I Will Regret Turning My BMW M3 Into a Rally Car

To the previous owner, I promise I’m not driving around on your plates. This is an old picture from when I first brought the car back.
Image: Justin Westbrook/Jalopnik

Like any form of racing worth competing in, rally requires dedication, some skill, and most important of all, deep pockets. Or, at least some willingness to take all of your money and watch it disappear down some dusty logging road. I love the sport, but I’m truly struggling with that last thing.

Image: Aaron Brown/Jalopnik
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I bought my 1995 BMW E36 M3 just a few weeks ago. As it sits currently, it’s a track car. It has a bolt-in half-roll cage, pricey coilovers, hardcore bushings, upgraded control arms, and almost all the fun stuff that you’d hope would help you get around a corner faster.

I can’t be happy with that, because clearly something wrong with me. Precisely what, I’m not entirely sure.

But what I do know is that, sometime between now and when I got the car, I mostly convinced myself that to be truly satisfied—and to finally put the race gear that’s been wasting away in my closet to use—I would need to make it a rally car. The thing is, I just can’t help but feel like that’s a bad idea.

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To compete in a stage rally in America under what’s now the top-level sanctioning organization, the American Rally Association, you need a proper roll cage, FIA-approved race seats, certified race harnesses, fire extinguishers, and a boatload of other safety equipment. While all that stuff is very important and smart, it’s also very expensive.

Let me break it down. I’ve probably asked around a dozen people about cage pricing, and the most reasonable price I’ve gotten from someone with rally cage building experience was $2,900. In case you were curious, I paid $4,000 for the car. So far, I’ve also spent around $1,000 on the cheapest FIA-approved race seats I could buy and SFI-certified race safety harnesses. And let’s estimate another $500 to $1,000 for the rest of the equipment that’s required just to pass technical inspection.

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Oh, and I haven’t even gotten into all the suspension, tires, skid plates, and spare parts that you need for rally, or even the hundreds of dollars of entry fees each event costs.

Sure, once the car is built and I’m out on a stage enjoying it, it’ll all feel worth it. But while out on that stage, the whole car could become virtually worthless in a moment quicker than a Thanos finger snap.

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Just last weekend at the Southern Ohio Forest Rally, this beautiful and fresh E36 rally car went from this:

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To this:

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(You can see how it all went wrong here.)

It was the driver Michael Cessna’s first rally! He just finished building the car, according to his Instagram. And I, well, don’t want that to be me.

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But you know what, it’s rally. Stuff happens. If you’re going to get into the sport, you need to learn to accept that a bunch of that money you just spent, could go away in a flash. You could start out on any stage and have your car not make it to the other end, and you better hope it’s just a mechanical issue.

My RX and co-driver Brian Silvestro of Oppositelock at New England Forest Rally 2017.
Image: Aaron Brown
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I’ve competed in one stage rally so far. It was back in 2017 at New England Forest Rally in a 1987 Subaru RX which I bought in almost completely stage-ready condition. Somehow, without a crew (except for the spriteful Bill Caswell spontaneously mentoring me onsite), I managed to finish the two-day event without issue—no mechanical problems and no offs. But that was different—that wasn’t a rear-wheel-drive M3. The RX had half the horsepower, double the drive wheels, and had already been shaken down on a handful of stage rallies before I got my hands on it.

Building and rallying this M3, as someone who is still a novice even with years of rallycross, track, and autocross experience, but just a sliver of stage time, could end poorly. It could even end poorly if I was a factory WRC driver. That’s just rally.

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Look, whatever. It’s not that I’m afraid of wasting money on a car. I’ve done that countless times before. I’m just afraid of wasting $10,000 on a car. But I guess some risks are just worth taking. I just have to keep reminding myself of that.

Image: Justin Westbrook/Jalopnik
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About the author

Aaron Brown

ex Jalopnik car boy, former social media editor.