The 1990’s were a different time for German automakers. Touring car races had taught the manufacturers many tricks of the trade, therefore leading to more exciting and powerful road cars (see BMW ///M and Mercedes AMG). As the Bavarians kept upping the ante, they also began a civil war for sports sedan supremacy. With the E36 M3 riding the coattail of the fabled E30’s success, Mercedes stepped up to the plate with the car featured here; the C36 AMG. This Daimler product attested to the company’s skill and proved that it could hang with the top performance cars in the industry. All of this was enough for our friend Mike Johnson to embark on quite the unusual journey to create his ideal C36.
AMG is a company unlike many others. It was founded in 1967 by past Mercedes engineers Hans Werner Aufrecht and Erhard Melcher, both of which had a passion for motorsport. They began building race-engines for Benz and later developed a partnership with the German staple to manufacture road going performance versions of already existing Mercs. While AMG is now majorly owned by Mercedes, it was still considered an independent tuning company during the production of the C36. This meant that they had more creative license to build the car to their own taste. They began with a Benz sourced 2.8L straight six and bored it out…a lot. All the way to 3.6L, in fact. This alone increased power to noticeably higher numbers, giving the engine a broad torque band that is ever so obvious when driving the vehicle. Stopping ability was also at a premium as they used four piston brakes up front that originally came from the V12 SL600. This made for an exceptional starting point to Mike’s project. I mean, it does help to have one of Germany’s largest tuners on your side, doesn’t it?
The campaign for top German performance sedan was heated between the C36 and E36 M3, leading to one of the many classic 90’s battles that we have come to love today. While the Bimmer may have gained more media coverage, the AMG actually over powered the E36 in both the horsepower and torque categories, combining for 276 HP/ 285 lb. ft. in comparison to the S50 powered M3’s 240 HP/ 236 lb. ft. Many purists and enthusiasts will say that the M3 is better simply because of the badge and it’s motorsport history, but that does not necessarily prove true in this case. The E36 was somewhat of a disappointment to consumers as it did not live up to the expectations that were placed on it by the holy-grail E30. With its comparatively low power output and lack of charisma, it simply did not live up to the hype. The AMG, on the other hand, was a luxurious four door with the power to match its comfort. One may blame its lack of publicity on the fact that there were only 896 C36 AMG cars imported to the United States, but I don’t see that as a flaw at all. The exclusivity of the Merc gives it the upper hand in that segment as you can seemingly find E36 M3’s on every block corner of the internet. Although it all boils down to preference, the AMG makes a strong case for itself to become the winner of this European title fight.
The C36 was an exciting car from the factory, but Johnson wanted more out of it than the Europeans had originally planned. He bought the car in stock form which, as we all know, is the best way to find ’em. A Mercedes mechanic by trade, Mike knew that he could handle more extensive modifications than your average Bolt-on Joe. While he put the car through its paces, it went under the knife to gain a set of H&R Springs and Bilstein Shocks to improve stability and handling. Although there isn’t a great amount of aftermarket parts available for the mighty inline six, an OE Tuning chip was installed to boost the car to approximately 300 HP. Johnson went through the internals of the engine, cleaning and powdercoating wherever he saw fit. This was enough to ensure optimal output from the AMG while squeezing out all of its potential. Being pleased with the power, fundamentals, and braking of the car, Mike felt that it was time for a more substantial modification. He underwent the process of transforming the C36 from a four speed automatic to a five speed manual. This swap included a variety of detailed mods, including flywheel alteration and installing the rear end from a C230 Kompressor. This took the rear end ratio from 2.87 to 3.27, making the car’s increased torque especially evident. After blowing through two Benz manufactured five-speed manuals, he decided to look into the Getrag “dog-leg” gearbox that was used in the 190E Cosworth. This has proved to be the right decision as Mike can now row through the gears with ease, transforming the driving experience. OEM+ has been the attitude since the get-go, and it has paid off for the young Arkansan.
Johnson, being a true AMG fanatic, has developed quite an affection for the brand over time. He is easily the most knowledgeable individual on performance Mercs that I know, and a great deal of that wisdom has come from his experience with the car on this very page. He’s underwent a variety of trials to make the car what is today, ranging everywhere from importing German Benz parts to dealing with unexpected obstacles along the way. Leaving no bolt unturned, he has learned a seemingly infinite amount of expertise regarding the C36; this is evidence of a bona fide car nut. We often get trapped in the static mindset that we must build for the approval of the masses, leading to internet fame and stardom. But how can we keep this as a standard if its only been around for the minor part of a decade? Mike has bypassed this route and built his car for his own satisfaction. No matter your brand alliance, you have to respect his dedication that is exemplified by the car you see before you.
The relationship between Mike and his car is the real story here. Trials and hardships have come and gone with this experience, but they have been accompanied by great rewards. By trudging through these difficulties, Johnson has learned knowledge about his project that would have been otherwise unattainable. This alone is a perfect reason to give to those may consider his project impractical or not worth the effort. Today, we applaud the “enthusiasts” who simply throw money at a car in hopes that it will be appreciated by those around them; however, the true auto lover will make his vehicle an extension of himself. Paying meticulous attention detail and creating the vision that’s in one’s head, that’s what proves devotion. Johnson has taken this C36 and transformed it into something that he is proud of, molding it to fit his perception of perfection. Because of that, Johnson has experienced what being an enthusiast is genuinely about.
Craving more info on this one of a kind build? Check out Evan Shanks’ video review and test drive below!