We've already looked at several famous cars known by their model name alone – Ferrari's GTO and Porsche's 911 being just two. But what about a car which has gained worldwide fame, a cult following and was born from the ultimate motoring arena, of motorsport?
The early 1980's heralded what for many was a golden era of motorsport. At all levels, the glamour associated with the previous decade was being spiced up with a drive forwards in new technology and processes. German manufacturers had enjoyed historic success and BMW was aiming to produce a dominant car to campaign in the DTM series – Germany's Touring Car Championship.
The FIA homologation regulations specified that 5,000 road cars had to be made for a car to be eligible and their popular 3 Series saloon made the ideal base. By this point, the compact model was in its second generation and universally praised for its chassis capabilities. It also marked the point where BMW models were known by their factory codename – in this case, E30.
Using the 2-door model as a base, BMW's Motorsport division added blistered wheel arches to accommodate wider wheels and tyres plus a deeper front spoiler and rear wing. All were made from plastic to help keep weight increase to a minimum. The rear window angle was also changed to maximise airflow to the rear spoiler.
In fact the only panels which remained common to the standard car were the bonnet, roof panel and sunroof.
Brakes and suspension were also upgraded uniquely to the M3 but the star of the package was without doubt the engine.
The 2.3 litre 4 cylinder motor was developed from the six cylinder unit that powered the M1 with a block derived from an existing 4 cylinder engine. It produced 197hp without catalytic convertor and 192 where one was required.
This was mated to a Getrag 5 speed close ration gearbox, selected specifically for the car. Markets outside the USA had a dog legged layout with the North American model being sold with a standard transmission fitted with wider gear ratios. All were fitted with a limited slip differential.
The M3 was launched at the 1985 Geneva motor show and its main competitors on both road and track were Mercedes' 190E 2.3-16, a similarly homologated car built by Mercedes for the same purpose and using an engine based on a unit previously co-developed with Cosworth and Ford's own Sierra Cosworth, which used a 2 litre turbocharged engine.
The M3 was an immediate success, being received with great positivity as a fast road car and also in the DTM series, endurance racing and even rallying. It also found success and a cult following in the UK's British Touring Car Championship (BTCC) battling against both the Ford and Mercedes mentioned above. Between 1987 and 1991, it racked up 17 world championships around the world plus a single rally title (Irish tarmac 1990) – whilst not as fast as many 4WD rally machines, it was extremely capable on tarmac stages.
1990 BMW M3 Sport Evolution – sold by Silverstone Auctions for £135,000, July 2018
E30 M3 auction tracker here:
The E30 M3 was produced until 1991 with over 18,000 units in total and its evolution included an increase in engine size to 2500cc and power to 214hp, Evolution I and II versions, a convertible and models named after drivers who successfully campaigned the car as a racer – Roberto Ravaglia and Johnny Cecotto. The car's ultimate specification was the 1989 Sport Evolution, producing as much as 240hp.
As the E30 series was replaced with a larger model, the E36, so BMW revised the next generation of M3 in 1992 and this saw a move away from the 4 cylinder motor to a 3 litre straight six engine. Gone too was the motorsport focus with the new car instead being more refined and luxurious than its predecessor.
There is a common myth that the 3 litre engine in the E36 M3 was “half a McLaren F1 engine” and whilst the engine in the legendary hypercar was developed and built by BMW for Gordon Murray's iconic 240mph masterpiece and shares some similar features, the engine in the M3 (codenamed S50) was made specifically for this car.
This engine featured variable valve timing, a popular route to extracting horsepower and allowing the engine to rev higher. BMW's system was named VANOS.
The new model was available in both left and right hand drive (the E30 was only ever made in LHD) and was joined by 4-door saloon and convertible models, further broadening the car's appeal.
Although heavier than the earlier car, the new engine produced 286hp making the E36 faster, both in terms of acceleration and its top speed – limited to 155mph.
US market versions had a completely different engine, producing 240hp and many regard this variant as an M3 in name only as its performance was significantly less than the European specification.
1994 saw the introduction of two limited production versions – the Australian market got the M3-R, of which 15 were built using a 322hp engine. Four were raced in the Super Production Series and the remainder sold to private customers.
1996 BMW M3 GT, courtesy of Aguttes
The European market received the M3 GT, made to satisfy homologation regulations for their entry into racing in several classes including FIA-GT. The M3 GT featured additional spoilers front and rear, power tweaked to 295hp, suspension upgrades and was also lighter than the stock model. 356 cars were made, all in British Racing Green.
The UK got its own limited production version in 1995. Known as the M3 Evolution Individual, this car was mechanically standard but featured Imola Red paint and a bespoke interior. 50 were produced.
The US may have missed out on some of the performance of the earlier cars but a Lightweight version was made for this market. At around 90kgs lighter, the car featured uprated suspension and all were painted white with BMW Motorsport decals. It is believed that 125 were made.
The engine was improved for 1996, increasing to 3200cc and 321hp. A new six speed gearbox was also added to cars outside the US market and automatic transmission added as an option. The SMG (sequential manual gearbox) was unpopular with motoring enthusiasts – we'll avoid a longwinded technical explanation but this type of gearbox is effectively a manual gearbox with the clutch operated automatically.
The E36 failed to enjoy the level of motorsport success as the E30, with no championships recorded in any territory where the car competed. Despite this relative lack of success and the indifference shown by enthusiasts during production, BMW sold over 71,000 cars during the model's 7 year production run.
The next generation of 3 series remained evolutionary in terms of size but the M3, launched in 2000, gained some much needed unique styling additions. This included flared wheelarches, a deeper front spoiler and power bulge in the bonnet plus additional side grills and a rear diffuser featuring 4 exhaust tailpipes.
Mechanically, the theme of evolution continued with the 3.2 litre engine further developed to produce 343hp (333hp for the US) in its final guise. Manual and a second generation SMG transmission remained as transmission options and the car was offered as a coupe and convertible from the outset with no 4-door saloon available throughout the model's 6 year run.
The increased power offset the inevitable weight gain with acceleration improved again over the E36 but top speed remaining limited to 155mph.
Despite the E46 again not being developed with motorsport in mind, 2001 saw the production what is, at the time of writing, the rarest of all M3 variants. BMW wanted to enter the American Le Mans Series (ALMS) but needed a more powerful engine. It developed a 4 litre V8 capable of producing around 500hp in race form and eventually 6 were made, half of which were raced and the remainder sold for US$250,000 each – so the most expensive M3 made too.
2004 BMW M3 CSL – sold by RM Sotheby's for €97,750, April 2019
M3 CSL auction tracker here:
2005 was the year the E46 cemented its place in both BMW and motoring history. The resurrection of a historic badge contributed – CSL (Coupe Sport Leichtbau/Lightweight) was last seen on the rear of the 3.0 CSL 30 years previously – a road car that evolved into the incredible “Batmobile” road car and truly bonkers racing versions, with big spoilers and huge box arches.
The E46 M3 CSL therefore had the weight of history on its shoulders. And it delivered; BMW reduced the overall weight by around 10% by the use of carbonfibre panels including the entire roof, plastics replacing steel and many interior creature comforts being thrown in the bin. Carbonfibre was again used for both front and rear seats.
The engine gained power too; a revised intake system assisted in producing 360hp and again made from carbonfibre, it looked as good as the improvements it created.
The car was availably only with SMG transmission and featured an M Track mode, enabling more slip at the rear before traction control intervened. A faster steering rack added to the overall diver-focused package.
Lightweight (and very attractive) wheels completed the package and just under 1,400 units were sold, available only in silver or black paint finish.
Buoyed by the overwhelmingly positive reception to the CSL, BMW offered the M3 in Competition Sport Package (known as CS in the UK) in 2005. It featured some of the CSL's mechanical upgrades but retained the standard car's engine and transmission. Just over 3,000 CS's were sold.
The E46 enjoyed motorsport success, winning the 24 Hour Nurburgring in 2003 and 2004 and it became the most successful M3 in sales terms too, with almost 86,000 cars sold in total.
The E92 M3, launched in 2007, marked a significant change in the story of the M3. BMW once again developed an engine for use in the model. This time, the 6 cylinder unit that had been in service for over 15 years with an entirely new 4000cc V8 and this engine was only used for the M3 and no other model. It also marked the separating of codenames for the M3. The coupe was E92, saloon E90 and convertible E93.
In part this was due to the emerging power race between BMW and Mercedes's AMG division and the Audi RS models. Both offered similar sized sports saloons with V8 power, with the AMG C63 and Audi RS4. The new unit in the M3 produced 414hp and revved to almost 8500rpm.
Faster again, the new car offered both manual and a new dual clutch automatic transmission and its body panels were bespoke to the model following BMW's continued evolutionary approach with widened wheelarches, power bulge on the bonnet (and to accommodate the new engine) and a carbonfibre roof, carried over from the E46 CSL.
The coupe and saloon were joined in 2008 by a convertible featuring a folding metal roof which added around 200kgs to its overall weight.
2010 saw the launch of the M3 GTS. This was a lightened model featuring suspension and steering upgrades designed for track use and aggressive aerodynamics including a large rear wing. Power was increased to 450hp and the shift speed on the transmission was increased.
As with the E46 CSL, many interior items were removed to generate a 70kg weight reduction, a rollcage and 6-point racing harnesses were fitted and the car was available only in bright orange. 138 were made, making this one of the rarest M3's made and the UK retail price when new was just over £115,000 – or £5,000 more than Porsche 911 GT3RS!
South Africa missed the GTS but got its own special – the Frozen Edition. 25 were made with the same engine as the GTS but available only in Frozen (or satin) paint finish.
BMW's success with the GTS drove the next limited run model in 2011. 67 CRT M3's were sold, all in saloon form and featuring the engine and transmission from the GTS but a more conservative interior without racing harnesses or rollcage but using carbon again both inside and out.
BMW returned to (and won) the DTM Series in 2012 and made 54 special edition cars that year, unsurprisingly named the DTM Champion Edition. The cars were standard apart from frozen black paint and a numbered plaque inside. Bright orange paint once again featured on another special 2 years later with the USA market only Lime Rock model.
2012 saw a final limited run of 140 Competition Edition Frozen Silver cars. All were finished in frozen silver paint (we know, the name surprised us too…) and celebrated the 40th anniversary of BMW's Motorsport Division.
A total of just under 66,000 E90/92/93 M3's were produced.
This generation was also the last time the M3 badge appeared as a single model as the next generation, coded F80, marked the point where BMW rebadged the range with all 3 series coupe and convertible models becoming the 4 series. The F80 M3 was therefore a saloon only and as our article is entitled M3, we aren't going to include the M4 models that continue in production today – call us pedantic but they are essentially the same mechanically!
The F80 M3 therefore is our next stop. Launched in 2013, it marked a return to the use of a 6 cylinder engine. This time around two turbochargers were added to produce 431hp and performance was once again lifted further, with the benchmark 0-62mph despatched in 4.1 seconds and a top speed (when de-limited) of 174mph achievable.
Cosmetic additions followed the tried, tested and successful route with wider arches, additional grills and bespoke spoilers and diffuser and the regular model was joined in 2016 by the Competition Pack which provided a power increase, to 450hp, adaptive suspension and a number of bespoke cosmetic features.
2016 also saw a model celebrating the M3's 30th anniversary. Named ”30 Jahre Edition”, 500 units were made based on the Competition Package car.
2018 saw a CS version produced with even more power (454hp) and less weight (50kg); 1,200 were made and this marked the end of the F80's relatively short lifespan, due in part to the car being unable to meet changing emission rules; the M4 continued in production.
BMW made 35,000 of this model.
Happily, however, this doesn't mark the end of the M3's story as 2021 will see the launch of an all-new car. Still only available as a saloon with the M3 badge, the power breaks the 500hp barrier for the first time and, in another first, features the option of four wheel drive although this is only available with automatic transmission – the manual will be rear wheel drive only, something we suspect will please the purists, even if the new car's looks are already creating something of an internet stir!
This does mark the end of our story however. There are cars which can claim to have invented the concept of a compact sports car dressed up in a familiar body shape and there are certainly faster and more exotic cars out there. Few however have become known in a relatively short time by just 2 characters and “M3” to any true motoring enthusiast means not the motorway linking London and the south coast but a family of very special and very accessible motor cars – you can but an older M3 today for not much more than the cost of a very basic supermini.
We'll leave which one to buy today to the experts and motoring journalists who've driven the various versions over the years but it's safe to say that the original E30 and the E46 CSL are both changing hands now for much more than their original selling price.
If you're lucky enough to own a special car like a BMW M3, then you need an equally special insurance policy and a broker who understands your passion. Lockton's collector policy is underwritten exclusively by Axa XL and it isn't available anywhere else. Much like the M3, it's considered to be a market leader so if you'd like to know more, please talk to us.