SIT TIGHT USDM-styled air-ride E36 320i
One of the enduring clichés of the modern tuning scene casually drawled from Dom Toretto’s mouth back in 2001: “It’s not how you stand by your car… it’s how you race your car.” Ineffably cheesy as it sounds, there’s a lot of logic in that sentiment. A car is a machine, a functional thing, the inherent purpose is to transport its occupant or occupants from point A to point B, and if efficiency is your watchword then it makes sense to complete that necessary journey in as timely a fashion as possible. Make the car work better, it’ll be faster; hone your skills to control it properly, and you’re doing the whole car thing right. If it’s fast, and you can properly drive it fast, that’s all that matters.
Except it isn’t quite that black-and-white, is it? The motoring scene has had well over a century to branch out in its myriad offshoots, and while the act of going fast always has a place in enthusiasts’ hearts, the act of looking good is equally important to many – sometimes more important. Take the E36 you see here: when we started speaking to Gabriel Hollmann about his shimmering Estoril blue creation, he was very keen to highlight the subtle (and not-so-subtle) tweaks to the aesthetics. The engine? That plays second fiddle. BMW did a sufficiently good job to make the E36s as quick as they need to be on the road, and Gabriel’s been happy to leave it at that. He’s opted for a big-lunged six-pot rather than a lesser four-pot, so that’s pretty much job done. In this case, as with many other up-and-comers on the scene, it’s not how you stand by your car… it’s how your car sits.
Estoril blue is an eminently appropriate shade for Gabriel’s flawless respray here; the town of Estoril is one of the swankiest and most cash-rich on the Iberian Peninsula, and the Autódromo do Estoril is dripping in motorsport heritage – Ayrton Senna took his first F1 victory there in 1985, it was the venue where Niki Lauda clinched the championship in ’1984, Villeneuve ambushed Schumacher around the final turn in ’1996, and of course BMWs have been pounding the circuit in Tourenwagen guise for many years and it has been graced by many an M car over the years, making it an aspirational shade for anyone modding their BM.
“My stepfather used to drive an BMW E36, so I always wanted one too,” Gabriel tells us as we chat about his own example. “I remember visiting a BMW car event in 2004, and I was enamoured with the older models, I like their appearance and I’m impressed with their history. So this E36 is my first and only BMW, I’ve owned it for 10 years. I bought it from a family member – it was solid, low mileage, no rust, and looked like the perfect first car. Of course back then it was just a standard black E36, I didn’t imagine it getting this far in 10 years’ time; I was young, I just wanted to drive it. But as time passed by, so the ideas formed…”
The chassis is the defining feature of this build, and it centres around that Air Lift Performance suspension with its cunning 3P management – 3P incorporates pressure control with the option to upgrade to ride-height sensors, which is all very sophisticated, and Gabriel’s install is impressively tidy too, tucked away in the still-usable boot. Of course, stance is nothing without the rolling stock to back it up, and while it’s cool to bag near enough any car, it’s the thought behind the rims that really sets the quality builds apart. Gabriel had two things to consider here: which wheels to choose, and how they’d fit. The first question was easily answered: “The BBS E50 has always been my dream wheel design,” he says. “I considered the BBS RS, but the E50 is less common, and I wanted to have something that not every other person has.” Sound reasoning, and of course the E50 has a whole world of motorsport heritage to back it up, taking us back again to Estoril with these wheels in centre-lock form bolted to long-tail Kremer Porsches, bristling with turbofans and impossible dish. So the E50 was the clear choice for this car – and the way they fit? Gabriel eschewed the tuck and instead went to great lengths (and spent a lot of time measuring) to ensure that when he aired the E36 out, those slender rolled arches would sit precisely between the E50s’ polished lips and the sidewall of their ever-so-slightly stretched tyres. It’s as much a feat of engineering as it is a scene-friendly nod, and it gives the hunkereddown form a hell of a lot of presence.
Naturally the combination of rims and lows is a firm starting point but it’s not the be-all-and-end-all of a quality build. It takes more than a chequebook and a weekend of work to get into these pages. No, what really stands out about Gabriel’s E36 is the attention to detail. He hasn’t gone all-out in the pursuit of tracking down every conceivable add-on, but instead has followed a considered and thorough approach to ensure that every upgrade he makes works cohesively. His plan, you see, is to create something with a snifter of the USDM, augmented by a few unique and unexpected touches. As the California sun starts to burn away the rain clouds on our shoot, you can imagine throwing a picnic hamper in the boot, cranking up the Beach Boys, and heading off down the Pacific Coast Highway… except that we’re not actually in California. We’re in Wroclaw, Poland for this particular shoot, a couple of hours east from Gabriel’s hometown of Bautzen in Germany. Had you fooled though, didn’t he?
“I saw many pictures of E36s from friends in the USA, and I knew that the USDM look was they way I wanted to go,” Gabriel explains. It’s certainly a popular choice right now; countless enthusiasts and modifiers in the US are clamouring to de-Federalise their cars by excising the corner markers and, in the case of cars with huge US-market bumpers, swap them for slimmer Euro items – and some are going to the extreme length of converting contemporary BMWs to right-hand-drive for the UKDM look. It’s quite the opposite that’s happening in Europe; the American aesthetic is very much in vogue, and Gabriel’s fully on board with this. The USDM boot lid is key to the look, complete with authentic California plate to reinforce the point – and since American cars aren’t legally obliged to wear a front license plate in all States, he’s followed this to its logical conclusion by neatly cleaning up the front bumper to run plate-less. The bumpers carry corner markers at either end, and the eagle-eyed will also spot that Gabriel’s even gone so far as to source the American glass for his wing mirrors, sporting the iconic ‘objects in mirror are closer than they appear’ legend for the benefit of people who’ve never learned how perspective works (from the same school of thought that ensures coffee cups bear the phrase ‘caution: coffee may be hot’. It’s a litigious culture).
A Zender front lip finishes the makeover nicely, and it’s gratifying to see that the car’s running ambers rather than aftermarket clear lenses – there was a time when ditching the orange indicators was job-one with any car, but the tide has very much turned on that.
You might also have noticed the little ‘Clubsport’ badges on the rubbing strips and sill plates – what’s that all about? Well, it’s one of those limited-run curios that’s mired in folklore; essentially, 500 E36 Clubsport Coupés were built in Germany in 1997 with a variety of engine choices, with Sport suspension and GT-alike spoilers. It’s obscure enough for people to notice Gabriel’s badges at shows and start furiously Googling to find out what the hell they’re looking at. Which is just the effect he was going for.
The interior’s been converted to allblack, which is a neat tribute to the car’s exterior back when he first bought it all those years ago, and of course you really can’t go wrong with M3 Vaders, can you? “I’ve done almost all of the work on the car myself, with the help of a friend who’s a chassis specialist,” says Gabriel, “and the paint was taken care of by a professional. Sure, there were a few problems along the way through the build, but with the help of my friends and my stepfather I’ve always managed to overcome them.
And what’s next? I think I’d like to swap in a newer 3.0-litre diesel, and clean up the engine bay.” That sounds like an eminently sensible move. It’ll provide a bit more shove, which’ll be handy, but this car’s never been about Toretto-pleasing thrust or winning scalps on the strip. This is a long-running project that’s evolved and matured across the ages, arriving at its ultimate aesthetic resolution as a US-influenced cruiser with just a dash of motorsport aggression. Gleaming in the summer sunshine, this E36 sits just perfectly and that’s all it needs to do.
DATA FILE BMW E36 320i
ENGINE AND TRANSMISSION 2.0-litre straight-six M50B20, 328i exhaust system. Five-speed manual gearbox
CHASSIS 10×17” (front) and 10.5×17” (rear) BBS E50 wheels with 215/35 (front) and 225/35 (rear) Hankook Ventus S1 Evo tyres, Air Lift Performance 3P suspension
EXTERIOR Full respray in Estoril blue, Zender front lip, front number plate-delete, amber indicators, USDM side markers, USDM mirror glass, Clubsport sill plates and rubbing strip badges, USDM boot lid, rolled arches
INTERIOR Full black interior conversion with M3 Vader seats
Air-ride controller Sturdy M50B20 has been left stock. M3 Vaders fitted. Tidy air install. Clubsport badges Simply stunning BBS E50 17s. Zender front lip Aired-out, this E36 really touches down.
“The chassis is the defining feature of this build, and it centres around that Air Lift Performance suspension with its cunning 3P management”