Last month we began a series of potential project cars, with the cars and all the parts sourced from eBay Motors. Tim went a little mad with his C3 Corvette diesel dream commuter, but you equally crazy hoons drank his kool-aid and rolled along with it. This week it’s my turn and my project is a lot more civil and, in my mind, a lot more realistic. This is a project that I have been meaning to do for some time. It involves taking the cheapest 6-cylinder E36 with a manual transmission that money can find and turning into a safe, affordable, and reliable entry-level weekend track car.
We’ll go over repairing our crappy E36, doing routine maintenance, and finally outfitting it for track duty. This vehicle will be designed for a novice driver, and will be fully street legal, with zero modifications required to switch from track and the street duty. Yes, we could have done a Porsche 911 GT3, but where’s the fun in that?
The seller of this 1996 BMW 328iS, currently the least expensive 6-cylinder manual transmission-equipped E36 on eBay, claims that there are two engine codes, P1189 and P0170. That’s a good thing too, as these codes are likely to keep other buyers away and keep the price lower. Thankfully, the solution to these codes is a rather simple one: it’s probably an oil separator valve or one of the two crankcase vent hoses.
The other issue the seller mentions is “lightweight flywheel allows some rattle after warmed up”. I don’t know what that means, and not having the ability to troubleshoot I would assume the worst case scenario and just replace the flywheel and the clutch. The combination of Sachs Clutch and a Fidanza aluminum flywheel should take care of that. While it’s not the cheapest set available, both brand names have a very good reputation.
While the transmission is out, it may be a good idea to upgrade the shifter. There are a million short-shifts kits out there, but from my experience the one that works best is the factory one. The OEM Z3 shifter and a new bushing make for shorter throws, and at just over $100, are the shifter band-for-the-buck winners. While there you might as well change the transmission fluid for some fresh RedLine MTL. Check for leaks from the master and slave brake cylinders, and replace as needed.
Having the transmission out gives more access to inspection of the engine and transmission mounts, as well as the guibo. New transmission mounts are cheap, easy to change (since the transmission is out), and improve the overall feel of the car. $45 gets gets a nice set of UUC reds which are a little stiffer, and designed for spirited driving.
Put the transmission back in. Before driving inspect the finicky cooling system, check for oil leaks (valve cover), change the oil, and perhaps throw in a set of new spark plugs for good measure. Check the air filter while at it, replace if needed. You should now have a reliable, smoothly running bimmer. Go for a test drive, open it up a little bit – the engine and transmission should be nice and smooth. Check for vibrations through the steering wheel and vibrations under breaking braking.
This is a sixteen year old car that’s been who knows where and worked on by who knows who, and you’re about to put it on track, and your life in it. We have made sure that it goes, now let’s make sure that it stops. Inspect the rotors; check thickness, smoothness, and signs of warpage. Replace if anything is questionable. I’d stick to get regular OEM replacement rotors (front, rear) and skip on the cross-drilled/slotted after-market stuff. Inspect calipers, perhaps clean them, replace or rebuild if sticking.
Chances are that this car still has its factory brake lines – now would be a good time to replace those with a set from StopTech, for only $60. The StopTech units are stronger and allow for less expansion, improving the overall brake feel. Make sure to keep the brake lines out of the way of the spring and other moving parts when installing. Now the most important part of the breaking braking system – the pads. Hawk HPS, at $153 front and rear, are excellent for autocross and novice track usage, and they also perform well at lower street temperatures and are known to last long.
Flush out and replace the old brake fluid and the clutch hydraulic fluid with some ATE Super Blue Racing DOT4 fluid. This fluid has much higher boiling point than whatever fluid is in that car now, ensuring reduced brake fade and lower chances of a shortened track day.
So now we have a car that goes and stops well; now we need to improve handling. For now we will ignore the wheel/tire set-up and focus on suspension. Starting with the basic inspections; check bushing, tie-rods, ball-joints, wheel bearings, sway-bar links, and all mounts. Chances are that many of them need replacement and there are two choices for replacement: a complete set which upgrades to stronger M3 components or go for individual components based on need or budget. Do yourself a favor and buy whole new control arms and don’t screw around with pressing bushings in.
Shocks and springs are the most important components in any suspension system. Typically, a factory stock setup is good for a novice driver; softer suspension exploits weight distribution and does not mask errors which provides more feedback to the driver. That said, this is an old car and even with springs designed for the life of the vehicle, they do sag and otherwise defy Hooke’s Law. Shocks and struts are wear items, and even if this is second set of this vehicle, their days are numbered. Replacing them at this point is not about increasing performance but safety.
There are as many different spring/shocks combinations out there as there opinions on each one. In my years of ownership of many different BMWs I have personally utilized many different spring/shock combinations. This is a semi-dedicated track car however, not a sporty daily-driven vehicle like my cars were. While this is a complete overkill for a novice driver, for the Bilstein PSS9 Coil-over suspension system is the way to go. Pricey? Yes! But this set-up will last basically for the life of the car, and is adjustable in many ways allowing it to in a way grow with the driver. It is also very popular and from time-to-time used kits op up on eBay.
Finishing up this coil-over kit would be chassis reinforcement plates in shock/struts and diff mounts. Adjustable camber plates, sway bars, strut bars, and the E36-specific X-brace would further improve the chassis but are not required on this budget built destined for a novice driver.
The final part of this weekend track set up would be wheels in tires. While BMW for years has been installing staggered wheel set-ups, they are not ideal for a weekend wanna-be racer; wider rear tires naturally induce understeer (one of the reasons why BMW installs them) and they cannot be rotated. With so many wheel choices out there buyers should focus on a lightweight quality wheel in 17″x8″ or 17″x8.5″ or 17″x9″ size. There are the beautiful but pricey BBS CH, the lightweight M3 take-offs, but the best bang-for-the-buck are these E46 take-offs.
Finally, the most critical piece, the tires. Despite this being a weekend racer we are not looking for R-compound tires. R-compounds will mask rookie errors, and while those will yield the best lap times in the dry, it won’t be specifically because of the driver. Further, R-compounds are downright dangerous on the street in the rain. For this application we are looking for a performance street tire such as the Continental Extreme Contact DW, Dunlop Direzza Star Spec Z1, Kumho Ecsta XS in sizes 225/45-17, 245/40-17, or 255/40-17 if using nine-inch wide wheels.
There you have it, your basic street/autocross/track car, all for around $6000-ish, depending on your tastes. It’s will be an excellent vehicle for a novice which could be fun and challenging even for more experienced drivers. There is always more power that can be added, weight removed, and chassis improved.
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