Part 5 Cover

Project E36 M3 (Silver): Part 5 – Updating the Headlights With HID Euro Ellipsoids

by Billy Johnson

The US-spec E36 M3 not only falls short in the powertrain department to its 321hp European counterpart, but also in terms of its headlight output, looks, and quality.  We replace the old, low output US-spec factory headlights with a set of European style Depo Euro Ellipsoid projector headlights from European Auto Source and add HID ballasts to give our E36 a 21st century output and looks.

Whether it's Japanese or European, it really seems like we never get the good stuff imported to us here in the States, and the headlights on the E36 3-series are no different and leave a lot to be desired.  Made of plastic like most cars and prone to yellowing and hazing, they aren’t the most attractive looking headlights in the world, especially when compared to the etched glass projector headlights that came on the European-spec E36’s. 

To improve both the looks and nighttime safety of our Project E36 M3 (Silver), we again reached out to our friends at European Auto Source who recommended the Depo Euro Ellipsoid headlights and a set of their HID ballasts.  While there are many different versions of aftermarket and OEM Euro Ellipsoids for the E36 platform of varying quality and price, we were very impressed with the OEM-caliber fit, finish, and quality of the Depo Ellipsoids.


2 Projectors on the groundThe Euro Ellipsoid projector headlights from European Auto Source are of far better quality than the US-spec plastic ones.  It’s a real shame that we didn’t get these from the factory.

Over time, the stock plastic headlight lenses will haze and yellow, hurting both the looks and output of light to the road, which is never a good thing.  While cleaning the headlights with one of the many headlight restoring kits out there can make them look a lot better, ‘refreshing’ them a couple times a year gets frustrating and old after the 3rd time.  Swapping them out for a set of glass projectors that won’t haze or yellow is a much more appealing and fairly easy option.  It always seemed a bit odd that the US cars have plastic headlights but retained the glass fog lights.


Front view stock headlightsI’ve always liked the simple and clean design of the E36 M3’s front end.  However the stock headlights have always looked a bit cheap and dated to me when compared to the modern and elegant Euro Ellipsoids.

The only real positive of the stock headlights are their light weight.  However for a racecar, a piece of sheet metal or carbon would be a better choice.  Since Project E36 M3 (Silver) is a street car, we went with the Euro Ellipsoids for their superior lens, sharper beam, and better lighting ability.


Top 3 boltsHere you can see some hazing starting to spread after a few months since the last ‘refresh’.  To get the headlight swap underway, locate the five 8mm bolts that hold on each headlight.  Three on top which you can see, and two that point downward next to the base of the headlight.  To access the outer bolts, you need to remove the turn signal housing.
Pop out turn signalThe first step is to remove the front turn signal indicator light.  Pulling the housing straight forward with your hands is usually all that is needed to remove it.  Unscrew the turn signal bulb and put the housing off to the side.
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Wednesday, October 22, 2014 4:00 AM
Thanks for the article. I have read in many places that HIDs don't work properly in lenses that weren't designed for them. What's your take on this?

Also, I am pretty sure the light manufacturer is Depo and not Depot.
Wednesday, October 22, 2014 4:51 AM
Hmmm. I've seen a few people swap the e36 headlights into Saab 9000's, since they're about the same shape.

Will have to consider this.
Wednesday, October 22, 2014 4:59 AM
Or yknow, if you want to sell your stock ones... They probably still work better than mine.
Wednesday, October 22, 2014 6:01 AM
Can you guys show the cut off pattern on a wall? I agree with wrecked and depot projectors are not really designed for HID bulbs.
Wednesday, October 22, 2014 10:11 AM
The issue is that reflected headlights shouldn't be used with HIDs. Projector style headlights with proper cutoffs are designed for HIDs and this is how the factory lights (Euro) are designed. I can't find a photo but on my Rx-8 the projector headlights have a piece designed to block any light from exiting the bulb above a certain height.

I did notice that although not mentioned, I am sure you guys had the headlights aligned to prevent blinding oncoming traffic.
Wednesday, October 22, 2014 12:22 PM
It's hard to argue with the visual output and clarity of the HID's in the Depo Ellipsoid projector headlights. We were very pleased with the night time visibility and performance which meets if not surpasses most modern luxury cars.

I'm not sure why HID's are rumored to not "work properly" in the Depo headlights. Other than drilling a hole in the back of the housing for the HID bulb and grommet to go through, and slightly trimming the metal mounting plate for the bulb to fit, it was a painless and easy install.

We don't have a picture of the cut off pattern on the wall, but its not hard to search for online. It says in the second sentence and throughout the article that the Depos are projector headlights, and while it has a very slight splash and does not have a perfect horizontal cut off like high-dollar projector, it is not enough to cause problems with oncoming traffic (as discussed in the article).

Overall the Depo Euro Ellipsoid PROJECTOR offers great performance, style, and visibility for a great value.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014 4:16 PM
Read this article to understand the difference between projectors designed for HID bulbs and Projectors designed for halogen bulbs.


Wednesday, October 22, 2014 7:09 PM
Depo Projectors are marketed as designed for HIDs:

"They are a direct replacement for your original plastic headlights. Gone are the days of yellowing plastic lenses, poor beam patterns, low light output and incompatibility with other lighting upgrades such as HID or Angel Eyes."
Wednesday, October 22, 2014 8:13 PM
I know what they market them as. I owned a pair, but they are just a copy of original European ZKW headlights that use H1 halogen bulbs. The projectors are not meant for HID's. They are better than US plastic headlights, but I would still not install HID kits in them. I ended up doing a retrofit and installing morimoto projectors inside the depo housings. Light output was significantly better.
Thursday, October 23, 2014 8:24 AM
I did this to my truck back in 2010 but with Chinese housings (only ones available). With standard bulbs, my light output was noticeably increased and the low beam cutoff was very clearly defined. I then installed HIDs in the low beams and, once properly aimed, NOBODY flashes me, so I really don't understand why everyone thinks you need high dollar projectors or retrofits to do HIDs properly. The area illuminated is well contained, the biggest difference is that everything within that area is much better illuminated.
Pablo Mazlumian
Pablo Mazlumianlink
Thursday, October 23, 2014 9:11 AM
For what it's worth, I've run Depot and Euro Ellipsoids with HID conversion on three different E36 M3s with no issues except the "low beam failure" message on OBC that I never worried about. And all of them for 3 years+..
Sunday, October 26, 2014 3:32 PM
Definitely read that article on danielsternlighting.com. No matter how much brighter they seem or how sharp your cut off is, the halogen housing is not designed to properly distribute the light from the arc of light from a gas discharge bulb. This article doesn't gel with the anti "doing it wrong" vibe MotoIQ gives off
Monday, October 27, 2014 7:39 PM
In fact, take a look at your last picture. Look how you have dark spots and how narrow the scope of the lit area is. Then there is that super bright spot of light right in front of the car. That gives you the illusion of better lighting, but this will hurt your night vision. At mid and higher speeds you really need your distance vision. Having this super bright hot spot right in front of you will not let your pupils dilate enough and lower your night vision.

This is what your light would be with a projector designed for an gas discharge bulb:


Even lighting with no hot spot and massive coverage.
Tuesday, October 28, 2014 6:35 AM
Please read the last two paragraphs of the article. Having owned an E36 for over 10 years, the lighting of this setup is far superior to the stock headlights under all conditions: highway, high speed, mountain roads, etc...

As mentioned in the article, everything the light touches is clearly visible all the way up to the horizon (where the headlights are adjusted) and is a significant improvement over stock. Raising the beam above the horizon would create issues for oncoming traffic and highbeams are rarely needed (even at high speeds) since they illuminate everything above the horizon.

A dimmer light to improve night vision is a poor reasoning. If true, it would be safer and you can see better with dimmer than stock lights. Not to mention any glimpse of light from oncoming traffic or light in your mirrors throws that completely out the window.

Having a brighter light does not hurt your night vision. It sounds obvious, but a brighter, further reaching light illuminates more and thus you can see more. Having won the 25 Hours of Thunderhill (in an E36 M3), a race with no track lighting and pitch black sections of the track, having brighter and further reaching light is crucial to see where you're going and being safe. Over the years we ran everything from off-road flood lights, pencil beams, projectors, halogens, HIDs, and LED lights.

The Depo Projectors are designed for HIDs, HIDs Deliver 3 Times the Light Output,
Consume 40% Less Power, last 5X longer, have Intense Light Similar to the Sun, which allows you to See Further and Wider. There is no question that this package improves the clarity, safety, and visibility in both distance and width over stock. We are extremely pleased with the results and would recommend them for anyone with an E36.
Tuesday, October 28, 2014 11:08 AM
Wow. I read your article. No need to cop an attitude because someones calling you out on doing it wrong. I didn't say dimmer lights are better. I said the beam pattern of your halogen projectors has a massive hot spot right in front of the car. Not to mention the dark areas in the sides. There's no such thing as a headlamp designed for both halogen and hid lights. If your lights were designed for hids, then why is there a h1 bulb socket? Did you try just putting a h1 bulb in your lights before you hacked it up? If the projector is of good quality you would probably had very good light output. You seem be an overly proud arrogant person who never admits they're wrong. Either that or you're just a massive shill for these headlamps in which case be careful because it's false advertising. These lights are NOT designed for hid bulbs. No matter what some carefully worded bullet point on a the box said. It didn't specifically say these lights are compatible with hids. It just said "They are a direct replacement for your original plastic headlights. Gone are the days of yellowing plastic lenses, poor beam patterns, low light output and incompatibility with other lighting upgrades such as HID or Angel Eyes." As in you can upgrade them to angel eyes and hids. As in install proper optics.
Mike Kojima
Mike Kojimalink
Tuesday, October 28, 2014 12:26 PM
It works, it doesn't not blind people driving head on once adjusted which the article clearly states. It's obviously much brighter than stock and works well, much better than stock. It's working and not dangerous. It's pretty obvious. The reflectors might not be optimized for an HID bulb and this setup might not be the best technically posible set up for HID's but it seems pretty good for an aftermarket lighting solution and I am pretty sure someone is not going to do a highly engineered OEM level HID upgrade for an older car. The housings on this car are yellowing and hazed and polishing is not restoring them for long as stated in article. I myself have found that simply upping the power of the stock type bulbs is often not acceptable either as you often end up damaging the wire harness and bulb sockets from the higher loading.
Wednesday, October 29, 2014 8:28 PM
People usually retrofit optics into the headlamps.

Thursday, October 30, 2014 5:51 PM
Here is my retrofit using morimoto projectors installed in the same Depo glass headlights.


Light output is amazing.
Mike Kojima
Mike Kojimalink
Thursday, October 30, 2014 9:46 PM
Retrofitting different optics into different housings seems like something that you do when screwing around with your lights is the primary mod you do on your car. #needtogetalife :) Seriously, the context of this article is how to do a quick and sano light upgrade that is way better than old yellowed, hazy and pitted OEM lights. The article is not about how to painstakingly engineer and build the best possible lighting system for your car. Homebrewed "correct" light system are also technically just as illegal as some aftermarket systems.
Friday, October 31, 2014 5:54 AM
I'll agree to disagree with you there. If I was on a budget I would just buy the same glass H1 Depo headlights and use quality H1 bulbs. Light output would be much greater than the crappy plastic factory units and it would avoid the hot spots.
Friday, October 31, 2014 6:19 AM
@smradda - there was no "hacking" of the housing. As it says in the article, there was a quick and minor trimming (of ~2mm) to fit the HID bulb's rounder base.

There are also no "hotspots" but rather further reaching, brighter, clearer light -which is better than a E90/92 M3s factory headlights. The dimmer sides are a function of the projectors beam pattern which is also there with the H1 bulb. But the output of the H1 is visually less in terms of brightness and distance visibility, which by itself was a middle ground to the original headlights.

I'm not sure why you're adamant about the this configuration not working when it outperforms a 10 year newer version designed for HIDs. Would dismantling a $2,000 set of BMW headlights be better to extract the projector and retrofit it into an E36 housing be better? Probably, but there is nothing wrong with the performance of the very affordable setup in the article.
Friday, October 31, 2014 8:09 AM
I seriously doubt this outperforms the e92 hid setup. What color range bulbs did you use? Are they 4300K or higher 5000k or 6000k?
Friday, October 31, 2014 8:11 AM
There is definitely hotspots, look at your photo again, the light output is not uniform, it has bright spots on the sides, goes darker and brighter again.
Friday, October 31, 2014 8:23 AM
I own both cars and had them next to each other. The 5000K HID was brighter and lit up the ground in a distance more than the E90's HID and gives a brighter, clearer, more vivid illumination of the road ahead than the E90. This makes me want to upgrade the E90's headlights.

Night shots leave so much up to the photographer, camera, and settings. I'm far from a good behind my little point and shoot camera but think my photos get by for articles. I'm surprised everyone is able to draw such conclusions from a photo when someone much better than me can take a picture with a far better camera that better shows the representation of the lighting, or skew it by adjusting the contrast and settings for one argument or another.
Friday, October 31, 2014 9:07 AM
5000k have whiter light, so it might seem they are brighter vs factory 4300k systems. In terms of output 4300k have the highest lumen output.

Are you using 35w or 55w ballasts?
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