Awesome BMW 328i Coupe E36/2 Styled and tuned Santorini beauty. It’s not often we have someone writing about their own car for us, but who better to really get into all those little details? And with such a magnificently modded E36 328i Coupe, Graham Leigh is the perfect person to ensure everything is shipshape. Words: Graham Leigh. Photos: Rob Schaverien.
LIFE IN A BLUE SUIT
he term ‘Life in a blue suit’ is Royal Naval slang that essentially translates to “Get on with it” when somebody moans about the inevitable demands of the job (time away from home, long hours etc.). After a largely enjoyable career spanning over 23 years the call of family, roots and home became louder than my desire to stay. There comes a time in a guy’s life where all his pants need to be in the same draw and at 41 I decided my time is now.
My car history is eclectic and I’m into a lot of things from exotica to unappreciated chod. I’m equally at home at Players as I am Festival of the Unexceptional but the accessibility of sharp RWD chassis always draws me back to Bavaria. My first car was a MK2 XR2 (something of a rite of passage car at the turn of the century), followed by a plethora of fast VAG products, a couple of Capris, a pair of Mk3 Supras, various French mobile sofas for my commutes and even a TVR S3 to name but a few. The Navy provided a reasonable wage and in my early days where I lived either on ships or bases, my accommodation was either free or very cheap. This was good for my disposable income, however, the amount of time away meant that a lot of my cars were quite quick affairs; the rough pattern of my seagoing service was two and a half years assigned to a ship and then around the same period working at a Naval port.
Except for my MK1 Golf, which I have spent a fortune on in storage over the years, most of my projects would be sold for periods on ships where I would often draft in the services of a part-ex special or ex-taxi for getting me home. These would then be left quayside awaiting my sporadic arrivals hence my rather niche knowledge of dodgy old Peugeots. For somebody so into cars, this could be frustrating at times but I got to see much of the world and there’s always a compromise with all jobs.
I’ve had a varied mixture of BMWs over the years: an E30 316i Touring unexpectedly kick-started the obsession back in 2009. As is heavily documented, the 316i was woefully underpowered but I fell in love with the communicative chassis. An M50 E34 525i Saloon followed; this felt like a natural progression and the ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ nature of the engine had me hooked on Munich straight-sixes. From 2014 onwards we were lucky enough to find a city house with a garage and a drive. My approach to cars become a bit more DIY or at least ‘have a go with adult supervision’ at this time. This was partly because I finally had the space and also because I didn’t have the funds to farm jobs out in the way that I had done in those pre-mortgage halcyon days. A total of seven E36s followed consisting of two 323i Tourings, a lovely Boston green 328i Coupé with full electric tan leather and 17” BBS RKs that made it to the PBMW Readers’ Cars of August 2018, a couple of 328i Coupé drift cars, a snow-damaged 318i Coupé parts car and then finally the Santorini Sport on these very pages.
Somewhere in the middle of this E36-fest came a Laguna Seca E46 M3. I was blinded by the LSB paint and matching interior, being a real bucket list car for me but a textbook list of E46 M3, faults including split boot floor, VANOS failure and a diff that was louder than the paint, soon reared their collective head and the car was sold.
“I’ve had quite a few M52s in different states of tune but this one ticked pretty much all the boxes for a naturally aspirated build this side of super-expensive ITBs”
This genuine E36 328i Sport came up for sale in September 2018 at a time when I was still considering my options career-wise. They were linked with a need for reliability and the desire for affordable performance. Discussions with the then-current owner, Jake Munro, and previous owner and project builder, Sam Carpenter, revealed an interesting history linked to a different kind of blue uniform as Sam explained that three of the owners were ex-Police including him. During his ownership, Sam set out to build “the perfect daily/track toy,” and the car ended up being used for charity passenger track rides at Castle Combe in support of Mission Motorsport (The Forces’ Motorsport Charity supporting wounded, injured and sick serving and veteran soldiers). A couple of weeks of dialogue ensued, a price was agreed on and I got on the train from my Portsmouth home to Blackpool. A test drive and cuppa later and the deal was done. A trip to Blackpool gave me an excuse to catch up with old shipmate and fellow E36-head Andy Higham who I hadn’t seen for 20 years. Check out his awesome tattoo shop, Vendetta Tattoo Works.
As mentioned, I’m something of an E36 nerd, I’ve had quite a few M52s in different states of tune but this one ticked pretty much all the boxes for a naturally aspirated build this side of super-expensive ITBs. A de rigueur M50 intake manifold and induction kit were joined by the deal-sealing Riot Racing cams and BBTB.
M3 Evo coil packs, a recently upgraded cooling system headed up by a Mishimoto M3 radiator, EMP Stewart’s high-flow water pump, metal water pump pulley, Ronak metal thermostat housing and Wahler thermostat contributed to a well-thought- out mechanical package. Having blown two M52s up in the year preceding this purchase it wasn’t something I was prepared to risk again. I was happy to see that an M3 expansion tank had been used – anybody that’s had to bleed a normal M52 one (typically numerous times every coolant change) should consider one.
“The E36 was supposed to be a car that I just drove and enjoyed but I had been eyeing up a set of two-piece BBS Bugatti rims for the car which I thought with the colour of the car would be a cool little nod to the Bugatti EB110 without being an, oft awkward, tribute car”
I’d always liked the dependability of the ZF five-speed but I found that an AC Schnitzer short-shift kit and weighted E46 Clubsport gear knob went a good way to eliminating the somewhat agricultural throw. An early Sport 2.93 LSD had been sourced and I always like these in these cars but with the considerable hike in horsepower (estimated 240-250hp) from the engine upgrades, this would lock up pretty much on demand and enhanced the driving dynamics. E46 320d brakes were a wallet-friendly upgrade; while not transformative (the front discs are only two mm bigger than the E36 328i standard equipment) they do have a positive feel and are a good halfway house for those saving for a BBK. The KW V1 coilovers are worth their considerable price tag and were a real selling point for me, instantly feeling their surefooted nature on my test drive. I have had both HSDs and GAZ setups on previous coupés and these too are great but for me I found the KWs to be the best quality, the best-handling, and especially useful when I was setting the car up was the ease of adjustability. The purple tag steering rack complemented the precise/sprightly nature of the chassis and was confidence-inspiring.
The E36 was supposed to be a car that I just drove and enjoyed but I had been eyeing up a set of two-piece BBS Bugatti rims for the car which I thought with the colour of the car would be a cool little nod to the Bugatti EB110 without being an, oft awkward, tribute car. A little wink to people of a certain age I guess. Money no object I would have loved some Gotti splits but at the time the car shared garage space and available funds with a Mk1 Golf and a V8 Soarer so these were a goodlooking, cheaper alternative. Predictably, a trip to Bognor a few days later saw the aforementioned rims purchased. The wheels had previously lived on an E28 and their ET13 was a lot more friendly for that chassis. Nice, but way too meaty Bridgestones were removed and sold and set of Avon ZZR semi-slicks briefly drafted in but these were terrifying in the wet and at the time I was dailying the car. A set of 205/40 Toyo Proxes T1-Rs was settled on, giving just the right compromise on stretch, sensible footprint and cost.
To run a ride height which is somewhere between stance and fast road, reworking of the arches was required so out came the arch roller and heat gun and endless nights of messing around ensued. I was pleased with the results of my metalwork but my first attempt at paint was less than perfect so the car was sent to a local bodyshop, Coolio’s, for a freshen up on the arches and stone chipping at the front. The car polished up nicely now and although not perfect, it was certainly presentable. I’ve been there and done the concours thing and although it’s impressive, for me presentable and usable is the sweet spot with a busy family life.
I felt that amber repeaters all-round suited the blue; most of my cars have a whiff of OEM+ and I like the fact that the car could be a factory special with the period parts. I would have loved an M3 but at the time when the car was sharing time and money with my other projects, sourcing an M52 if it all went wrong was going to be £3k cheaper than an S52 not to mention the initial outlay. As much as I love the genuine article I never really like lookalikes and I thus removed the M3 mirrors and 17” sunflower reps pretty quickly; the Sport is a special enough model to be celebrated in its own right.
Living in the Blackpool sea air had taken its toll on the car despite being pretty well looked after and, alas, all four jacking points were welded up by local classic car specialist, Bugs ‘n’ Buses. While in their capable hands, custom brackets were fabricated allowing me to use my Driftworks low seat mounts but locating them further back, which allowed me to put the drivers’ side Recaro Pole Position in a location befitting my 6’ 6” frame. A long wait ensued while my Renown 350mm 100 Motorsport steering wheel made its way over from San Francisco but it was well worth it and the stitching matched the M Sport colours on the E46 Clubsport gear knob. The only other interior change I personally made was the addition of a period-looking Alpine CDE-9880R head unit. A fire extinguisher, Executive door cards and M3 internal handles give the right mix of purposeful and luxury and made it a nice place to be for an A road blast.
A late addition to the build was a Scorpion back box, which complements the otherwise full S50 system including manifolds and added a bit of soul to the soundtrack. A trip to my local BMW specialist and all-round top guys, Ergen Motorsport, resulted in a nice map which made the most of the cams while maintaining a nice torque curve throughout the rev range and really brought the project together.
So, after getting everything just so in a year of ownership, you’re probably expecting me to be enjoying the car… Well, I wish I could have kept it but I made the decision to sell all my cars and replace them with a suitable ‘jack of all trades’ as I was leaving the Navy and the E36 was sold to an enthusiast owner. I never quite got over the short ownership of my E46 M3 and the yearning for another S54 simmered in the background and selling all my other cars has funded a leggy but loved E46 M3.
This is a great balance for me in terms of RWD driving experience: a car that is just as happy taking my son to nursery as it is doing the ’Ring; a car that can be as focused as your mood allows. I let my head rule this time and condition and price were the main criteria so I couldn’t stretch to a Laguna Seca car again but an Individual Silver Grey 2004 manual non-sunroof model with Champagne leather is no bad place to be. This one will be a keeper so I’m looking forward to some gradual modifications and fun drives over time. No more ‘life in a blue suit’, no more time in a Santorini blue E36 but plenty of good times ahead in my M3 to stop me from feeling blue.
DATA FILE E36 328i
ENGINE AND TRANSMISSION 2.8-litre straight-six M52B28, M3 solid rubber engine mounts, Riot Racing camshafts and bigbore throttle body, traction control delete intake elbow, EMP Stewart high-flow water pump, metal water pump pulley, Ronak metal thermostat housing, Wahler thermostat, Mishimoto M3 radiator, M3 expansion tank, Samco hoses, 318i air-con switch, M3 Evo coil packs, M50 manifold, induction kit, S50 full exhaust including manifolds, Scorpion back box, viscous fan delete. ZF five-speed manual gearbox, AC Schnitzer short-shift, UUC gear linkage, 2.93 LSD
CHASSIS 8x17” ET13 (front and rear) BBS Bugatti twopiece wheels with 205/40 (front and rear) Toyo Proxes T1-R tyres, stud conversion, KW V1 coilovers, reinforced and powder coated front subframe, genuine BMW sump guard, poly bushed lollipops with E30 arms, carbon fibre strut brace, undersealed, fully poly bushed rear subframe and front diff bush, purple tag rack with new track rod ends, E46 320d brakes
EXTERIOR Santorini blue, M3 front and rear bumpers and side skirts, amber rear lights and repeaters, mildly rolled and reworked arches
INTERIOR Full black leather with Individual blue piping, Executive leather door cards, M3 door handles, Recaro Pole Position driver’s seat on custom mounts, Renown 350mm 100 Motorsport steering wheel, E46 Clubsport gear knob, fire extinguisher located in passenger footwell, Alpine CDE-9880R head unit
THANKS Andy Higham for supplying the caffeine prior to the long trip back down south (check out his awesome tattoo shop, Vendetta Tattoo Works, Blackpool), Karl ‘Harry the b*stard’ Fenton and Paul Charlesworth for always lending a hand and words of encouragement, Ash Clements for parts and his encyclopaedic E36 knowledge, previous owners Jake Munro and Sam Carpenter for their advice, Bugs ‘n’ Buses, Portsmouth for the welding, seat mounts, exhaust fitment and servicing, Coolio’s Paintshop, Portsmouth for the refresh, Ergen Motorsport, Fareham for the map and tune, The VW Royalty (you know who you are), all the rest of my car mates who should really know better by now and, most importantly, my long-suffering wife, Ellen, and son, George, for their invaluable love, support and patience
Individual Santorini blue is stunning. Scorpion back box. Renown 100 Motorsport steering wheel Fire extinguisher in passenger footwell. Recaro Pole Position seat and Individual blue piping.