The BMW 320is Puts A Motorsport Powertrain In An Unassuming Sedan
Story provided by Calvin Wan
Photography by Plia Film Productions
My name is Calvin Wan, I live in Kelowna, BC, Canada, and I own a 1989 and a 1990 BMW 320is, referred to by some as the “Italian M3.” I didn’t plan to put two obscure and nearly identical German sedans in my garage, but I’m not about to kick one out either. I’ve been a European car enthusiast forever, and I’d always wanted to own BMW M cars, but the box-flared wide body of the first M3 seemed just a bit “much.” I liked the idea of wolves in business suits, that side of M.
I think there has to be an innate component to every car-addicted kid with a dad who was the same, but his tastes certainly influenced mine. So, I grew up with a father who fostered an appreciation for automobiles, but he was always a Lancia fan. I like the marque—it’s hard not to fall in love with at least a few cars from a portfolio that diverse, right?—but once I had my own transportation and was carrying out the maintenance and modifications on my own, I found myself gravitating towards BMW.
I’d been a fan of the 320is for some time, and during one of my periodic trawls of Craigslist and Kijiji and the other major classifieds, I came across a clean ’89 320is located in Seattle. You know how this ends. I had a deposit down on the car within days of finding it, and was expecting to take delivery of it in a few weeks time.
In the interim, I managed to track down the original importer of the car in the ‘States—the 320is was only offered for sale in Portugal and Italy when new—and he shared his stories of the no-so-easy export process from the car’s original Italian home. For those who aren’t aware of this car, the basis for its existence comes from skirting regulations. The standard M3 motor, the S14B23, was a 2.3-liter unit, and at the time, Portugal and Italy were excising some hefty taxes on cars with engines larger than 2.0 liters.
So what did BMW do to avoid these sale-crushing fees? They reduced the stroke of the S14 until it became a 1.99-liter motor called the S14B20, and then rather than use the M3’s bulbous body, they incorporated the new engine into the existing 3-Series -is body style and added an M Technic II body kit (the double-decker rear spoiler is my favorite piece).
Anyway, after looking into the Italian importation situation that my car had gone through, I found myself looking around at secondhand Italian car sites, and I found a 1989 model year 320is with just 37,000km on the clock. The car belonged to a rather interesting Italian bodybuilding champion, who owned the car since new over 27 years ago. It was his prized possession, and he used it mainly for drives to the bar and back. Only a few kilometers away every week. I promised to “make him proud,” and that was how I ended up in Rome, just a day after driving the Seattle car home to Canada, in the front seat of a different 320is. It was a car that you couldn’t pass up, and I didn’t!
To me, the 320is is the perfect embodiment of power (192hp from 1990cc is impressive in a different sense than you’ll find in a modern M3 with 400 plus), agility, and roadholding in a stylish package that doesn’t have to rely on any exaggeration. Plus I just love the motivation behind the car. I think of it as one of the most interesting modern stories of a manufacturer not taking no for an answer. The result is a car that very few people will be able to identify, and one that is far rarer than its E30 M3 older brother, with just over 2,500 320is two-doors produced compared to just under 19,000 M3s.
Perhaps it’s a car that was never really well-known enough for people to forget about them as they aged, but I think the car and its story is probably better off with the obscurity. At the very least, it might keep the prices stable if I find a perfect sedan to complete the trio!