If you have been around the M Coupe community for a while, you are undoubtedly familiar with Jon Maddux's amazing Imola Red over Extended Walnut S54 M Coupe. If not, let me introduce you to one of my favorite M Coupes.
If you studied mathematics, you might have studied Euler Diagrams. They are like Venn Diagrams, and they group data into intersecting subsets, scaled in size to one another. Euler Diagrams are useful to categorize and understand data. Imagine for a second all of the people on the planet who have had the chance to drive an M coupe, even one time. That population is actually very small, even amongst all car enthusiasts. The largest, outermost circle represents that population. Smaller than that population is the number of people who have had the opportunity to own M coupes. And if you take that population and divide it again by those who have owned their car since the day it was new and still do, and you get an even smaller group… the innermost circle… a very small group that is declining in number all the time. I am in that group, and this is my story.
My M coupe obsession is deeply rooted in my upbringing. It's in my core being and beliefs! When I was growing up, my dad was my hero. He worked as a mechanical engineering consultant and he worked on the coolest products with the coolest companies from all over the world. He worked on bulldozers, car suspensions, Corvettes, Harley Davidsons, combines, tractors, handguns, missiles, machines that made tooth paste tubes, you name it. He fixed everything himself on our house and cars; I cannot recall him hiring a single repair man or taking a car to a garage – ever. He was also a typical Ohio-born conservative who vehemently believed “buy American”. As of this writing, he is in his 70s and he is driving only the 4th car he has owned his entire life. That said, whenever he would travel to Germany, he made it a point to always get BMW E21 or E30 rental cars. He would return and discuss at our dinner table how “BMW made the best cars in the world”. This got imprinted on my heart and brain. Here was a man who clearly knew a lot about a lot of things, passionately declaring the best in the world was BMW. But. His respect for BMWs did not mean we were actually allowed to buy one, no. Not a chance. We had to just respect them from afar and keep buying sub-par American cars. And keep them for like 20 years at a time.
After I graduated from The University of Michigan with my Mechanical Engineering degree, I moved to Los Angeles. I don't think I was actively trying to move far from home, I just found the best job I could there. But I quickly realized there was an added benefit of living in LA: my dad could not supervise or comment on my choice of car. I lived in LA maybe 2 months, and I quickly traded my 1995 Jeep Cherokee in on a brand new 1996 BMW 318ti. My ti was an Exclusive Edition with a California folding soft top. It was Montreal Blue with Sand Beige leather, and I loved it to pieces. I found and joined the 318ti email list (this was not only before any social media existed, but also before there were even online forums of any kind… just email digests!). I met other 318ti owners and enthusiasts online (like Ron Stygar and Steven Schlossman) and locally in LA (like Leif Anderberg). I had no idea at the time those guys were or would soon be pillars of the BMW community; they were just ti drivers like me. We all modified our cars and took great care of them; I changed the suspension on mine and installed BBS RK wheels, VDO gauges, and a host of other improvements. The VDO gauge modification I followed from Ron Stygar inadvertently changed my life… when I built the panel to hold the gauges, instead of making it from a sheet of black ABS plastic like Ron did, I covered mine in leather and I learned how to work with leather and what it could do. More on that later…
The ti was great because (a) I could afford it; (b) it was fun to drive and very well made; (c) it was unique. The BMW faithful looked down upon the ti and mocked it; they hated the hatchback, which is exactly what we thought was one of its most redeeming qualities of the car. The ti stood out among other BMWs which made it even better to us.
As fate would have it, one day my ti was hit badly in a collision. I got it fixed, but the car was never the same to me. Around the same time I was paid a small bonus at work for an innovation I had, and I stupidly thought the bonus I received was a lot of money. To a 23 year old, it seemed like a lot. I traded the 318ti in for a new 1997 Z3 2.8. The Z3 was gorgeous, Artic Silver with Tanin Red extended leather. The 2.8 6-cylinder was amazing compared to the M44 from the ti. After a few months though, I realized that the only way to afford a car like a new Z3 2.8 when you are 23 is to eat rice and beans every night for dinner. I could afford it, but at great personal cost. I had not owned the Z3 for long but I sold it and bought a string of much more sensible cars including a Honda Civic and VW GTIs. I was out of the BMW world.
But not exactly out. While I owned the Z3, bimmer.org was growing in popularity. At the beginning, the only forum Alan Riley had was for Z3s. No other BMWs. Owners flocked to it and posted about their experiences and modifications. Robert Leidy started MZ3.net, which documented how-tos and DIY articles (with pictures - which were rare since digital cameras were so expensive!). On the early Z3s, BMW delivered every US car with a cassette storage box in the center console. Even if you got an in-dash CD player (which was a later option), you got the cassette holder. For no charge however, you could ask your dealer to swap out the cassette holder for an armrest. It was a basic hard plastic unit with 2 cupholders and covered storage and it was more convenient by a long shot. The problem with the “free” armrest however was the finish on it: if you wore any kind of sunscreen or lotion (which everyone did, since it's in a freaking convertible), then put your arm on top of it, the finish would pucker and peel. Robert Leidy solved that problem by getting a professional upholsterer to cover his in leather. The leather was more durable and more comfortable. Robert paid a lot for his armrest to be covered, and the quality was sub-par. I thought I could do better myself, based on my previous leather working experience (which wasn't much, at the time). I covered my free armrest in padding and leather, and as a service to the Z3 community, I documented how to do it yourself with pictures. I wrote an article about it.
The trouble was, no one wanted to recover their own armrest with a small piece of leather (hard to find) and use nasty toluene-based contact adhesive. People started asking me to do theirs. I refused many times. When I got tired of refusing, I made a ridiculous counter offer to do the work for them… $75 per armrest and they supply the armrest. Literally in no time, I got 10 orders a week. Soon more than that. Soon it got to the point where I had no time left outside of work to finish armrests, so I raised the price. I naively assumed that higher prices meant lower demand. Unlike what I expected, when I raised the price, demand went UP not DOWN. Soon I was ordering 50 armrests at a time, complete from BMW, and shipping complete units. The original “Mark 1” armrest was sold by BMW for $17 apiece… they had a serious pricing error! Soon I had a whole product line. Soon I was CAD modelling my own armrests and molding my own parts. LeatherZ was born.
When the M coupe was released, that was obviously the car for me. The M coupe had everything I loved about the 318ti, just a whole lot more power and even more sass. It was even weirder. More rare and more special. Even when the S54-powered M3 was announced, the M coupe was still the car for me. We used to say “if you are choosing between the M coupe and another car, choose the other car”. Implying that if you are trying to decide, you don't get it. You don't understand the M coupe. Just move on and leave the M coupe alone. I still believe that. For a true M coupe enthusiast, the only questions are: how much do you want to pay, and what color do you want?!
I saved every dollar I earned from LeatherZ with the direct, laser-focused intention of buying an M coupe. And this time I was going to buy it and NOT be forced to eat rice and beans and stress about the payments. I went back to eating rice and beans every night in the meantime to save money. I was driving a 1991 Honda Civic hatchback that I bought for $1800. The original owner lady I bought the Civic from had taken it to the dealer every 3000 miles and did whatever they told her to do, but also she lived next to an Arco petroleum refinery, and the paint finish was nearly gone from the car. It was more of a matte pale red than anything else. Just a sad, horrible car; but it ran and it did the job. I worked 10 hours a day in aerospace and then I would do LeatherZ work every night for about 6 hours. I worked every weekend. I took orders for products on the phone while I was driving to and from work. I got into trouble at work for doing LeatherZ work on company time and nearly lost my job (I didn't care, and that might have been a blessing if it had happened). I went to Z3 Homecoming every year as a vendor. I helped anyone I could with BMWs, I installed any product for free if the owner came to my apartment in LA. For a long time, I had photographically memorized customer addresses. I certainly knew the color and model of the car each of my customers drove. Life was good.
After the S54 M coupe was first released, we were all nervous that they would be very limited production, so I wanted to order mine as soon as possible. BMW actually had trouble selling M coupes when they were new. Many cars sat on dealer lots for a long time. Even S54 M coupes had big factory-to-dealer financial incentives on them: several months of the year you could easily get a $3500 factory-to-dealer incentive. I spent weeks and even months thinking about color combinations. I had chosen my favorite interior: Kyalami Orange. And my favorite exterior: Imola Red. But those 2 colors did not go well with one another. And, the interior choice melted away with the introduction of the S54 as Kyalami Orange was discontinued. The next-best interior choice was a super funky brown color called Walnut, but Walnut was only offered in nappa grade on the Z3 coupe, not the M coupe. Walnut was not only unique and gorgeous, but it was completely exclusive to the Z3 coupe. The roadster did not offer it. No other BMW offered it. It was a lot like E36 M3 Modena Natur, but darker and more rich. Walnut interiors were SUPER rare on Z3 coupes too.
I pressed BMW and my dealer (Jon Shafer at Cutter Motors in Santa Barbara, CA) for a custom-order Imola/Walnut S54 M coupe. BMW would not hear of it. They knew they had a limited production run, and as per the whole nature of the M coupe, it was “love it or leave it”. The obvious solution to me was: order an Imola Red M coupe with black interior, then upon receipt, strip out all the black leather and put in Walnut leather. This was crazy expensive, on the order of $12,000 for the whole interior if I bought the pieces new from a BMW parts counter, but I wasn't scared of the modification. I had taken Z3s apart countless times, and since I had waited this long, the cost seemed OK to me. I had basically been driving a Civic POS for 4 years and working ~16 hour days… I was going to get the one right M coupe for me! I ordered a 2001 M coupe in Imola Red with a Black interior and took delivery in September of 2001 in Santa Barbara, CA. At the time, I was living in Seattle. My brother Andy and I flew in, took delivery of the car, and drove it all the way up Pacific Coast Highway for its 1200 mile break-in. It was glorious.
Well as fate would have it, Andy had been working for LeatherZ too. And like me, he too had an unnatural obsession about BMWs and rare BMWs at that (see previous paragraphs about Ohio conservative father). I told Andy if he bought a Z3 coupe and ordered a Walnut interior, I would happily swap my black M interior for his plus help him with the cost of his car. He agreed. Andy ordered a 2002 Z3 coupe in Dakar Yellow with Walnut interior. A bizarre color combination for sure. For Andy's car, he elected to do Performance Center Delivery in Spartanburg at the factory. I flew to him this time and we took delivery, then drove his car home on Blue Ridge Parkway for break-in. It was also glorious.
Fast forward a few weeks and we were both anxious to get on with the interior swap. There was a small threat from Andy that he actually preferred the Walnut interior and he wanted to keep it. But a deal is a deal. There were great logistical challenges shipping a coupe interior from Seattle to Cincinnati and vice versa. Huge costs. Turns out the cheapest way to do it was to use Amtrak freight... The quotes we got were like $90 each way and would take less than 3 days, which sort of foreshadows and explains why Amtrak is such a money-loser! Logistics solved, I completely removed the interior of my car. I carefully built a large wood crate to protect all the parts. The crate probably weighed a couple hundred pounds! We called it the “ark of the covenant” because the finished crate looked like one from the end scene of Indiana Jones. I am sure it was WAY overbuilt, but I didn't want anything to happen to any of the parts. While I was building and loading the crate in Seattle, Andy removed his seats and door panels, and prepared to drive from Cincinnati to Chicago. The Amtrak shipping deal was great, but not perfect… the train didn't go to Cincinnati! So Andy had to drive to Chicago to meet it.
Andy met the train in Chicago, got Amtrak to forklift the crate off the train into an underground parking area. In some dark, hot, ratty Chicago underground parking lot, Andy unloaded my parts, put his parts back into the crate, sealed it, and returned the crate back to Amtrak for the return trip. He returned home with my black M coupe interior, and 3 days later his Walnut interior arrived in Seattle. We both installed our new interiors and we both added all of the extended leather pieces too. Andy switched to an M center console with Series 1 VDO gauges at the same time, and we both did many “might as well” mods while we had the interiors out.
Now that the biggest modification was complete, I went on with smaller ones. My philosophy with modifications was: I was only going to do small, subtle ones. I was going to do modifications that I thought the factory would do if money was no object. I changed the differential to a 3.46. At the time, you could actually buy new differentials from BMW. I rebuilt the shifter and pedal assemblies with delrin bushings, chromed various pieces in the interior and engine bay, upgraded the audio system, and other mods. I was introduced to the North Cascades Highway when driving my coupe, and I went on many great drives and adventures with it. Other BMW enthusiasts continued to hate on the M coupe. We got a lot of flak from M3 drivers and others. None of us cared. In fact, the more people mocked us, the more we dug in and loved our cars!
I drove my M coupe back to Bimmerfest in Santa Barbara for the 2nd and 3rd annual Bimmerfests. I took it to the Seattle BMW CCA Concours d'Elegance & Heritage Picnic when the Z3 coupe was the featured car for the year, and won best in class. I didn't even clean the engine bay in preparation for the Concours – at all – and I won. I had some celebrity status as the founder of LeatherZ, but I didn't like the attention. I didn't really enjoy showing my car to people. I didn't like talking about it with other people. By this point, I had stopped doing most LeatherZ work and Andy had taken over the company. He was able to just work for LeatherZ full time and make a living at it. But I started to get nervous that something would happen to my M coupe. The car was all I had to show for all the years of incredibly hard LeatherZ work I had done. I started to park it more often and just used it on some weekends. I bought a BMW motorcycle and got into another whole crowd of people, friends, and enthusiasts. One where I was unknown. I continued to take meticulous of the coupe. Life changes happened, I got married, we moved across the country to Charleston; but the coupe was always there. When we built our house in Charleston, I did manage to build a dedicated, climate-controlled garage for the coupe. I never stopped loving the car, I just used it very little.
I bought a Z4 M Coupe for my wife for her 30th birthday. I bought an S52 M coupe after we sold our motorcycles. The S52 was like a rebirth for me... since the car was used, and this particular one wasn't a garage queen, I actually drove it. A lot. I still took great care of it. I started a new blog for it called coupenut.blogspot.com and I did a bunch of work on that coupe as practice for someday doing it on my S54. I did a bunch of mods and maintenance I had always wanted to do on my S54, but didn't need to. In many ways, I loved my S52 coupe even more than the S54!
I did manage to take the S54 M coupe, my wife's Z4 M Coupe, and the S52 M coupe to Randy Forbes in Florida for a host of modifications. I retired a lot of risk on my S54 coupe by preventatively addressing all the rear subframe, connecting rod bearing, and VANOS issues, and I got to connect with Randy often.
I got an opportunity at work to go to Australia as an expat for 2 years. So my family and I are here, and I am car-less save for a 2013 Honda Jazz POS, not totally unlike the Civic I had living in LA years ago. Being away from home and the cars does allow me a little more time for reflection, and to write articles like this one to share my story. Sometimes I have fleeting thoughts that I should sell all 3 of our coupes and buy a 911 or an R8 or some other car, but every time I come back to the same conclusion: those cars aren't M coupes. There really is nothing like them.