided to focus my efforts on the suspension and footwork. The engine work will come after I know I can drive the car close to its limit,” Jeff explains. Sounds like a man wise beyond his years to us.
While it had an exceptionally handling chassis from the get-go, Jeff has carefully selected a number of chassis enhancements that allow this E36 to really shine during track days. A set of AST monotube shocks paired with 650-pound/800-pound springs, spherical rear shock mounts, and Vorshlag camber plates bring the car’s ride height, dampening, and alignment to spec without binding or unnecessary resistance. Suspension slop and flex can be an issue on an older chassis like this, so a number of the factory rubber bushings have been replaced with stiffer and stronger polyurethane components. An H&R 20mm front sway bar allows the car to rotate smoothly and removes any unwanted understeer or oversteer tendencies. With just a few seemingly simple suspension modifications, this little M car leaves drivers of AWD platforms in shock when it simply refuses to disappear from their rearview mirrors.
Just about everyone knows that a larger contact patch can be the key to making a car handle well. Unfortunately, the E36 M3’s fender design greatly restricts the amount of rubber that can fit safely without rubbing. Jeff found a unique solution to this issue by cutting and welding a set of E46 M3 fenders to his E36. The result? An aggressive and one-off-looking M with about 2 inches of extra space per corner for wider wheels and tires—pretty trick! The custom widebody gives the E36 a noticeably tougher stance while still looking as though the car could have come that way from the factory. In addition to the fenders, a Rieger GT front lip and an MA Shaw LTW rear spoiler with risers add a touch of class to the car’s appearance while creating downforce. A carbon-fiber hood has been installed and painted body color to save weight without losing the subtle OEM+ appearance.
On track days, the grafted E46 wide fenders are filled out with a set of APEX ARC8 hyper silver 18x10 +25 wheels wrapped in some seriously sticky 285 Hoosier R6 slicks—talk about aggressive! It’s always a good idea to beef up the wheel studs on a track car, and the Vorshlag 90mm wheel stud conversion accomplishes just that. For street cruising, Jeff switches out the slicks in favor of a set of classic TE37SL mounted up with Federal rubber. One thing we love to see on a German car is a set of high-quality Japanese wheels. Coming from a Honda background, Jeff feels the same way. Finally, Friction PFC01 brake pads and UUC stainless steel brake lines on all four corners ensure that powerful and fade-free braking is delivered all day long.
Jeff revisits the Japanese theme inside the car with a pair of Bride Zeta III bucket seats mounted via VAC motorsports seat mounts. G-Force six-point harnesses add extra security for occupants, mounted via an Autopower four-point half-cage residing in the back seat of the car. This adds chassis rigidity and an additional touch of safety to the Bimmer’s interior should it ever partake in an off-track excursion.
As we mentioned earlier, Jeff has chosen to hone his driving skills and learn to understand his E36 before dumping a ton of money into the engine. However, there are always engine and drivetrain goodies that can be added to ensure a car is up to the rigors of track duty. A VAC baffled oil pan was installed to prevent oil starvation during harsh cornering, while a number of cooling modifications keep engine temperatures optimal lap after lap. A UUC System-U exhaust system gives the M some needed bark and frees up a few ponies in the process. Vorshlag nylon motor mounts and UUC polyurethane transmission mounts reduce drivetrain slop and replace the worn and aging factory pieces.
While it might not be sporting a big turbocharger under the hood, Jeff’s E36 is a perfect example of a true grassroots weekend track car. It’s careful to hit all of the essential modifications to enhance what the car is already plenty capable of in stock form, allowing the driver to really spend some time learning the fastest way around the circuit without the overbearing burden of big power or reliability issues. With each lap spent behind the wheel, it will become clear that the tools needed to post up solid times are already in place. There will always be room to add power down the road when Jeff has mastered the car’s handling with its current engine setup. So the next time an old Bimmer blows off the doors in your AWD 400-whp sedan, remember this: It’s not the car but the person driving it who matters most.
Specs & Details
1998 BMW M3
Engine S52B32 3.2L I6
Engine Modifications VAC baffled oil pan, PWR 42mm radiator, SPAL thin puller fan, Stewart race water pump, UUC system-U (DTM) exhaust
Engine Management Drivetrain Vorshlag nylon motor mounts, UUC red race poly transmission mounts
Suspension AST 5100 monotube shocks, 650-pound/800-pound springs, spherical rear shock mounts; Vorshlag camber plates, H&R 28mm front sway bar, OEM BMW Optional X-Brace, Powerflex polyurethane rear trailing arm bushings, AKG polyurethane front control arm bushings
Interior Bride Zeta3 bucket seats, VAC motorsport seat mounts, UUC Rk5 shift knob, G-Force six-point harness belts, Autopower four-point half-’cage
Exterior Rieger GT front lip, MA Shaw LTW rear spoiler with risers, painted carbon-fiber hood, OEM BMW E46 sedan front fenders grafted on all four corners, matte black grilles
Wheels, Tires & Brakes Performance Street setup: Volk Racing TE37SL Diamond Black 18x9.5 +22 (f/r), 15mm spacers (f/r), Federal 595 RSR 245/40/18, Track setup: APEX ARC8 Hyper Silver 18x10+25 (f/r), Hoosier R6 285(f/r), Vorshlag 90mm wheel stud conversion (f/r), Friction PFC01 brake pads (f/r), UUC stainless steel brake lines
Special Thanks Eric Man and Arthur Lam for always providing a helping hand and solutions, Chris Ling for taking time from his busy schedule to help me graft the E46 fenders, Chris Leuhmann for doing an amazing job on the bodywork of my fenders, and last but not least, Daryll Yeng and Matt Kwok for inspiring me to focus on track seat time over anything else