In 1986, BMW took its humble 3 Series and transformed it into a performance icon. Five generations later,
the German carmaker is still at it. We take a look at the M3 from its beginnings and some secret variants you
may not have heard of.
Thirty years ago, BMW Motorsport Division, the precursor to BMW M, was tasked with creating a racing car for the then
newly-formed DTM German Touring Car Championship. The Group A regulations stipulated that for a racing car to be homologated, at least 5,000 road-legal units had to be sold within 12 months.
This gave BMW Motorsport Division the opportunity to develop a street-legal sports car alongside the racing version. It also allowed the company to tailor the car to the demands of racing; the axle kinematics, suspension and damping as well as the
braking system, which combined the standard ABS anti-lock braking set up with inner-vented discs at the front and an
engine-driven high-pressure brake pump. Tellingly, the transmission’s shift pattern featured a “dog leg” where the first gear
was positioned at the bottom left, which spoke to the car’s racing pedigree.
At the heart of the original M3 was its four-cylinder engine. Initially based on a 2.0-litre unit and chosen for its relatively lightweight construction and high-revving capabilities. To give it the output they needed, BMW Motorsport Division first
enlarged the displacement to 2.3-litres. Next, they converted the unit to a four-valve per cylinder arrangement, while the cylinder heads were subtly modified from the six-cylinder M1. Other internals such as the crankshaft were said to be so rigid that it could handle 10,000rpm or more. However, in the interests of reliability and to make it more usable on public roads the original M3’s powerplant was limited to 6,750rpm, which left plenty of margin for further evolutions of this motorsport off-shoot.
To make the most of the engine’s performance, weight-saving measures were introduced. These included the front and rear bumpers plus bootlid and spoiler that were made of plastic composite to reflect the brand’s early commitment to using
lightweight components where it matters the most. Even in today’s M3, carbon fibre has become the material of choice but
is used in places where the weight-saving benefits can have the biggest impact, like the roof panel for example.
The BMW M3s you never knew about
M3 pick-ups, Touring and Compact? These were some of the versions of the M3 that never made it to series production but existed as prototypes and even workhorses that are still in use at the BMW M Division’s factory today.
BMW’s original Transporter
It wasn’t long before a heavy-duty vehicle was needed to transport work equipment and parts around the premises of what is now BMW M Division in Garching, near Munich. Rather than sourcing a goods vehicle from an external manufacturer, the M engineers seized the opportunity to come up with an in-house solution – the M3 pickup.
“The M3 pickup was based the body of a 3 Series Convertible for two reasons,” recalls Jakob Polschak, head of vehicle prototype building and workshops at BMW M Division who has worked 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 pickup conversion.”
Unlike the production car, the M3 pickup did not feature the flared wheel arches and was initially fitted with the lesser-known ‘Italian M3’ engine that had a reduced 2.0-litre displacement to meet tax regulations there and could make 192hp. Later on,
the standard 200hp 2.3-litre unit was fitted.
Although the original M3 pickup was a one-of, it stayed in service for 26 years, which speaks volumes of the reliability of its drivetrain that was originally designed for high performance.
In 2011, the E30-based BMW M3 pickup was eventually retired and replaced by an all-new model based on the E93 BMW
This ‘fourth body variant’ was announced as an April Fool’s gag and press release was sent out on 1 April 2011. It stated: “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 wasn’t until the final paragraph that discreetly revealed the model in question was actually a one-off built for use as a workshop transport vehicle. Unlike its predecessor, however, it had also been licensed for road use.
The ‘starter’ M3
In 1996, the idea of a ‘Junior M3’ was mooted to attract a younger generation of customers to the BMW M brand with
a more accessible entry point. The result was the BMW M3 Compact. In prototype form, it featured the 321hp, 3.2-litre in-line six-cylinder engine taken from the E36 M3. In all likelihood, the M3 Compact would have a reduced output if
it had gone into production.
However, this was never to be. Instead, the experience gained from developing the M3 Compact laid the foundation for future entry models such as the 1 Series M Coupe and today’s M2.
The M3 Touring
By the time the E46 BMW M3 was launched in 2000, a Touring prototype was developed as a production feasibility exercise. “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 BMW 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, for example.
Although the M3 Touring never made it into series production, the experience gained from this exercise was eventually applied to the V10-powered E60 M5 which remains the only Touring M-car thus far.
BMW M3 Heritage Collection Singapore Edition I
Official BMW M dealer, Munich Automobiles, is commemorating 30 years of BMW M3 in a special way. The BMW M3 Heritage Collection Singapore Edition 1 honours the history of the E36 model as it was the first time that the M3 was available here
Limited to just 10 units, the BMW M3 Heritage Collection Singapore Edition 1 is available in three distinctive colours,
Daytona Violet Metallic, Dakar Yellow II and British Racing Green.
Inside, laser engraving on the carbon fibre trim includes the edition name and edition volume to identify the car’s limited numbers.
The BMW M3 Heritage Collection Singapore Edition 1 is also based on the Competition Package variant, which includes an uprated engine which raises the output by 19hp to 450hp. With the 7-speed M Double Clutch transmission, this car is capable of reaching 100km/h from a standstill in just 4.0 seconds.
The BMW M3 Heritage Collection Singapore Edition 1 is priced at $408,800 including COE.
The full review of the BMW M3 Competition package model can be found in the December 2016 issue of evo Singapore.