Story and Photos by Zach Mayne
As a kid growing up just outside of Detroit, Michigan Britt Vail was exposed to car culture at a young age. “I’m originally from Brighton, Michigan just 30 minutes outside of Detroit,” he says. “I spent most weekend nights playing on Woodward Avenue and Gratiot Avenue.” For those who don’t know, Woodward is in many ways the spiritual birthplace of the American auto industry. Henry Ford built his first car a few blocks off of the famous street and to this day the annual Woodward Dream Cruise pulls in huge crowds and up to 30,000 cars.
Being around the American muscle car culture celebrated for nearly a century on Woodward certainly had an influence on Britt. And as a longtime car enthusiast he’s gone on to own a wide variety of four and two-wheeled vehicles. Everything from American muscle by way of a ’68 Pontiac GTO to an assortment of Hondas, Subarus, VWs and a few others he’s forgotten about have passed through his garage. Considering the current extreme state of his 1995 M3 coupe, it’s also not surprising that he says he has a “problem with modifying” his cars. Based on the results showcased with his outrageous looking E36, we’d say it’s far from a problem and more like a blessing.
Britt originally found the M3 for sale in North Dakota in March 2011. At the time, he wasn’t anywhere near North Dakota, where he lived with his wife. Instead, he was half way around the world, stationed at Combat Outpost Sanchez in Eastern Afghanistan. When he didn’t have his hands full working as a communications specialists at the remote outpost, Britt generally spent his free time doing one of two things: working out at the gym or surfing the Internet in the MWR (Morale, Wellness and Recreation) tent.
It was during one of those web surfing sessions that he came across an immaculate 1995 M3 that was for sale in Fargo, ND, which is about 4.5-hours away from his home in Minot, ND. According to the seller, the back seats of the BMW had never been sat in and the car had been stored in a heated garage in Fargo for it’s entire life. Britt reached out to the owner and expressed interest in purchasing it. Before long he had sent the seller a $500 deposit with the agreement that he would pick up the car once he returned to the States from his deployment. The seller even agreed to hold the car for four months, when Britt would be returning to the U.S.
Four months after buying the M3, Britt landed back on North American soil. Another month passed before the weather was nice enough to make the trip down to Fargo and drive the car home. Despite having bought the car sight unseen and having never driven an E36 M3, he was immediately happy with his new purchase. “On the very first drive from Fargo back to Minot, I was instantly impressed with the car and glad I made the decision to buy it.” In the process he would be selling on his 240SX project, knowing the E36 was going to be upgraded as well, though to the extent of which he still wasn’t sure. “E36’s aren’t known for their power but the cornering sure makes up for it,” he says. “I know some people see the appeal of a BMW is just owning the name, but I look at it more as having a higher quality car to play with.”
Thanks to the fact that E36 M3s have been in the U.S. since 1995 there are a plenty of ways to go about improving their performance and plenty of companies selling go-fast parts. “The original goal behind the build was to have a fast and fun street car that I could take to autocrosses and road courses on the weekend,” says Britt. The naturally aspirated approach can add power to an S50 or S52 with upgrades like hotter camshafts, free-flow exhausts and other bolt-ons. But to get really big power from these engines, which are already pretty well maximized from the factory, forced induction is generally the path of least resistance.
In this case, the solution would end up coming from a supercharger. “I ended up ordering the Stage 2 supercharger kit and full header-back exhaust from Active Autowerk,” says Britt. “I decided to go with the supercharger kit over a turbo to have a better power range without suffering from lag.” Active Autowerke claims an increase from the stock S50’s 240-hp to an impressive over 400-hp figure, an amount that Britt figured would keep him happy, at least for a while.
Once the kit arrived, he installed the setup himself in his garage. “The installation instructions were fairly well written and included pictures,” he notes. The conversion to forced induction is centered around the HKS 8550 centrifugal supercharger, which is lubricated by an external oil cooler with a remote reservoir. There is also an air-to-air intercooler for added cooling of incoming air. The kit also includes a recirculating blow-off valve, larger and better flowing 440-lb fuel injectors and a Walbro 255 in-tank fuel pump to feed the larger injectors. Britt didn’t stop with the supercharger kit and also opted for an Active Autowerke header, track pipe and dual-tip“Signature” muffler. With the exception of a thermostat that opens at a lower temperature, things have been kept stock in the cooling system, a setup that he says works just fine. The only change to the gearbox was replacing the OEM lubricant with Royal Purple transmission fluid. On the driver’s end is a UUC short shift kit.
“I’ve done all of the work so far, minus the bodywork,” says Britt, who was transferred to Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico a few years ago and where he has continued improving the BMW’s performance. Paint and bodywork being the somewhat black art that it is, the M3 was handed over to Superior Customs in Albuquerque, New Mexico. A set of fender flares from DTM FiberWerkz were installed and painted body color. In reality, the process wasn’t that simple and required extensive reworking by the bodyshop in order for them to fit properly. A fiberglass vented hood from MA Shaw replaced the stock hood while the bottom of the already aggressive stock front bumper gained a deeper lip from Reiger. There are also blacked out ECS Tuning kidney grills and fog lights that have been tinted with yellow Lamin-X. Britt also went to the trouble of sourcing a set of the glass headlights that Euro-spec E36 M3s were equipped with and that hold up far better than the plastic U.S.-spec headlights. Towering over the trunk is an MA Shaw E36 M3 Lightweight-style wing.
With the fenders considerably flared, Britt shopped around for the ideal wheel. The solution came via a set of Varrstoen ES8 wheels that measure 18x9.5-inches up front and a generous 18x10.5-inches at the rear. These were powder-coated in “Burst Bronze” before being wrapped in Yokohama AD08R tires. The wheels are held on with an extended lug conversion. The brakes are basically stock, though the U.S.-spec rotors have been replaced with Euro-spec M3 floating rotors.
With track days and weekend canyon carving in mind, Britt installed a set of KW V2 coilovers, allowing the optimal ride and handling to be dialed in. Vorschlag camber plates allow the front camber to be adjusted easily. There are also Rogue Engineering rear shock mounts and rear camber arms.
The S50 under the vented hood fires with a muted burble. Considering that it’s running a complete Active Autowerkes exhaust from the header back it sounds surprisingly civilized. In a straight line it’s a given that the M3 is pretty quick, pushing the occupants firmly back in the seats as the car rockets forward under a wave of supercharged boost while the S50 lets out a fantastic straight-6 howl. And unlike some forced induction engines that have lower compression ratios and therefore don’t feel as sharp, this M3 still has that terrific throttle response of a stock S50. It’s just backed up by a lot more power. Since superchargers come in at lower RPMS and are generally more progressive than turbo motors, power delivery feels more like a larger, powerful NA engine. I’ve driven numerous BMWs with Active Autowerkes superchargers and whether it’s an E46, E92 or an E36 like this one, they never disappoint, with a linear power delivery that simply build on the already excellent starting point.
The second generation M3s came with some of the best steering available at the time. And S36 M3s still offer impressive experience from behind the wheel, with a spot-on combination of lightness, directness and feedback. Minimal input is needed to move the car around corners, which in turn makes it even easier to carve up a winding road with confidence.
While the M3’s power is impressive in this relatively light car, it’s the shear amount of grip that is the standout element of the driving experience. Not being my car, I didn’t do anything too extreme, but around every corner I took the BMW just stuck to the asphalt like glue thanks to the extra-wide R-rated Yokohamas. With the change to a far larger contact patch over stock, one observation would be that the chassis loses a bit of that fine adjustability that is a high point of a stock or lightly modified E36 M3. Despite the substantial changes to the suspension and tire setup though, the BMW still retains a neutral chassis feel, with neither speed rubbing understeer or oversteer on the way out of corners. And despite the brakes being near stock, they still do a fine job of slowing the car for corner.
Long-term goals for Britt and his M3 include the possibility of entering the car in the challenging Pikes Peak International Hillclimb in Colorado, albeit with the car in a far more extreme state of tune than it’s currently in. He's already purchased an LS1 V8, so watch this space for an update on this radical BMW.