A mid-week family trip to Washington D.C.’s National Zoo in my ‘98 M3 sedan, Project Concord, was the final straw. The tired set Bilstein Sport struts and H&R Sport springs were not conducive to comfortable road trips. While I do enjoy the tried-and-true Bilstein and H&R setup in my other vehicles, it was no longer working out well on this E36 for a number of reasons, mostly due to very little front suspension travel before engaging the bump stops. A constant crash-bang-boom could be felt (and heard) on roads with only minor dips or imperfections in the pavement.
So, after my kids and I got home from our zoological adventure that evening, per the recommendation of numerous E36 M3 drivers, I called TC Kline Racing and picked their brain about their E36 Single-Adjustable (SA) coilovers. Not only did I get to speak with a “real” person, I got to speak with “the guy” behind these suspensions, TC. I asked which spring rates to choose for a primarily street-driven vehicle, what front and rear mounts to use, what rebound settings were recommended for the Koni shocks for specific types of driving, and a myriad of other questions about adjustable coilover suspensions in general.
That Friday, only two days after placing the order, the new suspension was delivered to my doorstep. I was excited to install a coilover suspension, adjustable both in ride height and shock rebound, that would allow me to dial the M3’s suspension just to my liking. Wasting no time, on Saturday my daughter Avery and I knocked out the installation in our garage, as my ‘91 318iS looked on with jealousy (because the E36 M3 has been getting the majority of the attention within the past thirteen months).
Based on my math, with only three bolts per side in the rear (two upper shock mounts and one lower per shock), and only seven bolts per side in the front (three strut-to-hub bolts, three upper strut-mount-to-tower bolts, and one sway bar bolt), there were only 22 bolts in total. How long could it actually take to swap the new parts with the existing suspension?
Well, it took about three-and-a-half hours. The rear installation went quickly, while the front was a bit more involved. I opted to raise the M3’s ride height a bit—about a half-inch higher than the previously installed Bilstein and H&R setup—though there was plenty of room for adjustment to go higher (or lower) if desired. An included sheet of alignment recommendations and damper settings informed me that I should set the Konis at a quarter turn past full soft for a family-friendly street-oriented ride.
Not even thirty minutes after Avery and I wrapped up the installation and left the garage a mess of tools and old suspension parts, we had a dinner date with extended family in Washington D.C. Could there be a more perfect test of the new suspension? I took the car for a quick test drive around the block on an eye-balled alignment, and after a quick shower, my wife, son, Avery, and I piled into the M3 with a course set for the city. Avery and I were both excited to experience the fruits of our labor.
Did it work out? I’m happy to report that when we arrived in D.C., Avery exclaimed, “Dad, I’m not even car sick!” The new ride quality also gained the approval of my wife and son, so that’s actually saying something. Rob Seigel joked, “Ya know, I would never have thought to put ‘coilovers’ and ‘just drove the whole family’ in the same sentence.” I’ve been right there with him in that sentiment in the past, but these made me a believer that adjustable coilovers could be made to provide both the Jekyll and Hyde of handling, with the simple turn of a dial (or two dials if you opt for a double-adjustable set, allowing for tuning for both rebound and compression).
Serving as a little bonus or reward, on the way home from our D.C. excursion, the M3 rolled over 250,000 miles.
We weren’t done with this suspension adventure quite yet, though. Shortly after wrapping up the installation, I realized the camber/caster plates (the fully adjustable top mounts on the front struts used to customize camber and caster settings), had shipped assembled on opposite sides. The camber plate labeled “driver’s side” was on the passenger-side strut and vice versa. It would’ve been fine to run these as-is, but to get the proper range of camber and caster adjustment (and calm my inner OCD), I wanted to swap them to their recommended sides.
So, the week before New Years, I headed over to Bimmer Werks in Beltsville, Maryland where my friend, shop owner, and Master Technician Amr ALkhateeb and I made the camber/caster plate swap. This involved disassembling the front struts, swapping the camber/caster plates to their labeled sides, and reinstalling everything.
Bimmer Werks had a number of other E36s present, including Amr’s first BMW, a 318ti that is undergoing a full restoration and S54-swap. Amr’s ‘98 M3 sedan race car was receiving a new race seat and fire suppression system. There was also a Dakar Yellow E36 M3 convertible with matching hardtop that just received a new head gasket, and will soon receive a manual transmission swap. Like wagons? How about Amr’s S52-swapped M3-converted E36 Touring? Amr’s S54-powered clown shoe (technically an E36/8) and custom Daytona Violet E46 M3 served as the icing on the cake. Yes, Amr has excellent taste.
BMW CCA member and track addict Mike Cole, who was also present at Bimmer Werks and working on BMW-related projects, took a break and performed an alignment. Once we got my M3 on the alignment rack, we realized the minimum camber we could achieve with the camber plates on their intended sides was about -3.0 degrees—great for the track, but a bit aggressive for the street. After chatting with TC of TC Kline Racing again, and picking the internet’s hive mind, the best course of action would be to swap the camber plates back one more time, giving the front suspension a more street-able range of camber adjustment.
Sometimes you can’t help but laugh at yourself. Wasn’t I just writing about Short and Sweet Garage Sessions a few weeks ago? And now I’d be taking this suspension apart for the third time within a two-week period, putting it back to the way it was shipped to me, which was evidently the way that would’ve worked best for my application. I have a knack for not leaving well enough alone. As the previous owner of this M3 Taylor Ward joked, “It sounds like it’s not a job unless you do it three times.” So, that’s exactly what I did. A week later, I took the M3’s front suspension apart again in my garage and swapped the camber plates.
Given that I had royally affected Mike Cole’s recent wheel alignment by taking things apart again, a few days later on my way to work I stopped by RRT Automotive in Sterling, Virginia for them to set me (and my wheels) straight. RRT Technician Billy Kennard performed a wheel alignment, setting camber to -1.7 degrees (in addition to setting toe) both front and rear. This would be great for spirited drives while still saving tires from excessive inner tire wear on road trips.
Driving to work after the alignment was wonderful. It was one of those mornings where everything in my automotive world was in harmony. In addition to the suspension performing just how I wanted, the engine pulled strongly, the transmission shifted smoothly, and the interior was a very pleasant place to be. It was therapeutic.
I’ve enjoyed the last 400 miles of pleasure driving this M3 over the holiday break and into the new year. The TC Kline SA coilovers have surpassed my expectations and I no longer hear complaints from my wife or kids when I suggest we take our M3 on a family outing. I also no longer grit my teeth when I see an upcoming bump or dip in the road. Sure, I probably could’ve achieved an equally comfortable ride with a basic spring and adjustable shock combo, but being able to set my own ride height, shock rebound, and pick my own spring rates allowed me to really dial in and accomplish my suspension goals for this car. And given the fact I was planning to refresh nearly everything anyway, the price difference between these two options wasn’t drastic.
With “Address E36 M3 Suspension” checked off my to-do list, it’s time to move onto the next project. The M3’s front passenger door does need to be repainted due to a failing clear coat. Perhaps it’s time to learn how to do some bodywork and paint. —Mike Bevels