Featured: The E30 M3 Carried The Torch Of 1980s Driving Bliss

The E30 M3 Carried The Torch Of 1980s Driving Bliss

Avatar By Alan Franklin
May 25, 2013
6 comments

What does driving perfection mean to you? Is it a sophisticated balance of ride quality, traction, body control, adjustability and lightning-quick transitional responses? Steering overflowing with textural, gritty, feedback and scalpel-sharp accuracy? How about a responsive, flexible, enthusiastic, high-revving motor, or lightweight yet day-to-day practical bodywork developed under the immense heat and pressure of high-level international motorsport? Of course it’d be rear wheel drive, with a mechanical limited slip and none of this electronic differential nonsense. And oh yeah, great brakes, a slick-shifting gearbox, and a decent turn of speed, too.

What does driving perfection mean to you? Is it a sophisticated balance of ride quality, traction, body control, adjustability and lightning-quick transitional responses? Steering overflowing with textural, gritty, feedback and scalpel-sharp accuracy? How about a responsive, flexible, enthusiastic, high-revving motor, or lightweight yet day-to-day practical bodywork developed under the immense heat and pressure of high-level international motorsport? Of course it’d be rear wheel drive, with a mechanical limited slip and none of this electronic differential nonsense. And oh yeah, great brakes, a slick-shifting gearbox, and a decent turn of speed, too.

What I’ve just described is an E30 M3, a car with more attributes than miles on the average ’91 Tercel, a similar level of practicality to that gormless pod, but with a desirability factor perhaps four trillion times higher… apples to waffle irons, I know, but it illustrates a point. What made a now-near-three-decade-old car, based on an everyday sedan, brilliant though the standard was, into one of the best handling cars ever built for use outside of the confines of a racetrack? In a word, homologation—that magical, meaningful, word, full of promise and delight, music to any hardcore Petrolista’s ears.

The road-going equivalent of a Group A touring car built to compete with eternal, compatriot rival Mercedes Benz’s 2.3 16V 190E, the Ur-M3 was released for model year 1986. The Benz for which it was gunning was a brilliant car in its own right, powered by a Cosworth-designed and built four of similar spec to the M3’s—that is, DOHC, four valves-per cylinder, a high-specific output and an equally high rev limit. Both cars utilized similar strut front/multilink rear suspensions, each quite different from the standard cars which they were based on and tuned for precision and performance. They even shared the same dogleg Getrag five speed gearbox, slick-shifting and accurate in the Beemer, balky and recalcitrant in the Benz, the difference down to linkage designs—and this provides a great example of what set the two apart, why one is merely a great car and the other one of the greats.

BMW, as is their way, put in the last .5% effort to refine all systems and interfaces to a mirror-like polish, while MB simply engineered everything on paper to a very high standard and left things to feel how they felt once they were put together on the assembly line, both attitudes still predominate in the way each firm does things today.Where the M3 really earned its reputation, though, was the racetrack. Involved in some of the most exciting and memorable DTM racing in that series’ long history, there were epic battles fought between the two rival shoeboxes, with wheel-to-wheel, box flare-to-box flare action at nearly every corner. Ultimately, the coupe from Munich was more successful than the sedan from Stuttgart, winning championships in both 1987 and 1989, versus the 190E’s sole ’92 victory. Further racing glory came in the form of multiple Spa and Nürburgring 24 hour wins.

Though outclassed on loose surfaces by the then-emerging AWD machines, the M3 put in some seriously impressive work in the WRC as well, especially on various asphalt stages where its RWD-only layout did not place it at a disadvantage, and most notably at the hands of Patrick Snijers in his legendary attack of the ’88 Rally Manx on the Isle of Man. We’ve included video (see page three) of this now-legendary run, wherein the supernatural handling capabilities of the M3 were highlighted by a skilled pilot lost in the red mist of what proved to be the drive of his life—it’s hair-raising stuff, no hype.

So there it is in a nutshell, that’s why the first M3 is held in such high regards, why it’s so special. I can write for ages about how it changed the world of performance cars, about the incredible delicacy and malleability of its driving characteristics, but in the end the only way to know what made the M3 the driver’s car of the 1980s is to drive one yourself—a rare privilege that will spoil nearly every other car you ever drive, that’s the burden of perfection.

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Petrolicious thanks our reader Noah Popa for letting us photograph his BMW M3.

Photography by Stephen Heraldo

Tags BMW/ E30/ German/ M3
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ElGato
ElGato

Yep, that’s a Unocal 76 ball. (I’m the owner of the M3 above). I bought a box of the balls on eBay.

Leucea Alexandru
Leucea Alexandru

Close to perfection. This is one of the most craved BMWs in Europe and not only, and it’s clearly why, few cars from that era can match its greatness.

motoring con brio
motoring con brio

Is that a Unocal 76 antenna ball?

Ae Neuman
Ae Neuman

preferably in euro spec – non-cat with the close ratio, dogleg gearbox.

😉

Ae Neuman
Ae Neuman

superb !
still the best m car ever, a position it is unlikely to relinquish anytime soon…

Nick
Nick

I’ve watched this vid so many times over the years and I still get goosebumps when I hear that S14 scream at around 1:26. The E30 M3 is one of the cars I want own, but sadly they were never available in South Africa since they were all LHD which also makes it pretty impossible to import one today. Fortunately we did get 72 E34 540i 6 speed and although mine needs a whole lot of work, I absolutely love it. A V8 with 6 manual gears, wrapped in a body of a tank, on suspension that’s stiff enough to… Read more »