BMW 3 Series 1986

culture

The little M3 that could

With the new M3 (and M4) polarising opinion around the world, it's timely to look back at where it all began.

Few cars have captured the hearts of automotive enthusiasts around the world like BMW’s original pocket rocket, the E30 M3. Widely regarded as not just one of BMW’s finest, but one of the best examples of a ‘driver’s car’ to ever earn the epithet. And we have motorsport to thank for its existence.

BMW wanted to go racing in the 1980s, but to satisfy the Group A touring car homologation rules of the Deutsche Tourenwagen Meistershaft, it needed to build 5000 cars. Enter BMW’s M skunkworks, which took a humble 3 Series coupe and fettled it into one of the greats.

BMW took the covers off the M3 at the 1985 Frankfurt Motor Show, ahead of production starting in March 1986. And while it may have looked like a beefier version of its tamer non-M sibling, it actually shared very little with the regular E30 3 Series.

Externally, BMW was hunting drag efficiency, to make the car as slippery as possible through the air. A front splitter, rear apron, sill panels and bootlid were all changed in order to improve aero performance.

At the rear, the angle of the C-pillar was changed to accommodate a flatter rear window while a new bootlid was made of fibreglass and raised by 40mm over the standard E30, changes that resulted in lower lift and improved straight line stability.

Out front, BMW did away with the rubber seals used to hold in the windscreen, instead using glue to hold the glass in place.

Nearly every body panel contained the DNA of M’s team of engineers, with only the bonnet, roof and sunroof carrying over from the regular 3 Series.

The external tweaks resulted in an improved drag coefficient, the M3 measuring Cd=0.33 against the 3 Series’ Cd=0.38.

But it was under the skin where the genius of BMW’s M division could truly be found, the 2.3-litre DOHC inline four cylinder engine, dubbed internally as the S14. It was a bit of a Frankenstein engine, borrowing the block from BMW’s M10 family and the head from the S38 six-cylinder motor found in the M1, but with two cylinders given the chop.

The resulting rev-happy (redline was 7250rpm) four-pot originally made 143kW (at 6750rpm) and 230Nm at 4750rpm. By the end of the E30 M3’s life-cycle in 1991, the standard M3 was making 158kW and 230Nm, while special editions boosted outputs even further, the limited-run (just 505 were produced) Evolution 2 making 162kW and 245Nm while the production run of 600 Sport Evolution (or EVO3) models scored a larger 2.5-litre four-banger with 175kW and 240Nm.

A Getrag 265 five-speed manual transmission sent power to the rear wheels. European M3s featured the racier dogleg manual while their US counterparts were fitted with a more conventional h-pattern.

The E30 M3 also received a bespoke brake package with bigger discs, calipers and master cylinder all unique to the M3. The 15-inch alloys also featured a five-stud pattern.

Suspension refinements included new aluminium control arms, revised front strut tubes with bolt on kingpins and a swaybar mounted to the strut tube, and offset control arm bushings at the front to increased caster angle.

All that engineering added up to what is now widely regarded as one the great driver’s cars, that rev-happy four-banger willing to sing and howl until redline. The E30 rewarded revolutions in a way few cars of the day could match, piling on acceleration in a linear and predictable manner while singing gruffly with a mechanical howl missing from so much of today’s turbocharged hymn books.

Its handling too, was considered predictable, a neutral chassis that simply went where it was asked while the bigger race-bred brake package continued to pull up the M3 time after time after time.

Little wonder then, the little E30 M3 continues to enjoy a cult-like status. And with just 17,970 cars produced over its six-year life cycle, prices are starting to go up. Earlier this year, a US-based online auction house sold a pristine US-delivered M3 with just 8000 miles on the clock for a staggering US$250,000 (A$355,000).

The burning question though; how did it perform for the purpose it was intended? Well, not too bad as it turns out.

Raced around the world during the tumultuous Group A touring car era, the little M3 racked up a string of race and championship victories.

  • 1987 World Touring Car Championship
  • 1987 and 1988 European Touring Car Championship
  • 1988 and 1991 British Touring Car Championship
  • Italian Superturismo Championship; 4 titles (1987, 1989, 1990 and 1991)
  • 1987 and 1989 Deutsche Tourenwagen Meisterschaft
  • 1987 Australian Touring Car Championship
  • 1993 Australian 2.0 Litre Touring Car Championship
  • 1990 Irish Tarmac Rally Championship

The pocket rocket also scored five Nurburgring 24 hour victories (1989, 1990, 1991, 1992 and 1994) and four Spa 24 hour wins for good measure (1987, 1988, 1990 and 1992). Successful by any measure.

But perhaps our favourite E30 M3 story was of a special little Bimmer that saw service in BMW M’s division for 26 years before being retired.

In 1986, BMW built a one-off M3 ute for internal use as transporter at M’s Garching factory. Based on the M3 convertible, the little pickup was originally powered by a slimmed down 2.0-litre version of the S14 engine which made 141kW and 210Nm.

At some point, however, the little ute underwent a heart transplant and received the bigger 2.3-litre four-banger. BMW retired the M3 ute in 2012 after 26 years of service, replacing it with another one-off skunkworks ute, a V8-powered E93 generation (convertible) M3.

Today’s newly-revealed M3 may be faster, better-appointed and more, ahem, aggressively styled, but it’s unlikely it will ever reach the near-mythical status the original enjoys to this day.

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