History: The magic of the BMW M3

Why do car buffs fawn over the BMW M3? It has nothing to do with big power, and everything to do with a plucky homologation special that swept the racing world before it…

SINGAPORE — The new BMW M3 Competition and M4 Competition have more than 1,000 horsepower between them, but BMW M hasn’t always been about giant power figures and mixing ballistic acceleration with everyday comfort. The M3’s story actually begins on the racing track, back when BMW M was known as the BMW Motorsport Division.

Almost exactly 35 years ago BMW began production of the first M3, not specifically to put a high-performance version of the 3 Series into showrooms, but with the sole aim of building a machine for Group A Touring Car racing.

For a given car to be eligible, manufacturers had to build at least 5,000 road-going examples and sell them all within a year, which raises the important question: why don’t they write rules like that anymore?

1986 BMW E30 M3

Anyway, the M3 wasn’t just a 3 Series with a bit more power. The suspension, brakes and gearbox got a complete rethink, too. But it’s the engine that makes nerds fan themselves with both hands.

The racing boffins enlarged a 1.8-litre M10 four-cylinder to 2.3-litres and bolted on a 16-valve cylinder head — the head from the legendary M1’s six cylinder engine happened to fit perfectly after they chopped off a third of it — and roughly doubled its power output to 197hp for the road-going car.

The road-going M3 could rev freely to 6,750rpm, but its strengthened crankshaft was actually good for 10,000rpm, leaving plenty of headroom for the racing car.

The bodywork turned heads with its broader flanks, but less visible were the weight saving measures that saw the side skirts, bumpers, switch to plastic, along with the boot lid and a spoiler. One subtle but meaningful change: the C-pillar was actually slightly more upright, which directed air to that boot-mounted wing more effectively.

It all worked pretty darn well. The M3 ended up walloping the competition and bringing multiple championships to BMW, with win after win in the World Touring Car Championship and the prestigious Deutsche Tourenwagen Meisterschaft (or DTM, the German Touring Car Championship).

It was a pretty handy rallying car too, as this ripping display of M3 motorsport magic by Belgian Patrick Snijers scoring a win at the 1988 Manx International Rally on the Isle of Man shows (make sure the sound is turned up!).

While the original blazed into racing glory as a two-door car, the M3 eventually split into two model lines when the 3 Series Coupe and Convertible were re-numbered “4 Series” in 2014.

Now the M4 badge is for coupe and convertible versions, and the M3 badge is used only for the four-door sedan, with the new M3 Touring wagon on the way.

One thing hasn’t changed, though. But the cars both still have their roots in racing — tuning work for them was conducted alongside the testing programme for the BMW M4 GT3 racing car.


Here’s what the BMW M3 is like to drive today — in Singapore

BMW M3 Competition in Singapore

Still a two-door purist? Then you’ll want to check out the BMW M4 Competition…

BMW M4 Competition in Singapore

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about the author

Leow Julen
CarBuyer's managing editor is a lot older than he behaves. He's been writing about cars for 26 years. Someday he might do it coherently. Ju-Len believes in world peace and V8s, but not necessarily in that order.