BMW 3-Series E36 Brake Upgrade using M3 Parts – The Big Performance Boost You’ve Needed

The E36 3-series was arguably one of the most agile cars of its generation. A great selection of motors made this model a true driver’s car and the go-to choice for track day junkies. Even though the E36 isn’t a heavy car per se, it still struggles a little with the factory brake setup. If you’re building a track car, an E36 brake upgrade is probably something you should be thinking about. There are several ways to do it using big brake kits. However, you can also salvage the brakes from an M3 and install that on your non-M E36. Here’s how.

Why the Brakes Upgrade?

New drivers who are just getting into autocross or just track day events are often looking to give their project cars more power. It only takes a few laps around the track before realizing that whatever factory brakes they run are not up to the challenge.

The idea behind upgrading brakes is simple — you’re gaining the ability to brake more aggressively much later in turn. Every corner can be broken down into the corner entry, the apex, and corner exit. Optimally, you want to brake as late as possible in the entry section of a corner but experience enough deceleration to hit the apex safely and power out of the corner.

In most cases, that requires upgrading your brakes since most stock brake systems are designed for economy rather than performance. The same applies to the E36 3-series. You have the option of going with an aftermarket big brake kit, which the market is full of. Or you can save a few bucks and get the brakes of an E36 M3 — which is what we did.

Old E36 Brakes BMW 3-Series E36 Brake Upgrade using M3 Parts - The Big Performance Boost You've Needed

E36 M3 Brake Calipers and Hardware Upgrade

If you were lucky enough to find an M3 donor you could borrow the front brakes from, you’re pretty much set to begin. Just in case, here’s the list of parts you’ll need.

  • M3 Spindles (from the donor car or junkyard)
  • M3 Caliper Hangers (make sure to get these with the spindles)
  • M3 Calipers
  • M3 Rotors (they are side dependent, so make sure to get the right ones)
  • New brake fluid (we recommend Motul high-performance fluids)
  • Optional: Wheel Bearings (the spindles you’ve sourced may not have the right ones)
  • Optional: New brake lines

Calipers: Plan a Rebuild or Buy New?

It’s no secret that E36 M3s and Z3s (which share the same caliper) are getting old. These cars have been around for a while, and if you’ve found a donor car, that means it has probably been sitting for a while before it was diced for parts.

There is a decent chance you’ll need to rebuild the calipers if you want them to be 100% up to snuff. Actually, a rebuild is a good idea, even if they seemingly look fine. Rebuilding brake calipers isn’t too hard if you have the right tools and all the right parts. One thing to keep in mind is that there’s always a risk of running into damaged pistons.

Depending on how the donor vehicle was driven and maintained, there could have been an ingress of debris into the caliper. If any dust, sand, or grime got in between the piston and the cylinder it sits in, the friction could have damaged the piston walls.

The alternative is purchasing new, genuine calipers. However, they are not cheap. You have to figure out which path you want to take. That being said, let’s get started with the upgrade.

E36 Brake Upgrade How-To Guide

Alright, to start things off, lift the vehicle and make sure it’s secure. Use jack stands and place chocks behind rear wheels just in case. Once the car is on the jack stands, give it a good shake to ensure everything is stable.

Step 1 – Disassemble Old Brakes

First thing first, we need to get rid of the old brakes. To get this done, start by disconnecting the caliper hanger. There are two bolts in the back of the caliper that attach the whole caliper assembly to the spindle.

You should be able to remove the caliper, pads, and hanger itself in one go. With the caliper hanging loose, use a zip tie or a piece of wire to hang it out of the way. This is especially important if you plan on reusing your brake lines. The last part of this step is disconnecting the wheel speed sensor. It’s located in the black box in the wheel well.

Step 2 – Remove the Old Spindle

With everything disconnected, you’re free to start working on removing the spindle. Start by removing the 19 mm bolt that is holding the ball joint in place as pictured above. With this bolt removed, get a ball joint separator and pry the ball joint free.

Once the ball joint is separated, the only thing holding the spindle in place are the three 18 mm bolts that connect the spindle to the strut. Start with the top bolt and work your way down. Once all the bolts are out, remove the old spindle.

E36 Ball Joint E36 Brake Upgrade How-To Guide

Step 3 – Install the New Hardware

Installing the hardware from the M3 begins with installing the M3 spindle. Check if your donor spindles have wheel bearings in them. If not, now is the time to install them. If everything is ready to go, start attaching the spindle to the strut by working on the top bolt first. That way, you can line up the rest, which will take some convincing on your part.

Brake swap Step 3 - Install the New Hardware

Next, slide the ball joint into the bottom of the spindle and tighten everything down with bolts. In case your spindle didn’t come with a wheel speed sensor, use the ones from your factory spindles. You’ll need Allen keys to complete the transfer.

Lastly, install the new rotors and insert the set screw. Take your new or rebuilt M3 calipers and bolt them onto the caliper hangers.

A small sidenote — try to use new rotors if possible. The old rotors from the donor car have probably been sitting out in the elements for too long. Additionally, you don’t know how well they were treated, whether they’re warped (it’s not always easy to tell. Using new rotors is a much better solution.

Brake swap Next, slide the ball joint into the bottom of the spindle and tighten everything down with bolts. In case your spindle didn't come with a wheel speed sensor, use the ones from your factory spindles. You'll need Allen keys to complete the transfer.

Step 4 – Brake Lines and Brake Fluid

The last step is to figure out what you want to do with your brake lines. If you’re reusing your old brake lines, use a flare nut wrench to loosen them from the old caliper and migrate them over to your newly installed hardware.

If you’re building a track day car, this is a perfect opportunity to install a set of new brake lines. You could even treat yourself and go with a set of braided brake lines. Either way, make sure to flush the old brake fluid and put in fresh, high-performance brake fluid. Bleed the brakes following the adequate procedure. Start with the rear right wheel, next do the rear left, then the front right, and lastly, the front left wheel.

M3 Brakes With Yellowstuff Brakepads

Find Quality Rotors, Pads, and Fluids for your E36

Selecting the right set of pads, rotors, and other hardware for your brakes can make a massive difference on the street and at the track. Here at, we carry a large assortment of brake system components for the BMW E36 3-series.

To get a complete list of parts, head over to our online store and select your vehicle from the drop-down menu. You’ll find an extensive list of Genuine BMW parts as well as quality OEM and aftermarket products for your car.

Posted in BMW, DIY How-To

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.