To understand why BMW created the M3, it is important to know something about the 2002, the model that created the template for the Ultimate Driving Machine. The late David E. Davis, famous for his colourful contributions to Car and Driver and later for founding Automobile magazine, wrote in January 1968: ‘…to hell with all of them. Let them stay in the automotive dark. I know about the BMW 2002.’
When the original E21 3-Series was introduced in 1975 to replace the 02-Series, many BMW enthusiasts feared there would never be a successor to the 2002. Certainly the standard 318 and 320i lacked the edge of the old model, were softer and targeted at a less specialist audience.
It was not until well into the life of the second generation E30 3-Series that BMW once again introduced a dedicated sporting car to satisfy the keenest enthusiast. The new M3 was also intended to continue BMW’s widespread success in motorsport and the ‘M’ stood simply for Motorsport, the company’s dedicated racing division. BMW Motorsport GmbH was established in 1972 and six years later produced its first fruit in the glorious guise of the M1, intended first for the track and later for the road. ‘M’ is probably the single most recognised capital letter in the history of the automotive industry.
But why did it take BMW management more than a decade to replace the 2002 Tii? The answer to this question goes a long way to defining a dilemma that faces the manufacturer of highly specialist cars that wishes to survive as a proudly independent company. The 1962 BMW 1500 brought a bigger market share for the Bavarian manufacturer, but even so production volumes did not compete with those of Daimler-Benz, let alone companies such as Fiat and Peugeot, who also produced sedans with a sporting flavour. The E21 3-Series was conceived as the car to put BMW among the world’s mass automotive manufacturers and entirely succeeded. The price to be paid was by the hard-line enthusiasts as BMW became a household name.
The second generation E30 3-Series The 323i five-speed manual sedan – even though the E30 was sold here initially as a two-door only, like the old 2002, you wouldn’t call it a coupé The M3 variant was still four years into the future and, paradoxically, it would not use the lovely BMW 2.3-litre six-pack but a seriously tweaked four-cylinder unit of the same capacity.
The E30 M3 made its debut at the 1985 Frankfurt motor show and production began in June 1986. Unlike its 2002 predecessor, the M3 was developed with racing at the top of its agenda, specifically the World Touring Car Championship for Group A cars. To be eligible – or, to use that awkward motor racing specific verb ‘homologated’ – a minimum number of road going versions had to be manufactured. Because of its purpose-built nature, the E30 was never made as a right-hand drive car.
Sadly, the aforementioned World Touring Car Championship was run only in 1986. In a sense, this left BMW with an icon without a showcase. It meant that the second generation E36 M3 could be developed as a car with broader market appeal.
The E36 was surprisingly different. Introduced in Europe in 1992. This one used an awesome straight six. But the M3’s 3.0-litre engine had a new variable camshaft timing system (‘VANOS’). The E36’s engine was surely the world’s finest six-pack in 1992. The E36 did have an aluminium bonnet but surely more kilograms could have been saved somewhere?
Although the fourth generation E46 3-Series was arguably less of a step forward than either of its two predecessors had been the flagship M3 variant shrugged off any of its lesser siblings’ blandness. It was released two years after the sedans in March 2000. The stance was even more obviously muscular. The heftier E46 M3 came in at 1,495 kg, by 2000 the WRX STi was its equal on acceleration.
The engineers at M doubtless saw the new model’s shortcomings or, rather, its middle-aged spread. Focused on a Nürburgring lap time of less than eight minutes, they created the CSL. Seven kilograms were saved by fitting a carbon fibre roof. Some 50 kg was pulled from the interior, thanks to lightweight seats, centre console, glass and door panels. The 19-inch BBS wheels were lighter, too. Aluminium lower control arms and a carbon fibre front bumper were also included. As for the plastic composite boot lid, its main aim was to improve aerodynamics. The ride height was dropped 10 mm and the suspension upgraded. The quicker steering rack was also welcome. For some, the disappointment was that you couldn’t specify an old-fashioned manual gearbox but the SMGII transmission did make for quicker times.
All M3s have a following but it does seem that the E36 is the least fondly regarded. That said, it also has significant potential for appreciation, as does the E46, while the E30 has long been a favourite with collectors.