Creating BMW Performance Parts
Have you ever wondered how Steve Dinan got his start tuning BMWs and creating BMW performance parts?
He grew up in St. Louis, a Baby Boomer, the fourth of eight kids. His mom had been a dancer before she married his dad, and his dad was an electrical engineer in the aerospace division of McDonnell Douglas. Eight kids and a single income required that both the home and the family station wagon were repaired by Dad, and his assistant, Steve.
In his words, he was ‘an inquisitive child’ with an interest in cars, airplanes, helicopters, submarines, buildings, you get the idea. [I think of an inquisitive child as the one who is constantly taking apart everything in the house that has screws!] His oldest brother is six years older than Steve, so you can imagine that by the time Michael was driving and Steve was ten, Steve’s curiosity was growing exponentially. School was not Steve’s jam. Catholic school was harsh and unforgiving, as well as being indifferent to different learning styles. Add curriculum that was uninteresting, and his curiosity turned more deeply to cars, taking them apart and studying them; but perhaps even more importantly, he learned to drive…
Driving, he would discover, was something he “enjoyed almost as much as anything I’ve ever experienced in my life. [If not, it’s in the top two anyway.]” as he chuckles. “I liked driving, so my curiosity manifested in the automobile.”
Let’s back up a minute though. Most of us learn to drive and don’t go on to start our own business, driving has no connection to entrepreneurship. Steve, however, has always been entrepreneurial. He started with a paper route, worked as a caddy, cleaned stables, etc. thru high school. He also knew from an early age that he was going to do something different which is how he went on to become one of the best BMW tuners around.
But remember, this is still the Rust Belt. Cars are American with big engines and perhaps suboptimal handling on Missouri’s country roads. Cars are not BMWs in Missouri in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. But as he drove more and delved into the inner workings of his older brother’s ’67 Hemi Charger, & then ’69 442, he began to learn, understand and speak another language. By making a change and then studying the effect, he began to discern what worked and what didn’t.
“Awful lot of people just never figure out what they are good at and what they really love, I was fortunate to do that a very young age which has made my life great. But I think everybody should have that opportunity.”
Of course, we can’t forget that when Steve graduated from high school, the U.S. was embroiled in the Vietnam conflict and the Selective Service was in full force. He joined the Air Force and spent four years as a B52 radar technician. With background and love for cars, his first post service job was at a K-Mart Auto Center. [Who remembers those?] It would be only five short years from K-Mart to starting his own business repairing and improving BMWs.
Improving BMW Performance
What was the beginning of improving, tuning and bettering performance. Questions like ‘Why is it made this way? What happens if this is changed? Can it be improved and why?’ all had to be answered. Well, really, those questions still do need to be answered.
For Steve, driving is always a classroom. An ever evolving if-then statement. ‘If I do this, then what?’
“Every time I changed something, and it got better, I studied about it and over time, my confidence grew. Me and the cars communicate. If you are empathetic and can feel it, it will tell you if it likes it, or doesn’t like it.”
By driving for hours & hours and reading stacks & stacks of books about engineering, suspension dynamics, aerodynamics he has built a masterful feel and knowledge of how to make small improvements for big performance results.
His time in the Air Force is what brought him to California and it wasn’t long before he experienced his first BMW. A 1977 320i. And compared to everything else he had driven to that point, that 1977 silver 320i “felt like the steering wheel was connected to the road.” I imagine that being somewhat of an AHA moment!
The BMW Performance Edge
Steve says German cars hold an edge over all other car manufactures for a number of reasons: build quality, road feel, fit & finish; and the fact that they are really the founders of the automobile. That history pervades their culture, and they build a better car than most of the rest of the world. Having said that, how is it possible that he can improve upon BMW’s performance?
There’s a handful of reasons. Of course, companies operate by committee. Committees which often disagree and must be forced to reach a compromise that may not be the best solution. Decisions are made by cost because they must be to survive in a global economy. Cars are built for mainstream appeal and to a price point.
“It’s not that I’m not smarter than all of BMW, that’s not the case at all. I am a very good engineer and I have a very good staff who understands cars very well. But BMW leaves some low hanging fruit for us, because of their business model and we take advantage of that. … They are building a performance level to a price point, not trying to extract everything out of it.”
Why BMW? Picture a suburban neighborhood in Cupertino in 1979. There is no internet, and most people don’t know what a computer is, much less the idea of a personal computer. Carter was President and Iran had just overthrown their Shaw. 1979 was the first year the Daytona 500 was aired in its entirety and Japan released the Sony Walkman. Cars are big and ugly, and we had just come out of a gas crisis. This helped to raise the popularity of foreign cars that were smaller and more efficient. Mercedes at the time was very focused on their diesel cars, Porsche wasn’t building for handling, so BMW it became.
That silver 320i would be the first in a very long list of BMWs to be blessed by Steve’s special brand of talent. It would also go on to become his first race car, but that is a story for another time.