From hard-edged homologation necessity to luxurious sports saloon, three decades and five generations have seen the BMW M3 comprehensively transformed. Yet its combination of performance and everyday usability has remained constant. We take a look back through the history and highlights of the M3.
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BMW E30 DTM race car
Without racing, there would be no BMW M3. FIA Group A regulations required that 5,000 road-going examples be sold to homologate a car for competition use. BMW Motorsport picked the E30 3 Series as a basis, and set to work transforming it into a world-beating touring car racer.
1986 BMW E30 M3
First shown at the 1985 Geneva Motor Show, changes to the M3 over the regular 3 Series were extensive. External additions included the substantial rear spoiler, flared wheel arches and a deep front splitter. The aerodynamic add-ons were made from plastic to reduce weight, and were combined with comprehensively updated suspension and brakes to prepare the M3 for the track.
BMW even went so far as to adjust the angle of the C-pillar and rear window for the M3. This allowed better airflow towards the rear spoiler, and also resulted in a raised boot lid. All body panels on the E30 M3 except the bonnet were unique in comparison to the standard 3 Series. Alloy wheels were just 15 inches in diameter for the first M3.
The real magic took place under the bonnet, with a special four-cylinder engine. Increased in displacement to 2.3 litres and using a cylinder head design from the M1 supercar, the M3 could rev to 6,750rpm. The first European road cars left the factory with 200hp, and were capable of 0-62mph in less than 7 seconds, plus a top speed of 146mph. A manual five-speed ‘dog-leg’ gearbox was standard, as was a limited-slip differential for the rear-wheel-drive machine.
1988 BMW E30 M3 Convertible
With the 3 Series Convertible proving popular during the late 1980s, an open-top version of the M3 seemed a natural step for BMW. Mechanically identical to the coupe version, the main alterations were additional stiffening to compensate for the chopped top. Suspension settings were also slightly softer, allowing for the increased weight, while the convertible did without the rear spoiler and raised boot lid.
Only 786 E30 M3 Convertibles were built between 1988 and 1991 and, like the coupes, they were left-hand-drive only. Due to the lower production numbers, the convertible was built by hand at BMW M’s Garching factory, and could be fitted with bespoke options such as a removable hard top or even a built-in fax machine and telephone.
1989 BMW E30 M3 Sport Evolution
To keep the M3 competitive, BMW took advantage of the Evolution rules in Group A. The Evolution I appeared in 1987, sporting a revised cylinder head. In 1988, the Evolution II followed with 200hp, bigger wheels and revised spoilers. But the Sport Evolution of 1990 was the most modified, with thinner glass, lighter bodywork and unique adjustable front and rear spoilers. The engine was increased to 2.5 litres, with power upped to 238hp. Recaro seats and a suede-covered steering wheel were standard.
Sport Evolution race cars featured a mind-bending 385hp – and the process of constant development worked, with success in 17 touring car championships between 1987 and 1991. This included the British Touring Car Championship, the German DTM series and the Nürburgring 24 hours. A victory in the 1990 Irish Tarmac Rally Championship proved the E30 was capable away from the race circuit, too.
As one of the most iconic cars of the 1980s, the E30 M3 attracts plenty of attention from collectors and investors. Over 16,000 were built between 1986 and 1992, with numerous special editions and celebratory models along the way. However, the 600 Sport Evolution cars are the most desired, with prices in the UK reaching over £75,000 for the best ones.
1986 BMW E30 M3 pick-up
Built by BMW’s M division as a one-off, this special pick-up was produced using the bodyshell of a regular 3 Series convertible. First using a 2.0-litre engine with 192hp, latterly replaced with a real 2.3-litre M3 unit, the pick-up saw service transporting goods around the Garching factory for over 26 years.
1992 BMW E36 M3 Coupe
Introduced in 1990, the E36 3 Series was bigger, heavier and more luxurious than the E30 it replaced. And the M3 version, launched in 1992, faced a difficult task to replace a car that already had a cult following. More power came in the form of a six-cylinder 3.0-litre engine, producing 286hp for European customers but only 240hp for North American buyers. The 0-62mph times dropped below 6 seconds, with a top speed of 155mph.
Visually more conservative than the car it replaced, and not built purely for motorsport homologation, the E36 M3’s rear spoiler was relegated to the options list and did without flared wheelarches. There was, at least, a jutting chin spoiler and deep rear diffuser to differentiate it from the normal 3 Series. Swooping side skirts and aerodynamic wing mirrors would become M3 mainstays, and would be replicated on modified cars throughout the 1990s. For those in the UK, the biggest development came with the M3 now being available in right-hand drive.
1994 BMW E36 M3 Convertible
Following on two years later was a convertible version of the E36 M3, which added 100kg to the already-substantial 1,460kg kerb weight of the coupe. Pitched as more of a boulevard cruiser than a sports car, the convertible lacked the option of a rear spoiler but did gain polished versions of the 17-inch ‘M Double Spoke’ alloy wheels. Almost 6,000 E36 M3 convertibles were sold, making them far more common than the E30 version.
1994 BMW E36 M3 Saloon
In 1994, with the M5 saloon shortly to be out of production, BMW turned to the M3 to offer a four-door performance car. Intended to be slightly more refined and conservative than the coupe, the saloon variant featured softer suspension for greater comfort.
The interior of the E36 M3 Saloon also featured more luxurious features, with burr walnut wood trim covering the centre console and door handles. The leather sports seats were less shapely than those fitted to the two-door coupe version. Also unique to the four-door were ‘M Contour II’ 17-inch alloy wheels, supplied in a staggered fitment with wider rear tyres.
1995 BMW E36 M3 GT
Although the E36 M3 didn’t begin as a homologation special, this didn’t stop BMW building a special version to comply with FIA rules. All 350 limited-edition models were produced in British Racing Green, and gained bespoke adjustable front and rear spoilers. The engine was tuned to produce 295hp, while the interior featured green leather and carbon fibre trim. The UK received an allocation of 50 ‘GT Individual’ cars.
1996 BMW E36 M3 3.2-litre engine
Keen to keep the M3 competitive, and with knowledge gained from its V12 engine in the McLaren F1, BMW released an enhanced 3.2-litre six for 1996. Branded as the M3 Evolution in the UK, the extra displacement resulted in power of 321hp at 7,400rpm, along with 236lb ft of torque. A six-speed manual gearbox became standard for European cars, with the first-generation SMG (sequential manual gearbox) introduced in 1997 as an option. Performance improved, with 0-62mph taking just 5.2 seconds.
1996 BMW E36 M3 Compact concept
Pre-empting the M135i hot hatch by some 16 years, in 1996 BMW M experimented with the M3’s 3.2-litre engine in the shortened bodyshell of the Compact hatchback. Weighing some 150kg less than the M3 coupe, but with the same 321hp, performance was said to be uncompromising and exhilarating. The cars was considered for production, with a view to targeting younger buyers, but in the end only one was built – to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the German Auto Motor und Sport magazine.
2000 BMW E46 M3 Coupe
If the E36 had struggled to live up to the E30, the E46 had the opportunity to establish itself as a truly legendary M car. BMW didn’t hold back on development, with a new S54 3.2-litre straight-six engine producing 343hp at 7,900rpm plus with 266lb ft of torque. Bodywork was again more bespoke, with widened wheelarches making a return, special side grilles, aggressive front and rear bumpers, and a bonnet with a distinctive ‘power dome’.
2000 BMW E46 M3 Convertible
With no saloon offered, E46 M3 buyers were limited to coupe or convertible. Both came with a six-speed manual gearbox, with the second-generation SMG auto on the options list. A special M Differential Lock helped channel power to the rear wheels, while heavily modified suspension and brakes completed the mechanical overhaul. Alloy wheels were 18-inch as standard, with polished 19-inchers a popular option.
Four exhaust tips at the rear marked the M3 out as something potent, with performance suitably improved over the E36. The 0-62mph sprint took just 5.1 seconds for the coupe, the heavier convertible needing 5.5 seconds. American buyers made do with 5hp less, a result of different catalytic converters, with a negligible effect on acceleration. Top speed was limited to 155mph.
Reflecting the march of 3 Series further upmarket, the E46 M3 gained a plusher interior. Nappa leather trim was standard, and available in a range of colours including Kiwi yellow and Cinnamon brown. Also fitted from the factory were an M-badged three-spoke steering wheel with special stitching, illuminated gear knob, and instrument dials with LED lights on the tachometer to help prevent drivers abusing the engine when cold.
2000 BMW E46 M3 Touring concept
Faced with performance estate competitors such as the Audi RS4, BMW M commissioned a concept M3 Touring in 2000. Hidden from public knowledge until very recently, the M3 Touring proved that the special widened rear wheel arches could be combined with the estate bodyshell. Despite the engineering feasibility shown by the prototype, BMW decided against production, denying the world the chance to transport bulky things with a screaming straight-six.
2001 BMW E46 M3 GTR
In 2001, BMW entered a rule-bending E46 M3 in the American Le Mans Series. Aware that the 3.2-litre engine lacked firepower, a bespoke racing 4.0-litre V8 engine was developed with 500hp, taking advantage of the loosely-worded ALMS regulations. After dominating the 2001 season, BMW had to offer ten road-going versions with a V8 engine. Priced at €250,000, detuned to only 380hp, and without flame-spitting side exhausts, the road car is the rarest and most expensive production M3.
2003 BMW E46 M3 CSL
Sharing a name with the 3.0 CSL homologation special from the 1970s, the M3 Coupe Sport Leichtbau (Coupe Sport Lightweight) of 2003 is regarded as the ultimate E46. Limited to less than 1,400 units, the CSL majored on saving weight. However, the enhancements went beyond shedding bulk, and created an especially focused machine, offered only with Silver Grey or Black Sapphire paintwork.
Some 10% lighter, the CSL featured a number of bespoke carbon fibre parts. The roof panel, front and rear bumpers, interior panels and centre console all featured the lightweight material. The specially reshaped boot lid was made from moulded plastic, with thinner glass for the rear window. Lightweight 19-inch alloy wheels fitted with special Michelin Pilot Sport Cup tyres saved more grams and were mounted over bigger brakes.
More carbon featured beneath the bonnet, with a sizeable new intake plenum forcing air into the revised engine. Producing 360hp, and fitted to an uprated SMG paddle-shift gearbox, the CSL was capable of 0-62mph in 4.9 seconds when using its ‘launch control’ feature. A steering wheel-mounted button could activate an ‘M Track Mode’ for the stability control, allowing for sideways circuit action. Top speed was limited to 155mph, but the limiter could be removed as a special option.
Inside the CSL, the removal of air conditioning and stereo system saved some 21kg. Carbon fibre was used for the backs of the Recaro bucket seats, while the rear bench could seat just two instead of three passengers. Alcantara trim was used extensively, and reduced sound deadening helped occupants hear the carbon airbox and lightened exhaust system.
2005 BMW E46 M3 CS
Following the success of the CSL, BMW offered a Competition Sport package that used bolt-on parts to enhance the regular E46 M3. Larger cross-drilled brakes, quicker steering settings, an Alcantara steering wheel with M Track Mode and distinctive 19-inch alloy wheels were all part of the deal. Interlagos Blue paint, as used on the E60 M5, was also an exclusive option.
2007 BMW E92 M3 Coupe
Seven years after the E46 had restored the legacy of the M3, BMW launched a brand new model based on the fifth generation 3 Series. Continuing the theme of the previous E46, the M3 had a comprehensive cosmetic makeover, sharing minimal body panels with the normal 3 Series coupe. Most noticeable was a front bumper with three large openings, along with the bonnet that retained the ‘power dome’ to accommodate the new engine.
Chrome side gills featuring LED indicators were also an M3 trademark, as was the exhaust system with quad tailpipes. A carbon fibre roof panel, first seen on the E46 CSL, saved weight and lowered the car’s centre of gravity. Again, 18-inch alloy wheels came fitted from the factory, with 19-inch versions on the options list. Uprated suspension and bigger brakes completed the chassis upgrades.
The biggest change for the new M3 was the engine. Out went the six-cylinder motor, and in came a purpose-built 4.0-litre V8 that was unrelated to any existing BMW eight-cylinder engine. Capable of revving to 8,400rpm, peak power was 420hp with torque of just 295lb ft. A six-speed manual gearbox was standard, with a new seven-speed dual-clutch system also available. The latter helped the M3 hit 62mph in 4.6 seconds, with the manual car needing 0.2 seconds longer. Top speed remained a limited 155mph.
2007 BMW E90 M3 Saloon
After being dropped for the E46 M3, the four-door saloon reappeared thanks to strong demand from American and Canadian markets. That Audi produced an RS4 saloon may have also spurred BMW into creating a direct competitor. Marginally shorter, wider and taller than the coupe, the M3 saloon had subtly altered bodywork and was denied the carbon fibre roof panel.
2008 BMW E93 M3 Convertible
The final member of the M3 family was added in 2008, with the convertible making its debut at the Geneva Motor Show. Like the regular 3 Series version, the M3 convertible was fitted with an electrically-operated folding hard-top. This may have boosted security, but it also resulted in an extra 200kg of weight, reducing the 0-62mph time by 0.5 seconds.
2010 BMW E92 M3 GTS
With the GTS, BMW M set out to create the ultimate M3. Being capable of driving to the racetrack, competing in clubsport events and then driving home meant the GTS was hardcore to the extreme. A jutting front splitter and adjustable high-level rear spoiler marked out the circuit-based intentions of the car. A 70kg weight saving helped its track ability, too.
Modifications to the GTS were so in-depth that the 138 cars were partially built on a regular 3 Series production line, before being transported to the Garching factory for completion by hand. All but two were painted in Fibre Orange with 19-inch matte-black alloy wheels and an orange-painted rollcage, along with Recaro bucket seats and six-point racing harnesses. As with the CSL, the radio and air conditioning were moved to the options list to save weight, and carbon fibre trim was used on the dashboard.
Displacement from the V8 engine was increased to 4.4-litres, while a new titanium exhaust system and other detail changes resulted in a power output of 450hp and torque of 325lb ft. The seven-speed M-DCT paddle-shift gearbox was the only transmission available, and was recalibrated for quicker shifts. The 0-62mph time dropped to 4.4 seconds, and top speed was almost 190mph. Prices in the UK started at £115,000 – a £60,000 premium over the regular M3 coupe.
2011 BMW E90 M3 CRT
Even rarer than the GTS, the CRT was an ultra-limited-edition M3 saloon, developed to show off the progress BMW had made with carbon fibre and preview how it would be used for the forthcoming i3 and i8. Although not as track focused as the GTS, the 67 cars still required hand-finished production at the BMW M factory, and used the same 4.4-litre engine and seven-speed M-DCT gearbox.
All cars came in matte Frozen Polar Silver paint, with exterior details picked out in striking Melbourne Red. Carbon fibre reinforced plastic (CFRP) was used for the bonnet, front lip spoiler, rear boot spoiler and the front seats. Overall weight was reduced by 70kg compared to the normal four-door M3, despite the extra equipment fitted to the CRT.
Unlike the GTS, there was no rollcage or six-point harnesses in the CRT. Instead, the four seats were part covered with bright Sakhir Orange leather with matching stitching, and the steering wheel was finished in Alcantara. A high-end audio system, front and rear parking sensors, satellite navigation and climate control were all fitted from the factory. Performance remained the same as the GTS, but the CRT undercut it on price – at ‘only’ £105,000.
2011 BMW E92 M3 pick-up
Yes indeed, history really did repeat itself in 2011 when BMW decided the trusty E30 M3 pick-up should head off into retirement. A convertible M3, with the bonus of additional chassis stiffening as standard, was used for this conversion. With the same 420hp V8 as other M3 variants, it made for rapid parts transportation. BMW also teased the public with photos of the M3 pick-up testing at the Nürburgring, but the promise of a production version was merely an elaborate April Fools’ hoax. Who says the Germans have no sense of humour?
2012 BMW E92 M3 DTM Championship Edition
After nearly 20 years away from the DTM series, BMW returned with the M3 in 2012. It proved to be rather successful, taking Bruno Spengler to the drivers’ title and also collecting the team championship. To celebrate, BMW built 54 coupes, featuring the Frozen Black paintwork used on the race machine. Large ‘M’ logos on the front wings, roof stripes and a Canadian flag in honour of Spengler also made an appearance. Inside was carbon fibre trim, with each car bearing the signature of the victorious driver.
2014 BMW F80 M3 Saloon and F82 M4 Coupe
Shockwaves ran through the M community when the decision was made to rebrand the 3 Series coupe and convertible models as the 4 Series. This followed the new trend of BMW using even numbers for coupe versions, but meant the legendary two-door M3 would no longer exist. Instead, the M3 would now be a four-door saloon, while the M4 badge would cover coupe and convertible versions.
2014 BMW F80 M3 Saloon
Despite the family split, BMW made sure the M3 retained styling enhancements that marked it out from the regular 3 Series. The front bumper was aggressively shaped, and the gills behind the front wheels served a purpose in directing airflow. Quad exhaust tailpipes and a slim Gurney spoiler on the boot rounded out the exterior changes. The bonnet still featured the distinctive power dome, and even the classic aerodynamically-shaped wing mirrors were present and correct.
Name changes were only part of the controversy with the F80 M3. A straight-six engine returned, but it featured forced induction with M TwinPower Turbo technology. BMW claimed it could still rev like the old engines, despite the turbocharging, and 431hp and 406lb-ft of torque helped silence the critics. Performance was noticeably improved, with 0-62mph taking just 4.1 seconds if the seven-speed M-DCT gearbox option was ticked. As ever, top speed is limited to 155mph, but can be raised to 174mph if requested.
Making a debut on the M3 saloon was a carbon fibre roof panel – something previously restricted to coupe versions. BMW made sure to use large amounts of the lightweight material, including for the distinctive strut brace under the bonnet, along with the propeller shaft sending power to the rear axle. The results of the dieting were an M3 and M4 that actually tipped the scales at less than their predecessors, benefitting both performance and economy.
2016 BMW F80 M3 Competition Package
Continuous improvement doesn’t stop at BMW M GmbH, with a Competition Package offered for both M3 and M4 models in early 2016. Power was boosted to 450hp, lowering the 0-62mph time to 4.0 seconds for cars with M-DCT. Adaptive suspension comes as standard, with uprated springs and dampers, and the wheels grow in size to 20-inch multi-spokers. A sports exhaust with black chrome tailpipes adds aural bite, whilst gloss black trim replaces the usual chrome badges and grilles.
2014 BMW F82 M4 Coupe
We couldn’t rightfully leave the M4 out of this gallery. The nomenclature might have changed, but this still an M3 at heart, being mechanically identical to the four-door car. In fact, the only major difference, number of doors aside, is that the M4 features a boot lid with an integrated spoiler – just like the M3 CSL from 2003.
2016 BMW F82 M4 GTS
It would also be remiss of us to overlook the most potent M3/M4 created to date. Taking direction from the M3 GTS of 2010, and using lessons learned over 30 years, BMW launched a track-focused M4 in 2016, limited to just 700 units. With innovative water injection for the engine, power swells to 500hp and 442lb ft of torque. Carbon fibre makes an appearance throughout, helping reduce weight, while the option of a rollcage in Acid Orange is a nod to the M3 GTS. The 0-62mph dash takes just 3.8 seconds, with a 190mph top speed.
2016 BMW F80 M3 ‘30 Years’ Edition
We’ve been on a 30-year journey covering the history of the M3, so it seems fitting to end with the car BMW picked to commemorate those three decades of development. Limited to just 500 units, and finished in Macao Blue (an option on the original E30 M3), the ‘30 Years’ edition is based upon the Competition Pack car. Special ’30 Years M3’ logos appear on the side gills, the seat headrests – and even on the dashboard, with individual numbering for each car. We wonder what BMW has in store for when the M3 hits the big four-zero…