A few weeks ago, we featured the Lamborghini Countach, one of the most outrageous and iconic cars of the 1980s. But even the biggest Lambo fans can rattle off the laundry list of that car’s flaws. Simply put, the Countach was better as a fantasy – a monument to excess, an object to be desired. And while its massive rear wing, futuristic scissor doors and take-no-prisoners wedge shape screamed “fast car” while actually making it a nightmare to drive, another icon of the ’80s had virtually perfected the modern driver’s car formula. Today, while Countachs are treated as museum pieces, these cars are eagerly being snapped up by a new generation of gearheads, driven hard, and celebrated as the pinnacle of 20th century automotive engineering.
The car is the first-generation BMW M3, the car that launched one of the most formidable performance nameplates in the world, and along with the ’80s-era Porsche 911 it’s also become one of the most popular new-timer classic cars in the world. In many ways, it was the anti-Lamborghini. Whereas the Countach had brutal power, straight line speed, and show-stopping presence, the M3 was serious and workmanlike. It was lithe and graceful; as formidable on the track as it was on the street, and subtle enough that you might almost miss it in traffic. And that was partially the point; after the financial misstep that was the M1 supercar (a project that Lambo had a hand in), BMW was less interested in making a statement car and doubled down on building the best driver’s cars in the world. Long story short, it succeeded.
Introduced in 1976, the 3 Series replaced the aging 2002, and quickly became a success. Along with the midsize 5 Series and full-size 7 series (introduced in 1977), BMW had quickly become a formidable competitor to Mercedes-Benz. And as the 3 Series’ began to catch on with buyers all over the world, it became glaringly obvious to Mercedes that it didn’t have a car that could compete with BMW’s sporty compact. In 1982, after spending over $850 million ($2.3 billion today), it launched the 190, hoping to lure 3 Series buyers away while dominating the European Touring Car championships. Little did Mercedes know it was waking a sleeping giant.
In 1983, Mercedes debuted its 190E 2.3-16 Cosworth at the Frankfurt Motor Show. Lowered, lightened, and with an engine tuned by legendary British firm Cosworth, Mercedes set out to crush its latest rival on racetracks around Europe. But despite some rallying experience in the ’70s, Mercedes hadn’t officially raced in years, usually opting to partner with tuners like AMG. But BMW’s Motorsport division had been going strong since the 3.0 CSL had come to dominate Touring Car Championship (DTM) in 1972, and was eager to get its hands on the second-generation 3 Series (internally called the E30) that bowed in 1982.
From 50 feet away, the M3 didn’t look all that different from a standard 3 Series coupe. Despite the similarities, the only body panels that carried over from the lesser car were the hood, roof, and door panels. The car’s track was widened and it was fit with subtle boxed fenders, a lower body kit was added to keep it planted to the road at speed, and the front and rear windscreens were mounted flush for better aerodynamics.
Under the reworked body panels, the M-division dropped the car an inch, and revised the steering and suspension to handle track duty. And while the bigger, performance-focused M5 used a bigger straight six, BMW decided to give the M3 a naturally-aspirated 2.3 liter S14 four that was related to the mill found in its Grand Prix cars, and had a modified head based on the M1’s. In the M3, the S14 was mated to a Getrag five-speed manual and cranked out 192 horsepower and 170 pound-feet of torque. That may not sound impressive by today’s standards, but when the car was introduced in 1985, it was a revelation. Car and Driver summed the final result in its November 1988 review:
“When its tail is twisted, the 2,857-pound M3 dashes to 60 mph in 6.9 seconds and trips the quarter-mile lights in 15.2 seconds at 92 mph. Top speed is an autobahn-tuned 141 mph. That’s enough punch to blow off the Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.3-16 and stay neck and neck with the Porsche 944S. Best of all, the M3’s power delivery is wonderfully linear; it pulls willingly from its midrange all the way to its sizzling 7,250-rpm redline.”
When it hit the Frankfurt Motor Show in spring 1985, it became clear that BMW hadn’t just beat Mercedes, it had created a car unlike anything that had come before.
BMW had been using “The Ultimate Driving Machine” as a slogan since 1975, and in hindsight, it seemed like it was written for the M3. But by the mid-’80s in America, the company’s smartly-designed performance-bred cars were finding an audience that didn’t seem to care much about performance. BMWs weren’t going to “race on Sunday, drive on Monday” types, they were largely congregating in parking lots of law offices, banks, and doctors offices. In short, they had become the unofficial car of the Yuppie. The uniquely ’80s creation, these young, well-educated urban professionals had shed their hippie-era college idealism for a spot in Reagan’s corporate America, and had developed the expensive tastes that went along with it. BMW’s blend of crisp, understated design, high-end luxury, and attainable exclusivity made them a Yuppie favorite. So much so, that when the M3 arrived in the American market in June 1988, it was almost lost in the shuffle.
“The M3 deserves better. This is not a car for yuppies. This is a car for us,” Arthur St. Antoine said in his Car & Driver review.
“In case you haven’t noticed, BMW’s U.S. lineup has blossomed to include a dazzling array of leather-lined hot rods that beg to be flogged through the twisties and hammered on the superslabs. Gone are the anemic four-cylinder models that nearly ruined BMW’s image. Nearly extinct are the Bimmers reserved for social climbers. The Bavarian Motor Works is back on track with a fleet of drivers‘ cars, and the M3 is potent proof of its new direction.”
But on top of its track-bred performance and wind-cheating body, the M3 came standard with a power sunroof, stereo, power windows and locks, air conditioning, and leather-wrapped steering wheel. It also cost a hefty $34,410 ($68,440 today), meaning it was exclusive, expensive, and comfortable. As a result, most production M3s didn’t end up spending much time on the track in America.
Not so in Europe. In 1987, the Evolution I model debuted with revisions made to keep it competitive in DTM races. The Evo II bowed in 1988 with revised gears, and the engine enlarged to 2.5 liters to produce 220 horsepower. A final Sport Evolution appeared in late 1989 as a lightened, 238 horsepower track-day version. To put it mildly, it all worked: Between 1987 and 1992, the M3 was dominant, winning the British Touring Car Championship, European Touring Car Championship, the World Touring Car Championship drivers’ title in ’87, and 24 hour endurance races at both Spa and the Nürburgring.
But after more than five years on the cutting-edge, the M3 was beginning to show its age. A convertible version appeared in the U.S. for 1991-’92, but by April of that year, production had come to an end as BMW prepared to roll out a new 3 Series. With so many of the 17,970 cars not used for racing, the company made the new M3 a bit more civilized. While a manual transmission coupe was offered, a four-door automatic sedan was too, and unsurprisingly, that sold in far greater numbers.
With most BMWs considered luxury cars first and foremost in the U.S. (performance models included), many original M3s were traded in or sold off once the new ones came along, causing them to languish as used cars for the next two decades. As a result, many were hammered on, modified beyond repair, or wrecked outright. But as automotive technology evolved and new cars became more dependent on computers and electronic nannies, the original M3 began to take on a mythical status: Obsessively engineered and gloriously analog, it was a world-class racer at low five-figure prices that offered enough creature comforts to still be a comfortable daily driver, while delivering one of the most engaging driving experiences in the world. The E30 M3 wasn’t just a classic rediscovered by a new generation, the automotive world collectively began to wonder why it had ever disappeared in the first place.
And like that, the revival began. In 2013, Motor Trend said: “Its eagerness and friendliness is addicting, and it’s easy to see why this car received so much praise when it reached our shores. In 2014, Jalopnik said: “… I had enough seat time in the M3 to tell you that yes, it is as good as you have heard and very much worth dreaming about.” And last year, Automobile said: “An undeniable classic, it epitomizes all the old-school dynamic virtues the brand is famous for.”
When the Motor Trend article came out, you could buy the nicest 1988 M3 in America for under $37,000. Today, you’d be paying well over six figures for it. After decades of languishing, the E30 M3 is a bona-fide blue-chip classic. The days of nursing a sub-$10k car back to health and having your own world-class corner-carver may be over, but for once, it’s nice seeing a car on everyone’s “best-of” list that deserves to be there. As BMW turns 100 this week, we can’t think of any other car that sums up The Ultimate Driving Machine better than the original M3.