Obviously, it’s not about the looks. How a simple saloon became a legend – and why it’s still the best. Passers-by may think it’s a relic of the red-brace era. But boxy proportions hide a racebred soul the like of which can’t be bought new today. This is the legend of BMW’s E30 M3. Words John Simister. Photography Alex Howe.
Below. BMW eschewed the overtly aerodynamic styling of the rival Mercedes-Benz 190 Cosworth W201, yet the M3’s more steeply raked rear screen and raised bootlid, though a little crude-looking, gave it a still-creditable 0.33 drag factor. Above and right. The M3 is neat if unexciting inside, but it’s a long time since the Ultimate Driving Machine had such a fiercely driver-orientated dashboard. Front aspect is assertive rather than menacing.
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T[/dropcap]here was a time when I thought the original BMW M3 E30 to be the best high-performance car in the world. Not the fastest, the grippiest, the most glamorous or the most challenging, nor the most sonically pleasing or dramatic-looking. Just, simply, the best. As a package of usability and bringer-on of intense desire, the E30 M3 was the one.
March 1987 was when this Damascene moment took place. Estoril circuit in Portugal was where. It was not long after the M3’s international launch on another circuit, Mugello in Italy, in August 1986 – almost a year after the M3 had been revealed to the public at the 1985 Frankfurt show. From a report in Motor magazine of this launch by my then-colleague David Vivian I shall now extract a fragment. DV is being driven by ace BMW racer Dieter Quester, and an enjoyably long-drawn-out drift has just been enacted.
Here’s what David wrote. ‘The feel is different,’ said BMW’s articulate racer. ‘More safe.’ More safe for Quester was turning in early and pressing the lightweight trainer on his right foot so hard it left the imprint of its sole there… in a regular 325i we would have been pointing in the opposite direction long before the end of the bend. Probably upside-down.
This was remarkable. People today might have forgotten just how remarkable. The regular E30 generation of the BMW 3-series, made from 1982 to 1991, was a good car in many ways but had a deserved reputation for sudden-death oversteer if a powerful version was driven with excess machismo (although its BMW E21 3-Series predecessor was even more wayward).
Some pundits blamed the camber changes of the semi-trailing-arm rear suspension, but strong initial understeer and slightly slowwitted steering made matters worse after their large-holed safety net had lost its hold. Back off to quell that understeer or, more bravely, add traction-threatening power, and suddenly you were over the knife-edge and fighting to tame the tail.
Not in the M3, though. Here we found quick, consistently meaty steering, a properly planted front end, a deliciously long phase of handling neutrality as front and rear axles shared the pre-oversteer cornering loads, and ultimately a perfectly predictable, benign build-up into the sort of oversteer anyone could control with confidence. A friendlier car you could not hope to meet.
How could this be? How could the M3 feel so dramatically different from other E30s while still having the same rear suspension? Development over design, or did Porsche own that particular escape route? Perhaps just designing the M3 properly in the first place, then, and crediting drivers with skill and instinct that BMW couldn’t afford to take for granted among those driving lesser E30s, even though they turned out to be harder to control in a crisis. The quickest, hardcorest, raciest E30 turns out to be dynamically the safest and easiest to handle. Why couldn’t all E30s be that way?
That they weren’t just added to the aura of miraculousness that surrounded this M3. Yet there was nothing ‘trick’ about the transformation. Before I go into the details, come back with me to that day at Estoril. It was a test day organised by tyre company Continental to try out the then-new Sport Contacts, and the M3 was by a big margin the best car of a group that included Porsche 944, Toyota MR2, Audi 80 Quattro B2 and, crucially, a Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.3-16 W201.
There was no Ford Sierra RS Cosworth, but that would have been similarly annihilated for the lack of finesse in its turbocharged power delivery. It was a shame in a way, because to have gathered together the Sierra, the 190E and the M3 would have given us the three most-talked-about homologation specials of the time, three arch rivals designed to bring honour and fame to their makers in the world’s Group A saloon-car races. Of the three, the BMW did the job the best and the most often on the racetracks, and it even had a brief but successful foray into rallying, although that was more the Ford’s domain. As a road car, the M3 had the highest state of innate tune because it produced its 200bhp without a turbocharger. The Sierra managed 201bhp from a smaller capacity (2.0 instead of 2.3 litres) but needed a turbo to do it, while the Benz’s 2.3 litres generated just 185bhp. Yet that didn’t make the M3’s engine a highly strung piece of peaky truculence, even if power did pour forth with unabating vigour right up to the 7000rpm limit. There was substance here, as befits an engine effectively two-thirds of the unit used in the BMW M5 E28, the BMW M635CSi E24 and originally the mid-engined BMW M1 E26. On the sweeps and straights of Estoril the M3 was magical. I did many laps and wanted it never to stop. I was still new to motoring journalism and this day remains one of the most intense bursts of skill improvement I have ever experienced, because the M3 just let me explore everything a car can do. Brake late and pitch the car into the corner?
Brake earlier, be smoother? Floor the throttle at the apex? Get on the power more gently and exit more tidily? The M3 lets you do what you want, and doesn’t admonish you if you make a hash of it. Confidence in your car, and your ability to control it, is vital if you’re to go properly fast. Seldom does a car flatter its driver more than this one. And not a single electronic aid in sight as the engine howls its crisp-edged, fizzing, mechanical howl that’s so far removed from a straight-six’s silkiness, promising 0-62mph in 6.7sec and 147mph all-out. No wonder I wanted one so much.
The car you see here is not quite the same as that first Estoril car. Nor indeed as the next M3 I drove, possibly the first to be imported to the UK – it beat BMW GB’s cars here – and the property of Peter Thorp, owner of Safir Engineering, which built continuation Ford GT40s using original tooling. This reacquaintance with the M3, on roads I knew well, made me love it all the more.
A car brilliant on a track often is much less so on the road, but the M3 excels at both. It rides properly, with a suppleness seldom found in today’s fast cars, and its power steering has a subtlety of feel and progression too easily blustered past on a track where grip, balance and predictability are the main requirements. On the road, this steering helps you feel exactly what is happening and lets you alter it instantly and precisely, the ingredients missing from lesser E30s. That’s where the confidence comes from. And even as M3s evolved, that trait never changed.
Our Nogaro Silver car is one such evolution, broadly a so-called Evolution II but bearing an interior colour scheme and numbered plaque that declare it to be number 65 of 505 Roberto Ravaglia special editions. Ravaglia was one of the most successful M3 pilots, along with Johnny Cecotto who also put his name on a similar special edition. Just 25 Ravaglias officially came to the UK, but as all M3s are left-hand drive it matters little now whether the import is grey or factory-sanctioned. Actually the numbers of the various versions – see panel, overleaf – are debatable according to who tells the tale, but broadly there have been three Evolutions: the Ravaglia/Cecotto editions and a Europameister, as well as two power-levels of standard cars. That’s the saloons; there were also convertibles, 787 of them (one a Sport Evolution) out of the M3’s total production of 16,202 cars.
The hottest road engine was the Sport Evolution’s 2.5-litre unit with 238bhp at 7000rpm, achieved by both boring and stroking. Otherwise it was 2.3 litres with 200bhp at the start (or 195bhp with a catalyst and the reduced compression ratio that went with it), rising to 220bhp for the Evo II or 215bhp if catalysed, all at 6750rpm. This last engine became the standard unit for later ‘mainstream’ M3s.
So, what distinguishes an M3 from, say, a 325i beyond the obvious lack of two cylinders? We’ll begin with the way it looks. Of the outer skin panels, only the doors, bonnet and roof are carried over from the regular E30, and the last of these looks different thanks to its extra, separate cowling over the rear window aperture. This gives the window a racier rake and flows into a higher bootlid made from composite plastic, helping towards a better aerodynamic drag coefficient (0.33) than the boxy shape suggests. Both front and rear screens are bonded in for greater rigidity.
Front and rear wings are bulged out to cover the (relatively) wide wheels, and rather wider ones used for racing, and they lack the usual edge lips. Front and rear valances, sill covers and a large rear wing spoiler give the basis for the race cars’ aerodynamic packages, yet the effect is far from lurid or aggressive not least because the E30’s small, square-cut, demure demeanour remains largely intact. Most people would think an M3 to be simply a regular 3-series with a boot spoiler.
Inside it’s similarly normal bar some racier fabrics, the Recaro front seats and an illuminated gearlever knob showing first gear’s gate position as a left-and-back dogleg. Underneath, though, things are very different, particularly at the front. Here, there’s three times as much castor as in a standard E30, achieved with different hubs and strut bodies that also incorporate 5-series wheel bearings. The anti-roll bar’s drop links are attached directly to the struts instead of to the wishbone below, greatly improving the immediacy of steering response (the same idea was used on Peugeot’s 205GTI, and is nowadays usual) and effectively doubling the roll stiffness relative to a standard E30.
Stiffer springs with gas-filled dampers are used all-round, while the BBS cross-spoke wheels (very 1980s) wore 205/55 VR15 tyres originally, 225/45 ZR16 on later M3s such as our Ravaglia – whose rims are an impressive 7.5in wide. And then there’s the engine, the other big part of the M3’s drive-me nature, whose four-cylinder architecture gives a young-at-heart, tell-it-like-it-is eagerness somehow more instant and uncomplicated than the character of a sophisticated six-pot. The E30 was the only M3 so endowed; later ones became sixes, then a madly-revving V8, with a twin-turbo six now poised to take the line into the latest 3-series generation.
The engine’s core is the final development of the M10 cast-iron block, first used in 1962’s BMW 1500 and strong enough to cope with a qualifying-spec 1400bhp in a turbocharged Formula 1 Brabham-BMW. Closing off the four cylinders is a head that, in prototype form, really was an M1/M5 casting with the rear third sawn off. The production cylinder head was a unique casting, of course, but the combustion-chamber design with its four valves was the same, as was the disposition of the twin overhead camshafts above it. Bosch ML Motronic management supplies fuel and sparks.
That, broadly, is the M3. It cost £22,750 new in 1987, and that’s top money for a really good early example now. The problem comes with finding one, especially unmodified. ‘The market has flattened,’ says Dan Norris, MD of long-time fast BMW specialist Munich Legends, ‘after collectors pushed up prices to a peak about a year ago. M3s are quite numerous but it’s difficult to find good ones. They had sunk to £4000-5000 in recent years and many got into poor shape, and by modern standards they’re not that quick. ‘Among the standard cars I’ve seen only one good one in three years. Typically they’ve done maybe 170,000km and have been through hell and back, changing hands, often having unknown foreign histories and becoming trackday weapons. Now people are trying to tart them up. If I had a pound for every time someone comes to me with a car and says it’s in pretty good condition… usually it will need £3000-worth of work straight away.
‘The Sport Evo is a different matter. Just 600 were made and it sits at the top now, with people paying £60,000 to £80,000 for a low-mileage one because this is the car that brings the most memories. Maybe 400 are still left in a pure state.’
That’s the 2.5-litre car with 238bhp and bigger arches. ‘But,’ says Munich Legends’ technical expert Stuart Draper, ‘I have driven Sport Evos that feel no better than a standard 200bhp non-cat car. A 195bhp catalysed car to a Sport Evo is a big difference, though. Those early non-cat cars can feel far better than expected.’ On such M3s was my early M3 lust based. How will it hold up today, when I drive our featured Ravaglia?
First, though, some words of advice if you’re tempted to go M3-hunting. ‘They’re all old now,’ says Stuart, ‘and most have lived outside. You can get access to see if the sills have rusted, despite the covers, but the scuttle panel is the biggest problem. The repair costs around £600 including removing and refitting the bonded windscreen, although the panel itself, which has to be ordered with the chassis number stamped into it, is only about £40. Check for a damp and rusty floor, too; water can come in through bulkhead grommets, or it can run down the outside of blocked sunroof drain tubes or along the loom into the car.’
The mechanical parts are robust, although oil leaks and perishing bushes inevitably accompany high miles. The Getrag gearbox is very strong. So is the engine, but the timing chain really has to be replaced at 100,000 miles and people don’t like paying the £3600 bill. It’s not just chain wear: the sprockets, the valve guides, the tensioner all wear and, as it’s a head-off job, you might as well do the lot.
‘Clattering at start-up is the key indicator,’ says Stuart. ‘The hydraulic tensioner gives no tension until the oil pressure builds, so a worn chain can make itself heard. We can fit a later tensioner for £100, which doesn’t bleed off the pressure, but while it hides the start-up noise it doesn’t mean there’s no wear. If a car has been left in gear on a trailer and allowed to rock back and forth, that can break the chain. We never start a car which has been transported like that until we’ve checked it through.
‘As M3 values go up, most owners now go for preventative maintenance and would consider a timing-chain rebuild. But we used to get a lot of negative comments from people thinking we were trying to rip them off.’
In The Ravaglia’s diagonally striped driver’s seat, I feel familiarity flooding back. There’s that angular binnacle with its simple, red-needled instruments bathed at night in a red glow, and a centre console angled hard towards the driver as BMW consoles were back in those Ultimate Driving Machine days. In the console’s lower left corner is a bank of three heater sliders and a rotary temperature knob, a brilliant system giving a versatility of temperature and air distribution denied to drivers of modern cars.
To its right is a blank space where a radio should be, which makes the cassette storage box between the seats a strange orphan of purpose. Ahead is a non-adjustable steering wheel surprisingly far from the vertical, whose column appears to aim towards the M3’s centre line. I never noticed this back then, but today it feels odd – especially in a BMW, historical paragon of ergonomics.
This is a catalysed car, from a time when cats took the edge off pace, and I have to say it doesn’t feel as quick as I remembered. That it’s mechanically an Evo II-plus-cat, and so has a longer final drive ratio (3.15 to one) than the earlier cars (3.25 to one), might partly explain this, but the throttle feels initially soft instead of linearly crisp the whole way through.
At 4750rpm, though, the engine’s character changes; the note hardens into the fizz typical of tuned 16-valvers of the time, and we’re still pulling hard as the rev-limiter intervenes. That’s better. It just needs exercise.
The other attributes are as they were: the easy gearchange once you’ve remembered the layout, the remarkable ride, the feeling of tactile one-ness with the steering, the handling, the friendliness. That ability to trust the M3 come what may, to feel it join in your pleasure even on an icy road (as in the day of my reacquaintance): it’s all just as it was and unmatched by anything BMW makes today. You could de-cat this car quite legally; there’s even an adjuster on the Motronic system to recalibrate it once done. I would if it were mine, just to let the engine do what it can do so well. Meanwhile, if you crave an M3 – as I could easily do – but a Sport evolution seems like fiscal overkill, you had better start hunting now. As Dan Norris said, good ones have become very rare. And you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.
Thanks To BMW GB and to Munich Legends, www.munichlegends.co.uk, +44 (0)1825 740456.
TECHNICAL DATA FILE 1989 BMW M3 E30 Roberto Ravaglia
ENGINE 2302cc four-cylinder, DOHC, 16 valves, Bosch Motronic engine management
POWER 215bhp @ 6750rpm
TORQUE 177lb ft @ 4750rpm
TRANSMISSION Five-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
STEERING Rack and pinion, power-assisted
SUSPENSION Front: MacPherson struts, lower wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar. Rear: semi-trailing arms, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar
BRAKES Vented discs
PERFORMANCE Top speed 143mph. 0-62mph 6.7sec
‘The engine is a big part of the M3’s drive-me nature, with a young-at-heart, tell-it-like-it-is eagerness’
‘A car brilliant on a track often is much less so on the road, but the m3 excels at both’
‘On the sweeps and straights of Estoril the m3 was magical. I did many laps and wanted it never to stop’