Even drivers who don’t consider themselves car nuts (or enthusiasts, if you will) often love the idea of owning a car that feels like a real race car, whether for the bragging rights or just to pretend that the freeway ramp is really a turn at the Nürburgring. Of course, real race cars are usually rough, noisy, temperamental, and fussy in a way few would care to tolerate on a day-to-day basis, but many buyers happily lay out serious money to indulge their Walter Mitty fantasies.
By those standards, there are few cars more desirable than the E30 version of the BMW M3. Not only does it look like a track car, it’s a hardcore “homologation special” whose track-bound brothers dominated touring car racing throughout the late eighties and early nineties. It’s not the fastest of its kind, but there are still those who will swear to you that it is the best. This is its story.
Why do automakers go racing? For most companies, it’s a combination of ego and marketing ambition — the hope that success in competition will provide positive publicity and spark sales, the old cliché, “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday.”
BMW’s competition history goes back to the 1920s, but the company’s direct involvement with racing has been on and off. In 1971, new BMW chairman Eberhard von Kuenheim decided that BMW should again take a more active, organization role in competition. He tasked BMW’s new sales director, Bob Lutz — a Swiss-born American who had been an executive with GM’s European operations in the sixties — to develop a new racing organization.
Rather than create a competition division with BMW, von Kuenheim and Lutz opted to start a separate, subsidiary company, BMW Motorsport GmbH (now called simply BMW M). BMW Motorsport was incorporated in May 1972 and Lutz hired two former Ford racing managers, Jochen Neerpasch and Martin Braungart, to run it.
Ford’s experience in the sixties had demonstrated that throwing vast amounts of money and resources at ‘works’ teams did not necessarily translate into victory. BMW decided that rather than fielding factory teams, BMW Motorsport would instead develop and sell racing parts and technical support to independent teams. The highlight of Motorsport’s early efforts was the formidable 3.0 CSL “Batmobile,” which scored strongly in the mid-1970s, although it was not until a few years later that the company gave serious thought to designing cars of its own.
THE BMW M1
The first car to wear the Motorsport M badge was the BMW M1, a mid-engine coupe intended for competition in the FIA’s Group 4. Known internally as the E26, the M1 was based on a mid-engine show car designed by stylist Paul Bracq in 1972, restyled by Giorgetto Giugiaro. The E26 project began in 1974, but its gestation was protracted and troublesome. Motorsport had intended to contract production to Lamborghini, but when that fell through, the bodies were built by Giugiario’s Italdesign and assembled by Karosserie Baur in Stuttgart. It took so long to produce the 400 cars necessary for racing homologation that by the time the M1 was finally homologated in 1981, it was no longer really competitive.
The M1 was best described as a modest failure and its most significant legacy was its engine, the M88. Developed by Motorsport’s Paul Rosche, it was based on the big straight-six used in BMW’s contemporary sedans and coupes, but bored out to 3,453 cc (211 cu. in.) and fitted with new 24-valve cylinder heads and dual overhead camshafts. In street form, the M88 made 277 hp DIN (204 kW), a healthy increase over the 200 hp (149 kW) of the ordinary 3,210 cc (196 cu. in.) six. Normally aspirated racing versions averaged around 480 hp (350 kW), with as much as 900 hp (660 kW) in turbocharged form. Subsequent versions of the M88 and its S38 derivative, would be used in BMW performance cars well into the 1990s.
BMW E30 3-SERIES
As Motorsport struggled with the M1 project, BMW was enjoying the fruits of its most successful mainstream product, the first 3-Series (known internally as the E21). Launched in May 1975, the 3-Series was a modest evolution of the 2002: conceptually similar, but a little bigger, a little softer, a bit more refined, and significantly more expensive than before. It was hugely popular, however, accounting for more than half of BMW sales.
At first blush, the success of the 3-Series BMW was not easy to grasp. It was a fine car in many respects — a compact, well-built little sedan with excellent handling and commendable fuel economy — but it was also Spartan, cramped, had a relatively stiff ride and cost nearly as much as a Cadillac Sedan de Ville. To an older generation of American buyers, bred to associate luxury with size and plushness, the 3-Series was hardly appealing, but for upwardly mobile Baby Boomers, it soon became a status symbol. A 320i was a natural step up from nimble compacts like the Volkswagen Golf, Honda Accord, or Fiat 128, offering most of their virtues without the stigma of low price or plebeian badge. More than a million 3-Series cars were sold between 1977 and 1982.
Not wanting to tamper with a successful formula, BMW’s second-generation 3-Series (known internally as the E30) was a conservative update of its predecessor. Launched in Europe in the spring of 1983, the new E30 3-Series was almost the same size as before, with a cautious facelift orchestrated by BMW design chief Claus Luthe.
The only thing that changed significantly was the price, which was even more daunting than the E21’s. A U.S.-spec 318i started at around $16,500; with a full load of options, it ran more than $19,000. By comparison, a Honda Accord SE-i, roughly the same size, with similar power, could be had for about $6,000 less. The Honda couldn’t match the 318i’s solidity or adroit handling, but the price gap indicated how much customers were prepared to spend for the prestige of the BMW roundel and the upscale performance image it implied.
FROM M5 TO E30 M3
In 1983, BMW decided to give the performance image of its production cars a shot in the arm by offering Motorsport-tuned versions of its standard cars. The first of these was the M635CSi (known in America as the M6), a high-performance version of the E24 6-Series coupe, followed in February 1985 by the E28 M5, which installed the M1’s DOHC M88 engine in the midsize E28 5-Series. The new engine and associated chassis tuning gave the somewhat staid 5-Series and 6-Series cars startling performance. Both M635CSi and M5 sold in limited numbers, but they earned BMW a great deal of publicity and added luster to the lesser models in the line.
An M version of the popular E30 3-Series was a natural follow-on. Motorsport first proposed such a car in 1981, but serious development was not approved until after the launch of the E30 in 1983. The project took on a greater urgency that summer when Mercedes-Benz’s introduced its compact 190E (W201) sedan, a direct rival to the 3-Series. Along with the 190E came a high-performance version, the 190E 2.3-16V, with a highly tuned engine built by the British firm Cosworth. The 2.3-16V began setting records even before its official debut and in 1984, it went on to a strong showing in the new Deutsche Tourenwagen Meisterschaft (DTM, German Touring Car Championship) racing series. It was not a challenge BMW was prepared to ignore and BMW chairman Eberhard von Kuenheim and Motorsport director Wolfgang-Peter Flohr set out to develop a high-performance 3-Series that could challenge Mercedes both on the track and on the street. It would be called, naturally enough, the M3.
POWER FOR HOMOLOGATION
The DTM and other touring-car racing series followed Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) Group A rules, which required at least 5,000 cars a year, using the same suspension geometry, fender width, aerodynamic aids, engine blocks, and cylinder heads as the racer. To compete against the Mercedes, the M3 needed an engine displacing between 1,600 and 2500 cc (98 and 153 cu. in.).
Paul Rosche, now technical director of Motorsport, developed the E30 M3’s engine in only two weeks. Although BMW had both four- and six-cylinder engines in the necessary displacement range, Rosche opted for the four, because its shorter, stiffer crankshaft would allow higher engine speeds in racing tune. The E30 M3’s engine, dubbed S14, used the cylinder block of the 318i’s normal M10 engine, bored and stroked to 2,302 cc (141 cu. in.), but the cylinder head was essentially that of the M88 six, shorn of two cylinders. With its mix of familiar parts, the S14 was a known quantity. Other than some early problems with high exhaust temperatures, it proved to be very reliable for both street and racing use.
To complement the hotter engine, Motorsport also made extensive modifications to the E30 3-Series’ body, suspension, brakes, steering, and driveline: stiffer springs and shocks, bigger anti-roll bars, and faster steering ratio; bigger disc brakes and wheel bearings, borrowed from the 5-Series; lower-profile tires on 15-inch (381 mm) wheels. Anti-lock brakes and a limited-slip differential were standard, as was a close-ratio, five-speed Getrag gearbox.
Although the E30 M3 looked like a 318i with a body kit, the only exterior panels it shared with the standard 3-Series were the hood and sunroof. The front and rear fenders were boxed and flared to allow the wider wheels needed by the race versions, while the C-pillars, backlight, and decklid were reshaped to reduce drag. The windshield and backlight were rigidly bonded to the roof pillars, making the upper body noticeably stiffer. The doors got plastic sill extensions, and large spoilers were added front and rear. The aero kit was arguably in dubious taste, but it worked: the 3-Series’ drag coefficient (Cd) dropped from 0.39 to 0.33, while high-speed lift was reduced substantially.
M30 ON THE ROAD
A prototype of the E30 M3 was first shown to the public at the Frankfurt Motor Show in September 1985, but series production did not commence until 12 months later. Customer deliveries didn’t actually begin until 1987, after the first 5,000 cars had been built. U.S. versions began to appear later that year.
The standard E30 3-Series was far from cheap to begin with and the price tag of the M3 was eye-watering. In Germany, it started at 58,300 DM (around $27,000) while the better-equipped U.S. version started at $34,000. That was nearly double the price of a 318i and some $5,600 more than the already-dear six-cylinder 325i.
An E30 M3 wasn’t a great deal quicker than the 325i in a straight line and was far less pleasant to live with. The ride was actually quite civilized, but the S14 engine was neither smooth nor quiet and many testers agreed that it was wearisome on long drives. Despite the luxury-car price, refinement was not one of the E30 M3’s virtues.
Where it acquitted itself was on the track or on a winding B road. The standard E30 3-Series was already fairly nimble and the M3’s stiffer body and retuned suspension sharpened its reflexes significantly. It had crisp turn-in, precise steering response, and fine balance, and it was commendably free of handling vices. Some critics felt it had a little too much initial understeer, but progressive, controllable drifts were readily obtainable, giving skilled drivers an immediate sense of confidence.
Many drivers (including your author) would probably have been better served by a combination of the M3’s fine suspension and the more pleasant 2,495 cc (152 cu. in.) six of the 325i, but for the M3’s target audience, the rawness was part of the appeal. The E30 M3 was not so much a hotted-up luxury sedan as a toned-down race car.
ON THE TRACK
BMW wasted no time getting the true racing versions of the M3 on the track. As usual, Motorsport did not field a true factory team, instead offering pre-packaged kits to private entrants with everything needed to go racing.
The E30 M3’s first race was at Monza in March 1987. Although it made a strong showing, all but one of the BMWs were disqualified on obscure technical grounds, drawing howls of protest from Motorsport. Once those issues had been addressed, the M3 overcame its early setback and became the dominant force in touring-car racing.
In 1987, M3s took first and third in the German DTM series and won the Italia Superturismo Championship, the Australian Touring Car Championship, the European Touring Car Championship (ETCC), and the World Touring Car Championship. In 1988, an M3 driven by Roberto Ravaglia took the ETCC again, while Frank Sytner won the British Touring Car Championship.
Starting in 1989, the M3 also racked up a series of victories in the grueling 24 Hours Nürburgring. As late as 1991, it was formidable enough to earn a final victory at the Nürburgring and in the Belgian 24 Hours of Spa. (Even today, M3s of this vintage continue to be popular for autocrossing and other forms of amateur and semi-professional competition.)
Although Group A homologation required the sale of at least 5,000 cars a year, the rules allowed “evolutions” of existing designs to be homologated with only 500 units. BMW fielded a series of limited-production E30 M3 “Evo” models, featuring more powerful engines, aerodynamic improvements, and other minor changes. The most formidable of these was the 1989-90 Sport Evo, or Evolution III, which had a stroked 2,467 cc (151 cu. in.) engine with 238 hp (175 kW), 340 hp (250 kW) in race trim. Starting in 1988, there was also a limited run of M3 convertibles, using the 220 PS (162 kW) engine of the original M3 Evolution. Most of these limited editions did not have catalytic converters and were never imported to the U.S.
Because of its relatively high volume, the E30 M3 was the first M edition to be built on the regular BMW assembly lines in Munich. The earliest M3s were built by Motorsport, but Motorsport simply didn’t have the capacity to build cars in the numbers required. Total production was 17,184 coupes, including about 3,800 Evos and special editions, plus 786 convertibles. Just under 5,000 were sold in the U.S.
Although the E30 M3 accounted for only a small percentage of E30 3-Series sales, it was a highly profitable exercise and it did wonders for BMW’s reputation. While the actual touring-car racers were certainly not the same as the standard 3-Series or even the standard M3, the differences were not vast, and the M3’s racing success helped to validate the company’s “Ultimate Driving Machine” slogan.
The original E30 M3 has been widely acclaimed as one of the finest driver’s cars of its era. It was by no means the only homologation special of that period — aside from the Mercedes 190E 2.3-16V, another key rival was the turbocharged Ford Sierra Cosworth — but it was arguably the best. Like the Shelby GT-350 of two decades earlier, it remains among the raciest cars ever offered to the public.
The success of the E30 M3 ensured that BMW would follow up with M versions of the subsequent E36 (1991-2000), E46 (2001-2006), and E90 (2008-on) 3-Series. Although these later M3s were faster than the original, they were also heavier and a good deal more genteel, lacking the race-ready character of their predecessor. Since M3 sales grew to account for as much as 15% of 3-Series sales, it’s hard to argue that change from a business perspective. Still, many BMW fans feel the original M3 best embodies the values that the brand purports to represent.
As BMW’s market share grows — in Europe, low-line versions of the 3-Series (and its Audi A4 and Mercedes C-class rivals) have decimated sales of non-premium D-segment sedans like the Honda Accord and Ford Mondeo — the M cars become increasingly important in maintaining the brand’s image. Snob value is hard to maintain when everybody and her brother drives the same kind of car as you do, and it’s difficult to claim superiority in luxury and performance when buyers can have a better-equipped, six-cylinder Mondeo for the price of a four-cylinder 318i. In the face of such ubiquity, it falls to halo cars like the M3 and M5 to uphold BMW’s prestige — and justify its premium prices.
(In the interests of full disclosure, your author must admit to being very fond of the M3, although the greater refinement of the E36 and E46 version is more to our taste than the E30 M3’s raucous engine and tacky, boy-racer spoilers. We have never been particularly enamored of most exotic sports cars, however fast or pretty, but the M3 strikes a balance between practicality and desirability that we find difficult to resist. It is one of the few high-performance cars that we would seriously consider owning.)
NOTES ON SOURCES
Our sources included Mike Covello, Standard Catalog of Imported Cars 1946-2002, Second Edition (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2001); Jan P. Norbye and the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, BMW: Bavaria’s Driving Machines (Skokie, IL: Publications International, Ltd., 1984); “E26 M1 FAQ,” BMW M Registry, m.d., www.bmwmregistry. com, accessed 27 February 2009; Frank de Jong’s history page, History of the European Touring Car Championship website (n.d., originally homepage.mac. com/frank_de_jong/Race/ and now www.touringcarracing.net), accessed 27 February 2009; Jim Donnelly, “Edged Weapon: BMW’s M1, a hard-case Teutonic exotic,” Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car #22 (June 2007), pp. 18-23; L’Editrice Dell’Automobile LEA, World Cars 1985 (Pelham, NY: Herald Books, 1985); Paul Tan, “The History of the BMW M3,” PaulTan.org, 16 July 2007, paultan. org/ 2007/07/16/ the-history-of-the-bmw-m3-e30-m3/, accessed 27 February 2009; the BMW M Registry’s E30 M3 FAQ, BMW M Registry, n.d., www.bmwmregistry. com, accessed 27 February 2009; Mark Wan, “BMW 3-Series,” AutoZine.org, n.d., www.autozine. org/ Archive/BMW/classic/M3.html, accessed 27 February 2009; and the Wikipedia® page for the E30 3-Series (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BMW_3_Series_%28E30%29, accessed 26 February 2009).
We also consulted a variety of road tests, including Rich Ceppos, “BMW 318i: Truth in advertising,” Car and Driver July 1983; “No Hold Ups in the Fast Lane,” Car and Car Conversions September 1986; Jeremy Walton, “Locking Horns: RS M3: Sierra RS Cosworth BMW M3,” Performance Car September 1986; Georg Kacher, “BMW M3: From Munich with Brio,” Automobile February 1987; “Winning Combination,” Autocar 15 April 1987; “Three Scores,” Car May 1987; Csaba Csere, “BMW 325is: The spiritual return of the 2002tii,” Car and Driver August 1987; “BMW M3: Don’t ever think ‘yuppie’ again,” Car and Driver November 1987; “BMW M3 and 325is: Breeding improves the racing,” Road & Track February 1988; Bob Murray, “The Pacesetters,” Autocar 17 February 1988; “Test Extra: BMW M3 Evolution,” Autocar & Motor 28 September 1988; and “Clash of the Teutons: Three cracks of rolling thunder from German,” Road & Track January 1991. Many of these articles are reprinted in BMW M3 Ultimate Portfolio 1986-2006, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brookland Books Ltd., 2007). Some details on the then current E92 M3 came mostly from Mark Wan, “BMW M3,” AutoZine.org, 16 July 2007, www.autozine. org/ Archive/BMW/new/M3_E92.html, accessed 27 February 2009.
Historical exchange rate data for the dollar and the mark came from Harold Marcuse, “Historical Dollar-to-Marks Currency Conversion Page,” UC Santa Barbara, 19 August 2005 www.history.ucsb. edu /faculty/marcuse/projects/currency.htm, accessed 25 February 2009. All equivalencies cited in the text are approximate and are provided for illustration and informational purposes only — this is an automotive history, not a treatise on currency trading or the value of money, and nothing in this article should be taken as financial advice of any kind!