This project is a little bit of therapy for me. Building cars is usually about searching for an answer to a problem or striking a balance between two conflicting things. And nothing is more opposed than stance and performance.
People argue across the internet until they are blue in the face about it; always have, always will. Personally, I’ve never understood why. Cutting my engineering teeth on unnecessarily lowered Volkswagens and falling headfirst into the motorsport arena skews my position slightly, but I believe that stance and performance can exist in the same sphere. After all, they both require novel engineering solutions to conquer problems posed by a stock setup.
Hopefully I’ve struck a chord with you. I’m sure most of the stance guys can see why performance heads shriek at extreme camber and limited suspension travel. Likewise, those who enjoy the driving experience can still see why style guys go to incredible effort (and often cost) in order to achieve the right look, even if it negatively impacts the way the car drives. Each has a place on this earth and you don’t have to like everything; it would be boring if we all looked the same.
With that in mind however, I’m going to attempt to bring these two worlds together on this project. I’m passionate about both. This idea had me wondering: what is the best stanced race car? For me there is no better than the Super Touring era touring cars.
Massive wheels were stuffed into saloon car arches with incredibly complicated and reworked suspension systems. The body lines could not be changed, but the arches could be altered within what stretching the original metalwork would allow. This meant ‘bubble’ arches sprouted from the sides of everyday cars, slammed on huge wheels and bouncing around tracks door-to-door every weekend. What’s not to like?
My favourite Super Touring car is the BMW E36. Actually, I’m not sure if it’s my favourite, or if the fact I’ve only owned one E36 in my time (some 10+ years ago), and that coupled with one being available meant my brain tricked me into needing it. Either way, before I knew it I owned an E36.
Now, this was no ordinary E36. This was a 318is, but that’s not all. It also had some pretty cool additions. It came complete with a battered nosecone, a kidney delete, half of the headlining hanging out, busted seats, and a blocked exhaust system meaning it would struggle to go over 50mph. “Perfect,” I said, “I’ll take it.”
I’ve only walked away from one purchase in my 50-or-so-strong career of buying some nice and some terrible cars. It’s always the next morning that I realise which side of the line the latest acquisition falls. This time though, the only thing falling was the engine off the chassis rails; it turned out both motor mounts were snapped clean in half. Quite how it made it home I’m not sure.
Undeterred, I got to work rectifying the easy stuff. It might sound dramatic, and to be fair the previous owner, Saj, did let me know well ahead of time that this was the last chance saloon for this car. If I didn’t take it, it would probably not last much longer before going for recycling. It was too good for that though. It had been Saj’s first car, and he’d just hit a block on it. I’m not sure if that was before or after he hit the back of another car with it, but that’s a different story…
After the little bump the car sat on his parents’ driveway for 12 months, and despite Saj keeping it clean and tidy the elements had taken a bit of a toll on the trim and paint. I’d always said to Saj that when he was ready to part with it to hit me up, and luckily the timings worked out really well.
The thing that drew me to the car is that it actually had a really clean body. It’s a bit of a diamond in the rough as a nice, solid E36 is a tricky thing to get hold of. That and the fact it was factory fitted with the revvy M44 – a four-pot engine that suits the character of an STW build perfectly. It’s not a powerful engine, but one that makes a great sound and can be taken to the upper RPMs without completely disregarding speed limits and personal safety. Sometimes cars can be just too fast for fun.
Before taking it to any sort of RPM though, the coil pack required changing (so it actually ran on all four cylinders) and the exhaust needed unblocking. After messing around with no less than three ill-fitting aftermarket systems, I decided to get an STW-inspired exhaust made for the car. The STW cars generally used a single-outlet back box that was tucked right up into the rear bumper, something that wasn’t available off the shelf but key to achieving the look.
Talking of buying threes of things, I also lost count of how many leather interiors I ended up sourcing in order to create one clean set of black Vaders. Oh, and I also toyed with some Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X Recaros that didn’t really work out, so we’ll not talk about that.
My friend Joe came through with an immaculate factory black headlining and the majority of the leather which leapfrogged me to this point. To say the headliners sag in these cars is an understatement, and to find a non-sunroof one in good condition is harder than you think. With one complete interior installed, I sold most of the spare parts and came out with a good deal. It was kind of scary looking at three sets of interiors sat in the garage, though.
I’d been saving a V1 Speedhunters x Renown steering wheel for a rainy day and this seemed like the perfect project to break it out of the box on. The extra reach is really useful to get a nice seating position in the cabin, too.
For a while I used the car as a daily driver and enjoyed its four cylinder engine and nimbleness. You don’t see too many of these out in use on the road anymore, and it was great fun to get a little ’90s nostalgia from day to day.
I know what you’re thinking at this point: ‘Great, well done. That’s a fairly normal common or garden variety E36 with a decent interior. There’s nothing STW about that.’ And you’d be totally right. The reason I’d not committed yet was because I was holding out for a very key part of the project.
Some years ago I sold a set of HARD Motorsport centre-lock wheels to a friend, Kris. After acquiring this project, I asked him to let me know if he ever wanted to sell them, as I’d love to get them back. As luck would have it, Kris was looking to change up his E39 Touring, so all I had to do was bide my time until his new wheels landed and I could collect the centre-locks. That’s harder than you think when you’re excited as hell.
These wheels measure in at 18×8.5-inch and 18×9.5-inch and came with 225/40R18 and 255/35R18 Bridgestone tyres. The wheels themselves have seen better days, but they’re made for the E36 platform. They are the perfect wheel for this project, although the tyre size and ride height required meant that it would need a lot of work to achieve. Thankfully, I’m prepared to get my hands dirty and not scared of swinging a hammer or two around.
Some people might have made space in the stock arches and called it a day. I initially did that to test fit them, and it looked great, but leaving it there wouldn’t satisfy the itch and hold true to the vision in my mind. Besides, it doesn’t really unite the motorsport and stance passions in one project either.
The trial fitment allowed me to be sure that an STW look could be possible though. I just had to figure out a way to get them absolutely buried into the arches and still be able to drive it. The village I live in is littered with speed bumps, and the lane I live on is more suited to 4×4 traffic than something at STW ride height. Modern problems require modern solutions.
I’ve had great success with impossible wheel fitment and Air Lift Performance in the past. My Alpina B10 touring ran Air Lift Performance products and 18×10-inch +13 square BBS RFs. I loved the way that rode and looked and it was that same car also used to run the HARD Motorsport wheels, so in my mind it was a fitting full circle journey.
For the E36 I opted for Air Lift Performance’s 3H control system. It uses individual height sensors at each corner to level the ride height, even if you have passengers or an uneven load in the car – something really important when you’re looking to get the wheels millimetre close to the metal arch work. It’s also really simple to install; if you’re able to wire an aftermarket head unit or amplifier, you’ll be able to wire a 3H or 3P in.
I really enjoy how ‘OEM’ the parts and pieces of the Air Lift Performance control system are. I’ve never really been into show-style installations and prefer to integrate the controller into the original cabin in a more sympathetic way. The black tones and tactile buttons will look almost factory in the E36 cabin. Likewise, the height sensors are finished in a way that they won’t look out of place nestled in the arches. Plus, the packaging and unboxing experience will never get old. It’s a real treat.
Along with the control system, Air Lift Performance threaded body struts join the party. These struts are strong, durable and include a surprising amount of adjustment. For the E36, both camber and castor is available on the front top mounts. It’ll allow for a really precise setup, great for both geometry and placing the wheel in the right place to work with tight clearances. The height of the bag is also adjustable to tweak the drop height, ride pressure and ‘air up’ extension that is possible. That’s before you get onto the adjustable dampers. You can check out the features of the E36 threaded body kit in more detail here.
This is a place where engineering to achieve a certain look completely ties in with engineering to achieve a driving experience. Air Lift Performance’s slogan is ‘Drive it. Show it. Track it.’ and that’s exactly what this product allows you to do. If I can setup this E36 correctly, there’s no reason I can’t enjoy an STW-level ride height in complete comfort on the street, then raise it a little for some light track use. Sure, it’s a car with a leather interior – not one that’s been stripped out and caged – but for me, all cars must drive well. Even stance cars. You never know when your track car could spring a leak or have an issue just days before a track day and you’re headed to the track in a road car. This E36 should represent the ultimate ‘do it all’ fun car.
Before that though, there’s a considerable amount of metalwork to tackle. The STW cars featured tubbed inner arches in order to accommodate the regulation wheels and tyres. On this E36 I’m going to split the rear quarter panel skins and push them as high as possible before pinning them back together. The rear bumper must also be modified for the tyre to slip behind, and the top of the outer arch radius needs to be beaten out to create the STW bubble. This bubble is the most important part as it allows for the wheel rim to move up, way past the arch lip under compression. The image below is the 255/35R18 at ride height. Compare it to the earlier test-fit image where the arch lip sat on the tyre; it’s about 3-inches lower and spins freely.
It may look a little uncouth with the hammer marks in the outer panel, but it takes some considerable force to split the skins in order to cleanly create the room for the wheel. At least that’s my excuse. Im not a metalworker by trade that’s for sure, but I’m open to tips in the comments. Hopefully I haven’t upset too many bodywork experts.
The front arches also require a lot of work to get enough space to roll low. Luckily there’s a few tricks up my sleeve.
I’d focussed so intensely on the rear of the car that I almost forgot the front would be a challenge. I’m opting to clear for the larger 225 (front) and 255 (rear) tyres so I’m able to drop down a tyre size to 215/35 and 245/35 and be able to gain space to drive.
As I type these words I’m sat on a laptop looking over at my creation smiling, knowing that soon it’s going to be time to get it off the jack stands and roll at an impossible height.
This is car joy in it’s purest form. I know where I want to get, I don’t know how to get there, but I’m enjoying finding my way.
This story was brought to you in association with Air Lift Performance, an official Speedhunters Supplier