Project E36 M3: Part 1 - Taming the Wobbly BeastProject E36 M3: Part 1 - Taming the Wobbly Beast

by Jonathan Lawson

I'm an addict.  A full-fledged, mainlining, E36 M3 addict, and I haven't been able to lift myself out of it since 1995 when the E36 M3 was released in the U.S. By the summer of 1999 I jumped in at the tail end of the production run.  I'll save you from all of the boring in-between details for now, but after trying to shake the chassis out of my system, my fourth example now sits in our garage.

E36 M3 prices are incredibly enticing right now, but it's surprisingly hard to find examples which have been well cared for.  To make a long story short, I ended up breaking most of the parameters of my requirements.  I was searching for a 4-door with a light interior and exterior, but I ended up with a black on black 2-door.  Incredibly hot summers and a child's seat to stuff in the back mean that this wasn't the most logical choice.  It was, however, fairly local and from a known and trusted source. Plus, it was in good condition aesthetically, and it had the most solid and quiet E36 chassis I'd felt since the cars were just a few years old.  Sold!

Project E36 M3 Part 1Of course, the chassis feel didn't necessarily mean that it didn't need some help.  The previous owner installed Koni dampers, but everything else was completely stock… And original! 

At 14-years old and 115,000 miles, that meant it needed some serious love in the suspension bushing department, especially since the car's first track outing would be just a couple weeks after purchasing it.  The first day of ownership made it painfully obvious that the wobbly beast needed rear trailing arm bushings (RTABs) in a bad way, as well as rear shock mounts (RSMs) and front control arm bushings (FCABs).  

E36 M3 rear trailing arm bushingsI was fully expecting the RTABs to look bad, but I literally laughed out loud when I got a close up view.  This would explain why the rear of the car felt like it had no idea what direction it wanted to go at any given time, even on relatively smooth surfaces.

There aren't many jobs I haven't done on E36s, but replacing RTABs was one of them prior to this.  I was up for the challenge, though.  Mostly because I didn’t want to pay someone $90/hour to do the work.  I had no intention of buying the very costly BMW rear trailing arm bushing tool either, so it was a great excuse to break out the power tools.  Plus, I had the good ole interwebs telling me that I could use a drill bit to cut the old bushings out…

The thing is, however, that the internet lied to me.  Okay, maybe not a lie, but the drill bit method was a horrible excuse for a DIY project.  It was beyond frustrating, and I even thought of putting the car back together and just paying someone. 

E36 RTAB removal hole sawThen I had a crazy thought as I looked through my drill bit box.  What about my hole saw? 
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Tuesday, August 27, 2013 12:45 AM
"this one is shaping up to offer some things you’ve never seen on an E36 before, or potentially any other car for that matter. Particularly with the suspension."

Damn you Lawson! You can't make such a pedestrian (though fun to read) article and then end it with something as enticing-yet-nondescript as that. Give us a better hint!
Tuesday, August 27, 2013 5:49 AM
LOL! Yeah, sorry for the pedestrian nature of Part 1, but with cars of this age, it would be a disservice not to cover the little things to watch for, and I'd hate for anyone who's only read/heard about the E36 M3 to go on a test drive only to leave thinking it's the worst handling car in the world, when all it needs is a few bushings.

Plus, the whole saw method of bushing removal deserved some "ink" time. ha!

I'll have to check on just how much info I can divulge on the suspension at this time, but I can say that it will end up potentially being the perfect compromise between street and track (or summer and winter for that matter) without actually needing to compromise anything at all.
Tuesday, August 27, 2013 6:46 AM
Heh, just giving you a hard time. And I know all about the necessity of the fixes in this article. My old man's '97 4-door M3 handled like a greasy weasel when he first got it. Wheel hop on hard launches was atrocious. When you pegged it at WOT in 3rd gear the rear end would steer the car to the left. Needless to say, his bushings were in a MUCH worse state than yours, basically falling out.

So I certainly agree that what you covered in the article were top priority items. Next on my hit-list would be that goddamned dual-mass flywheel and self-adjusting clutch assembly. That abomination totally ruins the character of the S52 engine. The flywheel alone weighs nearly thirty goddamn pounds. Thirty! And it is so complicated that it costs more than $800. Insanity. My dad and I swapped all that bullshit out for a chrome-moly flywheel and HD pressure plate from ACT paired with a 'yellow' grade Kevlar friction disc from ClutchNet. We also threw in a metal pedal with brass bushings and deleted the factory spring-assist return mechanism (which is really part of the self-adjusting-clutch).

The use of a Kevlar disc rather than ACT's semi-metallic makes for a *really* purposeful set-up that is beautiful to use. It is hard to describe. The bite point is a little narrower than on an organic/metallic and is a bit less forgiving when setting off from a dead stop, yet the 'sweet spot' is much easier to find once you are up to speed. Basically, the faster you shift the smoother the clutch is to use. It perfectly matches the car's character. It just endlessly encourages you to drive harder. Super-aggressive bang-shifts that would cause lurching and unpleasantness in most cars just make for seamless music in our M3. Yet it is still such a daily-driver, soft and (relatively) easy to use with its fully sprung hub.

I've been in a lot of E36es now and have never felt one with a better clutch setup. They are either too much like stock or (much more often) terribly heavy and un-fun to use. It's all about finding that balance, something that so many M3 modders seem to over-shoot. M3s are already so racy from the factory, I feel like it is very easy to ruin them as street cars. However, it seems that you are hyper-aware of this balance and have really set up your plan for the car around the idea of keeping that balance in-tact. Thanks for the extra hints about the suspension, I'm so pumped to see where you go with it!

Pablo Mazlumian
Pablo Mazlumianlink
Tuesday, August 27, 2013 7:02 AM
Great article! Having been through four E36 M3's myself, this one reminds me of the time when I had my wife lead me in my then AA Stg2.5 turbo'd '95, only to see...her...is she breaking tires loose out at that speed??
Lol, come to find out that the car--although it 'looked' to be pitching sideways an inch or two--it really displayed some RTAB probs with 400+ lb-ft of torque. Popped in aftermarket ones and voila, car went straight again. RTABs make such a huge difference!
Tuesday, August 27, 2013 7:51 AM
I was looking at a 4-door E36 a while back... The E36 has always been one of my favorite cars.
Tuesday, August 27, 2013 8:18 AM
@DrunkenMessiah, clutch will be on the menu for sure, even though it's got a relatively new one in there, but with a resurfaced flywheel. It works, but it's a bit vague and not ideal. Goal is definitely to ride that fine line of balance with this project.

@Pablo, yeah... I remember that car. LOL! And yes, RTABs make a shocking difference. Had I never driven an E36 before, I would've gotten out of the test drive on this one not having any idea what all the hype was about.

@spdracerut, I actually prefer the looks of the 2-door, and I especially like the increased peripheral vision from the lack of a B pillar. 4-door is what I wanted for real-life stuff, though, but I just couldn't find one in decent condition.

Further suspension hint, but without any real info for anyone to keep the mystery alive (ha!) is that it will be from HVT (Hanchey Vehicle Tech.).
Stephen Ingram
Stephen Ingramlink
Tuesday, August 27, 2013 9:22 AM
Awesome! Really excited to see you guys take in a few BMW's as project cars. I've owned 8 E36s now and absolutely love the chassis.

Curious to see what's in store. Keep up the good work!
King Hax
King Haxlink
Tuesday, August 27, 2013 6:05 PM
Wow. Here I thought that Project 323is was going to be the closest thing I would get to an E36 M3. I can't wait for more, this is my dream car! Maybe this will give me some tips for what to do with my own... lol
Tuesday, August 27, 2013 8:13 PM

Now is the time to buy mate. The pattern of E36 prices is starting to look an *awful* lot like the pattern of E30 prices. I don't think E36 M3s will be getting much cheaper as $8,000-$10,000 seems to be their absolute price floor. Over the coming years they will only get more valuable as good examples become hard to find. Mark my words, you won't be able to get a good E36 M3 for less than $20,000 5 years from now.
Tuesday, August 27, 2013 8:32 PM

It's that flywheel man, I am telling you. There's nothing really wrong with the pressure plate or friction disc per-se. The self-adjusting clutch system is also god-awful, and there's that ridiculously stupid Clutch Delay Valve screwed into the slave cylinder as well. It's all garbage. *THAT* is what is giving you the vague feeling.

I've heard it directly from a BMW engineer that they only put that stuff in to help drivers who have no idea how to properly interact with a manual transmission. Basically, it makes it easier to drive "numb": as in shifting without using the feel of the clutch pedal under your foot. It makes the car drive a little smoother if you are an idiot and pay no attention to the bite point (or don't know what it is). Remember, the E36 M3 was a status car that was primarily purchased by yuppies who didn't necessarily have any interest or ability in driving. While the E36 M3 was available with an automatic, auto-boxes were much more looked down upon back then. A manual transmission added to the car's mystique and lots of people ordered them that way even if they had no business trying to use one.

Make sure you give lots of love to the WHOLE clutch system. There is a lot of nuance in the hydraulic system and pedal itself that BMW (purposefully) did wrong from the factory. Don't be afraid to ditch some of the factory equipment as a lot of it shouldn't have been there in the first place.

See the BIG spring across the top-left of this image?


Throw. It. Away.

The smaller, more conventional return spring (in the top-right of the image) is more than enough to control the pedal. That big one is part of the self-adjusting clutch system. Pitch it. Pitch the whole pedal, it is a flimsy piece of crap. Get one of Bimmerworld's metal pedals along with a set of brass bushings.

All of these small changes really add up. I just can't emphasize enough how much it changes the overall feel of the car. The shifter, steering, throttle, and brake pedal in the stock E36 M3 are basically perfect. Fixing the feel of the clutch pedal brings all of the controls into a magnificent harmony. Give lots of love to that clutch pedal and you will be handsomely rewarded.
Wednesday, August 28, 2013 2:37 AM
@DrunkenMessiah, no arguments here. Never got around to touching the clutch in my last E36, but I did I did in the first one, but not the pedal, etc. We're definitely planning a nice setup in this car. Just not on the must-do-now list, but it IS on the list for sure.

I think you're right about the prices of the E36 M3s being at their prime, too. I've actually seen several in the $5,000-$7,000 range, but they were going to be a bit too much of a "project" to me. The $10K range seems to be where the ones are that are actually worth looking into. Mind you, I did see one car at $20K, which was only worth about $12K and the big one... An extremely low-mileage example for (get this!!) $50,000. That's not a typo. Saw the same exact car for sale a couple of years ago for $30K, so someone's just sitting on a car and hoping it brings in a lucky sale. It's good for a laugh if nothing else.
Wednesday, August 28, 2013 9:00 PM

I definitely believe that the E36 M3 is near its price floor right now. Like the E30 before it, its value has been collapsing as it has aged. I really think, also like the E30, the E36 will eventually gain value. So many of them have been hooned to death, crashed, cut up and turned into race cars, etc.

Desirable (hard-top with a manual transmission) models weren't exactly super-common in the first place. For example: only 4,574 3.2 liter, USA spec, four-door M3s were sold with a manual transmission. That's *in total* across all years of production. This is why I think the E36 M3 sedan may eventually be worth more than the coupe. There were WAY more coupes produced. Also, there were no 4-door M3s in the E30 and E46 generations.

Anyway, it is a great driver's car, a performance bargain, and most certainly a future classic as well. Can't wait to see one get the full MotoIQ treatment.
Thursday, August 29, 2013 1:14 PM
It might be better to get some photos of the bushes fitted too.
Thursday, August 29, 2013 1:26 PM
Thanks, Ognyan, and I completely agree. Totally my fault, as I was overly excited to bolt everything back together and feel what a sane rear end felt like again. I'll be making it a point to be much more detailed in the rest of the articles on this car, especially with before/after sort of things. Thanks for the input! (Will probably even add a couple of the FCABs the next time I get under the car, since those are easy to get to.
teh E36 M3
teh E36 M3link
Thursday, September 05, 2013 5:24 PM
I haven't seen a sedan with manual within $2k of a coupe in a long time. They are definitely more valuable. That said, I got a very nice 150k coupe lux for $5500 last year (#2- should never have sold my 63k '95 coupe). I did ALL the bushings and balljoints, completely stock, with new stock shocks/struts/springs before I do any mods. Want to see what the fuss was about when it was named best handling car at any price (beating the Ferrari 355) in '97.
This car truly is an all-rounder and I'm enjoying it again- couldn't get it out of my system after the first one.
teh E36 M3
teh E36 M3link
Thursday, September 05, 2013 5:26 PM
Meant to ask- @drunk messiah- does the new clutch/flywheel setup cause rattling? How heavy is the flywheel?
Sunday, September 08, 2013 11:50 PM
I love my E36 and its been very reliable and has 191k on the clock. The Turner Stage 3 can and tune and m50 manifold is pretty darn good.

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