It started life as an unassuming #BMW-318i / #BMW-318i-E36 , but an #S54-swap totally transformed this E36. Parked up, Chris Lunn’s stripped E36 318i certainly wouldn’t turn heads. However turning the key unleashes 348bhp of unbridled E46 M3 power. Could this be the UK’s finest street sleeper? Words: Joel Newman. Photos: Dan Pullen.

    To own a feature-worthy project car you’ve got to be clinically insane or just plain mental. Okay, okay maybe that’s a little harsh, but I think you’ll agree that to put all your time, money and soul into any inanimate object requires an ounce of lunacy far outweighing that of the average Joe. The star of this next feature has those characteristics in spades. His hunger for performance has led him through every nook and cranny of the E36 318i M40 modifying underworld. After succeeding in pushing the envelope as far as it could he got his hands on a brand new, much larger, much more shiny envelope, the S54 lump from the E46 M3.

    The story begins in 1994, soon after Chris fell in love with and purchased the feel and thrill of the front engined rear-wheel drive 3 Series Saloon. It is, by his own admission, his first and only car and its evolution is of such fairytale proportions that, if we hadn’t seen and ridden in it ourself, we would scarcely believe.

    Back then, with a mere 115bhp 1.8-litre four-cylinder lump, power was never on the generous side. Despite this, the trained electrician and musician gained as much track time as possible, kicked off with an open pit session at Castle Combe in 1995 as Chris explains: “To start off the car was awful. The handling was reasonable but on the straights anything and everything went past me.”

    It was soon after this that Chris started reading car magazines, and in conjunction with the people he was meeting at the track events, he had at his disposal all the expertise he would require to create the car that he longed for.

    After a chance meeting at a track day Chris started talking to Graham Lee owner of Lee’s BMW in Wembley. Together they fitted a performance exhaust and air filter, then had the car remapped at AmD Technik in Oxfordshire. Soon after the car was dyno’d where it produced only 3bhp over standard – something needed to be done.

    With help from Torque Development International in Barking Chris set about fitting Shrick cams, porting the cylinder heads, installing enlarged throttle bodies and remapping the car once again. After the work, like a crazed father the car was marched back to AmD, this time it put down an additional 20bhp. Once again Chris peered disappointingly into his now empty wallet…

    Feeling somewhat dejected, as strange as it seems he had grown fond of his beloved four-pot. Like a belligerent child he wanted to stick with it and after a chance meeting, this time with Bexley Motor Works, Chris carried on further down into the, dare we say it, money pit.

    Bexley felt that to best improve the car, the rear drum brakes needed to go. The guys managed to find a rear axle from an E36 328i complete with rear disc brakes. Chris himself then purchased and fitted a dBilas individual throttle body kit and Bexley worked on the MBE engine management system.

    During this period our man fitted E36 M3 front and rear bumpers and side skirts, which although offer no form of protection from impact, help reduce weight quite significantly. To shed further pounds he stripped out the interior and fitted a carbon bonnet. Finally Chris installed four-pot Brembos and floating discs up front. The car was once again rolling roaded and produced a more impressive 158bhp and 153lb ft of torque but the 318i – and Chris for that matter – were at the end of their tether. The M40, although a willing comrade could not, without force induction at least, be pushed a millimetre further. As sad as it was, Chris knew he had to move on.

    He began hunting for a replacement lump. The first port of call for the engine swap was the 2.5-litre 220bhp S14 from the E30 M3. Used by some E36 touring cars this powerplant is renowned for its lightweight, rev hungry attitude and is ideally suited to track driving. It was only financial reasons that stopped Chris making this swap, as the lads at Bexley pointed out that for the money, the power increase he would achieve would be minimal.

    He then began looking for an E36 M3 Evo lump but could find nothing to match his criteria. He was about to give up when, after an inquisitive snoop on eBay, he stumbled on the greatest bargain of the century. There before him, with just five minutes remaining on the sale was an E46 M3 engine with just 20k on the clock, the current price just £1100. Chris bid £1300 for it and in an instant it was his as he recalls: “At the time I just thought ‘what have I done?’ but I just went with it and prayed! I called the guy and asked if I could come and look at it and he said ‘no’ I’ll come to you. He turned up and had the engine complete with gearbox on a B&Q palette. He said I could have the lot for £1500.” Chris gave it a good once over but the seller guaranteed it was legitimate and he took a chance and went for it. There is no doubting it was a massive gamble.

    One of the main reasons the project was so difficult from the outset was because it is quite literally a first. In Europe at least, no one has ever done this before and Chris wasn’t sure if it had ever been legitimately achieved anywhere before. It was therefore down to Bexley to confirm that the mounting points for the E36 and E46 M3 engines were relatively close and that the S54 from the E46 should fit. They explained, however, that the gearbox on the E46 is longer and as a result the E36’s propshaft would have to be cut. Problems spiralled further as Bexley encountered yet another major issue. The E36 318i runs an open diff. In an E46 the diff is controlled by the engine management system, however since all the electronic gizmos would need to be eradicated if the S54 was to run smoothly in the E36, the limited slip diff from the E46 could not be installed, there simply wouldn’t be the technology necessary to run it. To scupper the problem Nigel and Jags at Bexley had to utilise the mechanical E36 M3 diff. The running gear for Chris’s ride would have to be a mixture of amalgamated E36 and E46 technology resulting in an E46 gearbox and propshaft front end welded and integrated into the E36 M3’s propshaft. This enabled it to operate with the E36 rear differential and rear axle. Interesting stuff when you’re reading about it, mind numbingly difficult and problematic when you’re building it!

    The next dilemma that the team faced was the E36’s steering column. On the E46 the rack narrowly misses the manifold, and if this was not the case with the E36 it would really threaten the project. Through some sort of divine intervention it just so happens that the E36’s steering column ran exactly the same way as the E46’s. Chris points out that this was a real turn up for the books as both the E46’s engine and bay are wider; by pure chance fate was playing along with Chris’ wild plans.

    As mentioned, because it was impossible to run the E46s software in the E36, the fly-by-wire throttle found on the E46 M3 had to be replaced and exchanged for a manual throttle cable. Unfortunately because of the way the new engine sat, the E36 M3’s variant didn’t fit into Chris’s car, so Bexley fabricated the piece themselves.

    Finally with the project looking like it was on track it was time to take on the cooling system. The E36 M3’s radiator was fabricated and mounted on new brackets and after a few trial runs it was supplying sufficiently cool air to the new lump. To complete the car final touches included a Heigo bolt-in roll-cage, relocating the battery behind the passenger’s seat, Full Black Art Design coilover race suspension, a UUC magnesium front strut brace and enlarged ITG air filter. With a Recaro bucket and Sabalt harness already installed and a rear wing fitted the car was ready to roll.

    Just two days before the shoot, one of the UK’s greatest sleepers was unveiled to its proud owner. On its first rolling road the car put down a hefty 348bhp and 277lb ft. The once budget 318i is now one of the fastest BMW’s in the UK thanks to Bexley, as well as being one of the most understated performance cars you’ll ever come across. Capable of 185mph, this thing accelerates with such ferocity that it definitely outstrips the performance of the E46 M3 and quite possibly the E46 M3 CSL. It may have been expensive, it may be hugely impractical, but to all of you that look at your pride and joy and dream of more, listen up. Whether it takes you a year or two decades, persistence pays off. A dollop of insanity, a piggy bank and a die hard mission can lead you to uncharted territory. After fitting his first air filter Chris kept his cool and followed the mantra ‘one day at a time’. Fourteen years later, and without any sudden cash windfall he now owns a car that drives and behaves like the one he desired all those years ago. With future plans to install a lightweight flywheel and clutch, slick tyres and a carbon airbox, power will only increase, and whether it takes him a week or five years to get this sorted, Chris can attest to one thing: good things come to those who wait.

    The running gear for Chris’s ride would have to be a mixture of amalgamated E36 and E46 technology.

    He turned up and had the engine complete with gearbox on a B&Q palette. He said I could have the lot for £1500. There is no doubting it was a massive gamble.

    DATA FILE #BMW-E36 / #BMW-E36-S54 / #AC-Schnitzer / #BMW-3-Series / #BMW-3-Series-E36 /

    ENGINE & TRANSMISSION: 3.2-litre straight-six #S54 / #BMW-S54 / #S54B32 engine, ITG air filter, #Scorpion de-cat, #Sebring-DTM exhaust. E46 M3 six-speed gearbox with #UUC short-shift, E36 M3 rear axle and differential, E36 and E46 M2 fabricated propshaft, E36 M3 transmission tunnel cross brace

    CHASSIS: 17” #AC-Schnitzer-Type-2 wheels shod in Yokohama AVS 235/40 tyres with #Eibach wheel spacers. Black Art Design coilovers, Ground Control front camber plates, UUC magnesium front strut brace and AC Schnitzer rear strut brace, #Eibach anti-roll bars, TC Kline racing monoball rear trailing arms and aluminium bushes. #Brembo four-pot front brake conversion with 238mm discs and #Ferodo DS3000 pads, #Zimmermann crossdrilled and vented discs with Ferodo DS2500 pads rear

    INTERIOR: Fully stripped with Heigo bolt-in rollcage, Recaro SPG seat with Sabelt four-point harness, AC Schnitzer steering wheel and pedal set, AC Schnitzer gear knob

    EXTERIOR: E36 M3 bumpers and side skirts, carbon fibre bonnet, AC Schnitzer mirrors, Hamann STW rear spoiler with carbon fibre lip, Race Tech tow ring

    The M40, although a willing comrade could not, without force induction at least, be pushed a millimetre further. As sad as it was, Chris knew he had to move on