In the last Project STW instalment, I introduced you to the thinking behind this project, where the idea came from, and a little inspiration for the finished product.
Almost six months has passed since then, which seems insane. 2020 flew by in the blink of an eye, but my E36 build has continued to develop.
I had intended for this to be a summer build: think relaxing evenings outside with a beer, shaping arches and listening to music. The reality quickly became dark evenings, cold weather and icy rain. Luckily for me, my inactivity on the project coincided with purchasing a Volkswagen Transporter, complete with period awning, which made for an ideal makeshift workshop.
You’ll notice I do have a workshop, but that was stuffed to the rafters with other project parts and a 996 partially dismantled. Whoever said juggling multiple projects was easy was lying.
I’ve installed a number of Air Lift Performance systems in the past and learned a few tricks along the way, so I was keen to keep the E36 system simple and robust. My E39 Alpina B10 utilised a system with two tanks, two compressors and multiple water traps, and it was absolutely reliable throughout the time I used it. So I was curious to see if I could replicate that reliability on a smaller scale for Project STW.
This time I used a single compressor, single tank, and Air Lift Performance’s 3H, height-sensing, management. Interestingly, the 3H manifold can be configured for use as 3P (pressure sensing) to get you up and running, and the height sensors can be installed later. This makes it really easy to get your car on air, check for leaks, and then upgrade the management once you’re happy.
As with all suspension installs, the key to a good air installation is attention to detail. Cutting all the lines square, running wiring without chaffing, and taking care is paramount. I decided to base the install on an MDF board in the spare wheel well. Installing air isn’t much more difficult than a basic audio installation and well within the capabilities of most home enthusiasts.
The boot build required some rolling around on the ground, so I moved into the workshop. My install utilises the factory carpet and the lines are run alongside the brake lines under the car. Brake or fuel lines are a good route to copy as they are usually very well isolated from danger.
Aside from the controller tucked under the armrest, the only visual clue for it being on Air Lift Performance are the red camber top mounts under the bonnet.
You’ll notice in the system layout image a bit further up that I have made the air ‘climb’ up out of the tank into the water trap, and the Air Lift Performance manifold is raised in relation to the tank outlet. This is an important detail and is an effort to try and limit the amount of water that makes its way into the manifold through the compressed air.
If you’ve ever used air tools with a poor water trap you’ll know how damaging moisture in air lines can be. A dry manifold is a happy manifold and periodic emptying of the water trap and tank will mean a long service life. It’s something people often miss but is outlined in the Air Lift Performance installation booklet. Air Lift Performance supply instructions for the bags, struts and the management, and it’s great to have vehicle-specific tips to guide you along the way, even if you’re an experienced installer.
I was unsure whether to drill and grommet the wheel well of the E36, but after some research I found that people were having success with bulkhead fittings. This allowed me to mount the air lines high against the body of the car and out of the way of the rear differential and driveshafts. Any break in the air line is a risk of leakage, so as a rule of thumb I try and keep them in one piece, but these fittings solved more problems than they created for me. After testing they seem to hold air very well, which is nice.
With the air installation complete I was able to drive the car and make final adjustments to the wheel arches. It’s important for me that the ride height is as low as possible in order to keep the STW look alive. As soon as you raise the car too high, that look is totally lost.
Both the front and rear arches allow ample wheel clearance, even at full drop. It’s actually the chassis rails that limit vehicle movement while aired out, not the wheels touching the arches. This means it can be driven at any height, so long as it is marginally off the floor.
Of course, I’m not a professional bodywork expert. But I have been able to achieve a reasonable finish considering the force required to split the rear 1/4 skins, and create enough clearance for the car to roll as low as possible. I dread to think how long I spent with a hammer and dolly beating these arches to shape, but it’s definitely longer than any sane person should.
No prizes for guessing that I wasn’t going to attempt to paint it at home. I do have some limits. Luckily though, I have a good friend in Alex Wright from Vivid Vinyl. You’ll recognise his Mk1 Golf from this previous feature.
I’ve known Alex for what has got to be almost 15 years now, and it was great to come up with some ideas for this project together.
I’ve seen Alex produce some magic turnarounds with paint-like wrapping techniques, so I had high hopes for Project STW. It also looked pretty good in his unit, even in this pre-wrapped state.
This image gives a perspective on how low-slung the E36 is next to Alex’s Mk1. It’s funny to think that the wheel in the arch is 18 inches, which is basically where the end of the bonnet is. You really have to crouch to get into the engine bay on this car.
I think we’ve captured the STW spirit with this car, what do you think?
We recently posted a reel to the Speedhunters Instagram and it seemed like a lot of people completely missed the point of the project. This is about keeping an old car on the road, creating a new purpose for its life, and just enjoying creating a look.
Sometimes we forget that it’s not always about having 1,000bhp or $1,000,000 builds. Car culture is about personalisation, being inspired by others, and cracking on and creating something for yourself. Long live the grassroots, DIY, punk attitude.
If you’ve put something together yourself this year, show me in the comments, I’d love to see!
This story was brought to you in association with Air Lift Performance, an official Speedhunters Supplier