“Everyone started putting M3 mirrors on Corsas, so I figured I’d put AC Schnitzer mirrors on my M3.”
When Neil Dawson, the owner of this E36 M3, first said that, I couldn’t help but crack a huge smile. Partly because it’s the level of pettiness I aspire to, but mostly because I could tell his obsession for all things M3 stemmed from a single pair of mirrors. An obsession that’s lasted some 17-years now, and shows no signs of slowing down.
Back in the 1990s, the E36 M3 was the BMW to have. That and brightly-coloured Tacchini tracksuits along with funky Mitsubishi-logo’d sweets. Its launch made the E30 BMW look and feel dated, and being a BMW fan already Neil quickly decided this was the next car for him.
These were the days before readily-available finance, however. You had to buy things the old fashioned way; cash was king, and good cars were expensive. So while Neil wanted an E36 M3 in the ’90s, his bank account wouldn’t allow it. That’d come later in 2002.
This wasn’t Neil’s first foray into the world of Bavarian brutes. His weapon of choice was a black-on-black E30 325i Motorsport, the kind of thing you’d look at now as a ‘future investment opportunity’. A Dakar Yellow M3 coupe caught his eye, and if he could part-exchange the 325i, it could be his.
That wasn’t going to happen though, because back in 2002, the E30 wasn’t as desirable as it is today. So much so that when he offered it towards the M3, the dealer flat-out refused.
The E36 M3 was by no means a rare car, but it wasn’t the mass-produced behemoth of M3s today. They were pretty exclusive things back then. Being just out of his grasp, Neil settled on a 328i M-Sport to fill the void until the right example came up. And lo and behold, six months later, an Estoril Blue M3 Cabriolet with Silver Grey interior did.
Fortunately, the dealer was happy to take the 328i as a part-exchange, meaning Neil finally had the M3 he always wanted. He was over the moon, and BMW’s approved used cars at the time came with a generous warranty. It would’ve been foolish to rush into any modifications at the time and void it, especially before getting used to the new car. So instead, Neil spent the next four years living with and enjoying the M3, and definitely utilising the warranty.
The roof, gearbox, VANOS and various other components all deteriorated over time, and everything was covered. It was a great game right up until 2007, when BMW decided to start charging customers for their approved used warranties. Given the premium being put forward, Neil decided enough was enough – it was time to get modifying!
We say modifying, but it was more of an OEM upgrade. The M3 Cabriolet never came with the option of Vader bucket seats – something Neil preferred over the stock seats – so that became the first change. He even Connollised the leather himself to get it as close to a match as perfect. For me, I’d have been pretty happy, but Neil had other ideas.
The interior quickly became his main focus, and bit by bit every panel you could see and feel was re-trimmed in Silver Grey leather. That includes the whole dash, tonneau, console and even the foot wells and seat bases. And for the panels not covered in leather? They gained carbon fibre to provide a dark, detailed contrast against the cow hide.
As the owner of a ’90s BMW myself, I can relate with Neil on just how pants the sound systems in these cars were. So with the interior being re-trimmed, it gave him the perfect excuse to begin the boot build. A pair of 12-inch subwoofers with a Directed amplifier were installed in their own dedicated enclosure, also trimmed in Silver Grey leather to match the interior. These were joined by a set of AudioEscape speaker pods in the footwells.
By this point, there wasn’t really anything left to touch in the interior so Neil shifted his focus over to the engine bay. Much like the interior, what started off as a few dress-up parts soon became overwhelmed with both OEM and carbon accessories. Each one was chosen for a particular reason, including the GruppeM intake (which Neil is particularly proud of) and one of the rarest E36 parts available – an AC Schnitzer carbon fibre fan shroud cover. These were usually found on the ‘factory’ ACS3 CLS cars, and very few were ever sold separately.
I’m too young to remember the Max Power days of the UK car scene, but like all types of fashion it inevitably comes full circle a good few years later. There’s no denying that the ’90s/’00s era of styling set the tone for a generation; you could literally go to your local Halfords and (if you had the cash) give your car a complete makeover there and then. A fresh set of rims, spoilers, stick-on chrome detailing and plenty of audio.
It was also the era which made the humble M3 mirror an essential item for every car that wasn’t an M3. Even more so than Lexus tail lights. Whether you were creating an M3 replica from a 318is or simply trying to make your Cavalier stand out from the crowd, M3 ‘style’ mirrors became a necessity.
So if everyone was trying to make their cars look more like the M3, Neil decided he was going to make his look less like one. Cue the AC Schnitzer route. It started with small bits first; the rear was de-badged along with the side trims, and the moulding badges replaced with ACS items. Then came the mirrors, side skirts, more badges and a diffuser.
“I got the badges, skirts and diffuser pieces from BMW Rossiters in the UK, but got the mirrors directly from AC Schnitzer Germany. They were the last of their existing stock if I remember,” Neil says.
Although not pictured, Neil initially went for AC Schnitzer Type 2 Monoblock wheels for a stopgap until the correct set of splits came up for sale. Paired with Eibach coilovers, the car looked well-rounded and (almost) complete, with an aggressive stance and distinctive look. But before Neil could get too accustomed to the style, the perfect splits inevitably turned up – a unicorn set of ACS Type 1 Rennsports. Bear with me a moment whilst I nerd out on wheels, because the 18-inch Type 1 Racing is a very special item.
The 18-inch Type 1 was only available as a face-mounted wheel, and was manufactured by OZ Racing. As such they use a 40-hole design, which was used by OZ for all of their 18- and 19-inch wheels of the era. They are rarer than their successor, the Type 2, and arguably more desirable in 18-inch spec.
Those wheels hold a fairly special place in Neil’s collection, and not just because of their rarity. Back then, PayPal wasn’t really an option for sending large sums of money to people – not unless they were princes from Nigeria. A physical trip to your bank was the main option, and while withdrawing the money Neil was asked what he was buying with it. That cashier turned out to be Ricky Sadasivan – AKA Big Rick – who at the time had a well-known Techno Violet E36 Cab of his own. Neil may have left Barclays with a lighter pocket, but he managed to make a friend in the process.
Fast-forward a few more years, and it was getting to the point where Neil felt the E36 should be ‘retired’ from daily duties to really allow it to progress. So in 2012, he opted to buy an E46 M3 instead. Finished in Estoril Blue to match the E36, the newer M3 boasted a Champagne interior (rather than Silver Grey) which Neil fell in love with immediately. I don’t blame him; the light cream contrasts incredibly well against the blue paint.
The BMW stayed this way for a few more years until 2015, when a new suspension setup that could really bump it up a notch caught Neil’s eye – Air Lift Performance. Switching over to air would allow Neil to keep his E36 usable on rough and bumpy roads, while being able to give it a killer stance at the push of a button. Drive low, park even lower.
More impressively, Neil did all the work himself – from dismantling the previous audio build to constructing the new air setup. It took him a few weekends to run the air lines and switch over to Air Lift Performance struts, but it genuinely was a do-it-yourself purchase.
With the car now sitting perfectly, Neil’s mind was being clouded in a haze of Champagne interior. Just as he was getting close to being finished – again – he decided Silver Grey was no longer the colour for him. Fire up another re-trim…
Never one to do things by halves, Neil did more than simply swap out the leather. The Vaders had gone and been replaced by a pair of super-rare Recaro A8s. Personally, I’m a huge sucker for A8s; they are without a doubt one of my top three bucket seats, fixed back or not.
One of my favourite details about the car are the seat backs. In dark light they appear black, but they are in fact BMW Carbon Black Metallic, so in the light you get an incredible blue pearl which matches the paintwork, yet it’s not evident when first seeing the interior. It’s funny how one of the most frustrating BMW exterior colours works so well inside the car.
Neil’s next change was the wheels, the set of BBS RSs currently fitted. He’d bought them from Budapest earlier on in the car’s life, but never had a reason to build them with the AC Schnitzer wheels being on the M3. Keen for a change given the other work happening, Neil refinished them with brushed faces along with gold hardware and hex nuts. Every detail really does matter to Neil.
Back in 2005, a couple of years after purchase, Neil decided the M3 could do with a little freshen up and as a result had the front end painted. At the time this wasn’t an issue, but it always stood out as being slightly better than the rest of the Estoril Blue paintwork. Not willing to shell out more money on paint, Neil decided to embark on a full detail of the E36 to get it back up to scratch. What’s the worst that could happen?
“I bought a rotary polisher and decided to have a go myself, but I wanted to wet-sand the paint too…”
Inevitably, within about 30-seconds of starting, Neil managed to burn straight through the paint on the top of the rear three-quarter panel. Brilliant.
No one he contacted was willing to do a smart repair on that section, so he took the car back to the painter he’d used previously. The M3 was painted from the doors back to match the nose. Except that it didn’t match the nose. So the car went back in to be resprayed again to match the rear. Thankfully for his bank account, the paint finally matched all around the car.
However, Neil wasn’t really that happy with the paint finish after all this work. Which resulted in a further decade spent (slowly) repainting sections all around the car as he found flaws along the way. No sooner had he fixed one issue, another popped up.
By 2019, things had peaked. Having been accepted for an indoor show called FittedUK, Neil was concerned about the paint under fluorescent lights. He decided that the only way to have the car looking acceptable would be a complete respray, so that’s exactly what he did.
I asked him why he put so much effort into the car over nearly two decades. Especially into details such as paint matching and trimming under the dash – things that the majority of people would never notice. “The more you look, the more you’ll see. You’ve got to keep looking,” he replied.
I can’t think of a better phrase that sums up Neil’s approach to his M3 over the years. If you ensure the details are looked after, the rest of the build will follow.
Photos by Saj Selva