Times are changing at BMW. Model designations have been made clearer. The 1 series coupe will become the 2 series and the 3 series coupe has been re-assigned as the 4 series. For most of the range this is not really an issue, but for the M3 coupe, it represents the end of a model range that goes back to 1985. The next M3 will be a sedan you see; the coupe will be the M4.
But we’re not here to moan about it, because to be honest, it’s just a name. The M3 will live on, just not as we know it. Instead we want to celebrate the M3 lineage. After all the M3 has been consistently one of the best drivers cars available.
It all started with the E30 M3, which was the result of BMW’s thirst for motorsport success. Tin Top racing was a lot different back in the 80′s. Rules demanded that race-cars be based on a homologated road car. This lead to the M Division adapting the existing 3 series coupe to be more suitable for racing.
All areas of the car were addressed. A new engine, an inline 4 (S14 engine code), was developed and the chassis was enhanced. Body wise, wider ‘box’ arches were added to accommodate the wider track. New bumpers were designed for better aero and the body itself was made more slippery.
The results were everything BMW had hoped and more. M3’s dominated saloon car racing around the world. It won pretty much everything including the 1987 ATCC in the hands of Jim Richards, with the famous and achingly cool JPS M3. E30 M3’s were also campaigned in the WRC by Prodrive but ultimately couldn’t compete with the 4WD cars on loose surfaces.
Road going versions have now entered cult status and are seen as one of the all time greatest drivers cars, from any manufacturer. The combination of relatively low weight, sharp chassis and that high revving S14 made it amazing fun to drive. It’s a car that rewards and responds too good driving skills. Road going E30 M3’s steadily evolved along with the race-cars with Evo 1 & 2 models adding improved performance in all areas of the car. In 1992 the final and ultimate Sport Evolution models were produced. All E30 M3’s were LHD, which made them difficult to sell in RHD markets. Australia didn’t get any official imports but many have found their way over via private import.
1992 saw the introduction of the E36 M3. This was a very different car, unlike its predecessor it wasn’t born out of the crucible of motorsport, instead it was the high performance peak of the 3 series range. Biggest change was the 2.5 litre inline 4 (S14) being replaced with a 3.0 litre straight 6 (S50 engine code) with 210kW. To a lot of people the E36 was seen as a poor relation to the early M3’s as it had lost that motorsport connection. But that was somewhat missing the point. Homologation rules were no longer relevant, the rules governing touring car racing had changed. In isolation the E36 M3 was still a great car.
As the E36 M3 was now a top of the range model, luxury was more important than lap times. The combination of a big 6 and comfortable interior made it more of an everyday proposition than the E30. It was a performance car for everyone and all markets, it was offered in RHD for the first time. Over its 7-year life several versions were produced, including Sedan and convertible versions. Most significantly in 1995 the S50 was expanded to 3.2 litres giving an extra 26kW (up to 236kW).
In 1994 BMW Australia built fifteen M3-R models. These were built for BMW by Tony Longhurst racing. Four were prepared for racing and eleven were made available to the public (so long as you had a CAMS licence). Improvements were made to the chassis, engine and drivetrain. Options such as a roll cage and staggered BBS wheels were also offered. Elsewhere in the world other special editions were offered, such as Euro only GT’s.
A year after production of the E36 M3 ended the new E46 models were released. This highly anticipated model built on the strengths already shown by the impressive E46 platform to become a brilliant drivers car. The E46 was more an evolution on the E36 than the revolution seen before. A straight 6 was retained, but E46 featured an all new, more sophisticated 3.2 straight 6 (S54 engine code) with 246kW. A 6 speed SMG transmission was offered as an option alongside the regular 6 speed manual ‘box.
Looks wise the E46 M3 was more muscular than the regular 3 series range with it’s pumped arches, aggressive bumpers and vents in the front wings. Although it was heavier than the car it replaced, it offered improved straight line and cornering performance, a more spirited engine and grippier chassis saw to this. As before it was available as a convertible but no sedan version was produced.
Where the E46 M3 stands out is in its specials and in its return to the track. In 2001 Schnitzer Motorsport entered a V8 E46 M3 GTR into the ALMS series, they were instantly fast. Complaints soon poured in from rivals saying the car was illegal because there was no V8 M3 in production. In response ten road-going M3 V8 GTR’s were said to have been built, costing 250,000 euro’s each. In reality only five are known to exist.
In 2004 the CSL was debuted. The first model to wear the famous CSL badge since the 3.0 CSL of the 70’s, this lightweight special was built as a true road racer. Weight loss was the priority with the CSL. Lightweight panels, thinner glass, a stripped interior and the famous Carbon Fibre roof came together to reduce weight by 110kgs. Under the skin the S54 engine gave an extra 13kW and a very cool carbon fibre air box. The chassis was stiffened and some aggressive Michelin Pilot Sport Cup tyres were fitted. 1400 CSL’s were built and have already attracted a cult status.
Some of the CSL’s magic was transferred to the regular M3’s in the shape of the CS models. These are the pick of the regular M3 range as they feature the chassis upgrades from the CSL, including the wider BBS alloys. CS’s were the last of the E46 series of M3’s and also heralded the end of the straight 6 era.
Because in 2007 the E92 M3 coupe arrived with a 4.4 litre V8. Giving a mighty 309kW at a heady 8300rpm. The V8 (S65 engine code) gave the M3 a completely new character. A sedan (E90) and convertible (E93) version soon followed. Offered with either a 6 speed manual or M-DCT gearbox the new M3 was supercar fast. U.S magazine Car & Driver recorded a 3.9 second 0-100km/h time with an M-DCT car.
While the E92’s straight line speed is impressive where it really shone was in the corners. Still seen as the best in its class handling wise, the M3 has beaten all of its contemporary rivals in subjective tests. While the Audi RS4 and Mercedes C63 are just as fast and/or more powerful the M3 hits the perfect balance between power and handling.
A return to motorsport soon followed when Rahal Letterman Racing, backed by BMW, entered the ALMS GT2 class with a pair of E92 M3’s. The GT2 was later entered into the Le Mans and Nurburgring 24 hour races. The Le Mans car was also the latest car to receive the ‘Art Car’ treatment, painted by Jeff Koons.
GT2’s achieved success in the ALMS and several endurance races. More recently BMW has re-entered the M3 into DTM championship too immediate success.
Back on the road BMW produced several special edition M3’s, while most where just colour or trim options, the stand-outs were the GTS and CRT. Starting with the GTS, this very Orange special is similar in concept to the E46 CSL in that weight was reduced by 136kg’s and power increased by 29kW. Despite the 50% increase in price over the regular model, all 250 were sold.
More intriguing is the CRT (Carbon Racing Technology). Based on the E90 sedan, the CRT was built as a showcase for BMW’s carbon technology. It had the same 331kW engine as the GTS but lost none of its standard luxuries. But thanks to carbon seats, trim and panels it weighs 70kg’s less than the standard M3 sedan. Only 67 were built and as they were offered to the European market only, all are LHD.
Production of the M3 coupe has now ended. The last example (pictured below) rolled off the production line this month. While it is a shame to see the end of the lineage, we’re in no doubt the M4 will be a brilliant car.
The M3 will live on in sedan form but to many the ultimate M3 remains the original E30 M3.
All pictures sourced from Google images