How to Build a Budget E36 Track Car
Austin graduated from the University of Colorado Denver in 2021 with a degree in technical writing and remains in the Denver area. Austin brings tons of automotive knowledge and experience to the table. Austin worked as a Technical Product Specialist at BMW for over 5 years and drives a heavily modified E30 325i with a stroker kit, all of which he built from the ground up.
There’s typically one thing standing between most car enthusiasts and racing on a track: cost. While racing can be an expensive hobby, it doesn’t have to be. In fact, there are some BMW chassis that can make a perfect budget track build. At the top of that list is the E36.
At this point, E36s have reached a point in their depreciation cycle where a decent example can be purchased for under $10,000. In combination with their relatively low barrier to entry, they are a great starting platform that can be dramatically improved with the right modifications. The E36 has a lot of desirable traits from a track car perspective. Near 50/50 weight distribution, a bulletproof inline-6 cylinder engine on 325i/is, 328i/is and M3 models, and relatively lightweight (by modern standards), all make the E36 a standout option in the world of track day builds.
We aren’t the only ones that think so. In fact, the BMW CCA has formed an entire racing series around the E36 chassis called Spec E36 which is centered around the idea that it doesn’t take a fortune to be able to hit the track in a lightly modified E36 and have a damn good time doing so.
In this article, we will outline some of the best performance modifications and considerations needed to build a quality track car based on the E36 chassis. As we trust the BMW CCA and their specifications surrounding Spec E36, we’ll model most of our recommendations around their requirements. Of course, many performance modifications are available for the E36. This article won’t cover them all, but should provide enough information to get you started.
BMW E36 Track Car Considerations
The process of building a track car is a nuanced one full of personal preferences and individual performance goals. Are you prioritizing straight-line speed? Cornering? Reliability? Those are all questions that you’ll have to answer for yourself. Since we are trying to remain budget-conscious, we’ll primarily focus on reliability and cornering performance.
E36 Track Car Engine Considerations
There’s no use in building a fast car that blows up before it can see a second event. For that reason, it is generally a good idea to future-proof your build or refrain from going too crazy with straining powertrain modifications. While E36s with an M50B25, M50B28, or S52 are all known for their stellar reliability, they are all over 20 years old at this point. Unless your starting chassis has been maintained to a T over its lifetime, it is likely that you’ll need to do some engine maintenance to withstand track day demands.
Best E36 Track Car Engine Upgrades
E36 Cooling System Refresh
It is no secret that the factory cooling system fitted to all straight-6 E36s is their Achilles heel. Despite having fantastic overall reliability, their cooling system is typically what takes them out of service. That is especially true for track-oriented E36s that are running at full-tilt. E36s are extremely susceptible to cylinder head cracking and warping from overheating, which isn’t a fun fix. For that reason, a refreshed E36 cooling system should be one of the first things that you consider.
There are a few E36 cooling system components that should be replaced before track day driving, especially if you don’t know when they were replaced last. These include the radiator, and associated parts, water pump, thermostat, and expansion tank. The reason that most E36 cooling systems fail boils down to the material that a lot of components are constructed of: plastic. That goes for the expansion tank and water pump impellers especially. Their plastic construction can cause them to fail suddenly and without warning causing your car to rapidly overheat. It is best to replace them before that happens on the track.
Listed below are some of the best E36 cooling system parts to replace and where to purchase them:
Upgraded CSF Performance Radiator: fcpeuro.com
Stewart Steel-Impeller Water Pump: bimmerworld.com
Mishimoto Racing Thermostat: amazon.com
Mishimoto Aluminum Expansion Tank: fcpeuro.com
Light E36 Track Car Engine Upgrades
The E36 came with a variety of engines during its ten-year production run. For the purpose of this guide, we are primarily focused on the 325i/is, 328i/is, and M3, which utilized the M50B25, M50B27, and S52B32 respectively in the American market. When it comes to engine upgrades, there isn’t a shortage of options for any of those engines. With that being said, our approach in this guide isn’t focused centrally on heavy engine modifications. Spec E36 doesn’t permit any aftermarket engine modifications, so we know it is possible to have a solid E36 track car without them.
However, there are a few very good performance-enhancing E36 engine mods out there that won’t sacrifice engine reliability. The E36 chassis can benefit quite a bit from some inexpensive and easy-to-install bolt-on modifications that will give it a bit of extra pep on the track. A performance E36 exhaust, cold air intake, and performance ECU chip can give a straight-6 E36 an OEM+ feel without sacrificing reliability.
Cat-back exhausts are without question the most common type of exhaust fitted to lightly modified E36s. Cat-back exhausts are exactly what they sound like. They replace all of the factory exhaust components from the catalytic converter to the exhaust tip. This type of exhaust is generally made of stainless steel and is made to improve exhaust gas flow out of the engine, resulting in a bit more power and a lot more noise. Typically, a quality high-flow exhaust system can increase power by around 10-20 horsepower and 15-25 lb-ft of torque with the proper tune.
A performance cold air intake is another easy mod that can be done yourself that can yield some moderate performance advantages. The purpose of an upgraded performance intake is to increase engine breathability over the stock setup. In general, the performance of an upgraded intake scales with engine performance, as highly modified engines can often be throttled by poor airflow. Overall, power gains from a cold air intake are highly debated, but you can typically expect around a 5 horsepower bump.
Finally, a quality performance ECU chip can give you a decent boost in engine power and torque without the need for additional upgrades. Performance chips safely alter the fuel and timing maps which results in more power and a smoother engine. Most E36 chips optimize the stock M50 fueling, timing and ignition maps to optimize performance using 91 octane fuel. The result is a healthy 20-25 horsepower and 20 lb-ft increase. Some chips also raise the E36 factory redline, giving you additional top-end performance which is ideal for the track.
Listed below are our recommendations for the upgrades listed above:
Bimmerworld / Magnaflow E36 High-Performance Cat-Back Exhaust: bimmerworld.com
Dinan E36 Cold Air Intake: dinancars.com
Turner Motorsports Conforti Performance Chip: turnermotorsport.com
E36 Track Car Suspension Considerations
A ludicrous power figure isn’t the recipe for fun on the track. How your car takes the corners is, though. For that reason, suspension modifications are extremely important in building an E36 track car. With the right suspension geometry and setup, you’ll be able to make up the time lost on the straights in the corners. In addition to the suspension itself, other supporting components should likely be looked at for integrity. For example, rear trailing arm bushings, sway bar end links, shock mounts, lower control arms, tie rods, and sway bars should all be inspected as they are all items that wear out over time.
E36 Track Car Suspension Upgrade
Since the E36 chassis has been around for so long at this point, there are a ton of options available in terms of performance suspension. For track applications, there are generally two paths that you can go down which include a performance shock/spring combination or coilover setup. Each has its own benefits. Upgraded shocks and springs will certainly provide an advantage over factory E36 hardware.
In general, shock/spring kits will have stiffer spring rates and better damping characteristics that will allow your E36 to corner flatter and reduce body roll. They’ll often lower ride height as well, giving your E36 a lower center of gravity and better visual fitment. However, they do lack the adjustable ride height which can prevent you from truly dialing in the exact suspension characteristics that you might want. A spring/shock setup typically costs less than a coilover setup due to this.
Coilovers, on the other hand, provide everything that an upgraded shock/spring setup does and more. Like upgraded shocks and springs, a coilover suspension setup will allow your E36 to corner flatter and maintain more balance through turns. Coilovers have the added benefit of full ride height adjustability which allows you to customize your setup better. Most quality coilovers also offer some form of damping adjustment and sometimes feature camber adjustment as well. Spec E36 recommends a coilover setup for track use due to the added level of fine-tuning.
Listed below are our recommendations for upgraded E36 suspension:
H&R RSS Club Sport Coil Overs: harrisonmotorsports.com
E36 H&R Touring Cup Kit Suspension Package: turnermotorsport.com
E36 Track Car Suspension Supporting Elements
In addition to the suspension itself, the E36 can benefit quite a bit from refreshed bushings, upgraded sway bars, and other chassis stiffening modifications.
Once again harping on the E36’s age at this point, factory rubber E36 suspension bushings are likely tired and allow suspension components to wander a bit too much for true track performance. For that reason, it might be a good idea to replace them with new OEM bushings or stiffer polyurethane bushings.
While less comfortable on the street, polyurethane E36 suspension bushings allow less suspension component play and keep suspension geometry in check. They can really tighten up the way that your E36 handles, especially when paired with a good set of coilovers. The main bushings that you want to pay attention to are front control arm bushings, differential bushings, trailing arm bushings, and rear subframe bushings.
Upgraded sway bars can also add another element of rigidity to your E36 chassis. In basic terms, a sway bar is a torsional spring that connects to both the left and right sides of the suspension to reduce body roll. This will allow your E36 to corner flatter and make better contact with the pavement while sending it through turns. Most aftermarket sway bars have adjustable levels of stiffness depending on how you install them. Either way, they are a fantastic way to enhance your E36’s cornering performance even more.
Listed below is our recommendation for the upgraded E36 bushings and sway bars:
Garagistic E36 Polyurethane Suspension Bushing Kit: garagistic.com
E36 Turner Motorsport Front/Rear 30/24 Sway Bar Upgrade: turnermotorsport.com
E36 Track Car Weight Saving / Safety Considerations
Of course, you’ll want your E36 track car to weigh as little as possible while also being as safe as possible. There are a few ways that you can do that for very little cost. In Spec E36, you are permitted to remove both the front passenger seat, as well as the entire rear seat for weight-saving purposes. With those seats removed, you can reduce your E36’s overall curb weight by over 115 lbs. Removing your E36’s carpets, sound insulation, door cards, and speakers can result in another 100 lbs of weight savings. In total, 215 lbs of weight-saving will make a very significant difference on track which you’ll feel in both straight-line performance and through the corners.
Safety should always be at the top of your priority list when building an E36 track car. Safety equipment/safety-related parts aren’t optional for a quality track build, they are required. For some people, that means the inclusion of an E36 roll cage or half cage. While that might be overkill for lower-tier track driving, the safety benefits are undeniable. In most cases, and as is the case with Spec E36, a quality racing seat, a harness, and a quality helmet should do the job. We’ll cover that more in the following section.
E36 Track Car Safety and Weight Saving Upgrades
Generally speaking, weight saving is an easy one. Just remove anything that you don’t need on the track. The best part of weight saving is that it is a free way to gain more performance from your E36. We briefly discussed some ways to remove weight from an E36 above. In addition to removing those components, you can also remove your spare tire, A/C compressor and associated components, internal trim pieces, and radio to shed a few more pounds.
Best E36 Track Car Racing Seats / Harness
Another way to decrease weight in the cabin while improving vehicle safety is with a quality racing seat. You might have the fastest and best handling car in the world, but if you get thrown around in the cabin, the benefits of performance suspension and a high-performance engine are for nothing. Having a loose-fitting seat that isn’t properly linked to the chassis can be extremely dangerous on the track, as a bad seat won’t provide the strength and rigidity required to protect you in the event of a crash. It is important that you purchase a sturdy seat made of quality materials for your own safety.
A solid racing seat can inspire confidence through corners. Of course, there are considerations to take into account when choosing the right seat, including bolstering style, size, and price. Sizing is perhaps the most important of the three, as you want the seat to hold you tightly while also remaining comfortable for a long duration. If you are interested in learning more about sizing and fitment, check out this Best Racing Seat guide.
Of course, it is also important to find a racing seat that is compatible with your E36. That is with respect to both the seat’s size and how it mounts. Oftentimes, aftermarket racing seats aren’t able to bolt directly to factory BMW seat rails and need specialized brackets like the ones that Corbeau provides.
In combination with a quality racing seat, it is also a good idea to think about a harness that will hug you snugly in place. Racing harnesses increase the surface area in contact with your body which transfers loads more evenly. Some high-end belts also soften the deceleration in the event of a crash.
Here are our top picks for quality E36 racing seats, brackets, and harnesses:
Corbeau FX1 Pro Racing Seat: corbeau.com
Corbeau E36 Mounting Bracket: corbeau.com
Corbeau 4-Point Harness Belt: corbeau.com
Best E36 Track Car Racing Helmet
When it comes to safety on the track, there are few things more important than a quality racing helmet. Most reputable racing series, Spec E36 included, require a high-quality racing helmet to compete in any event. Certain events also require a specific helmet safety certification, so it is important to check the organization’s rules before making a decision.
As we discussed with racing seats above, there is not a one-size-fits-all racing helmet that will work universally. Certain helmets have particular head shapes built into the construction of the helmet. For that reason, it is extremely important that you purchase a helmet that suits your head the best, both from a safety and comfort perspective.
If you aren’t sure about which helmet will fit you best or be the right choice for your application, it is important to consult an expert who can guide you through the process of finding the best helmet for you. Competitionmotorsport.com has a ton of excellent information about racing helmets and is a great source for making sure that you make the right choice. Check out their Ultimate Racing Helmet Buyer’s Guide.
In addition to being experts in the field, they also carry a ton of helmets to choose from. You can take a look at their inventory at Competitionmotorsport.com.
E36 Track Car Brake Considerations
On the track, a solid brake setup is just as key to reduced lap times as increased power. Braking plays one of the most crucial roles in performance driving, as good brakes will allow you to brake later and manage your speed through corners. For track day driving, stock E36 brake calipers and rotors can do the trick when paired with new or performance brake pads. However, like every other component on an aging car, it is extremely important to check the condition of your brake components before hitting the track.
An E36 brake caliper rebuild is probably a good idea even if they appear to function well. Depending on how your E36 was driven and maintained, there could have been an ingress of debris into the caliper. If any dust, sand, or grime got in between the piston and the cylinder it sits in, the friction could have damaged the piston walls.
E36 Brake Upgrade Options
As is outlined in the Spec E36 rulebook, stock E36 brake hardware will usually provide enough stopping power for light track duty as long as they have been properly maintained. With that being said, many people in the E36 community that want some additional braking force have found plenty of high-performance options out there. One of the most common standard E36 brake upgrades is swapping to an E36 M3 brake setup. This generally includes upgrading to E36 M3 spindles, caliper hangars, calipers, and rotors. While this is a good option from a brake performance standpoint, it can be expensive to find a set.
If you are looking to maintain standard E36 brake hardware, you can swap in some performance brake pads which will significantly improve braking performance. Akebono Euro Premium Ceramic pads are a go-to for many performance E36 drivers as they produce little-to-no brake dust while also providing superior performance. They do, however, need time to warm up and don’t perform well in cold climates due to their ceramic construction. Hawk racing pads are another very common choice and are some of the best-performing pads on the market.
Listed below are our recommendations for upgraded E36 brake pads:
Akebono E36 Performance Brake Pad Set: turnermotorsport.com
BMW E36 Hawk Performance Brake Pads: fcpeuro.com
How to Build a BMW E36 Track Car Summary
When it comes to a great track day starting chassis, it doesn’t get much better than the E36. Its front-engine, rear-wheel-drive layout aids in establishing the E36’s nearly perfect 50/50 weight distribution which makes it a very balanced chassis from the factory. In addition, the M50/S52 engine that powers the E36’s inline-6 models is extremely dependable when properly cared for. They are also relatively inexpensive and very easy to find parts for.
While the E36 is a great platform from the factory, any 20-year-old car is going to need some work before it is ready for the track. It is important to focus on refreshing/replacing any worn components first, paying special attention to the cooling system, bushings, and suspension components. While a high-horsepower E36 is unquestionably a good time, you’ll likely get more fun out of a reliable build with choice handling-related improvements.
Safety should be a top concern when building any track car, an E36 included. While amateur performance driving rarely requires the need for a roll cage or chassis modifications, a quality racing seat, helmet and harness should all be on the list of necessary items before your E36 sees any track time.
Of course, the list of track-oriented E36 modifications is endless. Budget is the key differentiator between a 1,000-horsepower DTM-inspired beast and a weekend track toy. While the modifications and suggestions that we have made in this list will put an E36 more in alignment with the latter, you certainly won’t be missing out on any fun.
If you enjoyed this article and are looking for more E36 content, check out our E36 Coilover Upgrade Guide. As always, safe driving!