BMW M3 family
BMW M3 family

30 Years of the Iconic BMW M3

2016 marks the 30th anniversary of a motoring legend, one which revolutionised the mid-size sports car segment when its production started in 1986. The very first BMW M3 set a new standard by which other car makers would be measured — and, five model generations later, are still judged today.

BMW Motorsport Division, the precursor to BMW M Division, was rigorous in its deployment of undiluted motor racing technology in the development of the first-generation BMW M3. Its endeavours produced a high-performance sports car — based on the series-produced BMW 3 Series — that was suited to daily use. Over the three decades that have followed, BMW M has refined its trailblazing and successful creation from one generation to the next, while always taking care to preserve the original character of the M3. The upshot is that there is arguably still no other car that blends such prominently honed motor sport genes and uncompromised everyday practicality into such a stirring overall package.

The 30th anniversary of the BMW M3 provides an opportunity to look back at four highly intriguing model variants that, for various reasons, never made it past the prototype stage. Four guests will therefore be attending their progenitor’s birthday party: the BMW M3 Pickup from 1986, the BMW M3 Compact from 1996, the BMW M3 Touring from 2000 and the second incarnation of the BMW M3 Pickup unveiled in 2011.

Use in touring car racing was the overriding development objective for the first-generation BMW M3.
The BMW M3 was not an attempt to produce a sporting flagship for a volume-produced model range; instead it originated from the idea of developing a racing car for motor sport that would also be available in a road-going version. The selected category of racing was Group A production touring cars – as seen in the German Touring Car Championship (DTM) that had succeeded the German Racing Championship (DRM). The Group A regulations stated that for a racing car to be homologated, at least 5,000 road-legal units had to be sold within 12 months.

Having the chance to develop the production and race versions of the car alongside one another presented the development team with an opportunity, which they duly capitalised on. The axle kinematics, suspension and damping were all tailored to the future demands of motor racing, as was the braking system, which combined the standard ABS with inner-vented brake discs at the front and an engine-driven high-pressure pump. Details such as the transmission’s shift pattern with first gear at the bottom left also gave a clear indication of the vehicle’s singular focus on racing.

On top of this came extensive weight-saving measures. While the body with broad wheel arches was manufactured from sheet metal in the traditional manner, the front and rear bumpers along with the side skirts, boot lid and spoiler were made of plastic, reflecting the engineers’ commitment to intelligent lightweight construction. The BMW Motorsport experts tweaked the car’s aerodynamics too, with the C-pillar of the BMW M3 following a slightly shallower angle than the standard body and having a broader base. This allowed the airflow to be directed towards the distinctive rear spoiler more effectively.

Extensive use of high tech in the powertrain

The experts at the Motorsport department used the two-litre four-cylinder engine fitted in series-production models as the basis for the M3’s unit, as the low weight of its construction and its high-revving capabilities meant it had exactly the right ingredients for a racing engine. To transform the well-mannered everyday engine into an athletic performer with sports car credentials, however, they had to subject it to some intensive power therapy.

First, they increased its displacement to 2.3 litres and converted it to a four-valve arrangement. For this purpose, the team employed a suitably modified cylinder head taken from the six-cylinder engine featured in the BMW M1, whose combustion chambers were — conveniently enough — spaced exactly the same distance apart as the four-cylinder unit’s. The crank drive on the BMW M3 was designed to be so rigid that it could handle 10,000 revolutions per minute and more. The standard production car’s rated engine speed of 6,750 rpm therefore left plenty of margin for further evolutions of the motor sport off-shoot.

From sporting machine to heavy-duty transporter: the BMW M3 Pickup (1986).

When the first generation of the BMW M3 was brought out, it wasn’t just customers who were enthralled by its dynamic abilities. It also caused quite a stir within the BMW Motorsport department responsible for its development, who saw it as the means of transporting work equipment and parts around the premises of what is now BMW M Division in Garching near Munich. The only problem was that goods transport didn’t figure very highly on the list of the first BMW M3’s many talents.

It didn’t take long to remedy the situation, the body of a BMW 3 Series Convertible being transformed into a BMW M3 Pickup. “The convertible bodyshell was chosen as the basis for two reasons,” recalls Jakob Polschak, head of vehicle prototype building and workshops at BMW M Division and an employee at the company for more than 40 years. “Firstly, we happened to have such a model at our disposal and in perfect condition. And secondly, the convertible’s built-in bracing made it the ideal choice for a pickup conversion.”

The first BMW M3 Pickup did not sport the original’s boldly flared wings, as it was equipped with the narrower body of its regular, volume-produced sibling. At first it was powered by the engine fitted in the so-called “Italian M3”, which had a reduced two-litre displacement due to tax regulations there and an output of 192 hp. “Later we switched to the original 2.3-litre four-cylinder engine with 200 horsepower,” reveals Polschak. The BMW M3 Pickup went about its work around the factory premises reliably for over 26 years before finally being retired four years ago.

The BMW M3 Pickup’s long service life alone is clear evidence that the one-off versions being presented here are not mere gimmicks or engineering exercises. On the contrary, they have been optimised to match their intended task or field of use. They also fulfilled another important purpose: “Our apprentices, graduate trainees and placement students assisted in the construction of all of these prototypes,” explains Polschak. “This allowed them to gain invaluable hands-on experience at the same time as freeing up resources for us — a classic win-win situation.”

Starter model for young target groups: the BMW M3 Compact (1996).

The same was also true of the 1996 BMW M3 Compact, of course. The idea behind this model was to present younger customers, in particular, with an entry point into the world of BMW M cars. “To a certain extent, the M3 Compact can be regarded as the forefather of today’s BMW M2,” remarks the BMW M workshop chief with a twinkle in the eye, and it’s easy to see why he draws the comparison. If it had gone into production, the M3 engine’s power would in all likelihood have been lowered somewhat. In the prototype, however, it was allowed to unleash its full 321 hp, which made easy work of propelling a lightweight car (it tipped the scales at just 1.3 tonnes). “It is 150 kilograms lighter, more agile, firmer and even more uncompromising,” enthused German motoring magazine “auto motor und sport” (issue no. 13/1996) after testing it.

Feasibility study under real-world conditions: the BMW M3 Touring (2000).

The BMW M3 Touring prototype likewise materialised because a production model was under consideration. The M3 Compact was made available to journalists for testing in order to both project an image and sound out customer interest. But the M3 Touring served entirely in-house purposes. “This prototype allowed us to show that, from a purely technical standpoint at least, it was possible to integrate an M3 Touring into the ongoing production of the standard BMW 3 Series Touring with very little difficulty,” explains Jakob Polschak. “One important thing we needed to demonstrate was that the rear doors of the standard production model could be reworked to adapt them to the rear wheel arches without the need for new and expensive tools.” Once it had passed through the assembly line, the M3 Touring required only minimal manual follow-up work to fit the M-specific add-on parts and interior details, for example.

History repeats itself: the BMW M3 Pickup (2011).

Once the first-generation BMW M3 Pickup described above eventually started to show the first serious signs of wear after around a quarter of a century of service, it was time for a successor. As with the original, those responsible for its creation again opted for a convertible body due to the existing strengthening elements. “The conversion work had initially proceeded in the usual, largely unspectacular manner during the spring of 2011. But then someone came up with the idea of marketing the vehicle as an April Fools’ joke, as April 1 was just around the corner,” recounts Polschak. To prime the public, spy shots of calibration runs on the Nürburgring’s Nordschleife circuit emerged in the run-up to the day, which served to fuel speculation about plans to build a production model.

And it worked. Reports from the time show that a good many journalists and bloggers took the bait and believed the rumours. Even the official press release published on 1 April 2011 did not immediately set matters straight, first presenting the M3 Pickup as the “fourth body variant” following the Sedan, Coupe and Convertible, before going on to say: “309 kW/420 hp under the bonnet and a payload capacity of 450 kilograms over the rear axle take the BMW M models’ hallmark blend of racing-style driving pleasure and everyday practicality to a whole new level.” It also pointed out that the Cd was only marginally higher than that of the M3 Coupe, the car was 50 kilograms lighter than the Convertible and the 20-kilogram targa roof could be removed to further lower the centre of gravity and therefore deliver even sharper handling dynamics.

It wasn’t until the final paragraph that the press release discreetly revealed the model in question was actually a one-off built for use as a workshop transport vehicle. Unlike its predecessor, however, it had also been licensed for road use.