The anticipation began in August 1985. That summer Germany’s automobile magazines built up their readers’ expectations for the fastest 3 Series BMW of all time. The key data revealed a sports car that would punch way above its class: 200 hp, top speed in excess of 230 km/h, sprint from a standing start to 100 km/h inside 6.7 seconds. However, the story was that “the most dynamic BMW 3 Series drivers” would have to wait until mid-1986. The pundits were right on that count. But one prediction missed the mark by a mile: anyone who “wants to be in the A Team needs to be turbocharged under the bonnet”. Not true. The BMW M3 became the most successful touring car in motor-sport history.
The M3 project was launched just a few months earlier. Production of the M1 mid-engine sports car had already been discontinued for some time and BMW CEO Eberhard Kuenheim commissioned a design for a successor, almost as an aside, according to legend. After one of his regular visits to Motorsport GmbH in Munich’s Preußenstraße he said, almost as he was leaving: “Mr. Rosche, we need a sporty engine for the 3 Series.” His aspiration was in good hands. Motorsport GmbH with its managing director of technical development Paul Rosche had demonstrated its expertise with the legendary 5 Series saloons driven by M engines as well as developing the Formula 1 turbo engine that powered Brazilian Nelson Piquet to win the World Championship in the Brabham BMW in 1983.
Power source: a four-cylinder engine with 2.3 litres displacement and four-valve engineering.
The new 3 Series engine had something in common with this: the crankcase. It originated from volume production and actually formed the basis for the two-litre engine with four cylinders. Four cylinders meant less weight and high torque, an ideal platform for a sports engine in the projected displacement class. Naturally enough, the series four-cylinder engine was much too tame for a sports engine. A comprehensive power boost was called for in order to turn the plucky daily workhorse into an athletic and sporty power unit. The BMW design engineers increased the displacement to 2.3 litres and applied a formulation that had already achieved significant successes over a period of many years: four-valve engineering. There was also another reason for the decision to opt for a four-cylinder engine and not adopt the six-cylinder engine introduced in the BMW 3 Series. The longer crankshaft in the big engine started to vibrate much earlier than the shorter four-cylinder shaft. The design engineers therefore designed the crankshaft drive of the BMW M3 with sufficient torsional stability to achieve 10,000 revolutions a minute and more. By comparison with the four-cylinder engine installed in the series vehicles, this represented an increase of more than 60 percent. The rated speed for the road version of the BMW M3 was still significantly below the critical range at 6,750/min and therefore offered sufficient scope for further developments.
Paul Rosche recalls: “We started work immediately. One advantage was that the big six-cylinder engine originally had the same cylinder gap as the four-cylinder engine. We therefore cut two combustion chambers off the four-cylinder head of the M88 and bolted a panel over the hole on the rear side.” This meant that the new four-cylinder engine had a second fore-bear. The six-cylinder engine that had initially created a sensation in the M1 and had meanwhile transformed the M635CSi into one of the fastest coupés in the world. Paul Rosche: “Whether you believe it or not – we had created an outstanding four-cylinder engine for the 3 Series within the space of two weeks. Under the development name S14, this engine was to generate headlines in sport and in volume production over the years to come. One Sunday, I drove to von Kuenheim’s flat and gave him the car for a test drive. When he came back he said: ‘Good, I like it.’ And that’s how the M3 came into being.
World premiere at the Frankfurt Motor Show in 1985.
On the BMW exhibition stand at the Frankfurt Motor Show in autumn 1985, the M3 was presented to a more broadly based public audience for the first time. Even without a special paint finish, it was not difficult to distinguish the car from the other BMW 3 Series vehicles. The boot lid was crowned by a spoiler across the width of the car. Aprons all round indicated the refined aerodynamic work that had been carried out on the body. The C-pillar of the BMW M3 was slightly wider than that of the series model and had a flatter taper in order not to interrupt the airflow over the edge of the roof and at the same time direct it more effectively onto the rear spoiler. Thick cheeks had sprouted over the wide wheels of the M3, with the flared wheel arches coming to an end in a striking lip below the edges of the wings. There was no question about it – the BMW M3 looked fast even when it was perched on an exhibition stand.
However, test drivers and customers alike had to be patient for at least another six months. In spring 1986, the first pilot-production cars were ready and the M3 was launched to a press audience – appropriately on the racing track at Mugello. The test drivers established that the aerodynamic profile of the M3 was an understatement rather than an overstatement – impressive high-quality racing technology was housed under the beefy bodywork. Axle kinematics, suspension and damping had changed. The braking system with ABS as standard comprised inner-vented brake discs with ventilation at the front and a high-pressure pump operated by the engine. This servo pump delivered power to the steering at the same time so that both systems were able to operate independently of the negative pressure of the engine.
The BMW M3 weighed in at just 1200 kilograms without payload on the scales and hence remained a sporty lightweight. The weight-to-power ratio at only 6.15 kilograms for every 1 hp was an extremely impressive figure even by today’s standards. This was primarily due to the use of plastic components. Although the bodywork including the wide wheel housings were made of metal in keeping with tradition, the front and rear bumpers, and side sills, boot lid and spoilers were made of plastic.
300 hp for competitive racing.
However, many of them immediately disappeared again into garages and workshops to be given a new outfit. After all, the M3 had been designed as a racing car, and now was the time to prove that it really could “race”. A World Touring Car Championship was held for the first time in 1987. And that was exactly what the M3 had been built for. But not quite in the guise in which it was seen on the streets. Instead of 200 hp, the 2.3 litre engine delivered up to 300 hp at 8,200 rpm in the racing version. This put it on a par with the BMW M635CSi. BMW didn’t line up on the starting grid with its own team but supported a number of famous racing outfits like Schnitzer, Linder, Zackspeed and Bigazzi. Drivers like Markus Oestreich, Christian Danner, Roberto Ravaglia and Wilfried Vogt took the wheel, and Anette Meeuvissen and Mercedes Stermitz formed a ladies’ team.
“Most sporty saloon of the year”.
The well-informed public rewarded the success story of the newcomer when readers of racing magazine sport auto voted the M3 “the most sporty saloon of the year”. The high-profile 3 Series also became increasingly exciting in its civilian version. In 1987, it was equipped with electronically adjustable shock absorbers. Drivers had a knob beside the handbrake lever which allowed them to choose between the adjustments sport, normal and comfort. Control lamps on the instrument panel displayed the setting that had been selected.
24 Hour Race: M3 double victory on the Nürburgring.
In the meantime, the BMW M3 was really getting going on the race track. The two-door car didn’t just win the German Touring Car Championship. It also took the national titles in France, England and Italy. In the following year, the BMW racing car was equally difficult to beat. The M3 packing 300 bhp beat its touring-car competitors in Germany, Belgium, Holland, France, Italy, Finland, Spain, Sweden and Yugoslavia hands down. Belgian Marc Duez battled through the Monte Carlo Rally with an M3 and took eighth place as best driver in a car without four-wheel drive. Altfried Heger and Roberto Ravaglia crowned the success story with a sensational twin victory at the 24 Hour Race on the Nürburgring.
The wolf in sheep’s clothing: the second generation of the M3 with six-cylinder engine.
This M3 was a completely new car – and a completely different car. This was the end of an era for an uncompromising sports car that was consistently tailored to be competitive in racing and demanded bold qualities from its drivers. An elegant and sophisticated coupé now emerged on the roads with a powerful yet cultured six-cylinder engine. The four-valve engine delivered 210 kW or 286 hp, thanks to the VANOS variable valve timing. This innovation allowed the opening point of the inlet valves to be adjusted to the engine speed and load. The advantage was that torque, power and consumption could be optimised simultaneously. The new M3 engine was a pioneer among naturally aspirated engines generating 320 newton metres at 3600 revolutions. The six-cylinder generated as much power as the previous M3 engine with a peak value of 230 newton metres virtually from idling speed. This made the M3 a world champion. No other naturally aspirated engine had such a high specific output – 97 hp for each litre of displacement – or such a high specific torque – 108 newton metres per litre of displacement. The coupé took 6.0 seconds to sprint from a standing start to a speed of 100 km/h, and the acceleration only stopped at a speed of 250 km/h. This was not because the engine had run out of power but because the electronics brought the acceleration to an end – BMW had set this voluntary limit.
Power boost: more advanced engine with 3.2 litres displacement and 321 hp.
Nothing is so good that you can’t make it even better. Shortly after the expansion of the M3 stable by the four-door saloon, BMW AG announced on 20 July 1995 that the M3 was getting even more dynamic. The new model could only be distinguished by white indicator lenses, a black cool-air intake in the front spoiler and wheels styled differently from the coupé.
The special feature of the new M3 was the more advanced engine. Firstly, it had a bigger displacement than the existing engine, precisely 3201 cubic centimetres, and hence a good basis for improvement of the key statistics. The maximum torque rose by some ten percent to 350 newton metres while the reference engine speed fell from 3600 rpm to 3250 rpm. The six-cylinder engine with four valves for each cylinder generated 236 kW or 321 hp at 7400 revs. At the same time, the development engineers increased the compression from 10.8 to 11.3, which benefited power and consumption.
The third M3: high performance and precision in exciting design.
The community of aficionados of the M3 didn’t have to wait long. The next M3 gave lots of scope for discussion when it was unveiled as a show car at the Frankfurt Motor Show in September 1999. Six months later, it celebrated a world premiere at the Geneva Motor Show.
The third M3 was very powerful, wide and yet elegant. Thanks to a special front apron with integrated fog lamps and large cooling air intakes, it presented a significantly different profile to all other models in the BMW 3 Series. The engine compartment lid made of aluminium was curved in the centre, forming a power dome to create space for the M3 engine.
The side profile of the M3 body including the wheel arches had undergone an increase in width of 20 millimetres, with air intakes and M3 badge in the front side panels. This beefy appearance was a visible consequence of aerodynamic optimization and an attribute creating a profile distinct from that of the 3 Series coupé. It was accompanied by appropriately beefy wide wheels in the format 225/45 ZR 18 at the front and 255/40 ZR 18 at the rear.
The impressive visual appearance of the M high-performance athlete was underscored by aspherical M outside mirrors, side sill trims and an aerodynamically optimised rear apron with rear spoiler lip. Any driver who was still unaware of which car had overtaken them was left in no doubt when they saw the four tailpipes of the twin-chamber exhaust system that it was a member of the M family of automobiles.
Sports seats developed in-house with outstanding ergonomic characteristics provided an impressive combination of lateral support and unrestricted capability for travelling long distances. Apart from the diverse electrical adjustment options at all levels, adjustment of the reclining width was also supplied as a special.
New six-cylinder with more power and torque.
People had expected no less. The heart of the new M3 was again an inline six-cylinder engine – the classic BMW power unit. Like its predecessor, this completely new engine offered lots of torque, even more power and all this for relatively low petrol consumption and low exhaust values.
The M3 engine generated the impressive power of 343 hp (252 kW) from displacement of precisely 3246 cubic centimetres at an engine speed of 7900 rpm. The maximum torque achieved 365 newton metres at 4900 rpm. This yields a specific power of 105 hp for every litre, a value that has only been achieved by a few high-performance sports cars in the world not fitted with a turbocharger.
The highlights of the engine included a friction optimised cylinder head with cam follower valve timing. The double VANOS variable timing familiar from the other M models was further optimised. Electronic throttle valve control was responsible for actuating the six individual throttle valves. It communicated directly with the MSS 54 engine control unit specially developed for the M3. This multiprocessor system has two 32 bit microcon-trollers and two timing coprocessors and computing power of 25 million calculations per second.
However, the main goal of developing the new M3 engine was not geared simply to the generation of torque at all costs. The primary objective was to generate thrust as an indication of optimum handling of the available potential power. Thrust is mainly based on the exceptionally high torque of this engine combined with a relatively short final drive ratio. The available power could be converted into acceleration much more efficiently than in engines rotating at a lower speed. And this held over the entire range of speeds. In addition, the radial force-controlled oil siphoning guaranteed reliable lubrication and cooling for the engine in journeys with hairpin bends and manoeuvres involving heavy braking.
A few more statistics provide in indication of the athletic performance. The M3 accelerates from a standing start to 100 km/h in just 5.2 seconds. It took this car just 5.4 seconds to accelerate from 80 to 120 km/h in fourth gear. A special switch, the M Driving Dynamic Control, also allows drivers to select between sporty and high-comfort engine response.
M3 CSL: the 110 percent car.
In 2003, BMW launched the series version of a concept car on the market which had already created a sensation at the Frankfurt Motor Show in 2001: the BMW M3 CSL. The initials stood for Coupé, Sport and Lightweight. A tradition that went back to the 1930s at BMW, when the legendary BMW 328 Mille Miglia Touring Coupé came into being. The focus for the design of this vehicle was not a radical slimming regime consisting of removing individual components, but intelligent weight reduction by using the most suitable materials at the right point. The experts managed to slim down the BMW M3 by more than 110 kilograms so that the CSL version weighed in at just 1,385 kilograms. The engine was also revised and generated 256 kW/360 hp in this version. This resulted in a power-to-weight ratio of only 3.85 kilogram to every 1 hp – a truly sensation value that gave the BMW M3 CSL even more agility than the standard BMW M3. The classic sprint from a standing start to 100 km/h was achieved in just 4.9 seconds. Acceleration from zero to 200 km/h only took 16.8 seconds. The top speed was limited electronically to 250 km/h.
Innovative materials at the right point.
The intelligent lightweight construction of the M3 CSL exerted a particularly significant effect with the roof manufactured in carbon fibre reinforced plastic (CRP) to create a striking visual profile. This large component was manufactured by specialists at the BMW plant in Landshut. Not only was it around six kilograms lighter than a conventional roof. Its exposed position also reduced the centre of gravity of the car. The BMW M engineers put virtually every component in the M3 through a weight test and integrated each component using the most suitable materials geared to saving weight. Even glass-fibre reinforced plastics from aerospace were used for the M3 CSL, for example the thermoplastic composite for the structure of the through-loading compartment and the rear bumper mount. Or the honeycomb sandwich panel for the under-boot floor – like the M3, the M3 CSL has an engine compartment lid made of aluminium while the rear window is made of thin glass.
Premiere of the fourth generation in the BMW M3: eight-cylinder engine with 420 hp.
The fourth generation of the BMW M3 actually gave its debut a few months later and included everything promised by the concept car. Apart from a few components, the fast coupé was a completely redesigned vehicle. A newly designed eight-cylinder V-engine formed the impressive power unit to guarantee outstanding performance and uniquely dynamic sportiness. The new engine mobilised an output of 309 kW/420 hp from a displacement of 3,999 cubic centimetres and a maximum torque of 400 newton metres. Accordingly, the new BMW M3 was able to demonstrate breathtaking vehicle performance. It accelerated from a standing start to 100 km/ in just 4.8 seconds and achieved a top speed of 250 km/h – limited by the engine electronics.
The eight-cylinder engine owed its most striking feature to generation of the power-to-displacement ratio typical of the BMW M. The V8 only reached maximum revs at 8,400 rpm, and anyone using the accelerator pedal was able to experience the joy of the imposing thrust. By contrast, fuel consumption of the new high-performance V8 was almost modest with an average of
12.4 litres for each 100 kilometres.
The favourable value was largely due to intelligent energy management. Brake Energy Regeneration further increased the efficiency of the power unit. Generation of electricity for the onboard network focused on the cruise and braking phases, while during the traction phases, the dynamo was generally uncoupled. Aside from particularly efficient power generation, this procedure also resulted in more tractive force being available for acceleration.
Exclusive in the vehicle segment: carbon fibre roof.
The roof was the epitome of the advanced technology designed into the new BMW M3. This component of the bodywork was made of carbon fibre reinforced plastic (CRP). The interesting aspect was that the fibre structure of the lightweight material remained visible – only a clear varnish coated the high-tech surface. Apart from the exclusive visual appearance, the main attribute of the CRP roof provided a definite technical advantage. It weighed significantly less than a steel roof. This not only reduced the total weight of the vehicle, but the weight-saving at the highest point of the bodywork also significantly reduced the vehicle’s centre of gravity and hence optimised performance when cornering fast.
Comeback in triumph: the M3 is back on the race track.
In the meantime, the new M3 is also taking off in motor sport. BMW Motorsport Director Mario Theissen: „Sportiness is undoubtedly in the genes of the series model of the BMW M3. That’s what motivated us to develop a racing version of this car.” As a near-series M3 GT4, it assists private drivers in winning races, and as the M3 GT2 with the resilience for covering long distances it is used to compete as a works car. In May 2010, the new 500 hp long-distance athlete won the 24 Hour Marathon at the Nürburgring at its first attempt. M GmbH launched the M3 GTS at virtually the same time. The coupé is directed towards club sport and is powered by the V8 engine with increased displacement and enhanced power. It also has specific tuning of the 7-gear M DCG Drivelogic and modified chassis technology combined with strategic optimisations in aerodynamics and light-weight design. The eight-cylinder engine of the M3 GTS expanded to 4,361 cubic centimetres develops 331 kW/450 hp, and thanks to a weight-to-power ratio of only 3.4 kilograms for every 1 hp, it powers the coupé effortlessly. The BMW M3 GTS has a gearbox and chassis configuration optimised for the race track and accelerates from a standing start to 100 km/h in just 4.4 seconds. The 1,000 metre sprint is achieved from a standing start in just 22.5 seconds while the top speed is 305 km/h.
The data has changed. But the M3 idea remains the same after 25 years.