July 22, 2024

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Project 345 Gets (A Little) Serious

8 min read
Project 345 Gets (A Little) Serious

Trackspec Time

This has been a good year for progress on Project 345, but I admit the bar was pretty low until now.

I hadn’t really done anything with the car at all for the three-plus years I’d owned it until earlier in 2022, when I finally handled some basics and got the BMW on a couple road courses. For the most part, all I had done up to that point was put miles on it. There’s certainly nothing wrong if that’s all you do with a vehicle — sometimes we get in over our heads and forget that driving the thing is sort of the whole point — but I always had some plans for my M3 sedan itching in the back of my mind. When we last left off, I was still piddling around with simple projects like the headlights and different brake pads.

After a couple track days, I decided it was finally time to get started with some more serious work. All good project updates begin with boxes, and this one was no different.

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I went back and forth on which coilovers to select for the car for a long time, and finally I pulled the trigger on a set of KW Suspensions Variant 3s for the E36. You can easily spend more than this on a more hardcore setup — KW themselves also offer the Clubsport for this chassis — but I kept coming back to the V3s when evaluating all of the relevant factors.

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These are essentially KW’s top-spec E36 coilover for the street, and by far this is ultimately where I’m going to be spending most of my miles. While my M3 is a track car to some extent, I primarily want to focus on the experience on the road, so comfort and performance needed to be balanced. Cost, value, and a warranty were also factors, and ultimately the highly recommended V3s with their progressive-rate springs were the best choice for me.

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At the same time, I would be upgrading the front lollipops, subframe bushings and differential bushings, and also performing the usual chassis reinforcements that all E36s require.

My far-more-E36-savvy friend Erick sent me a parts list and ordered all of the accessory components for me. If you’re building an E36 track car in the Bay Area and aren’t sure what direction to go, I recommend you get in touch with him and give him all of your money. That’s what I did, and I turned out fine!

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Also, a huge thanks to Gus at Garagistic for getting me these RTAB pocket and sway-bar reinforcement plates rush-shipped immediately after the whole shop was away for a race weekend.

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The timing wouldn’t have usually mattered too much, but I realized these were the only parts I hadn’t yet ordered, and the wait time for a multi-day job of this size at Trackspec Autosports was about a month. Trackspec is always working on a variety of interesting short- and long-term projects, and I actually have a couple stories from the shop pending that I’ll need to share soon.

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Incidentally, I know they’re looking to hire an experienced tech to help keep up with their demand, so if you’re local to Fremont, California and want a full-time position fixing my BMW, you know where to go.

In all seriousness, Trackspec founder Jon Vo actually has roots in the Lotus brand, and there’s a wide range of cars (mostly track cars) that they work on here.

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I enjoy working on my own car when my skills and spare time allow, but tackling a multiple-day job on my side yard didn’t sound appealing. With the chassis reinforcements happening at the same time, I just wanted to hand the whole job off to a shop for the welding and everything else all at once. I knew I would be in good hands at Trackspec, and after watching my friend Mike tear the car apart I was more than happy to be free of the headache.

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Actually, Mike made very short work of pulling out the old to make way for the new. As you can see, it was well past time to ditch those old Konis and upgrade.

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Mike actually said everything came apart smoothly, which was nice to hear. My car did spent the first couple years of its life in Michigan, but my assumption is that since it was brand new it was garaged and not driven on the salty roads there in the winter. The lack of any rust on my chassis confirms this, and I’m really glad I ended up with the example I have.

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The fronts went in quickly, and you’ll notice I opted for Ground Control Race camber/caster plates. These allow for more adjustability than what KW offers — the Variant 3 coilovers are TÜV-certified in Germany and thus need to operate within a certain window — and will serve me well on the track and the street.

Out Back

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With the front coming together suspiciously well, I was worried that we might find surprises when digging into the rear.

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Thankfully, the rear was ultimately the same story as the front, with everything coming straight out with ease. The bushings here were tired, and I was really excited to see the old ones go.

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Even if you have all of the proper tools, getting these bushings in and out is always a pain, and improvising (read: fire) is generally the best approach.

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As a 1997 model my M3 is a face-lifted OBDII car, so it received some chassis reinforcement from the factory when new. The subframe mounting points don’t need to be reinforced on the later E36 M3s, but that’s the only car BMW did this to; on the base models these areas didn’t receive this heavier-duty treatment. On the subsequent E46 chassis BMW continued business as usual, which is to say that all of those cars require reinforcement.

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The RTAB pockets still needed to be done on my car, and although it might not have been strictly necessary for us to carry this out at this time I wanted to address as many of the potential pain points of the chassis as I could. Eventually, any E36 or E46 that’s being abused will need this work done.

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After the welds were completed the exposed metal was refinished in preparation for reassembly.

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With all of the parts laid out and ready for cleaning and completion, this was good point to stop work for the weekend. Even though I wasn’t the one doing the work on the car, I was still feeling the excitement that comes when the end is in site.

The Trackspec BBQ

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But first, food. It was the perfect weekend for a BBQ, so a few friends — and a handsome pup — showed up to the shop to make it happen.

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I loved seeing these two Type Rs side by side. The black one is Mike’s (who did the bulk of the work on my car) and it’s mostly stock but gets a lot of track use in addition to daily-driver duties. Drew’s has been extensively modified, like all of his cars, and I actually featured his FD3S on the site a few years back.

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Focusing back on Project 345, all that was left was to put it back together.

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I went with Erick’s recommendation of polyurethane subframe bushings paired with solid aluminum differential bushings. With Erick being a fully track-minded guy, I was really worried how the car would feel on the street with the solid diff bushings, but I would find out soon enough.

You’ll notice we added the sway-bar reinforcements at this time, and Mike mentioned that he also welded and repaired cracks in the upper shock towers. Just BMW things…

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The car was on the ground shortly thereafter, ready for adjusting the ride height and alignment. We went back and forth on the rack for some time, and ultimately I settled on a slight forward rake and a ride height that’s just a little lower than ideal for track use.

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Jon tried to talk me into raising the front slightly, but I resisted despite him being right that the car would perform marginally better if we did this. Because of the wheel-arch design front and rear, the E36 looks high in the front from the factory. Fixing this sort of awkward stance was high on my priority list with the KWs, so the slight sacrifice to the balance of the car was one I was willing to make.

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After driving the car on the street for the first time, I was completely blown away by the KWs. I’ll take some time to focus on the vastly improved driving dynamics in-depth in a separate story soon, but first there was one more step necessary to complete the KW coilover install in my mind.

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And that was to finally refit my BBS RS-GT wheels that I had been hoarding for a couple years. They’re 18-inches in diameter, and although I’d vastly prefer to run 17s they’re the perfect E36 spec. They measure half an inch wider than the factory wheels, they’re lightweight — a couple pounds lighter each than the factory alloys — and as a forged wheel they’ll handle track use just fine. Being three-piece they’re completely rebuildable as well, which is nice.

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Due to the KWs, spacers are required even for the stock wheels, and so I needed them for the new BBSs as well. A 5mm spacer wasn’t quite enough, and due to the hub design a 12mm spacer is the next step up to stay hub-centric. Bimmerworld had me sorted in short order on that front.

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I was super-pleased with the results with the BBS wheels fitted, but the Toyos on them were 10 years old, so they’d need to come back off for new rubber before I did any serious driving. I quickly racked up over 500 miles on my Style 39s during the next week, and I cannot stress enough how much of a difference the KW V3s and bushings made.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been this genuinely excited about a car I own, and I cannot wait for a good, long drive. Hopefully I can report back soon after a successful backroads romp with some like-minded pals.

Trevor Ryan
Instagram: trevornotryan
tyrphoto.com

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