On the BMW exhibition stand at the Frankfurt Motor Show in autumn 1985, the BMW M3 was presented to public 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.
Car’s performance figures were impressive. The four-cylinder, 2.3-litre engine produced 200 horsepower and 240 Newtonmetres of torque. Acceleration from zero to hundred would take 6,7 seconds and the top speed was 235 km/h.
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.
The refined aerodynamic work paid off with an outstanding cW value of 0.33. The lift at the front axle was around half that of the other twodoor 3 Series models. The large rear wing reduced the lift on the rear axle by some two thirds. This was evident to the driver in the form of significantly increased driving stability and more precise steering characteristics at very high speeds. In fact, the standard M3 reached a top speed of 230 km/h with catalytic converter and 235 km/h without catalytic converter. And yet it was relatively fuel-efficient for super. Using the then current Euromix formula for super made up of Speed 80, 120 and town cycle, the M3 consumed significantly less than nine litres for every 100 km/h driven. However, the power pack came at a price: an M3 cost 58,000 marks when it was launched in 1986. By comparison, the 325i convertible at 43,300 marks was the next car down the BMW 3 Series price list.
Nevertheless, finding customers for the requisite volume of 5000 vehicles simply wasn’t a problem. In the summer of 1986 purchase contracts for the M3 were being offered on the relevant advertisement pages at a premium price. In actual fact, it wasn’t until 1987 that all 5000 units of the first M3 were gathered on the BMW parking lot in Munich-Freimann for a family photo before being shipped all over the world.
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. The resilience of the four-cylinder under tough operating conditions on the race tracks rewarded private customers with two very special offers in 1988. BMW created an exclusive special series of even more powerful M3 cars with the suffix “Evo” for Evolution. Identifiable by even more opulent spoilers, this special M3 was powered by a 220 hp engine, while the ‘cat’ version of the standard M3 generated 215 hp. The second package was intended for a very special circle of customers: an open M3 based on the 3 Series Convertible. The 215 hp convertible had a top speed of 239 km/h and was by far the fastest open-top four-seater to be bought in a limited series.
Specials: Sport Evo and 320is
The M3 had a commanding presence on the international touring car racing scene for five years. It became the most successful touring car of all times by winning the champion’s title several times in the European Touring Car Championship and twice in the German Touring Car Championship. There were also numerous further victories and championship wins at international level. Depending on the competition rules, the four-valve engine had to be adapted to national regulations. For example, the capacity for England was limited to 2 litres while for Germany and France it was raised to 2.5 litres with effect from 1990. This enabled the fourcylinder to deliver up to 360 bhp. Depending on the version and the deployment profile, engine and mixture management also varied. Air intake was managed by independent throttle valves and valve control systems.
In the version with the biggest capacity, the engineers of BMW M GmbH went up against the limits of what was feasible. In order to make full use of the 2.5 litre limit, they not only increased the stroke of the 2.3 litre unit from 84 to 87 millimetres, but also increased the bores of the four cylinders from 93.4 millimetres each to 95.5 millimetres. This reduced the width between the cylinders to just 4.5 millimetres. But success proved the development engineers right. The engines withstood the stresses and strains of touring-car racing even at maximum output without any problem. A civilian version of this original M3 with the biggest capacity drove onto the roads with the additional name of Sport Evolution. Its characteristic feature was the two-tier rear wing. This 238 hp sports car was limited to 600 units. A version of the two-litre engine used in Italy was also marketed for everyday use. It was designated 320is, packed 192 hp and was sold in Italy and Portugal to come below the statutory capacity limits valid here for highly taxed luxury cars.
By the end of 1991, 17,970 BMW M3 cars of the first generation had left the manufacturing facility, including 786 convertibles. Nobody had anticipated this overwhelming success, either on the road or on the racing circuit. Continuing this success was an obvious step – with the new 3 Series that had already been launched on the market in 1990.