The square-jawed appeal of the E36 is undeniable and easy to see. The third-gen 3 Series has, it must be said, aged remarkably well and where once it might have appeared a little old – when it was superseded by the fresh-faced and freshly-launched E46, for example – now those retro looks, with their sharp-edged, angular design, are so right, and the perfect antidote to the often too-complex, unnecessarily fussy and liquidy lines of more modern machinery. You know where you are with an E36. The build quality issues with early models that caused so much grief have now been forgiven and forgotten and, sure, while a ratty, unloved SE will not stir up any sort of fiery passion within you, a properly-sorted machine sporting the right stance and styling will absolutely get your heart beating a little faster, which brings us neatly to Niels Christiaens’ example that you just so happen to be looking at now.
Is it going to be for everyone? Hell no, but Niels doesn’t care because he’s built himself the E36 he wanted, the way he wanted to build it and it is undeniably epic. While his initial intentions upon purchasing the E36 were very far removed from the direction he ended up going in, that he modified it to this degree was of no surprise to anyone. Being handson with stuff is what his day job is all about (“I build bridges; I’m a welder!”) so there was no way he wouldn’t be equally hands-on with his motors and his passion for all things automotive took hold at a very young age. “I think I have inherited the interest in cars from my father. Even when I was little I liked cars. At the age of 16 you can drive scooters in Belgium and that’s when I started to like tuning,” Niels explains. This passion for motoring and modding has led him to own a string of rather nice and decidedly not stock machinery and he has sampled some 3 Series goodness before; “When I was 17 I bought myself a 1996 E36 Saloon, which I just changed the wheels and stuff,” he says. This was followed by by an Audi A6, which was bagged and given an S6 makeover, then a 4.2 V8 S5 which received a wrap and a set of Rotiforms and, with that serving as the daily, Niels picked up the E36 you see before you here, while the S5 was subsequently replaced with an E60 545i to serve as his new daily.
So to the E36; today, this 320i two-door looks crazy-good, super-clean and just spectacular but, when Niels first purchased it, it was a very different machine. “I bought the car to drift it,” he explains.
“The car was in very bad condition: the paint was dead and there was rust everywhere. But the engine was perfect,” he smiles; every cloud, and all that. “I was looking for an E36 for a while and I found this one through Facebook; it was in the backyard of a guy in the Netherlands. I started to build it to drift it and fell in love with it again, so I first completely rebuilt the car and then modified it,” says Niels and we’re very glad he did because we love the machine he’s created. Step one was cutting out the sides to replace the sills as the rot had all but destroyed them and then, once he was happy with the overall condition of the car, the modding began in earnest and everything you see before you, bar the wrap and suspension install, was done by Niels himself.
Niels’ first port of call on the car was the interior because, you see, he had decided that his E36 had rather too much interior and he wanted rather less of it. The rear seats were no longer welcome and so out they went, with a roll-cage taking their place, finished in a vibrant shade of yellow. With this in place the stock front seats simply had to go and in their place Niels has fitted a set of seriously sexy Sparco R333 buckets, complete with Sabelt six-point harnesses and, to continue the motorsport-inspired theme, he’s also added a suede-wrapped Sparco 368 steering wheel on a snap-off boss and an aggressive Driftworks shifter. This selection of mods has made a big different to the E36’s interior, turning it into a rather special place to spend time and while it might all feel like overkill on a relatively stock-looking car, with the wild exterior that Niels has blessed his E36 with that interior actually feels pretty spot-on.
That outrageous styling transformation actually began with the addition of that rear wing, a genuine M3 GT spoiler complete with risers for extra vertical volume, before Niels decided to add a set of M3 front and rear bumpers into the mix, which were followed by the Felony Form wide-body kit. Now, we are well aware of the fact that not everyone is a fan of the bolt-on, wide-arch stuff but on the right car this kind of kit works so well. Niels’ E36 is most definitely the right car. Fitting a kit like this is a big step and once you’ve made your first cut into the stock arches there’s really no going back but Niels does not strike us as someone who does things by halves. We think the Felony kit looks absolutely epic but you can’t just throw a set of arches like this at an E36 and be done with it; if you’re going in on a build like this then you need to make sure you’re putting together the complete package and Niels has most definitely done that. First of all, there’s the colour; now, the Felony Form kit would look epic in just about any hue you might care to finish it in, but choosing the right colour will only help to further enhance those outrageously muscular looks and turn the epic up to 11. We’re going to say that the Nardo grey wrap selected for this E36 has done exactly that; it’s a no-nonsense colour that means business, with shades of navy warships and fighter jets about it, especially when punctuated by the bolts of the kit, and it just works so well here. Niels really couldn’t have picked a better colour for his E36 than this.
After you’ve got your wide-body finished in the perfect shade the next step is dialling-in that perfect drop and, when it comes to lows, Niels knows where it’s at. A set of KW V1 coilovers has been fitted and wound down to bring that wide body seriously low, the fat arches just slipping over the tyres and the result is like visual poetry. Finally, of course, you have to absolutely nail the wheel choice because not only do you have to slap on a set of rims that can hold their own against the visual drama of those massive arches, you need something suitably wide that can actually fill out that cavernous kit, otherwise all your effort on the bodywork front will have been for naught. By know you should know that Niels wasn’t messing about with this build and, when it came to wheels, he took things to the next level. This build was never about pleasing anyone but himself and, once you’ve gone as far as fitting a bolt-on wide-body that’s already going to get the purists frothing at the mouth, you might as well just keep on going and fit a set of wheels that will cause every purist in the immediate vicinity to spontaneously combust. We reckon a set of Ferrari wheels would do just that.
Now there are Ferrari wheels and then there are Ferrari wheels and, for lovers of all things retro-automotive, these 17” Speedline Mistral splits, which would have graced Italian exotica in the ’80s and ’90s, are seriously special. Not only do they look absolutely awesome, that combo of gloss black centres with grey lips working so well on this car, they do a fantastic job of filling out those arches. That’s not surprising because while the fronts measure a meaty 8.75” in width, the rears are a monstrous 11.25” across, delivering the sort of depth of dish required to contend with arches this wide. It’s a heady combination and the wheels make the car, the final element that brings everything together and ensures that every aspect of this E36 is nothing less than awesome. All that was left to do was for Niels to add a sprinkling of finishing touches, those yellow headlights and US rear lights, and visual perfection had been achieved.
Beneath the bonnet the trusty M50 straight-six remains stock, bar the addition of a K&N intake and a complete Inoxcar exhaust, but Niels has plans for more performance; “I plan on swapping it for a 2.8-litre in the future,” he says, adding: “I also want to go for air-ride,” and there’s lots more to come beyond that. “The car is still not finished and it probably never will be,” grins Niels. “I keep changing things and creating new ideas,” and that’s how projects always are, they evolve and change over time, never remaining familiar for long. While Niels has built this E36 exactly as he wanted it, evolution is an irresistible force and this car has not yet reached its final form; the journey there will be nothing less than a white-knuckle, modified thrill ride and Niels is going to enjoy every minute of it.
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS Felony Form E36 320i
ENGINE AND TRANSMISSION 2.0-litre straight-six M50B20, K&N intake, Inoxcar stainless steel exhaust system. Five-speed manual gearbox
CHASSIS 8.75×17” (front) and 11.25×17” (rear) Ferrari Speedline Mistral wheels with 195/40 (front) and 225/35 (rear) Nankang tyres, KW V1 coilovers
EXTERIOR Avery Nardo grey wrap, M3 bumpers (front and rear), Felony Form wide-body kit, M3 GT rear wing with risers, yellow headlights, US rear lights
INTERIOR Sparco R333 front seats, six-point Sabelt harnesses, Sparco 368 suede steering wheel with snap-off boss, rear seat-delete, yellow roll-cage, Driftworks gear knob
“I started to build it to drift it and fell in love with it again, so I first completely rebuilt the car and then modified it”
Sparco 368 suede steering wheel and R333 front seats. Driftworks gear knob. Genuine M3 GT wing with risers. Inoxcar exhaust System. Stunning Speedline Mistral splits. Yellow headlights add the finishing touch.