As part of BMW M’s birthday party to celebrate 30 years of the iconic model, it has wheeled out several of the rare prototypes that have previously been glimpsed only in passing…
BMW E30 M3 Pick-up: 1986
When the first generation of the M3 was brought out, it wasn’t just customers who were delighted with its performance and handling. It also caused quite a stir within the BMW Motorsport department responsible for its development, who saw it as the perfect means of transporting work equipment and parts around the premises of what is now the M Division’s HQ in Garching near Munich. The only problem was that goods transport didn’t figure very highly on the list of the M3’s many talents.
It didn’t take long to remedy the situation, though, as M’s engineers soon set about transforming the body a 3 Series Convertible into an M3 Pick-up. “The Convertible bodyshell was chosen as the basis for two reasons,” recalls Jakob Polschak, head of vehicle prototype building and workshops at BMW M Division and an employee at the company for more than 40 years. “Firstly, we happened to have such a model at our disposal and in perfect condition, and secondly, the convertible’s built-in bracing made it the ideal choice for a pick-up conversion.”
The first M3 Pick-up did not sport the original’s boldly flared wings, as it was equipped with the narrower body of its regular, volume-produced sibling. At first it was powered by the engine fitted in the so-called ‘Italian M3’ (the 320iS), which had a reduced 2.0-litre displacement due to tax regulations there and an output of 192hp. “Later we switched to the original 2.3-litre four-cylinder engine with 200 horsepower,” reveals Polschak. The M3 Pick-up went about its work around the factory premises reliably for over 26 years before finally being retired four years ago.
The M3 Pickup’s long life is clear evidence that the one-off versions being presented here by BMW are not mere gimmicks or engineering exercises. On the contrary BMW says they are high-performance cars that have been optimised to perfectly match their intended task or field of use. As such, they epitomise the philosophy of BMW M. Plus, they also fulfilled another important purpose: “Our apprentices, graduate trainees and placement students assisted in the construction of all of these prototypes,” explains Polschak. “This allowed them to gain invaluable hands-on experience at the same time as freeing up resources for us – a classic win-win situation.”
BMW E36 M3 Compact: 1996
The idea behind this was to present younger customers with an entry point to M cars. “To an extent, the M3 Compact can be regarded as the forefather of today’s M2,” said the BMW M workshop chief, and it’s easy to see why he draws the comparison. If it’d gone into production, the M3 engine’s power would likely have been lowered. In the prototype, however, it was allowed to unleash its full 321hp, which made easy work of propelling a lightweight car (it tipped the scales at just 1.3 tonnes). “It is 150kg lighter, more agile, firmer and more uncompromising,” enthused German motoring magazine Auto Motor und Sport after testing it.
No doubt BMW was concerned that launching a Compact version of the M3 would have stolen sales from the more expensive Coupé and Saloon models. While BMW says that the Compact dates from 1996 you can bet there were a few of these machines plodding around Munich at that time as it would have been the perfect test bed to put the finishing touches on the Z3 M Roadster and Coupé with which it shared a chassis. Ultimately perhaps BMW’s top brass were worried that a cheaper hatch with less experienced drivers behind the wheel might be a recipe for disaster when it came to the handling of the car as the E30-derived rear suspension tended to struggle with high outputs.
BMW E92 M3 Pick-up: 2011
Once the first-generation E30 M3 Pick-up eventually started to show the first serious signs of wear after around a quarter of a century of service, it was time for a successor. As with the original, those responsible for its creation again opted for a convertible body due to the existing strengthening elements. “The conversion work had initially proceeded in the usual, largely unspectacular manner during the spring of 2011. But then someone came up with the idea of marketing the vehicle as an April Fools’ joke, as 1 April was just around the corner,” recounts Polschak. To prime the public, spy shots of calibration runs on the Nürburgring’s Nordschleife circuit emerged in the run-up to the day, which served to fuel speculation about plans to build a production model.
And it worked. Reports from the time show that a good many journalists and bloggers took the bait and believed the rumours. Even the official press release published on 1 April 2011 did not immediately set matters straight, first presenting the M3 Pickup as the ‘fourth body variant’ following the Saloon, Coupé and Convertible, before going on to say: ‘420hp under the bonnet and a payload capacity of 450 kilograms over the rear axle take the BMW M models’ hallmark blend of racing style driving pleasure and everyday practicality to a whole new level.’ It also pointed out that the Cd was only marginally higher than that of the M3 Coupé, the car was 50 kilograms lighter than the Convertible and the 20-kilogram targa roof could be removed to further lower the centre of gravity and therefore deliver even sharper handling dynamics.
It wasn’t until the final paragraph that the press release discreetly revealed the model in question was actually a one-off build for use as a workshop transport vehicle. Unlike its predecessor, however, it had also been licensed for road use.
BMW E46 M3 Touring: 2000
The M3 Touring prototype materialised because a production model was under consideration. The M3 Compact was made available to journalists for testing in order to both project an image and sound out customer interest. But the M3 Touring served entirely in-house purposes. “This prototype allowed us to show that, from a purely technical standpoint at least, it was possible to integrate an M3 Touring into the ongoing production of the standard 3 Series Touring with very little difficulty,” explains Jakob Polschak. “One important thing we needed to demonstrate was that the rear doors of the standard production model could be reworked to adapt them to the rear-wheel arches without the need for new and expensive tools.” Once it had passed through the assembly line, the M3 Touring required only minimal manual follow-up work to fit the M-specific add-on parts and interior details.
Of all the M Cars that BMW never made it’s perhaps this one that was most sorely missed. At the time Mercedes made the C32 AMG as an estate and in the later part of the E46 3 Series’ life this was upgraded to the C55 AMG, also available as an estate. At the same time Audi had either an RS4 or an S4 on offer with comparable power outputs to the E46, so in some ways it’s strange that BMW didn’t pull the trigger and put the car into production. It would certainly have been a niche product and perhaps the small numbers that would have sold put the company off building it – after all with the E36 M3 the Coupé massively outsold the Saloon (by a factor of over seven to one if you ignore US-spec machinery as they’re not fond of an estate car) so perhaps BMW made the right decision. So near, but yet so far…