We’ve been talking a lot about how to get the most out of a variety of different BMW platforms lately, so today we thought we’d take a step back and get in touch with the roots of contemporary BMW modding – and discuss the best mods for the BMW E36 platform – we’re gonna say 3-series and not M3 for the sake of discussion here. The E36 is incredibly affordable these days, making it affordable for enthusiasts just getting into cars or a super frugal trackday toy for someone with a bit more to spend. We asked the E36 community for their input in developing this piece – so here are the best mods for the E36 from our Mod Experts and the online E36 community.
To start, we’ll open with this. Your E36 is old.
We’re not being mean here, we’re just stating the facts. 1998 at the newest, 1991 at the oldest. That’s decades. So when we asked, “What’s the best bolt on for an E36?”, the answer we got was “Can you bolt on a briefcase full of cash? Because damn near everything that bolts on needs to be replaced….torn seats, worn out bushings, VANOS, shift linkages, etc.” – and well, they’re right. Any older car is going to need some extra love to be fast on the track.
Let’s start with the suspension, since that’s the most universal here, and in most need of refreshing.
Before you can really start thrashing your E36 in the mountains or at your next trackday, you’ve gotta deal with the wear and tear first. On a track car, the interior being ruined really isn’t an issue, but cracked, dried up and worn out original bushings leave the suspension with tons of undesirable deflection and slop, taking away from the natural abilities of the E36 – and that’s before we even get to the shock absorbers – odds are that your shocks were blown out 50,000 miles ago. So the stock shocks are done and are going to need to be replaced.
Springs and replacement shocks will run you a few hundred bucks for a good set, but as we mentioned earlier, at $499.99, Solo-Werks coilovers for E36 are really hard to pass up – developed by former KW engineers, Solo-Werks is a no-frills set of coilovers that’s designed with performance, function and affordability in mind, and intended to be a good coilover for the grassroots enthusiast with a limited budget. Hands down, these are the least expensive coilovers that you can buy that are actually good. ModBargains Warehouse team member Billy Barba runs Solo-Werks coilovers on his own E36, so we can vouch for the quality.
Local E36 Enthusiast Raul Contreras runs a unique suspension setup to get the most out of his E36 – here’s what he suggests based on his experience and preferences. “If you have baller money, go with Bilstein or Ohlins, if you are looking for something affordable but good go with Solo-Werks, BC RACING or FEAL SUSPENSION – I personally prefers FEAL,” Raul says, “Pair those with Swift Springs for Coilovers (KW/ST/CKS/Solo-Werks/BC etc) for better handling and Swift offers linear rate springs.
Then there’s the bushings. Urethane Suspension bushings from Powerflex are available for the E36 for all of the major bushings you’ll want to replace like the Control Arm Bushing, Sway Bar Bushings, Rear Subframe Bushings and Trailing Arm bushings. Changing these out resolves a wear and tear issue and also firms up the car over the stock levels to provide a basically deflection free suspension setup.
In terms of best gains for the E36 in terms of change in handling performance, again and again we heard one word. “X-Brace.” – Active Autowerke’s Motorsport X-Brace for the E36 provides reinforcement for the car at the places the chassis needs it most, preventing flex.
In addition to the bushings, a few things need reinforcement – like the front and rear subframe. Install these Rear and Front Sub Frame Reinforcements and to ensure that your strut towers don’t bend or “mushroom out”, a set of OEM BMW Strut Tower Reinforcement Plates is a great idea.
Sometimes called front and rear strut tower “Caps”, these are an inexpensive and critical piece of ensuring the longevity of your suspension, ESPECIALLY if you are lowered on springs OR coilovers. If you don’t want to run the reinforcement plates, alternately you can just use a Strut Tower Brace instead as they will serve the same function.
While we’re on the subject of suspension parts that will need to be beefed up, the rear shock mounts are just as important as the Tower Reinforcement Plates – Rogue Engineering offers a convenient rear shock mount kit for the E36/E30/E46 that resolves the problem quite nicely.
Then there’s the sway bars. The Sway bars have a huge impact on the handling behavior of your E36, and a set of Eibach Sway Bars for E36 are a great choice – thanks to their beefy, well-built construction, these puppies will be your best friends if you’re going road racing. Besides Eibach, you’ve got a few other fantastic options like Hotchkis Sport Sway Bars for Non-M E36 and H&R Sway bars for Non-M E36.
From there, now that we’ve lowered the car, to keep the car aligned proper, rear control arms like Rogue Engineering Adjustable Rear Control Arms for E36/E46 are almost a must. These are lighter than stock and adds adjustment not present on the stock components.
Rogue Engineering is the preferred brand for this particular part, but the E36 community tells us that brand on these is not really that important.
Some of the other upgrades for the E36 are as simple as using parts from newer 3-Series models – here are a few of the “hacks” you can do for the suspension – you can replace the rear lower control arms with a set from an E46 instead for better handling, and you can replace the front tie rods with a set from an E92. Additionally, installing new motor and transmission mounts also help with control.
Now let’s get into power. For discussion let’s assume you’ve got a straight six E36. One of the power mods you can do is retrofit a M50 intake manifold onto your M52 or S52 engine, which alters the powerband for broader power delivery and greater top end horsepower. The complete M50 Manifold Retrofit Kit for E36 makes it surprisingly easy to do and you can even still buy a new intake manifold if you can’t score a used one at the junkyard, or if used parts just aren’t your style.
The intake boot is also a highly recommended upgrade for the intake system, so a Mishimoto Silicon Intake Boot for E36 is a great way to resolve the problem.
In addition to the intake, that old booger Wear and Tear is back again – redoing the cooling system is a necessity. A Mishimoto Performance Radiator for E36 will go a long way, and at $255, it’s cheaper than most OEM replacements and your stock one is probably clogged anyway.
Beyond the radiator itself, the E36 community recommends a Stewart Water Pump, Racing Thermostat and an Aluminum Fan Shroud with Aluminum fan and Aluminum reservoir – and since rubber ages, replacing the cooling system hoses with Mishimoto Silicon Hoses is a great choice.
Thanks for sticking with us, and we hope this has given you some ideas as to what you can do to your E36.
Interested in modding your E36? Give us a call at 714-582-3330 today to talk to the Mod Experts.
Story & Photos Nick Gregson
with help from the SoCal E36 Family & Special Thanks to Raul Contreras