History of the 1986 - 1991 BMW M3
The BMW E30 is the midrange car built by BMW from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s. Within this the M3 is the high-performance version that was launched in 1986 and continued with various updates through Evo2 and Sport Evo models until 1992. The car was designed in-house by the ill-fated Claus Luthe. It is available as a sports coupé and convertible, both being front-engined with rear-wheel-drive and having four seats.
For the M3, BMW carried out a large number of modifications to the standard E30 design. Most notably it received the 2.3-litre S14 4-cylinder engine and 5-speed gearbox with first gear on the dogleg, denoting the car’s racing intent. The independent suspension (MacPherson struts at the front and semi-trailing arms at the back) received performance-enhancing modifications, the brakes were upgraded, the bodywork modified, and even the wheels were changed, getting a 5-stud pattern to replace the standard 4-stud items.
The M3 was built to homologate the BMW E30 for competition and it subsequently had a very successful career in racing and rallying, dominating touring car racing in the late 1980s and early 1990s. This included five wins in the 24 Hours Nurburgring, a WTCC title, and two BTCC titles.
The BMW M3 Evo2 was introduced in 1988, bringing with it more power from the same engine. Further performance improvements were brought through the use of bigger wheels and thinner glass. Externally the most notable difference was the addition of spoilers at the front and rear. The 1988 model year also saw the introduction of the BMW M3 convertible, which was built at BMW’s M facility and featured additional strengthening to compensate for the lack of a fixed roof. It received the more powerful engine in 1990.
A further step change came in 1990 when BMW released the M3 Sport Evolution, also known as the Evo3. Once again the aerodynamics were improved, this time through additional elements to the spoilers and improved cooling inlets. The biggest change though was the move to a 2.5-litre engine. BMW produced a number of limited editions during the car’s life including the Cecotto in honour of factory driver Johnny Cecotto and the Europa Meister 88 to celebrate the car’s success in that year’s touring car season.
The E30 BMW M3 was launched with the 4-cylinder S14 engine having a capacity of 2302 cc. The same basic engine was kept for the M3 Evo2 but various modifications including raising the compression and lightening the flywheel to release more horsepower. This engine was enlarged to 2467 cc for the final Evo3. In all its forms the M3’s motor was fed by differing variations of the Bosch Motronic fuel injection system. Power in all cases was transmitted via a 5-speed gearbox and limited slip differential was fitted as standard.
The BMW E30 M3 is generally viewed as the definition of the ‘driver’s car’. Although it has seemingly high-geared steering for a sporting car, the compliant yet well-set-up and forgiving handling rewards the driver. It also has a roomy interior, useable boot and can carry four people in comfort. The engine has to be revved to extract the maximum and may seem a little harsh, but there are still few better ways of moving down a dual carriageway. The mechanical elements are robust and easy to work on at home.
Rust can be a big problem and sills should be checked along with the rear floor and boot to get an idea of the overall condition. Also look for cracks in the front sub-frame around the engine mounts. Although the engine is strong, check the timing chain for wear. Regular replacement is expensive but essential and spare motors are now starting to get thin on the ground.
Cars with a good history and in good condition are well sought after; high mileage isn’t generally seen as being a problem. The coupés are preferred over the convertibles but the limited edition and high-performance cars are unquestionably at the top of the M3 tree.
If you want an alternative to the BMW M3 then look to the Ford Sierra Cosworth, the Mercedes-Benz 190E Cosworth models, or the Alfa Romeo GTV-6.