M3 on the trailer, at homeFor quite a while I’ve been wanting to get into motorsports, on an amateur level of course.  Spending time in the MR2 Spyder and M Coupe communities had given me an idea of where to start and what was involved, just a little idea.  What I did know is that I didn’t want to risk damage or even the abuse associated with tracking a car, not in my pristine M Coupe or the Spyder, which I had poured work into.  What I needed was something that wouldn’t break the bank; including initial purchase price, repairs, maintenance, and race modifications.  I also needed something that wouldn’t break my heart if I crumpled a fender or ripped a splitter off.

My preference was something front engine and rear wheel drive, actually that’s more of a prerequisite.  I already have grown familiar with the BMW products and their idiosyncrasies, not to mention a growing arsenal of Bimmer-specific tools and references.  Toyota was another option, and perhaps easier and cheaper to work on.  Unfortunately they had all but abandoned the sport car market during the ’90s, so my choices under the cowboy hat marque would be limited to another MR2.  BMW‘s well established foothold in the enthusiast circles swayed my decision as well.

So I had focused on finding an inexpensive Bimmer, which meant one 10+ years old.  Roadsters were out of the question, as convertibles are all but banned from tracks without use of a full cage.  So that meant either another Coupe, E30 or E36 3-series.  E30s and Coupes (E36/8s) share a lot of the same technology, the rear suspensions are nearly indistinguishable, which is to say ancient, both derived from designs in the early ’70s.  This isn’t necessarily a deal breaker, rear trailing arm setups still enjoy a lot of success.  Just watch some of the YouTube videos of Eastern Europeans thrashing their cars on the open road.  Not in the Coupe’s favor was a relatively short supply of them, even the oldest and abused examples are going for the mid teens.  Damage to body panels would rack up at the register, as opposed to a more pedestrian 3-series.

The E30 was tempting, though the M3 was most definitely out of reach.  328/325s could be had for little, but I felt I was simply getting an outdated setup in a less desirable shell.  So between the two sat a third choice; the E36.  While the chassis designation would make you think it had something in common with the Coupe, it really is another animal.  It’s been said the jump from E30 to E36 was a revolution in design, versus the evolution to E46.  The E36 dumped the trailing arm setup in favor for a multilink design, erasing the fear of lift-off oversteer and the Coupe/E30s tendency to pitch badly at throttle application.  The E36 is considered one of the best handling cars ever produced, but without much of the unnecessary fluff that accompanies modern day Bimmers.  The E46 is an extremely balanced and capable car, but its advancements (OBD-II, CANBUS, etc) present some very tall hurdles to some of the more extreme upgrades (ie LSx swaps.)

The E36 chassis is extremely popular among racers, it can be likened to the Miata, just a bit less… um… you know.  It’s been around since ’92 in the US, with the M3 variant introduced in ’95, so all the weaknesses have been resolved and all the strengths exploited.  It can be turned into a lightweight racer fairly easily; a well beaten (and documented) path by many.  Determined to find an E36 still leaves some options, namely either M3 or another I6 model.  Prices are obviously higher for Motorsport models, but the gap narrows with age (logic can’t be applied to E30 M3s.)  So I focused on finding an M3 still in running order, but not so clean that the owner was trying to pass of a concourse example.  It was going to be a track rat after all, so peeling paint and cracked vents were a plus.  I cast my net wide; eBay, Craigslist, Autotrader, every Bimmer forum imagineable, CCA classifieds, random drive-by’s of used lots during lunch, so on and so forth.  E36 M3s are by no means a rare car, with some 18,961 coupes imported to the US.  I didn’t consider the sedan version, though there are plenty out there, but they seem to be found more often with automatics.

Disconnected shock

After several “already sold” replies, I found one that fit the part.  Alpine White, mechanically functional, and just ugly enough to keep the price reasonable.  A few back and forth email haggles, and I was on my way to Houston with a trailer in tow.  Everything checked out, I even diagnosed the “bad shock” the owner had warned me of.  I spent the next four hours studying the traffic patterns of Houstonites, a half an hour pressure washing grime from the engine bay, about 10 minutes fixing the shock, and finally the M3 was in my driveway.  I also added a bottle of Marvel Mystery Oil to the crank, and a bottle of Techron to the fuel, just to work loose anything built up over the years.  A full fluid change is on the way, once I’ve run it through a full tank.

With nothing more than an insurance card and a half a tank I took it out for a shake down… I’ll save that for later.

Aftermarket RadioRust on rear trunk lipWeather stripping "fix"Front valenceEngine bayBack seatsDriver's seatPassenger seatTool KitLeft rear quarterBumper damageClear coat


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