Welt-Built Machine - S54-Swapped BMW E36 M3 Sedan
For Narek Isayan, late-90s European touring car racing and his father influenced his desire for the M3–that’s why he went with this 1997 BMW E36 M3 Sedan.
“I purchased the vehicle in late 2017,” Narek Isayan, founder of Garage Welt, recounted about his 1997 BMW M3 E36 Sedan, “Since I was 14 years old, I lurked Bimmerforums, essentially replacing any reading I did in school. Many original forum members influenced me towards the E36 chassis over others at the time. I also remember watching Dado’s Yellow E36 M3 videos online as well as reading the DTMpower forum when it was around.” There was also a family influence in his purchase of a BMW—after immigrating here to the US in the late 1980's, his father was involved in the automotive industry; first as a gas station mechanic and eventually buying and selling cars. His favorite car was the BMW E30 and has owned many since moving here.
Isayan’s first car was a BMW E36 M3, taking three summers to work and earn the money to purchase an Alpine White version before moving on to a Dakar Yellow Coupe on top of owning and selling an E28, E30, E34, a 2002, and an E46 M3. He had finally sold the Dakar E36 for his and his father’s favorite, the E30 M3. Even with the purchase of this highly sought-after car of the 3-series enthusiasts, he never forgot that first car he lusted for–the E36 M3. So, in 2017, Narek purchased one just before it became too expensive and turned it into the sedan you see before you now.
The E36 is notable as it was the first 3-series to offer an M3 version in a sedan and was the only chassis to do that until the E90-series in 2007. There would be sedan versions of the M until the F8-generation as BMW began the separation of coupe and sedans on to separate but similar platforms. This made the F80 M3 sedan-only, as the coupe/convertible versions were built on the F82 (coupe) and F83 (convertible) 4-series chassis, creating the M4. It would also go along confusing people to this day by saying their M4 is a coupe, but their M3 is a sedan.
Another significant change from the E30 M3 was the use of a six-cylinder engine over a racy inline-four-cylinder like the 2.3-liter S14. Which was great, this meant the E36 was making more power and torque at lower RPMs with the S50B30. There was only one problem with the E36 M3 here in the US: we didn’t get the better version offered in Europe and most of the world where it was sold. We initially got the S50B30US, a US and Canada only engine and it was the same displacement at 2,990cc but made 240-horsepower. It was 42-horsepower less than the S50B30 and what made it different was that it had a lower compression ratio. It was more like a standard M50B25TU than it was an S50B30, but B30US did use a different crankshaft, connecting rods, and pistons.
Then, in 1996, BMW upgraded the S50 to the S50B32 and its 321-horsepower. However, they also decided, once again, that we still couldn’t have the better, more powerful engine. Instead, we got the S52 which was essentially an M52 (including the iron block) but had a single VANOS–BMWs take on camshaft timing, on the intake camshaft. It also differs from the M52 with a bore of 86.4mm and a stroke of 89.6mm to make the displacement 3,152cc with a 10.5:1 compression. Despite that, it still only made 240 horsepower at 6000 RPM, 326lb-ft of torque at 3800 RPM, and had a 7000 RPM redline (only 50 horsepower, .3 compression, and 500 RPM more than the regular M52).
That’s why it’s not unusual to find E36 M3s with engine swaps or turbo kits, which is what's been done here in Isayan’s sedan. Instead of going with something radical like shoving in a BMW S-series V8, an LS-swap, or even installing a turbo kit on the original engine, Isayan went with something a little more practical but still BMW. He went with the S54B32 from the E46 M3 from Bimmerheads, LLC in Santa Clarita, CA. This swap bumps the power up to 333 horsepower and 262 lb-ft of torque for the US version of the engine.
That’s not enough, though, as the engine has seen some tweaking. First up was installing a set of catless exhaust manifolds to free up some airflow out of the cylinder head. This is followed up by a Bimmerheads test pipe that goes into a rare HKS Klasse Catback Exhaust System.
Up top is a K&N 57-Series Intake but other than that, the engine is still stock. The ECU (called by BMW’s name of Digital Motor Electronics or DME), though, is a E46 M3 unit that’s been tuned by Kassel Performance to eliminate the Mass Air Flow (MAF) Sensor by converting it to a CSL-version and uses a Manifold Absolute Pressure (MAP) Sensor, allowing the larger intake kit to be fitted without issue.
Using a MAP Sensor means, instead of reading air density via measuring the mass flow rate as air flows through the intake tube, it reads the pressure inside the intake manifold, and the DME uses a look-up table with the Intake Air Temperature (IAT) Sensor to determine air density and the engine’s air mass flow rate. The advantage is that you remove a restriction placed in by using the MAF sensor, which is done because the diameter of the MAF sensor tube must be a fixed size.
If you increase the diameter of the tube, you change how the heated element cools, which is how the DME knows how much air flows through. Heating and cooling wire changes its resistance and, if you know the resistance with the diameter of tube you use as part of the MAF sensor and use of your IAT Sensor, you know the mass of air that is flowing into your engine rather than relying on a lookup table. This is important because air density changes with temperature, humidity, barometric pressure, and altitude among other factors.
It doesn’t mean one is necessarily better than the other and many engines do use both sensors, but either way, they only provide an open-loop (prediction) control for the DME. For proper, closed-loop control and constant correction, the oxygen sensors (either a single sensor on each manifold or as a pre-cat sensor, the second O2 sensor past the catalytic converter is a catalyst efficiency sensor) tell the DME what changes to make by following a predetermined Air/Fuel ratio (AFR) and adjusting fuel and/or spark timings of the engine. VANOS control is also another added adjustment by the DME to correct AFR.
The S54's fuel system is handled by a Walbro 255LPH fuel pump, which can send fuel flowing in at 255 liters-per-hour at 43psi of line pressure as its name implies.
Aiding with engine cooling, an oil cooler sits behind the updated grille. Both are more than enough for this S54 to handle and makes it ready for future upgrades if any will be done. As I'm sure many of you know, once you start, it’s quite hard to stop tinkering.
The whole idea of the S54 swap was influenced by enthusiasts he met during high school, “The S54 swap was something I knew I wanted to do when I first purchased the car,” said Isayan, “Back in high school, around 2006 to 08, I made friends with local enthusiasts who owned a shop, and they were swapping E36 M3 engines into E30s. The idea of the car, being a canvas for me and essentially a puzzle I can take apart and put together any way I wanted, fascinated me. I’ve been devoted to the chassis for more than half of my life.”
The chassis is what truly makes this into his touring car. At least by feel. The front and rear suspension use ST Suspensions XTA coilovers, which features ride height adjustment through the threaded sleeve on the body, camber adjustment by the adjustable spring plate, and adjustable damping control. The XTA uses KW Suspensions pistons, sealing, and valving as ST is a division of KW.
Just as important as handling properly, you need to stop properly, and this E36 uses Porsche Brembo calipers with E46 M3 rotors being clamped by Textar brake pads. This is done to both the front and rear axles thanks to Stainless Rally Road brackets and brake lines. These live behind a set of BBS LM E36 wheels–a period correct wheel–wrapped in 235/40R17 tires all around.
Of course, you need the look of a 90s touring car, too. So, for this E36, only an OEM BMW E36 GT Front Aero kit would work. This is matched by a set of OEM BMW LTW High Rise spoiler risers. The headlights are glass versions of the E36 European Ellipsoids while the rear has period correct “Euro” clear corners.
Inside retains that M-feel of luxury and performance with some hints of Isayan’s style in the Garage Welt tailored Momo steering wheel attached to the hub adaptor with ARP Hardware.
Instead of the traditional leather-wrapped shift knob that you find in most E36s, Narek opted for a round white Delrin Rennstall shift knob with holes drilled out on the sides to give the car a more updated, racy feel. The Rennstall knob is mated to an AKG chassis mounted short shifter for quick, precise gear changes.
The front seats are the E36 M3 Coupe “Vader” versions that match with the rears. Yes, in case you’re new to the BMW scene, these are called this because their headrests and upper portion of the seat back looks much like the helmet of the Darth Vader.
The best thing about these highly sought after Vader seats is the fact that they seamlessly match the look of the rear seats as if the front seats were in the car from the factory.
To work with the S54, a BMW Z3 M Coupe Gauge Cluster is used instead of the E36 version. This was done as it communicates with the K-Bus signals the DME sends out for many of the components like the oil temperature gauge, cruise control indicator, low oil level, and many other important warning lights, messages, and functions.
While this E36 has been years in the making and planned out, it might not stay the same. In a way, change has always been planned, “The plans honestly haven’t changed,” Narek said, “However, it is always a canvas for me. I just got new wheels again and installed my 90s period correct aftermarket taillights that I’ve been hoarding for a different look. Even though I could stop tinkering–because the car doesn’t need anymore–I wouldn’t be content. I’m planning more ways to make the chassis bespoke.”
The only real regret he has in building the M3 Sedan to this point is that he didn’t document it. “I was planning my wedding at the same time and completed the swap a few weeks before it. So, the main goal was to get the car running and driving as soon as possible. I always wished I had someone holding a camera with their hands on the record button, just for the memories to glance back to–you know?”
The car, for Narek Isayan, is the achievement he’s always aimed for. It’s not about setting lap times, winning show awards, or anything of those sorts. It’s about taking a car and making it into his art piece though it’s more like a puzzle at most times, “With that focus in play,” Isayan says, “I wanted to do as much to it as I could while keeping the interior, driveline, body, and other parts ‘clean.’ That’s a bad word to describe it. I just didn’t want it to look or feel like a puzzle that was thrown together with a bunch of mismatching pieces. Or just to mod the car for the sake of modding the car. When you drive in the car, it gives a special feeling.”
“It takes me to a happier place, every time I drive it,” he closes, “I drive it daily and, to me, that’s the biggest achievement I can have.”
Story by Justin Banner
Photos by Antonio Alvendia
Written By: Antonio Alvendia
FCP Euro Content Producer and Sharpshooter Antonio Alvendia is an aficionado of cameras, rare wheels and die cast cars. He got the bug for European car culture by taking photo trips to automotive museums and racetracks in the UK, Germany, France, Belgium, and Italy... and began buying E39 BMW wagons shortly thereafter. Now he is making plans to achieve a bucket list goal of shooting the Nurburgring 24H race. ••• Instagram : @antoniosureshot