At the time of writing, I have owned my e36 M3 for a little more than a year. Seems like a long time in some ways, but a single year is not much time in the grand scheme of a project car. So far, I've addressed a couple of things like tires for daily duty, routine maintenance items under the hood, a couple of nice power-adders from Dinan and I've tracked the car twice and driven about 9,000 miles. Sounds like not a lot of changes for a year's worth of work, right? Strange as it may sound, I'm happy I got a long time to drive the car in largely stock condition. I have a pretty good grasp on how it acts by now, what the shortcomings are, and after collecting all the parts I need, it's time for a major update.
There are two main areas where my e36 M3 falls short in stock trim. First is the braking system. Around town, the stock (and admittedly worse for wear) brakes are "fine." But on track, they're really not fine, and I don't want to push my luck any more than I already have. I've decided to shy away from big brake kits, at least for the time being. The stock brake size is not the issue; it's simply a matter of needing new, well, everything basically. The second area in need of major attention as you probably guessed is the suspension; worn-out shocks, trailing arm bushings, and other related rubber items underneath the car all need to go ASAP, and while I'm at it, I'll hopefully address an inherent understeer. It's amazing the car handles as well as it does considering most of the suspension is original equipment from 1999 and how worn some of these parts are.
Braking is the first real major overhaul this car has seen. To get things started, I sourced a set of used factory brake calipers and brought them to Chris Aguilar of Velocity Powder Coating in Riverside, California, for a complete refinishing. The powdercoating process was a bit mysterious to me going in, and I'm glad I got to see the procedure from start to finish. The process to prepare and powdercoat my brakes took only a few hours.
The first step of the process is to clean and strip down the parts to the bare metal. Chris does this by using an acid bath, followed by a quick bake to get out any remaining deep-set contaminants, and then the preparation process is finished off with mediablasting.
I went with a nice gold color to give some contrast against the Hellrot paint and silver wheels. The powder is applied using an air gun similar to painting, then the parts are baked for 10 to 12 minutes at a temperature of more than 400 degrees. After the brakes have cooled, we added a bit of flair. I wanted to make the small ///M logos in the castings black to stand out. Chris was able to pull this off by applying a small amount of black powder by hand in just the areas we wanted to coat. Back in the oven for a second bake to cure the black logos, followed by a final clearcoating layer for extra shine and protection. The third and final bake for the clearcoating is the last step, and we were done. Not too bad! Chris says the real key is to make sure your parts are clean and fully stripped of the original finish in order to get a long-lasting result.
Now that I had the calipers ready, it was time for the real party. I reached out to local M car guru Marc Norris, owner of Bavarian Workshop in North Hills, California. Marc has been wrenching on German cars for decades, and since he's an authorized Dinan dealer, I knew I was in excellent hands. Marc and his team were able to squeeze me into their busy schedule; when I showed up and got all my parts unloaded, he looked excited to dive in. The Bavarian Workshop team made quick work of my massive suspension and brake overhaul.
The parts list here is pretty long, so I'll go through it in sections and touch on what the benefits are for each part, starting with the brakes. Rebuilding your brake calipers is always a good idea when dealing with an older car because it's a relatively easy process and the parts are affordable. In addition to the freshly powdercoated calipers and carriers, we replaced the O-rings, pistons, bleeder screws, pad clips, bolts, and guides that hold it all together. I ordered the lion's share of the OEM (or OEM-equivalent) parts from BimmerWorld, a company founded by race driver and BMW authority James Clay. I also opted to go with its stainless steel braided brake lines—BimmerWorld assembles these lines, including an insulating wrap on the rear lines that helps further protect the lines and I presume keep the temperature reasonable on the driver side near the exhaust. The biggest benefit of stainless brake lines over factory lines is increased protection from road debris and, for our purposes, track debris.
Front rotors come courtesy of Performance Friction (PFC); the company's new two-piece Direct Drive V3 rotor is the nicest and most well engineered stock size front rotor option on the market. The PFC Direct Drive V3 rotor is a two-piece design, so it's serviceable, and the V3 ring-based attachment method is lighter (and faster to replace when needed) than the previous methods employed by PFC. High-carbon alloy construction makes these rotors particularly strong and light. I have paired the Direct Drive V3 rotors with PFC's 08 Compound brake pads, a good all-around track day or endurance racing pad. With smooth initial bite and a long lifespan, these pads should be good on the street as well. Noise levels are the only thing I'm slightly unsure of; there is a chance I will end up keeping these as a track day pad and running another PFC compound for everyday around-town use. To finish off the braking upgrades, we have gone with PFC's RH665 brake fluid, a racing fluid with the highest possible dry boiling point of any DOT4 fluid. This will be great for track days and will act just like normal fluid on the streets. One final touch was a BimmerWorld wheel stud conversion kit, because wheel bolts are whack. Try to line up holes and hold the wheel at the same time. Ain't nobody got time for that.
Suspension-wise, I knew there were only a couple of real choices for me, considering what I was looking for in a street/track coilover. KW Suspensions is my brand of choice, having had a set of V3s previously; I opted for the Clubsport this time around. The Clubsport coilover includes two-way adjustable dampers, track-focused spring rates with adjustable spring perches, and adjustable front upper mounts, allowing for easy and precise changes to camber settings. The fit and overall build quality I've come to expect from KW are top notch; fitting and adjusting these dampers is really a painless process. It does take some time to get any new damper set up to suit your preferences, but once I have figured out my settings for this car, I doubt I'll be tinkering with them frequently. Instead of reusing the stock rear shock upper mount (a known weak point of the e36), I upgraded to a set of sturdier Powerflex rear upper mounts. The Clubsport coilovers include a pair of strut-mounted sway bar endlinks, but we opted to go with a set of BimmerWorld adjustable endlinks to give some extra thickness and adjustability to bar angle.
We paired the coilovers with a set of ST Suspensions' adjustable front and rear sway bars. ST Suspensions is a division of KW, so the quality and fit of these bars are excellent. The front bar has a 1 3/16-inch (~30 mm) diameter and features three settings to adjust stiffness, and the rear bar measures 15/16-inch (~24 mm) and has two stiffness settings. I'm a little unsure how the e36 will react to bar stiffness with the increased diameters, so I went with the softest setting on both the front and rear to start with. Changing the bar stiffness is fairly easy—you just need to move the endlinks between the holes to stiffen or soften.
The car needed new bushings almost across the board, and since I will be tracking pretty regularly, I wanted to upgrade to something a bit more aggressive than stock. I did as much research as I could on my own and came to the conclusion that you can't guess what a car will feel like based on reading forums. Not surprising that 10 people have 10 different opinions on what's best. Weird, right? This is where James Clay and his team at BimmerWorld stepped in again and helped make my decision easier. James has had a very long career racing and building BMWs, so when he recommended a combination of the Powerflex street compound (purple) and racing compound (black) for various parts of the underside, I simply took his advice.
In total, we replaced all the bushings on the front control arms (as well as the arms themselves—the ball joints are not serviceable so the whole arm annoyingly must be replaced), subframe (front and rear) differential, rear control arms (upper and lower, and we replaced the lower arms with adjustable Powerflex units), rear trailing arms, and we also replaced the tie rod ends with factory units and took the opportunity to weld in two chassis reinforcement kits from BimmerWorld. The rear trailing arm bushing pocket reinforcement kit is intended to strengthen the area around the mounting points for the arms by adding an extra layer of steel. The second area we chose to reinforce on James' recommendation is the rear sway bar mounting points. This is a known weak point for an e36 with upgraded sway bar; any car seeing significant track time should have this area reinforced. Better safe than sorry. The subframe of the e36 M3 is reinforced from the factory on all cars from '96-'99, so we left that alone.
On the rack at Bavarian Workshop, Marc and his guys began to disassemble the underside of my car and I took the chance to pick his brain and attempt to soak up as much knowledge as possible. Marc has built a lot of impressive BMWs over the years, including a widely recognizable S14-powered 2002 recently featured on Jay Leno's Garage. Marc is quick to point out that he is not a "2002 guy" per se, but there's no such thing as bad press, now is there Marc? Not that there's anything wrong with being a 2002 guy anyhow. Marc currently owns a number of cool M cars, including an E30 M3 convertible he is restoring, a Fire Orange E92 M3, and the recently completed and widely drooled over fully OEM-spec E46 M3 Touring. When I say OEM-spec, I mean it. Motor, transmission, interior, bodywork—including fender flares, suspension, exhaust, wiring, emissions equipment... Everything. I began to drift into a pipe dream of a California BAR-certified S54 swap in my own car, but first things first: suspension and brakes.
There weren't too many surprises as the car began to come apart. There's a bit of "character" in the trunk area from a minor rear end accident, which I have known about all along, but Marc gave me some advice on how to align my bumpers a bit better when the time comes for the paint and body portion of the build. As if that will be anytime soon... Other than that, everything was there, worn as we expected, and installing the new parts went smoothly and quickly. The pieces that were the worst for wear were the front control arms and ball joints, tie rod ends, sway bar endlinks, rear trailing arm bushings, and rear upper control arm outer bearings. It looked like everything underneath the car was original aside from brake pads and rotors; so needless to say, I was in for a big upgrade.
As we neared the end of the install, Marc did a quick eyeball alignment so I could drive home. I was super happy, the car looked great, and I couldn't wait to drive and feel the difference. I bedded the brakes on the way home but had to take it pretty easy since the car desperately needed a proper alignment. The next day, I headed out to see Darin and Chris Nishimura at West End Alignment to get everything dialed in. I, of course, went with a full corner balancing and alignment because of how many parts had been replaced. The benefits of corner balancing with the driver in the car cannot possibly be understated. Chris got me to a perfect left-to-right and front-to-rear balance within the course of just a few hours. Chris and his dad, Darin, are the go-to guys in the L.A. area for race car alignments and corner balancing, and I asked them to set me up for aggressive street driving and occasional track use because I don't want to just kill tires around town. The final settings are 0 toe and about -2.5 degrees camber in front and -2.0 in the back. I may revisit these guys after a few months, but I felt (and Chris agreed) that it would be wise to start here, test, and then make changes later.
Now that I had alignment handled, I was practically losing my mind, itching to drive the car hard. Thankfully, and as luck would have it, KW Suspensions was hosting a track day shakedown at Willow Springs two days later. What are the odds? Talk about the perfect chance to properly feel the car out.
First impressions are important, and I'm happy to report that everything felt pretty good. In fact, scratch that. Everything felt really good. Yes, the KW Clubsport suspension is stiffer than stock. Yes, there are moderately increased levels of NVH from the bushings. Yes, the brakes squeal a little bit. But, hot damn, the car feels like a new beast! It's stable, sturdy, and no longer wayward at speed like it would occasionally feel before. The brakes are a night and day difference. Entering Turn 3 at Streets of Willow, a downhill braking zone, I was a bit timid on my first few laps, but by the end of the day I was going deep and with absolutely no fade. I cannot explain how much better the car feels now. Of course there are still some areas that need attention, but the good news is there are just a few things to focus on now, whereas before it was basically, you know, everything.
The biggest downfall of the car now is the wheel and tire setup. While the Yokohama S.Drive tires are perfectly fine for around-town driving, they are not designed for track use and therefore they gotta go. I will also be looking into a lighter wheel and going with a square sizing setup, meaning no more wider in the rear than the front. These new wheels and tires will help alleviate the understeer that has decreased but is still present. I also need to spend some time tuning the damper settings and the sway bars, and I may consider slightly more aggressive camber settings. The right setup is in there—it just needs to be massaged out. That's half the fun of it, isn't it?
Next up, I'm hoping to address wheels and tires, setup adjustment, and another trip to the track. I went 1:34.xx at Streets of Willow without fine-tuning the setup, and my last time at Buttonwillow was an unimpressive 2:13.xx before the major update. Let's see what I can pull off with a more properly sorted car!
Brake calipers and carriers, used, dirty, not good.
After the acid bath, a bake and mediablasting.
The final results, looking great!
About to get the party started...
New toys, LOTS of new toys.
Performance Friction (PFC) Direct Drive V3 two-piece front brake rotors. Extreme quality, purpose-built design, the perfect rotor for stock-sized calipers.
Powerflex rear upper shock mounts to strengthen a known E36 weak point.
Fresh front lower control arms and Powerflex street compound rear bushings, a welcome replacement to the 18-plus-year-old original equipment.
Powerflex rear subframe bushings, front and back. Should be a massive improvement over stock.
Yeah, we were a bit overdue on this servicing.
Old, worn-out stock equipment versus new hotness from KW Suspensions and ST Suspensions.
Assembling the freshly powdercoated brake calipers is a fairly quick and straightforward process.
PFC Direct Drive V3 front rotors in place...
Finished product! Front brakes fully assembled (minus wheel studs).
Powerflex control arm bushings in place
Final assembly of the brakes and suspension.
KW adjustable upper mounts, installed with the Dinan strut tower brace in place.
Tragically, I had to strap my old, tired, stock wheels on top of these beautiful new brakes. We'll approach that subject very soon. It's a VERY tight fit up front with the stock wheels. In order to gain clearance, the ride height must be high enough for the spring perch to clear the tire. I will keep this in mind when picking wheel size, offset, and spacer sizing in the future.
Close up of the rear spring perch; no clearance issues back here. These are also very easy to adjust.
Marc doing a quick eyeball alignment so I could drive home.
Chris Nishimura taking initial measurements before getting started. Chris and his father Darin do things the old fashioned way, and it works wonderfully. These guys are busy, so don't expect them to squeeze you in last minute.
Final corner balanced and aligned setup. Looks great to me, even on stock wheels.
Nailed it. Cross weighting.
On-track action from the KW Suspensions Shakedown day at Streets of Willow. Massive improvement over stock! There are still some shortcomings, but that's all right. It gives me something to work on still.