Words: Don Cheng
Photography: Don Cheng
Published: July 5, 2017
As mentioned in our last update, Project 1 has seen a steady stream of parts come in since we put the vehicle away for the winter. Apart from the suspension, another facet of the vehicle that absolutely required attention was the amount of slop in the shifting linkage.
After flinging the vehicle through the track and making rapid gear changes, it was immediately evident just how inadequate the stock linkage was. Throws were long, vague, and left you second-guessing whether you could be adding power or free spinning your motor mid-way through the corner. Our original solution was courtesy of the OE engineers in Bavaria - a stock Performance Short-Shift kit from BMW. We managed to get our hands on one of the last new old-stock kits and had planned to install it in conjunction with a new double shear selector rod from UUC.
With a pat on the back, I thought the shifting woes on Project One had been taken care of - until I hopped in a friend’s AP1 Honda S2000. This 20-minute drive was all that was needed to throw a shadow of doubt into the adequacies of my shifting solution. While I love the stock BMW shifter, it isn’t particularly suited for track-focused gear changes, there’s an air of “laid-back” GT style cruising surrounding the stock shifter, but it lacks the confidence inspiring solid shifter feel of the S2000.
Enter RTD Shifting Systems based in Mont-Liban, Lebanon. RTD designs manufactures motorsport-inspired shifters that completely replace the factory linkages with a milled aluminum kit. The factory carrier, ball-in-socket styler shift lever are replaced with single unit mounted to the transmission tunnel. Due to the new position, it requires a custom fabricated double shear selector rod, supplied by RTD as well. Based on what we had seen, this looks like just the right product to get us to S2000 shifting levels.
To complement the new linkages, we decided to add stiffer transmission mounts to eliminate any play in the transmission during spirited drives. UUC had just the right solution with a pair of “black” urethane mount bushings. These help prevent most of the deflection, without introducing too much gear whine while driving.
Admittedly, this had been the one order I was most excited about, and when it arrived I immediately rushed to Unique to get it installed. The first step was taking apart the old linkage - a quick process that involved pulling out all the liners and dampening material surrounding it, and popping the old ball-in-socket out with a pair of needle nose pliers.
Next was the carrier which proved to be a bit more challenging as the transmission heat shield had to be pulled back, and a lot of finagling had to occur to remove the carrier from the super tight space. Once it was separated from the body, it was time to slide the new assembly inside. Relatively painless except but it certainly helps to have small hands, as tightening the three bolts down to the transmission tunnel can prove to be a pain.
The final step involves slotting the double shear selector rod through the transmission on one side, and the shifter assembly on the other - effectively serving as a bridge between the lever and the transmission itself. Once complete, we futzed around with some fine-tuning to make sure both sides of the action in Neutral felt even.
Admittedly this took the longest time and after a few hours of head scratching, we called Maher the owner to ask if we had done something wrong. His response was lightning quick, and he was eager to jump on a call to help us troubleshoot. Turns out, after re-centering the shifter’s Neutral position (so that both left and right side movements are equal in length) we weren’t torque-ing down the adjustment nut enough. With a few more wrenches, the nut was tight and the shifter felt amazing.
The first drive after a new modification is always a timid one. You just aren’t sure what you’re in store for and lots of questions are flying through your head - was the modification worth it? Did everything install correctly? Almost instantly, the second I threw the car in reverse, I had known that this was going to completely transform how I drive this vehicle.
Pulling out of the garage, I popped the lever out of reverse and it immediately snapped back into dead center neutral. A slight leftward twitch of my hand, and a gentle push and the 135i clicked into first. That first shift felt like a rifle bolt had slid into place. A purposeful click emanated from the transmission. I depressed the clutch, added some revs and off I went.
Watching the revs build up to 3,000 RPM before I slipped it out of first, ”Click-Click,” and into second. Again the movement felt precise, solid, and confident. Tipped in on the throttle and felt the car build boost, clutch, shift, bam, into the next gear. It felt amazing even just cruising around the block. I drove timidly as the ultra short travel of the lever throws off the timing of your clutch & shift. Without wanting the risk of grinding the gears, I took the first couple of kilometers easily, getting used to the new timing and made sure I knew exactly how far each gate was spaced out.
Now, hundreds of kilometers later, I can say without a doubt that this has been my number one favourite modification on Project One. Adding power, while nice, might not be something you access every day. In a manual car though? Changing gears is essential and happens literally every time you start the car, and RTD’s shifter completely overhauls the experience.
Every gear slides into place with an incredibly satisfying notch. Rowing through the gears feels like a visceral reward for winding out the motor, or even cruising around the city. The first change you immediately notice is the distance between gates, or rather the lack of distance between them, which are almost nonexistent. Notching the lever into first is a short flick of the wrist and click away. Put simply, the shortening is so drastic that there is a moment where your body needs to relearn when to release the clutch. The bite point hasn’t shifted in any way, but the speed at which you’ve now changed gears has.
The increased height of the lever makes grabbing the shifter easier (and hard to miss). An added benefit is the decreased distance between the steering wheel and shift knob, making rapid movements (like downshifting) effortless, and allows you to focus on the task at hand - steering.
Slamming through the gears is incredibly satisfying, but not nearly as satisfying as heel-toe downshifting. My favourite motion is now the 4-3 heel-toe right before I hit a highway off-ramp. Words can barely contain just how much I love this modification.