Built to win races – and the hearts of enthusiasts
It was the same but different. When BMW revealed the first M3 in 1985 it was clearly derived from the compact 3-series saloon – it had to be to go racing, which was the whole purpose. It was just a little 3-series; only, were the arches always that chunky, the boot so high, the rear glass so sloped? And under the bonnet did the motor always have BMW M-POWER emblazoned on it?
The fact was that the German firm dived headlong into the E30 project, intending to grab touring car success with both hands. Everything you could see was different bar bonnet and doors: those flares could swallow race tyres, the new boot lid and shallower rear window cut drag, the rear spoiler reduced lift. Underneath, everything was reworked. Brawnier suspension glued it to the road, the stubby lever sprang from a Getrag dog-leg five-speed box, and a high-revving four-cylinder with a 16-valve head design borrowed from the M1 supercar meant 200bhp in road form and loads of room for race team tuning.
But to qualify for Group A BMW had to make 5000 examples, so this was no special, hand-built in handfuls at the M-Division base. It came out of the main factory, but assembled by specialist teams faced with getting those 5000 out of the doors within 12 months. Such was the M3’s success, as a dominating racer and a sensational road car, that BMW ended E30 production at almost 18,000 examples. In series after race series – DTM, WTC, BTCC, not to mention rallying – the snarling M3 hoovered up success, topping championships across Europe. But unlike many homologation specials it also made a fantastic road car, and successive Evolution models only turned up the thrill, to 215, 220 and finally 238bhp in 2.5-litre form, but all versions shared the responsive steering, obedient turn-in and sheer solid punch of a race-bred engine made to thrive on high revs. M-series cars have proliferated since, and they may be faster, but none has caught the spark of the first M3.
The E30 M3 rides hard and comes only in left-hand drive, but the drive is a thrill you won’t forget – balanced but wieldy, grippy but forgiving. And prices are surging…