Its great rival the Sierra Cosworth was faster, but the M3 won on reliability – quite literally, with numerous title successes. So surely a Group A revival series beckons…
By Richard Heseltine
Never underestimate how denial can pass for self-confidence. Drive a first-generation BMW M3 on a track – drive one anywhere – and it’s immediately clear that the passing of a few decades hasn’t blunted its edge. Only yours.
No matter, this car flatters your input to the point that you are indeed a circuit star, the M3 being two parts pure-bred racer, one part non-threatening, nursery slopes learning tool.
Unlike the majority of homologation specials where brute power trumps any kind of nuance, here you can do just about anything and it will try and help you. Get it right and suddenly you feel like Roberto Ravaglia taking the fight to be-winged Ford Sierra Cosworths, or Steve Soper on one of his famous charges through the pack. Maybe even Bernard Béguin sneaking a win on the 1987 Tour de Course – this box-arched BMW was nothing if not adaptable.
Whatever your predilection, one thing is abundantly clear: the M3 is as toweringly impressive as everyone says it is. Nostalgia has a habit of trapping icons of our youth in the amber of our imaginations and, if your formative years were the 1980s, the M3 is in many ways ‘our’ 250GTO or 911 2.7 Carrera RS. A bit of a stretch, perhaps, but this car pulled off hipness and widespread appeal at the same time before you factored in its motor sport pedigree. That’s quite an achievement.
And as we all know by rote, when manufacturers build a run of competition-orientated vehicles, they tend to massively underestimate expected demand. When the M3 was first mooted, few BMW insiders thought they would be able to shift the requisite 5000 cars needed to satisfy homologation requirements. Between 1986 and 1990, it made 17,970 (including 786 convertibles) with close on a quarter of them heading Stateside.
This being BMW, the M3’s nosebleed-inducing ascent to greatness wasn’t actually the work of a moment. When international touring car regulations changed over to Group A (from Group 1) for 1982, the steep homologation production requirements left the Bayerische firm on the back foot. Armed with the 528i, BMW was a points-scorer, but this four-door saloon lacked straightline speed. A switch to the 635CSi coupé for ’83 (in association with Schnitzer Motorsport) merely papered over the cracks: because its 24-valve (S38) straight-six hadn’t been made in sufficient numbers BMW had to compete with the 12-valve 635 model rather than its flagship M6.
Nonetheless, Dieter Quester still managed to capture that year’s European Touring Car Championship drivers’ crown, but it was clear that BMW was losing the horsepower race. Tom Walkinshaw’s fabulous Jaguar XJ-S and Rover SD1 challengers, along with the Team Eggenberger Volvos, served to momentarily stem the tide of titles heading back to Germany. Something needed to be done.
Enter the M3. The car was actually conceived as far back as 1981 but, unlike so many similar performance variations of regular production cars, this one was altogether different: rather than take a normal road car and convert it for track use, BMW created a racing car and then figured out how to make it saleable. Nominally based on the existing 3-series, the new strain featured a new iron-block four-banger derived in part from the proven S38 six-cylinder engine. Suspension was by BMW’s preferred method of MacPherson struts up front and trailing arms at the rear, while 20 separate alterations and additions re-profiled the bodyshell: this was more than just an exercise in bolting on spoilers, with only the bonnet being common to both the M3 and a regular 3-series model. Even the rake of the rear screen was adjusted to improve airflow to the rear spoiler. Just the right side of flashy, the physical metamorphosis was both dramatic and captivating if viewed only as a styling exercise.
Though it was the first car designed and developed within BMW Motorsport’s Garching facility, production models were built in batches at the regular Munich plant, with future progressions mirroring developments on-track. And it was at Monza on March 22, 1987 that the M3 made its competition debut. The first round of the original, one-year-only World Touring Car Championship was a disaster for the marque: the factory-backed M3s were disqualified from the top six finishing positions, their lightweight body panels being deemed a wee bit too light. Not that arch-rival Ford was able to capitalise as the leading Sierra Cosworth entries were outlawed beforehand for having illegal engine management systems.
And it was this M3 versus ‘Cossie’ duel that made touring car racing so compelling in the late ’80s: Ford often had the edge in performance but not always in reliability. It claimed the WTCC manufacturers’ title although the consistent Roberto Ravaglia sealed the drivers’ crown for BMW (thanks in no small part to wingman Emanuele Pirro). And so it continued a year on in the final season of the original European Touring Car Championship. The Blue Oval’s RS500 evolution was blisteringly quick and could be tuned to produce more than 500bhp. BMW didn’t exceed 360bhp aside from when racing under looser German series regulations. Nonetheless, superior reliability helped Ravaglia to another title.
That same year M3 charger Frank Sytner claimed Class B and the overall British Touring Car Championship drivers’ spoils, Jean-Pierre Malcher the French equivalent. Throw in Dutch (Arthur van Dedem), Swedish (Lennart Bohlin) and FIA Asia-Pacific (Trevor Crowe) honours, and the M3’s impact cannot be underestimated. Just to rub it in, BMW’s successes that year weren’t merely restricted to the roundy-round stuff either. Consider this: in addition to guiding Sytner to BTCC glory, factory-backed Prodrive also steered Patrick Snijers to the Belgian Rally Championship and almost snared the overall European Rally Championship crown for BMW, too.
Variations of the M3 garnered results with engine capacities spanning 2- to 2.5-litres, the 1988 Evolution road car featuring lighter body panels and various aerodynamic tweaks, all of which aided BMW’s trackside campaign. Although the RS500 was usually out front, the M3 was a winner over a longer period. It won the German title twice, taking 40 wins from 120 starts before it was pensioned off from frontline works use in 1992 – a full two years after manufacture ended.
In short, it would be easier to list the series the car didn’t conquer. By our own admittedly pub-based reckoning, the little (well compared to the current iteration…) M3 collected 30 titles in period (and yes, that does include Silvan Lulik’s Yugoslavian rally crown). BMW itself announced late in 1991 that there were 250 examples then actively racing worldwide. The M division itself supplied 270 Group A ‘kits’ and a further 60 Group N packages: not bad for a car that was deemed unlikely to earn a profit and one that was rarely the fastest race car out there.
One of the model’s greatest cheerleaders is the evergreen Barrie Williams. The world’s fastest septuagenarian experienced the car in period both in near-standard production-spec and full-house touring car configuration. ‘Whizzo’ remains smitten. “It’s one of my favourite cars; like a Ford Escort RS2000 with grip,” he laughs. “The M3 always was very progressive and never remotely vicious. It did everything you asked of it.
“My first drive of one was in 1988, sharing Godfrey Hall’s car in the one-hour BTCC race at Donington where we were second in class behind the Prodrive car. I also shared it in the Tourist Trophy at Silverstone but we didn’t finish. In 1989 I drove Alan Minshaw’s car there in the GP support race. We had second-hand rubber and weren’t expected to feature, but I was running second in class until a tyre went pop going through Woodcote. I also shared Matt Neal’s Group N car in that year’s Silverstone 500Kms. Matt and I were easy on the brakes and tried to conserve as much fuel as we could. We made one less pitstop than our nearest rivals and won outright. It was such a nice car: I remember going to see Heini Mader in Geneva who did the Group N engines. He told me that it was impossible to really blueprint them as they were perfectly assembled to begin with.
“Well, I drove that same car when it was owned by Graham Coombs and later by my old mate Nigel Corner. In 1992 Nigel decided that he was going to do some endurance racing and entered us in the Nürburgring 24 Hours, which was run on the Nordschleife. We finished first in Group N and a fortnight later we were at Snetterton for the Willhire 24 Hours. We also had Matt Neal and the mad Swiss (Alain Menu) in the car, and were leading until the car packed up on the Sunday morning. Somebody forgot to tape up the front of the air cooler and oil start leaking out. Then in August we went over to do the 24 Hours at Spa. Werner Karther joined us and we won Group N again. I loved that car and to do three long-distance races in seven weeks tells you just how robust it was.”
All of which has served the clubman racer well ever since the model ended its career in the mainstream. With E30-generation M3s latterly becoming historic, and the likes of Roger Stanford being a front-runner in the CTCRC’s Pre-93 Touring Car Championship, it’s only a matter of time before someone initiates an era-specific Group A/Super Touring Revival series with period-built machinery.
It’s not as though there aren’t enough original cars. Original drivers, too, with Williams being keen to see it happen. “When you put an artist like Steve Soper in an M3, you knew you were seeing something special. People still remember these cars. I did a track day in one not all that long ago and was still smiling two hours later. I would love to have another go.”
“I raced one”Ian Flux
This fan favourite held a potential sponsor captive just to land a BTCC drive in an M3
“I had my first go in one back in 1989. That was courtesy of my old Formula Atlantic team-mate, Masanori Sekiya. I drove at Suzuka and Tsukuba in a 2.3-litre car. I had my first drive of a 2-litre version at the final round of the BTCC in 1990 where I replaced John Llewellyn. The following year I contested the series – the first year of Super Touring – in a car run by BRR Motorsport [Matt Neal and Val Musetti also did a race each]. I got some sponsorship from Halfords through Gil Duffy who was a director. Ian Taylor and I used to do corporate track days for Rover and Gil was there: I got him in a car and, instead of doing the usual three laps, I told him I wouldn’t stop until he agreed to sponsor me!
“The drive I remember most was the 1992 British GP support race: that year I was with Roy Kennedy Racing. I cocked up qualifying and knew I had a lot resting on the outcome. If I did well, there was a chance Halfords would carry on until the end of the year. On the third lap I made a pitstop. Roy asked me: ‘What’s wrong?’ I told him: ‘Nothing, just leave the bonnet up.’ I knew there was a massive screen opposite so we were getting plenty of coverage. I then waited until everyone had gone through Bridge and I came out in front of the leaders and stayed there. Halfords got a lot of exposure when it was shown on TV and stayed on board…”