Steve Dinan kind of slipped off the radar for a few years there. By 2014, the name that had become synonymous with BMW tuning since its founding in 1979 had grown into a company big enough to be taken over by investors who had a lot of money and he pretty much had to sell it.
How big a pile of money did he sell Dinan Engineering for?
“It was as much or more than I ever hoped to get for it, which is why I sold it,” said Dinan. “The brand was worth a lot. They made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. It’s the dream of every business owner—I started this in my garage at home with $20,000 when I was 25—it’s the dream of every business owner to build up a successful brand and sell it for a lot money. And I did that.”
Does it sound like he was happy he had done it? No.
“I realized shortly afterwards that (I wasn’t happy to have done so), and I probably knew it all along, honestly. But the stress of running a business for 34 years, that’s how long I had (the original Dinan-owned Dinan Engineering) when I sold it, makes you sort of just want some relief. But then immediately upon getting rid of it I missed it, because I really like making cars go fast. And for me, making cars go fast was the reason to get up every day. And making money was a side effect of doing a good job but wasn’t really necessarily the goal.”
What did he do after he sold Dinan Engineering? Well, he used to build Grand Am engines for Ganassi and so Ganassi offered him a job in Indianapolis to launch the Ford GT program. Was he happy there? No.
“Because he didn’t give me the job of running a race team or setting up a race car, he gave me a corporate job. And I’m okay with corporate stuff, I mean I have a lot of experience with BMW. It’s just that dealing with the car companies is just not my favorite thing to do.”
It was getting obvious.
“My lovely wife of 47 years, God bless her, looked at me every day when I came home from work at Ganassi’s place and said ‘You’re miserable!’ I said, ‘Yes, I am.’ And she says, ‘We should move back to California.’
See, the group that had bought Dinan wanted to spin off two oil-change businesses. He did that for a while then went back to tuning BMWs, which took some investment on his part.
“At the time, I had a turboprop (airplane) and a bunch of rental properties that I had acquired over the years, so I sold three rental properties and sold my airplane and took the money and started CarBahn.”
Yes, CarBahn. They make Cars… for the AutoBAHN! CarBahn, is, in fact, the company that engineered the BMW M8 Competition I was driving on a mountain road the whole time this conversation was taking place. CarBahn tunes BMWs, of course, but also Mercedes, Audis, and Porsches. And it races an Audi R8 in IMSA. Dinan’s team won the GT4 championship in 2019 and took second place last year (“Because of a blown transmission on the last lap at Sebring!”). Now, as we said, CarBahn is expanding to other marques.
“When I first started Dinan, you have to realize, it was 1979 and what was around at the time was the air-cooled Porsche, Audi 100 LS, diesel Mercedes, and 450 SLs. The BMW was the only sport sedan that existed really, that had any quality or had good handling characteristics and made it a fun car to play with. But since then, all the car companies have gotten a lot closer, they share all the tier-one suppliers, and the difference between an M BMW and an AMG and an RS Audi is very small now. They all have their own characteristics still, yeah, BMW is still the better-handling of the sedans, Mercedes typically has a slightly more luxurious interior, but the differences are minor. Now the differences in the cars, instead of being like 50%, is like 10%.”
We don’t have a lot of information about the CarBahn Mercedes or Audis, but we did get a rundown on the particular CarBahn BMW M8 Competition I had. The car’s CarBahn conversion included:
Wait, back up, suspension bearings instead of bushings? This thing must ride like a skateboard on gravel, right? No, it’s amazing, something of a suspension miracle. The M8 was a dream to drive, with a near-perfect balance of firmness and control that didn’t beat you up like a home-built LeMons racer constructed by idiots. No, this was exactly as smooth as you’d want it to be in corners and what I would call polite-but-firm in a straight line. It never bottomed-out or crashed onto too-firm bump stops that then made the whole space frame rattle. It was better than the post-Steve-Dinan Dinan I drove a couple years ago, let me tell you. The last Dinan I drove I thought I was going to need transplants for every organ I owned, and new teeth. It was harsh, way too damned harsh. Sure, the turn-in was crisp as the really good car magazine writers say, but everything else was like being in one of those Three Stooges episodes where they hide inside what turns out to be a punching bag and they get pummeled for a while. This M8 was a balance I had not felt since—and granted, this analogy spans two completely different car types—since the Ferrari SF90, at least in the way the suspension traveled up and down throughout its arcs. Sure, the M8 is a five-seat sedan and the SF90 is a two-seat supercar, but the feel of the suspension as it went through its movement was very similar. It went the full range necessary for “compliance” without exceeding that which was necessary for “comfort.”
Then there’s all that horsepower. Dinan said this car was making 900 hp. How exactly does it do that?
“This one is the heat exchangers, larger intercoolers, and software,” Dinan said. “Heat exchangers take care of the extra heat generated from the software but basically the power comes from the software. The heat exchangers make some power, too, obviously, because the charge air is cooler. But what happens is, if you don’t do that, by the time you get through third gear, there’s so much heat soak in the intercooler the power goes down 200 horsepower, just after you turned it up 100. So the only way to make the power stay is you have to get rid of the heat that you’re generating.”
So it’s all about the heat exchangers. And the 100-octane fuel he filled it up with just before bringing the car to me. And the software. The nuts and bolts of the engine stay the same. There are no stouter con rods or pistons or anything on this version. There are such things on the 1000-horsepower package.
“We do an engine, which is basically ported cylinder heads, forged rods and pistons, stronger bearings, and stiffer valve springs. And then larger turbochargers, and that makes 1000 hp. But this (the one I drove that you see here) is my most popular one because most people don’t want to do the engine. You know, I sell about 50 of these for the other ones I sell.”
And don’t say it’s chip tuning.
“It’s not chip tuning, it’s flash now. It’s been flash since 1996,” Dinan said. “It’s fairly exotic these days. There are so many maps of these cars, there are literally thousands of maps. I would tend to have this car in a year to a year and a half to understand the software thoroughly.”
Not all of the aftermarket is so meticulous.
“We looked at all the software in the aftermarket, and people were doing a lot of what we consider to be questionable things trying to get power out of the engine.”
“Things like, the car has a two-and-a-half-bar manifold pressure sensor. Basically you can’t run more than two and a half bar boost because the computer doesn’t have a signal. So what they do is they go into what’s called the slope and the offside of the sensor and they bias it so that the computer thinks it has less than two and a half bar of boost. The same thing a piggyback box does, it lies to the map sensor and that raises the boost. But that’s not the right way to do it. That’s kind of a band-aid way to do it. So we actually put a three-and-a-half-bar MAP sensor on the engine. And then we rescale the computer for three and a half bars. So we can run three and a half bars of boosts the correct way. If you do it the other way the computer doesn’t really know you’re running three and a half bars and so all the temperature models, fuel corrections, ignition, and everything is skewed because it doesn’t know how much boost it’s really running. Plus, the fact we found that if you scale properly for a three-and-a-half bar sensor that actually makes 50 more hp, because you can only lie to the two and a half bar sensor so much and it gets pissed off. So we actually make 50 more horsepower and it’s safer.”
There’s more, and you start to see a little of how Steve Dinan’s brain is working if you read on.
“And then we also on modern engines, they have multiple ignition timing tables so they have what they call ‘optimal ignition timing,’ which means if you had unlimited fuel, this is what the ignition timing would be, then we have a minimum timing like, we don’t want to ever run less than this. If we do, we’re gonna run lower boost because it’ll make the catalytic converters too hot. When you retard the timing it burns the fuel post-combustion and overheats the catalytic converter. Then they have what they call a component protection timing. ‘We don’t think the parts of the engine will allow us to have more ignition timing than this.’ Okay, and then the computer then decides based on the fuel quality, how much detonation it’s detecting, which end of the spectrum, because it works one map to the other map.”
Meaning it goes between maps?
“It doesn’t go between them, it interpolates between. Okay, so this one’s at 30 degrees, this is 20 degrees, it will vary itself in between. It’s a high and a low limit is the best way to look at it. So what we did is we found those tables, and we change those tables. So now we put 100 octane gas and we’ll add more ignition.”
Which is how my car got 900 hp when the stock M8 Competition has “only” 600. It’s better the CarBahn way, Dinan says.
“So how most of the aftermarket does this is, they put a minimum timing number that’s higher than what the engine wants. Then they take the knock sensitivity that pings and they turn it down, so it can’t hear it’s pinging and then they tell you you have to run methanol injection or race gas all the time or it will blow up. And they have different programs for different fuel quality. So if you’re not going to run race gas, you have to set the minimum timing to a lower number. But we didn’t. Instead, we change the range of the learning. We change the range of the MAP sensor, so it automatically just figures out where it is and goes there. Okay, so it runs just as nice on 91 as it does on this, it just makes 100 horsepower less. So yeah, the octane is worth that much. So it makes just over 800 horsepower on 91 octane, it makes just over 825 on 93 octane and it makes 900 hp on 100 octane.”
So there’s a lot of research and knowledge behind your $8600 Power Package. And your $1500 suspension package. And your $2600 suspension bearings and camber adjusters. They all work. And you don’t necessarily get that from some teenager with a laptop and a narrow understanding of what keeps an engine from blowing up or a car from skittering over the edge of one of these cliffs I was negotiating.
When you get CarBahn stuff, you’re getting a small sliver of Steve Dinan’s hyperactive brain.
“I grew up as a kid with ADHD,” Dinan says. “It’s never really left me. And it has served me well over the years.”
It has served him well and his customers even better.
What do you think of Steve Dinan’s latest creation? Share your thoughts on past and present tuner German cars in the comments below.
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