bmw m3 history
few performance cars come to define their particular niche in quite the same fashion as the bmw m3. rivals have come and gone, but the m3 has evolved to represent the benchmark for real world performance. yes, you could buy a two-seat open-topped sports car that would lap a track quicker, but the m3 is built for everyday use. it's comfortable, reliable and accessible and above all rapid. here we'll track the m3's history across four generations of 3 series models, starting with the classic e30, moving on to the more genteel e36, the aggressive e46 and finally the powerhouse e90/e92 models.
The E30 M3 was first introduced in 1987, BMW needing to build 500 cars for homologation so that it could go toe to toe with the Ford Sierra Cosworth and the Mercedes 190 in the German DTM racing series. It was a markedly different car from a standard 3 Series coupe. In fact, it shared only the roof and its bonnet with its humbler sibling. The engine was rather special too, an overbored 2.3-litre four-cylinder unit with 16 valves. Closer inspection of many of the other parts, from the big 284mm vented front brake discs, to the the quicker steering rack and twin-tube gas damper suspension, demonstrated that this was not a rushed job. A dog-leg five-speed Getrag gearbox, a limited slip differential and a bigger fuel tank were all fitted, as were beefier anti roll bars and heftier springs and bushings. By any measure it was a serious piece of kit. It worked too, destroying all comers in the DTM and provoking pages of rapturous gushings from road testers of the time.
Over the course of its life, the E30 M3 developed further through M3 EVO, EVO II and Sport EVO models. The S14 engine was grew to 2.5-litres in line with racing regulations of the time and a rather odd convertible model was offered between 1998 and 1991. The original catalysed E30's 195bhp power output swelled to the Sport EVO III's 238bhp. True colelctors may well find themselves drawn to the Tour de Corse, Europa Meister 88, Johnny Cecotto and Roberto Ravaglia special editions, like all E30 M3's available in left hand drive only.
The E30 series BMW M3 may have established itself as a drivers car par excellence, but that left hand drive layout and squared off styling that was dating fast denied it widespread appeal. It was also hugely expensive to build. The subsequent E36 series cars were launched in May 1993 and were an instant hit with their sleeker styling and more powerful engines. The M3 version utilised the 24-valve engine borrowed from the 325i which was subsequently bored to increase cubic capacity and fitted not only with a steel billet crank but also bigger, freer breathing valves. On top of this BMW also grafted on their VANOS variable valve timing system, resulting in a 3.0-litre engine generating some 286bhp.September 1993 saw the fitment of a standard driver's airbag. A super rare M3 GT edition was launched in Racing Green but these are like hen's teeth.
A convertible version followed in July 1994 but it wasn't until March 1996 that the M3 range was significantly altered. The M3 Evolution replaced the previous car, bringing with it a host of engine refinements including a 3.2-litre engine originally based on the 328i unit and BMW's evolutionary Double VANOS system that now took care of both inlet and exhaust functions. Effectively half a McLaren 1 engine, this straight six could generate 321bhp, making it capable of that Holy Grail of normally aspirated engines - a power figure in excess of 100bhp per litre capacity.
The M3 Evolution was launched in Convertible and four-door saloon guise, the desirable two-door coupe not arriving until May 1996. These models continued largely unchanged until the introduction of the M3 SMG version with Sequential Manual Gearbox was introduced in March 1998, at which point the unloved four-door car was discontinued. A passenger airbag was fitted as standard in July 1999 along with the Edition limited run Convertible model. The M3 Evolution Imola Individual (often known as the GT2 in the UK) was also offered, with just 50 cars making these shores. Finished in Imola Red and featuring Nappa interior with SMG gearbox, it's a real prized piece.
The E36 series M3 eventually made way for the more aggressive E46 series car in October 2000. Buyers expecting a fast but refined model in the mould of the E36 were shocked to discover that the M3 had apparently regressed to a more sporting agenda, serving up a more raw, exciting feel than its predecessor, the E36 model. It was also devastatingly rapid and suddenly made the Porsche 911 look a wilful extravagance. Sales were meteoric and the M3 was the car to be seen in for quite some time. Even today, the E46 M3 has a real cachet amongst performance drivers as a car that doesn't have to rely on image.
A convertible model followed in March 2001. Offering far better chassis rigidity than the drop top norm, the convertible lost little to the coupe in terms of driveability. An SMG sequential manual option was offered for both variants in July 2001 and this proved an extremely popular choice. July 2003 saw the introduction of the M3 CSL coupe, a very expensive (£58,455 at launch) lightweight model that saw several speculators lose their shirts on when it was revealed that much of its increased capability was down to its track-biased tyres.
The CSL was quietly deleted from BMW's price lists in early 2005 at much the same time that a Euro4 compatible engine was introduced into the rest of the M3 range to see it through its last couple of years of production. BMW had one final trick up their sleeve, unveiling the M3 CS, a model that was, in effect, half way between the M3 and the CSL. Fitted with a manual gearbox and offering more direct steering, 19-inch alloys, bigger brakes and many of the CSL's interior refinements, the CS was a fitting finale for this hugely popular model.
Its successor was something rather different. Kicking off with 195bhp in the weediest iteration of the E30 M3 and reaching 360bhp in the ultimate CSL version of the E46 model, M3 outputs had risen fast facilitated by the switch from four to six-cylinder engines for the E36 generation. The thinking was that for the E90 version to continue the M3's upward horsepower trajectory, it was going to need a V8.
When the E92 M3 Coupe made its debut in 2007, the hotly anticipated V8 engine was present, correct and pumping out 420bhp. That car was followed early in 2008 by a saloon version (E90) and there was a convertible (E93) hot on its heels, one with a folding hard-top roof no less. All used the same powerplant.
The range was expanded in mid 2010 by the launch of the M3 Coupe Edition which offered a 10mm lower ride height plus a series of styling accessories and equipment upgrades. It was the M3 GTS that really set pulses racing though. This was a specialist track-focused model with power upped to 450bhp, the dual-clutch paddle-shift gearbox as standard, extensive use of carbon fibre in the bodywork, no rear seats and numerous other weight saving measures. The price, at over £100,000, was almost more of an eye-opener than the performance.
Many of the M3 Edition's trick parts were then offered to customers in the form of a Competition Package. This means your M3 gets the 10mm lowered ride height, a revised stability control system with a Sport setting that marshals the Electronic Damper Control (EDC), to take advantage of revised damper rates. The beautiful 19-inch CSL-style alloy wheels are also included.
The launch of the new F30 3 Series in 2012 has already set commentators on fire, speculating how the next M3 will be powered. One thing's for sure. It has some seriously big boots to fill.