My story with my E36 is one of passion, heartbreak, persistence, hard work, and courage. That may sound a bit like the makings of a shoddy Lifetime movie, but I promise you this will be more entertaining than that. In my mind, this article is going to sound like something from Dan Neil in the WSJ. Instead, it may come off a bit like something a 17 year-old wrote one day while playing hooky… and that’d be correct.
The first time I saw the little E36 was about 3 years ago, I was 14. Somehow I looked passed all of its imperfections, and it sparked my interest in E36s. It’s a 1993 brillantrot 325iS that a good friend of ours bought from a broke Princeton student who knew nothing about cars. It was advertised on South Jersey Craigslist with a blown engine. After a good friend purchased it, he diagnosed the problem as being a damaged clutch fan. It was fixed, but never registered to be driven.
After years of it sitting in his garage, he was contemplating parting it out. I took that as my cue to voice my interest in it. So, last April, I came home with my first Bimmer, as well as my first car at the age of 15.
As you can tell in the picture above, it needed some work, but that’s what I wanted. I had another $2,000 saved to put towards it, and I was looking for a good learning experience. This seemed to fit the bill. It had Bilstein shocks, H&R springs, a Z3M short shifter, a horrible home-made air intake, and an Active Autowerke cat-back exhaust. The only thing it really didn’t have was door panels. The seats needed to be replaced, and the headliner was sagging, but it was otherwise complete. It did have 230k on it, but it didn’t run like it.
The very first thing I did was polish that oxidized paint, and take care of the exterior problems. I already had everything I needed to replace the missing trim, so that was done the day after we brought it home. At least now it wasn’t a pink car anymore.
The corners were cracked, and the kidneys were falling out. I picked up some clears to match the tail lights, and some black kidney grills from Turner Motorsport.
By then, I had sourced seats off of a member of BimmerForums, and got rid of the horrible, dried, cracked, ripped, and painted ones from before.
They were mint condition heated luxury seats out of a 1999 M3 Convertible
Around the same time as the seats, we replaced all of the brake rotors, pads, and sensors. Turner Motorsport sells a kit for a nice price, so we went with them. We purchased the upgraded street pads, and some racing fluid.
My 16th birthday was about to roll around, which meant I could finally learn to drive it with my permit. In the same week I got my permit, it passed inspection. I learned to drive stick in it on the way back from the DMV. It went well… though I’m sure there’s quite a lot less clutch than when I first got it due to my fear of stalling!
As a birthday present, my dad bought me some much needed door panels that I found on the classifieds of BimmerForums. We met up with a guy named Chris to pick them up. He was awesome, and threw in a metal water pump with them. We got home and immediately realized we didn’t have speakers to go in the door panels. So, the next weekend, we were back at Chris’s picking them up along with some M3 mirrors I had spotted from the last time.
By that point, I was taking every opportunity I had to drive it. I’d buy my mom a People magazine to read so I could cruise the pine barrens. I only had my permit, so I was limited to when I could actually drive it.
Those dark trips home made me realize just how horrible the stock lights were, so I ordered a set of ellipsoids from Umnitza.
Exploring the roads of the Pines exposed some more problems. The smell of oil led us to discovering the valve cover gasket was shot. The right rear wheel bearing would hum once we got up over 50, and the fan clutch seemed to never disengage. It would roar like a truck, even in 5th gear and over 60mph. I didn’t think that was quite right, so yet another order from Turner Motorsport.
I was excited for the valve cover job because it gave me an excuse to open the engine up, and get an idea of how it was taken care of. Thankfully, it looked good for a supposed 230k motor. We found very little sludge on the cover, and absolutely none around the cams. The coils were also numbered and labeled, so I’m still holding out hope that it has seen a refresh in the past, especially since it passed emissions on it’s first try.
In August 2011, I had signed up for a Street Survival class to be held in October. Nothing really went on between that time until I realized the valve cover was still leaking. So, my dad replaced it yet again. We stripped the old paint off and repainted it as well. He too is not shy with the RTV. It needed to be sealed well for the next day.
The car was beat on for pretty much 12 hours straight during the street survival. We left at 6AM, and got home around 7PM; it never skipped a beat. I was now hooked on autocross and decided to prep my car in a way to make it reliable for such abuse. My Christmas list consisted of nothing but a bunch of rear suspension bushings and reinforcements from Turner Motorsports. A major E36 weak point is the strength of the rear suspension mounting points. These reinforcements came stock on the M3.
An oil leak popped up over the winter that looked like an oil pan gasket. We finally diagnosed it as the oil filter housing gasket; a much cheaper and less time consuming task than dealing with the oil pan.
After all of the leaks were taken care of, I started dealing with the suspension components. Considering it already had reliable Bilsteins on it, I decided to focus more on the bushings. I replaced the front control arms, control arm bushings, sway bar end-links, and tie rods.
Within a month of completing that project, it was time to undergo the biggest one yet. It would spend a month up on the lift in order to replace every rear suspension component on the car. I had ordered all OEM M spec bushings, as well as adjustable Eibach control arms, and all of the unibody reinforcements. Literally everything in the rear of the car was to be replaced and reinforced.
Vac Motorsports of Philadelphia pressed the bushings for us, as well as provided the alignment services at the end of it all. I provided them custom alignment specs to improve turn-in response and reduce understeer for autocross.
Once the suspension components were completed, it was time for me to gain some peace of mind with the car’s cooling system. BMW cooling systems are notorious for going wrong once they have accumulated some miles. Most systems from this era are considered a replacement item, and should be done anywhere from 75-100k miles at the very latest. It was September 7th, 2012, and my deadline was M-Pact East, September 16th. I had arranged to meet up with Colton at the event, so it needed to be done. As with all of my other projects, the only thing left untouched with the thermostat area. My friend (the previous owner) had taken care of this before I purchased the vehicle. Every single item in the engine bay that deals with cooling was replaced. The radiator, expansion tank, as well as every heater/cooling hose were ordered. To give you and idea of the car’s condition during that time, watch my first video to the E39Source YouTube video.
Not long after filming that video is when all of this happened:
Despite the chaotic look of the pictures, the project went pretty smoothly. The main problem was bleeding the system. No DIY or video can prepare a person for what bleeding a BMW cooling system is like. Maybe I just got unlucky, or maybe it was because it was 11PM on September 15th (the deadline being 6AM the following morning,) but I’d liken it to hell.
Thankfully, we got done bleeding the system, and I made it to M-Pact East in top shape the next morning. I had a stripped bleeder screw, but it held up through some pretty impressive speeds on the way down.
The end of that project leaves us in present time. Some interior bits were addressed, and can be seen in this E39Source YouTube video.
This car also took a 2,000 mile road trip to the twisty roads of the Smokey Mountains. This gave the cooling system ample opportunity to break itself in. As with any major project, there are still some hoses that need to be re-tightened/gone over due to some seepage, but overall the car is better than it has been in years. There are still a variety of things that I’d like to do to this E36 that should provide some wonderful video/article content on E39Source in the future, and I hope to be of as much help as possible to other enthusiasts. Thank you for sticking with me and please leave some feedback below!