My 289,000-Mile M3’s First Autocross Did Not Go as Planned

Last summer I bought a 2002 BMW M3 with an incredible 284,000 miles on the clock. My goal was to get the car in good shape and use it as a daily driver for the foreseeable future. While the body was in fine condition, it needed a bunch of work underneath. I’ve replaced the suspension uprights, tires, tie-rods, and a whole bunch of other stuff since. Now it finally drives like an M3, but not everything is working as it should. I that found out at an autocross with the car last week.

I wanted to see just how much the new Bilsteins and Continental ExtremeContact Sports improved handling, so I signed up for one of Lime Rock Park’s autocross events. Unlike a normal autocross, Lime Rock’s program takes place on the track’s infield course, meaning you don’t have to spend half your day chasing knocked over cones. The course, called the FCP Euro Proving Grounds, has three different configurations, with the largest spanning over half a mile. It’s essentially just a small race track with gobs of grassy runoff and nothing to hit. It’s incredibly fun; if you’re nearby I highly recommend signing up.

So What Went Wrong?

I hoped to get in a full day of lapping with my M3, but it had other plans. It only took a few faster laps to get the oil temperature to spike to 250 degrees—far from ideal, especially since I wasn’t exactly pinning redline all that much. Coolant temps remained constant, thankfully, but I didn’t feel comfortable continuing to push the engine with the oil that warm. On my second session I tried doing the course in third gear rather than second, but it didn’t help much. That was it. I waited for the oil to cool, packed up, and left.

m3 project

The dial was at the white dot before I parked to take this photo.

Brian Silvestro

The culprit? Probably the oil cooler. It’s the original factory unit that’s been there since it left the dealership two decades ago, and it’s seen its fair share of debris impacts since. These coolers are known to degrade over time, so I’m not surprised it wasn’t working well. If you’ve been following this project, you’ll know I was experiencing similar oil temperature spikes on a fun back road drive with friends back in May, but it’s never been this bad before.

The upside is that the M3 drives way, way better on the limit than it used to. Even though I only got a handful of laps, it was easy to tell just how much the new parts have improved this car’s performance. The tire upgrade made an especially eye-opening change. Turn-in has improved dramatically, while corner speeds have jumped. There’s far more grip than before, making it easy to take advantage of the car’s inherent balance.

What Do You Plan to Do Now?

Doing any more performance oriented driving with this M3 will have to wait until I replace the oil cooler, obviously. What I still have to decide is whether to get an OEM cooler or something aftermarket. From my research online it seems this high-performance unit from CSF is the way to go. It has twice the capacity of the stock cooler and fits right into the factory location. It’s also less expensive than the genuine BMW part.

Beyond that I’d like to tackle a handful of bushings in the suspension I have yet to replace. Stay tuned.

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