Featured: Tuning Time Machine: AC Schnitzer's BMW M3-Based 'Coupe Lightweight Silhouettes'

Tuning Time Machine: AC Schnitzer’s BMW M3-Based ‘Coupe Lightweight Silhouettes’

By Alex Sobran
May 1, 2019

The E36 generation of the BMW 3-Series is arguably the most polarizing. The M3 is the only narrow-bodied one to wear to the badge, it wasn’t mythologized during the DTM’s heyday like its predecessor, and passing by a street-parked base-model 318i with faded plastics and patchy clear coat will leave you hard-pressed to imagine a meeker relic of the 1990s.

On the other hand, despite the recent bump in the market, E36s with six cylinders and three pedals remain almost peerless in performance per dollar terms, and the chassis continues to enjoy gobs of aftermarket support and accumulated knowledge earned through many a track car build—if you’ve ever been to the Nürburgring on a tourist day, there’s a strong chance you saw at least one black rattle-canned 328is sedan with neon green wheels and mirror caps trouncing something much sleeker.

It’s the classic budget hot-lapper: gut the interior, stiffen up the suspension, add some aero, put on sticky tires, and you’ve got yourself a world-beater (or at least something that can take down your boss’s sports coupe). But unless you spend serious money, the result will look silly in any parking lot not set up for autocross.

And sure, the same could be said about the green one pictured below, but to liken AC Schnitzer’s interpretations of the E36 to fast-but-clapped-out garage builds is a disservice to the quality of the work. For starters, these were built in period, and by a company with strong ties to BMW’s factory motorsport programs.

As the story goes, Schnitzer Motorsport was unofficially born in 1963 when two brothers from a German town near Munich called Freilassing bought a beat Fiat with the intent to repair and modify it for competition. Josef and Herbert Schnitzer (and of course the late Charly Lamm, their half-brother who managed the team for the majority of its history) would have a few more dalliances with marques that weren’t BMW over the years, but the relationship with the nearby Bavarian automaker would prove the most fruitful and frequent.

As such, Schnitzer Motorsport has been running various BMW works team since the late 1960s. The Schnitzer engineers, managers, and drivers were crucial to the development of the dominant BMW 3.0 CSL touring cars in the 1970s; they cemented BMW’s success in production-based motorsports in the following decade with the E24 and E30 chassis; and when BMW decided to take on Le Mans in the late 1990s with its new F1 partner Williams, they brought Schnitzer Motorsport into the mix and together they took the overall win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans on just their second attempt. There are too many titles and race wins to list, but another of great significance to both BMW and Schnitzer came in 2012, when BMW returned to the DTM for the first time since 1993 and won the drivers’ and constructors’ title with Schnitzer Motorsport managing the factory’s effort.

The point is, the people at Schnitzer were spending a lot of time making BMWs go faster, so they decided to do what was very in vogue in the 1980s and start a tuning company to cash in a little bit. Herbert Schnitzer, his brother Josef had passed away in a car accident in Zolder in 1978, and Willi Kohl, who ran one of Germany’s biggest Bimmer dealers, founded AC Schnitzer in 1987 in Aachen, Germany—the “AC” in AC Schnitzer comes from the license plate abbreviation for cars registered in Aachen. The company provided all the standard fare of the era: body kits, steering wheels, alloy wheels, engine tuning and modification, mild chassis upgrades (read: sway and strut bars, stiffer shocks and springs), and of course, decals.

The successes of Schnitzer Motorsport certainly helped to market the aftermarket kits sold by AC Schnitzer (if you can win on Sunday but don’t have any cars to sell on Monday, sell parts for them instead), but they still needed a street-legal demonstration of their potential, a demo car of sorts, with every piece fitted. In the 1990s, these two were the halo cars at the front of the brochure: the M3-based ACS3 CLS and ACS3 CLS II.

The CLS in the name is a pretty blatant ripoff/callback to the lightweight BMWs that wear the CSL moniker, but it isn’t entirely unfounded either; the silver car pictured above is the first so-called “Coupe Lightweight Silhouette,” and its bumpers and widened front and rear fenders are made from a carbon fiber-kevlar compound. In addition to the wider track and lighter skin, the first CLS also featured a more powerful version of the M3’s S50B30 inline-six, bigger brakes, tighter suspension, and a track-focused interior with fixed-back buckets and a digital dash among other tweaks. It was and remains a potent upgrade over the E36 M3 it’s based on, but the next iteration would take it even further.

The CLS II, the green one, is a holy grail among E36 enthusiasts for good reason. When BMW launched the larger 3.2L engine for the M3 in 1995, AC Schnitzer decided to evolve its CLS too. They machined the cylinder head of the S50B32, tweaked its cam profiles, balanced its con-rods, added a carbon airbox to its intake side and a freer-flowing stainless setup for the exhaust end, and they tuned the Motronic brain to get the already potent engine up to roughly 350bhp. It would do the 0-62 sprint in just about five seconds, and could continue on to 180mph. Not bad for 1995.

The weight-savings program was also more extensive this time around, with more interior parts chucked out in favor of carbon-kevlar replacements, including the door panels and the entirety of the rear seat. Outside, the front and rear bumpers, front and rear fender panels, roof spoiler, and trunk spoiler were also constructed in carbon-kevlar.

The original CLS’s aerodynamics package was further developed on the CLS II to include a functional rear diffuser and a cabin-adjustable rear wing on the truck, while the front bumper took on a more aggressive architecture than the previous design. The suspension setup was height-adjustable at all four corners, and included adjustable strut bars at the front and rear—ACS says the damping and spring rates were derived from testing on the Nordschleife, and while that’s all but the status quo today, these guys were pioneers of that marketing strategy.

In many ways, this car can be viewed as a paragon of what was wrong with the aftermarket at the time—wide body, color-matched wheels, metallic interior pieces, suede, steering wheels with  big buttons on them, etc.—but I think it’s just another example of experiencing the best after you’ve seen the worst. If you’ve watched a bunch of lame found-footage horror films before The Blair Witch Project, you’re not going to be impressed. If your opinion of street car tuning in the 1990s was initially defined by abominations of fiberglass that were slower than when they left the factory, you might similarly discount these AC Schnitzer BMWs. Here’s some video proof that the CLS II is more than just a loud paint job and some fender flares, but I can’t vouch for the music at the end:

Photos courtesy of AC Schnitzer

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Alvaro Colombiano
5 years ago

Fantastic read Alex! and love to see AC Schnitzer getting recognition.

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