BMW Celebrates 30 years of the M Power M3 Performance Icon
BMW’s M3 celebrates 30 years as a performance icon
All images courtesy of BMW AG.
“Race car for the street” is an oft-overused phrase, frequently applied to the likes of garden-variety sports and GT cars alike. But, sometimes, when a manufacturer must homologate a car by building it in quantity to make it legal for a racing series, you really can get a race car for the street.
The BMW E30 M3, made from 1986 through 1991, fulfilled that role quite nicely for the Munich manufacturer. And in the process of turning its small sedan into a fire-breathing, track and rally course-eating machine, it also found homes for them with more than 17,000 enthusiasts worldwide. This spring marks the 30th anniversary of the debut of this legendary machine.
BMW’s potent 2.3-liter, 200-hp S14 engine
By the mid-1980s, BMW had already firmly established its racing bona fides from the 2002 to the CSL, reaching the pinnacle when Nelson Piquet claimed the 1983 Formula 1 driver’s title at the wheel of the Brabham BT-52. Mounted amidships that arrow-shaped car was BMW’s insane 850-hp (or more?) M12/13 turbocharged 1.5-liter engine, a powerplant with basis in a then 20-year-old street block design.
As far as sports sedans go, well, you’d be hard pressed to argue against the notion that BMW invented the genre with the 1800 and later 2002. When BMW stuffed a slightly modified version of the M1 supercar’s inline-six under the hoods of the 5 Series sedan and 6 Series Coupe, it transformed those otherwise competent and sporty cars into supercars.
Roberto Ravaglia in DTM action in 1989
With a directive from the CEO to make a sportier 3 Series to go racing with, BMW engine guru Paul Rosche focused on a four-cylinder powerplant, not one of the sixes that powered the otherwise top-of-the-line 3 Series. At the time, with a cast-iron block, a four-cylinder powerplant would be lighter and the engineers liked the torque curve better. They also went against the grain of other performance cars of the day and eschewed turbocharging in favor of multi-valve cylinder heads.
And when it came time to make a four-valve cylinder head for the 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, the M guys were able to turn to the 282-hp M88 inline-six used in the M635CSi and M535i. That engine, closely related to the mill from the M1, had the exact same bore spacing as BMW’s four. They also increased the displacement of the 2.0-liter mill by expanding the bore and stroke to 93.4 mm and 84 mm, respectively, matching the cylinders in the M5/M6 engine. At 2.3 liters, it was BMW’s largest four-cylinder engine to date.
Street-going M3 on the left and race-prepped on the right
In production trim, when not equipped with catalytic converters, the engine produced 200 hp and 177-lb.ft. of torque. With that four-valve-per-cylinder head, the engine reached peak power at 6,750 RPM on its way to a sky-high (for the day) 7,200 RPM redline. Code-named S14 in BMW-speak, the engine produced the highest specific output per liter of displacement for a normally aspirated engine at the time, more even than any exotic car. More importantly, the engine outpaced the 185-hp output of the Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.3-16, a similarly conceived car from their most obvious competitor. Mercedes had developed its 16-valve head with the help of U.K.’s Cosworth.
With its individual throttle body intakes for each cylinder and a giant airbox feeding them, BMW didn’t shy away from announcing its engine, with the words “BMW M Power” cast into the aluminum cam cover for anyone to see who dared open the hood. It was a bold statement, backed up by the car’s performance.
BMW made a small run of M3 convertibles near the end of the original E30 production run, sans the large rear wing.
But with an eye on entering Group A production-car racing, a designation that allowed homologation if 5,000 examples were produced in a 12-month period, BMW didn’t stop at the engine. Since Group A allowed for limited modifications from the stock configuration, BMW made sure that the stock configuration of the M3 was all about racing.
The body featured massive box flares on the fenders to allow for extra-wide rubber on the track. The rear glass was removed and a cap was put over the C-pillars to extend the rear roofline to a semi-fastback design for improved airflow. Keeping that air moving the way the engineers wanted it to, a new composite (read: plastic) trunk lid replaced the steel piece from the standard 3. Sitting some 1.5 inches higher than the standard unit, the trunk also featured one of the highest factory trunk wings since the Dodge Daytona and Plymouth Superbird of 1969 and 1970. Distinct front and rear bumper treatments and modified rocker panels were also given the wind-tunnel treatment. Paying attention to as many details as possible, the engineers also specified that the windshield and backlight be mounted flush with the surrounding steel for improved aerodynamics. The result of all the nipping, tucking, flaring and winging was a drop in overall coefficient of drag from 0.37 to 0.33 when compared to the standard 325i, despite wider tires mounted on the M3.
Also homologated for Group A rally, BMW won a single WRC event against many formidable all-wheel-drive competitors at the 1987 Tour de Corse, the all-tarmac rally held on the island of Corsica.
Under the skin, the M engineers baked in lots of road-sticking goodness based on the standard 3’s fully independent and already confidence-inspiring suspension. Using shorter, stiffer springs, the M3 sat an inch lower than the standard 3. Likewise, instead of mounting the front anti-roll bars to the control arms, they mounted them directly to the struts and installed a fatter one between the rear wheels.
BMW also specified larger brakes borrowed from the bigger sedans, measuring 11.0 inches up front and 11.1 inches in the rear, to stop the car from its better-than-140 MPH top speed. They also made sure all of that power got to the ground via a close-ratio five-speed manual transmission (no automatic option was offered) and a limited-slip differential. Keeping the driver in control of all of this race-car componentry (and the passenger/navigator in his place) was a pair of multi-adjustable sport seats from Recaro.
The ultimate E30 M3 to many devotees was the Euro-only Sport Evolution, which featured a host of changes, most notably in the form of the 2.5-liter, 235-hp variant of the S14 engine under the hood.
Of course, since this was a race car for the street and destined to be the most expensive 3 Series, BMW outfitted them with many luxury options—for the U.S., at least, including standard leather seating, air conditioning, the usual assortment of power windows, locks and steering, a high-end cassette sound system and a trip computer. Though it surprises some fans, the M3 was the heaviest non-convertible/non-wagon 3 Series that BMW made. A 2,850 pound weight (in U.S. spec), might seem comically low by today’s standards, but the car outweighed the 325is—the sportiest 3 Series two-door sedan—by approximately 100 pounds.
The E30 M3’s interior was largely similar to the standard 3 Series, save for a few M logos here and there, slightly different gauges and the mandatory sport seats that would otherwise be an option.
After BMW stamped out one pre-production example in late 1985, series production began in the spring of 1986, with sales following immediately. U.S. production began about a year later, with the first deliveries of 1988 model year M3s reaching dealers in June of 1987. With a catalytic converter fitted, U.S. spec cars were rated at 192 hp, down a skosh from the rest-of-the-world configuration. But that did little to diminish the appeal of the car that came alive from 3,500 RPM on up, giving its driver the feeling that every trip to work and back home felt like a lap of the Nurburgring if he wanted it that way.
The car was an instant classic on both sides of the Atlantic, wowing enthusiasts and leaving auto critics drooling on their word processors. Within the first 12 months of production, BMW had reached its 5,000-unit goal to achieve homologation. So, it went racing and started collecting trophies.
A close-up of the Sport Evolution’s 2.5-liter engine’s cam cover
Tuned for racing, the M3 made as much as 300 hp (at over 8,200 RPM!) and proved competitive right out of the gate. Driving for the factory-anointed team Schnitzer Motorsports in 1987, Italian Roberto Ravaglia claimed the inaugural World Touring Car Championship. After qualifying in the second through seventh slots, BMW M3 drivers took the six top places during the opening round at Monza, but were disqualified for allegedly being underweight. When officials ruled that BMW’s appeal was filed too late, the DQs stuck. Still, Ravaglia followed up Monza with a win in Spain and a string of podium finishes at most of the races for the season to edge out a pair of Ford Sierra Cosworth RS owners by point to take the title home for BMW.
That same year, Winfried Vogt, driving an M3, won the European Touring Car Championship. BMW could lay claim to the title after just the four of seven events on the schedule were completed. Ravaglia repeated the ETCC title for BMW the following year, in 1988. The M3 became the champion’s car in multiple touring car series around the world, including Italy, France, Australia, Britain, Spain and Germany, where it bagged a couple of titles in the incredibly competitive Deutsche Tourenwagen Meisterschaft, a.k.a. DTM.
Overall, the E30 M3 more than lived up to its promise on the track, securing hundreds of road-racing wins all over the globe. Though similarly homologated for rallying’s Group A, against the likes of all-wheel-drive Lancias, Mazdas, Fords and Audis, the rear-wheel-drive M3 bagged only one rally win, appropriately enough at the “Ten Thousand Turns” of the 1987 Tour de Corse, the World Rally Championship event held on the island of Corsica that eschewed dirt and gravel for tarmac—a surface well suited to the M3’s strengths.
Marc Hessel competing in DTM in 1987 in a Zakspeed-prepared M3.
With its blistering results on the track and sensational performance on the street, BMW began building a few variants of the M3. BMW upped the power for the Evolution 1 and Evolution 2 editions, making 500 or so each, and then pulled out all of the stops for the 2.5-liter Sport Evolution, which produced 235 hp and had even more aerodynamic tricks up its sleeve. The racing versions of the 2.5-liter M3 reportedly produced 355 hp –an impressive number for a normally aspirated street-based engine.
Robert Ravaglia leads a veritable parade of Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.3-16 racers in DTM action from 1989.
They also celebrated Ravaglia’s wins with a Ravaglia edition and added the Cecotto model for Venezuelan racer Johnny Cecotto, sometimes teammate of Ravaglia and winner of the 1989 Italian Touring Car Championship. BMW also produced just over 600 M3 convertibles, which featured most of the M3’s modifications from the standard 3, save for the roof and rear wing, of course.
In all, BMW made just over 17,000 E30 M3s in total between 1986 and 1991, with approximately 5,000 shipped over to the U.S. Other than color options and the inclusion of air bags for the 1990 and 1991 model years, all U.S. cars were essentially the same. But the car built a legacy for each M3 that has followed. Though each iteration has been faster and more capable, purists sometimes complain that the raw-edged, high-RPM immediacy of the original has been engineered out.
Today, the E30 M3’s pure rawness commands a significant premium on the already collectible E30 3 Series from the era. Low-mileage, unmolested cars have skyrocketed in value. But to the enthusiasts who still drive them, that first M3 represents an achievement born out in its performance on the street and success at the track. Happy birthday, M3!