Lord of the ’ring Full-on E36 M3 track build.
The Nürburgring has a lot to answer for. It is singlehandedly responsible for causing countless motoring enthusiasts to become a little bit obsessed with its beguiling curves and end up building cars that are completely focussed on going around the Nordschleife as fast as possible, limited only by budget and skill. We don’t blame them and we certainly don’t disapprove; the ’Ring really is the stuff of legend and once you get a taste, it’s impossible to resist. No point even attempting to fight it, really, just admit defeat and get on with building the best track machine you possible can.
Enter Darren Drinkwater and his E36, aka Project Nordschleife. Now, we’ve featured a lot of pretty extreme track builds over the years but we’re going to go out on a limb here and say that Darren’s is definitely one of the most focussed machines we’ve ever come across, and that’s saying something. He’s put so much work into this car and there really is an incredible sense of single-mindedness about it, a completely uncompromised build with just one aim: going around the Nürburgring as fast as humanly, and machinely, possible.
Darren is no amateur when it comes to the art of making cars go very quickly indeed, and has spent his entire life dedicated to the cause. “I grew up in a mechanic’s house as my dad owned a garage and I got the bug from him,” he explains. “At 13 I rebuilt the engine and gearbox in my sister’s Ford and I’ve just been involved with cars my whole life. In 2002 I met Topcats Racing and then went on to do an apprenticeship with TVR; that same year I did the whole TVR Tuscan Challenge season with Topcats and since then I’ve worked part-time for them as a race engineer, alongside my day job as a project manager, working on all sorts of racing cars including Lambos and Marcos.
“I’ve always loved BMWs,” Darren continues, “my third car was a black E30 318iS I owned when I was 18, and after that I had a 320i, a 323i and another 318iS,” he says, painting a picture of quite the BMW fan, before adding “and then I went through a bunch of hot hatches,” but hey, nobody’s perfect and he’s built this E36, so we can forgive him pretty much anything. So how did Project Nordschleife come about? “Around 2011-ish we were walking around Spa while racing there and chatting about the ’Ring; we thought, as did most people at the time, that it was going to close so we decided to do a trip out there. I went out there with another Topcats engineer in a TVR Chimaera 4.0 with RSREvents and we loved it but the TVR was not ideal for the track. That’s when I decided to build what would become Project Nordscheliefe, or at least the first one.” Wait, what? That’s right, much like the Matrix, this is not the first Project Nordschleife, as Darren goes onto explain. “I wanted an E36 328i Sport, specifically because it had an LSD, but the car that I found for sale and that I ended up buying didn’t actually have an LSD as the owner had sold it,” he chuckles, “but it was a solid car so I went for it. I stripped it, fitted a cage, some seats; it was sweet, handled beautifully. Then I sold it to get married…” and we can see where this is going. “It didn’t work out,” says Darren simply, “so after that I decided I wanted to build another one and ended up getting my hands on a cheap 3.0 M3,” the very car you see before you now.
“The car had been kept in an underground car park in Manchester,” Darren explains, “and it hadn’t moved in a few years. Previously it had been used as a promo car for Project Gotham Racing 3, Sabine Schmitz had driven it, but now it was dusty and looking sorry for itself. It was solid and sound, though, and from experience I knew what to do to get the most out of it and where I wanted to take it, so I bought it and got started.” The project began with removing weight and Darren set about stripping out the carpets, seats and all the sound deadening before adding the Recaro Apex seats, which sit on AJ Racing mounts and are equipped with Sabelt 3” five-point harnesses for both driver and passenger, and the Safety Devices cage, which has been powder coated black. It’s all business in here, and Darren has not omitted anything that helps to make this E36 better to drive. There’s an OBP pedal box with brake bias adjustment, which allowed him to get rid of the servo, and an OMP pedal set as well as an OMP Targa steering wheel on a quick release boss. Further interior weight reduction comes courtesy of some Geoff Steel Racing carbon fibre door cards, which have been equipped with some very cool Porsche 997 GT3 door pulls, but that’s not the end of it and it’s interesting to learn just how much can be saved where. For example, the battery has been relocated which saved 4kg of copper cable, and the loom has also been stripped back to just the bare necessities. While the windscreen is still the original glass item, the rest of the glass has been removed and replaced with ACW Motorsport Lexan windows, the side ones having been fitted with braces to prevent them bowing out at speed, which shaved 35kg off the car’s weight.
Add that onto the 4kg saved from moving the battery and you’ve almost cut 40kg from your E36, so it all adds up, no matter how small some of the individual savings may seem. Oh, and there’s also a Sparco intercom system fitted, because it gets pretty noisy in the cabin and this car gets driven everywhere, including to the ’Ring’, so it saves having to shout.
The chassis is obviously hugely important for a car like this and Darren has cut no corners in the pursuit of track perfection. The suspension itself comprises Bilstein PSS9 adjustable dampers running 200mm H&R springs and 60mm helper springs up front with 250mm H&R springs at the back. GAZ camber and castor adjustable top mounts have been fitted up front while at the rear you’ll find Rogue Engineering items as well as a set of Turner Motorsport rear camber arms mounted using Powerflex Black Series bushes. The amount of chassis work that’s gone on here is mind-bogglingly comprehensive and reads like the ultimate track build shopping list. We’ve got Powerflex bushes on the rear subframe and trailing arms, an AGK poly diff bush, E36 Convertible X-brace, a Rogue Engineering front strut brace and a Mason Engineering rear brace tied into the rear subframe. There are Vibra-Technics engine mounts, UUC Motorwerks red gearbox mounts, a Turner Motorsport 30mm front anti-roll bar and 24mm rear item along with Turner Motorsport adjustable rosejointed drop links. A West Suffolk Racing stud conversion kit has been fitted which makes swapping wheels that much easier; the original 17s have been fitted with race wets but for dry duty Darren runs these 18” Hard Motorsport STW centre lock wheels with a single nut hub and 12mm spacers up front, wrapped in 235/40 semi-slick DMack tyres, which serve him well on both road and track. Any circuit is demanding on brakes but the ’Ring even more so as corner follows corner relentlessly, so the E36’s stopping power has been suitably uprated. You’ll find beefy AP Racing CP5200 four-pot calipers fitted up front, which clamp onto 330mm J-hook discs, while at the rear sit M3 Evo calipers with 315mm grooved and vented StopTech discs, and Carbon Lorraine pads have been fitted all-round along with Goodridge braided hoses. Stopping power would be nothing without adequate cooling to actually let you use your brakes, so Darren has removed the front fog lights and fitted Mosley Motorsport adapters, behind which you’ll find Turner Motorsport 3” ducting hose to direct cool air to braking components.
So, you’re stripped out, your chassis has been honed to perfection and now you need to get the power to make the most of all that, and this M3’s engine bay does not disappoint. It is dominated by the massive VTF Opitz carbon air box, which looks absolutely awesome; it’s fitted with an aFe Pro 5R air filter and is fed with cool air via a Ramair 80mm intake with a hole in the front bumper to help force as much air into the engine as it can ingest, and it can ingest plenty thanks to an End Tuning remap that has raised the rev limit to 7500rpm. Elsewhere the engine has been bolstered with additions such as an E36 325tds seven-row oil cooler, ARP rod bolts, an E36 M3 Evo twin pick-up sump, ‘pumpkin’ twin fuel pump setup to prevent starvation on track and a viscous fan delete, with a Spall 350mm fan now performing cooling duties. Of course, a fettled engine would be no good without a strengthened transmission and the drivetrain has been suitably uprated.
Up top, Darren has fitted a CAE shifter while below decks you’ll find a Goodridge braided clutch line, CDV delete and Turner Motorsport single mass flywheel with an M5 clutch. He’s also added an E46 330Ci ‘purple label’ steering rack for quicker response from the helm and at the back there’s a 3.73:1 ratio LSD, which really lets him rip through the gears and while it means the top speed is now a rev-limited 148mph, that’s fast enough.
With a build like this, appearance is dictated by aerodynamic needs, but that’s not to say that Darren hasn’t been able to give his E36 a touch of individuality. He’s built the car as a Super Tourenwagen homage, the ’90s racing series where BMW fielded E36s and won three out of the six seasons that were held. This is why it wears standard E36 mirrors as per the racing cars, but it’s not just aesthetics that have received the STW approach, that chunky rear wing is an STW item too.
As far as business is concerned, there’s a genuine E36 M3 GT adjustable front splitter and a Geoff Steel Racing GRP bonnet that’s been gold-lined and fitted with AeroCatch locks. This is mirrored by a Geoff Steel GRP bootlid also mounted using AeroCatches and there’s a clever electrical connector setup that provides power to the rear numberplate light without having to worry about unplugging any wires. A carbon fibre sunroof-delete panel has been fitted and is equipped with a roof-mounted scoop that provides ventilation and it’s very effective. As far as aesthetics are concerned, the car has been treated to some BMW Motorsport flag decals, there are some delightfully retro OEM BMW yellow headlight lenses and the front bumper has been fitted with a US centre trim panel, with the BMW text on it, which is why the number plate is sidemounted.
It all combines to make for an exceedingly tough-looking, and extremely focussed E36 and with his combined interior and exterior weight-reduction programme Darren has managed to save a seriously impressive 500kg, meaning it now tips the scales at somewhere in the region of just 1000kg.
Even having gone through this car’s monstrous spec it still only feels like we’ve scratched the surface of what it’s all about and how much has gone into it, and it’s one of those moments when the written word just doesn’t feel capable of really conveying how impressive this build is. So, is Darren done or is there more to come? An S54, he says, would be nice, but he is happy with the S50 and is planning to chuck some Schrick cams in there for good measure. Having learnt his lesson from Project Nordschleife 1, there are definitely no plans to sell this car; “I will be keeping this one,” he smiles. “I’m really happy with how far it has come and I’ve done everything I’ve wanted so now all I want to do is go out and enjoy it on track,” and we reckon he’s going to have a very good time indeed.
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS DATA FILE BMW E36 M3 Track Car
ENGINE 3.0-litre straight-six S50B30 / BMW S50 , End Tuning ECU remap with rev limiter raised to 7500rpm, VTF Optiz carbon air box, aFe Pro 5R air filter, Ramair 80mm cold air intake, Supersprint rear box and de-cat, Varley Red Top 30 race battery, red key battery isolator, E36 325tds seven-row oil cooler, ARP rod bolts, E36 M3 Evo twin pick-up sump, ‘pumpkin’ twin fuel pump solution, Evans waterless coolant, Millers Oils CFS 10W-50 competition full synthetic engine oil, viscous fan delete with Spal 350mm electric fan replacement
TRANSMISSION ZF Type-C five-speed manual gearbox, CAE shifter, Goodridge braided clutch line, UUC clutch pedal bush, CDV delete, Turner Motorsport single mass flywheel (10.5lbs), M5 clutch, E46 ‘purple label’ 330Ci steering rack, 3.73:1 ratio LSD with 188mm crown wheel and pinion, Castrol Syntrax limited slip diff oil 75W-140, Redline 75W140NS gear oil and Redline D4 synthetic ATF mix
CHASSIS 8.5×18” (front) and 9×18” (rear) Hard Motorsport STW centre lock wheels with single nut hub and 235/40 (front and rear) DMack tyres, Rogue Engineering 12mm hub centric spacers (front), West Suffolk Racing stud conversion kit, GAZ camber/castor adjustable front top mounts, Rogue Engineering rear top mounts, Bilstein PSS9 adjustable dampers with H&R 200mm springs (110N/mm 629lbf/in) and 60mm helper springs (143lbs) (front), H&R 250mm springs (600lbf/in) (rear), Turner Motorsport rear camber arms with Powerflex Black Series bushes, Powerflex rear subframe and trailing arm bushes, AKG polyurethane diff bush, E36 Convertible chassis ‘X’ brace, Rogue Engineering front strut brace, Mason Engineering rear brace tied into rear subfe, Vibra-Technics engine mounts, UUC Motorwerks red gearbox mounts, Turner Motorsport 30mm anti-roll bar (front) and 24mm (rear), Turner Motorsport adjustable length rose-jointed anti-roll bar drop links (front) and adjustable length anti-roll bar drop links (rear), Treehouse Racing ‘eyeball’ arms, Active Autowerks diff support, 3mm plate reinforced front subframe, AP Racing CP5200 calipers with 330mm J hook discs (front), M3 Evo calipers with StopTech 315mm 12 grooved and vented discs (rear), Carbon Lorraine RC6 (front) and RC5 (rear) pads, Turner Motorsport front brake duct backing plates, Turner Motorsport 3” ducting hose, Goodridge braided brake lines, AP Racing PRF 660 brake fluid
EXTERIOR BMW Motorsport flag decals, genuine E36 M3 GT adjustable front splitter, gold-lined Geoff Steel Racing GRP bonnet with AeroCatch locks, Mosley Motorsport fog light aperture brake duct adaptors, OEM BMW yellow lens headlights, S2R Tuning carbon fibre sunroof-delete panel, STW rear spoiler, Geoff Steel Racing GRP boot lid with AeroCatch locks, ACW Motorsport Lexan windows (rear screen, front and rear side windows)
INTERIOR OBP pedal box with brake bias adjust, Recaro Apex seats with AJ Racing seat mounts, Sabelt 3” five-point harnesses, OMP pedal set, OMP Targa 330mm steering wheel with 56mm BMW centre badge, OMP quick release steering wheel boss, Geoff Steel Racing carbon fibre door cards, Porsche 997 GT3 red door pulls, Safety Devices B037 roll-cage powder coated black
“He’s built the car as a Super Tourenwagen homage, the ’90s racing series where BMW fielded E36s and won three out of the six seasons that were held”
“This M3’s engine bay does not disappoint. It is dominated by the massive VTF Opitz carbon air box, which looks absolutely awesome”
Stripped-out interior is wholly dedicated to lightness. Tilton brake bias adjuster Stripped-out interior is wholly dedicated to lightness. Air vents from roof scoop. Lightweight Lexan side Windows. AiM Solo lap timer. Hole in bumper serves as cold air feed for engine. Very cool retro yellow headlight lenses. Gold-lined GRP bonnet. It may be hardcore, but this E36 gets driven everywhere. Roof scoop provides cabin ventilation. Stripped and braced boot area.