There is always a good reason why petrolheads, especially the tuning side of the house, favor a certain car model. BMW E36 has always been a crowd favorite. It’s a relatively easy car to work on. More importantly, it’s the type of car that gives you a great return on your investment in the form of pure fun. One of the mods that many tuning oriented E36 owners like to perform is a steering system upgrade. If you were wondering how to this E36 steering upgrade, you’re in the right place as we’re about to get to take a very close look! Let’s begin.
Article updated on 09/20/21. Original publishing date, 06/24/19
Benefits of a E36 Steering Upgrade
“Modifying” means to change, personalize, and adjust. Technically, it’s a change made to a working system in an effort to get better performance out of said system.
The idea behind doing an E36 steering upgrade is simple — there are instances where reducing the amount of travel from lock to lock means more control over the car. Whether it’s racing, drifting or just “dynamic” street driving, a more direct steering rack allows you to steer your car with less effort. This economy of input is often an important part of setting up a track car.
That being said, upgrading the steering on an E36 comes down to carefully selecting your rack. Here are some of the options.
E36 Steering Rack Upgrade Options
There are two good steering rack options if you want more precise steering on your BMW E36. Most people first look into the Z3 non-M class steering racks. While they provide a very quick response with their 2.7 turns lock-to-lock, these are just too quick for a track car. If you were into drifting, the Z3 rack would be a solid choice.
Our idea was to get something that would be more direct than the stock rack, but still give us enough maneuvering space to be useful in a track day setup. We started looking at donor racks that came from a car that was similar in size to the E36.
One answer became more than obvious — BMW E46. However, we didn’t choose a run-of-the-mill E46 to be our donor. Instead, we tracked down an E46 ZHP steering rack with 3.0 turns lock-to-lock.
You can find a used one easily on many BMW models. On the 330i, the rack should have a yellow label with the number 712 at the end of its code, don’t look for a ZHP label.
BMW uses a steering coupler to ensure the transfer of movement from the steering shaft to the rack. The E36 steering system comes with a coupler that features a large rubber damper. This makes it great for steering comfort and noise reduction.
However, if you are going for a quicker steering mechanism, you probably are not looking for steering comfort. In this case, you should think about getting an E39 5-Series coupler. The solid metal mechanism (as seen on the image above) will help you feel more in control of your vehicle. This steering upgrade will allow your E36 to give you a better steering feedback from the wheels.
Here’s a rundown of parts you’ll need:
Steering coupler: 32311151454 (E28, E34, E24). These are not available new so one will have to be found used.
Steering reservoir: 32416851217
Tie rod boots: 32131096910
How to Upgrade the E36 Steering Rack
E36 steering upgrade is not an easy job to pull off since you have to remove the rack. However, it’s absolutely something you can do at home. All you need are the parts, the right tools and a go-get em attitude.
Speaking of parts, you should also replace your power steering fluid reservoir, crush washers and tie rod boots while upgrading the steering rack. You will also need 2 liters of power steering fluid since you will be flushing the system. If you already found a good condition ZHP rack and an E39 steering coupler, you are ready to begin the replacement procedure.
Step 1 — Jack Your Car Up & Drain the Steering Reservoir
Park on a level field. Chock your rear wheels and jack up your BMW’s front side. Place jack stands on each side before removing your wheels. Slide the wheels halfway under your car as a safety measure.
There are two ways to drain your steering fluid reservoir. You can either use a turkey baster to remove the fluid through the top cap, or you can remove the lower end of its hose and drain it into a pan. If you are replacing your reservoir, loosen the hose clamps on the bottom of the reservoir with a 6 mm socket and remove the 10 mm bolt from the clamp, it should come off.
Step 2 — Remove Tie Rod Ends
Turn your steering wheel to one side lock and your outer tie rods should be exposed. Cut the clamps off of the boot and slide them away.
Remove the 16 mm tie rod nut, and you should be able to separate it from the knuckle with a large screwdriver. Turn the steering wheel to the other side and repeat the process. Don’t forget to return the steering wheel in a straight position.
Step 3 — Remove the Steering Coupler & Steering Rack
Unscrew the 13 mm nut at the top, between the coupler and the steering column. Take the bolt off since it won’t let the rack be separated from the column because of the inside groove. E39 5-Series coupler bolt needs a bigger groove made on the column by using a Dremel.
Remove all the bolts from your steering rack. There should be two 10 mm bolts on the top that attach steering lines to the rack, place a pan to catch the power fluid, and remove them carefully.
Unscrew two 16 mm mounting bolts and your rack should be loose. You can pull it out.
Step 4 — Prepare Your New Parts
Attach your new E39 5-Series steering coupler to your new ZHP rack. There is a plastic tab with an arrow on the rack that should index with the gap in the coupler to make it easier. That arrow shows the center of the rack so if your steering wheel is straight, you can align it with that.
Step 5 — Install the Steering Coupler & Steering Rack
Hold the rack in place and attach the two 16 mm mounting bolts. Re-attach the steering lines with two 10 mm bolts and use new crush washers. Now you can attach the steering coupler to the column using the 13 mm nut on top.
Step 6 — Attach the Tie Rod Ends
If you are replacing them, now is a good time to take them off using a 22 mm wrench and count the turns because you need to use the same number of turns to tighten. Place the tie rod end back to the knuckle and tighten the 16 mm nuts on both sides. This is a good time to replace your boots. Always attach your boots using new clamps.
Step 7 — Attach the Reservoir & Lower Your Car
Re-attach the hoses for your reservoir and fill it with power steering fluid. If you replace your reservoir, tighten that 10 mm bolt in the clamp.
Jack the car up a little and remove your jack stands. Put on your wheels and lower your car. Turn your wheel side to side a couple of times to move the steering fluid through the system before you start your engine. If everything seems fine, you can go get your alignment done.
Where to Find Quality BMW Parts?
We explained why an E36 steering upgrade is a good idea if you are modifying your car. And we also showed you a great option when you are choosing a rack and how to install it. Even though you will need to find the steering rack used, you still need to find the other parts like the coupler, crush washers, and power steering fluid. You will also need a reservoir and tie rod boots if you are replacing them.
BMW always recommends you to use genuine or OEM quality parts, and it is not always easy to find them. Don’t worry, we can help you there! Just choose your car’s make and model from the drop-down menu at the top and check out the list containing only the right parts for your vehicle.