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30 years of BMW M3: E36 M3R

By Scott Newman, 26 Jun 2017 Features

30 years of BMW M3 E36

The need to battle Mazda and Porsche on Aussie racetracks led to the creation of the rarest M3 of all.

Excluding concepts and one-off oddities, the rarest M3 of all came not from Munich but from Queensland, courtesy of Frank Gardner Racing.

In a joint venture with BMW Motorsport, FGR built 15 E36 M3Rs to homologate the car for local endurance racing.

Read the full MOTOR 30 Years of BMW M3 Special

Porsche found enough customers to justify importing the 911 RS CS, while Mazda’s skunkworks was whipping up the RX-7 SP, so Gardner and his crew set to work developing the E36 into a potent racer.

30 years of BMW M3 E36 M3R frontThe donor cars were standard M3 Coupes with every option deleted, and the modification process was tried and tested: increase power, reduce weight and strengthen anything that might fail.

The 2990cc S50 B30 straight six benefitted from new camshafts, a revised intake, optimised exhaust ports, a dual-pickup oil sump and a new ECU to produce 239kW at 7200rpm and 320Nm at 3500rpm. Further down the driveline there was a lightened flywheel and the option of two different clutches depending on whether the car was intended for race or road use.

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Research indicates the car also used stronger 850Ci driveshafts and a shorter 3.23:1 final drive, however the maintenance bulletin from BMW Australia, which lists all M3R parts, makes no mention of these. We suspect the latter is likely but the former not.

30 years of BMW M3 E36 M3R gearstick
The only colour was Alpine White, and 100kg was lost thanks to the deletion of the air-con, fog lights, alarm and rear seats. Larger front rotors (324mm vs 315mm) were clamped by four-piston calipers using race-spec pads, there were stiffer springs and shocks and the adjustable front and rear spoilers were from the M3 GT (see breakout).

Standard wheels were 17 x 7.5-inch front and 17 x 8.5-inch rear, but apparently all cars were fitted with optional 17 x 8.0-inch fronts.

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The M3R wore a $189,450 price tag, a whopping $64,800 more than the regular M3 Coupe. It wasn’t any faster either, stopping the clocks at 5.74sec (0-100km/h) and 14.02sec (0-400m) versus the regular car’s 5.69sec and 13.96sec.

In a comparo against its Mazda and Porsche rivals the verdict was that the BMW was neither fish nor fowl, compromised compared to the standard car yet not fast enough to compensate. 

30 years of BMW M3 E36 M3R engineThat doesn’t quell the excitement of settling in to Ian Burke’s immaculate M3R. The driving position is odd: the wheel is too large and not adjustable for reach and the pedals are heavily offset to the right.

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There are still just five ratios, but the E30’s long throw has been replaced by a much tighter gate, and the standard racing clutch has thankfully been replaced by a more progressive item.

30 years of BMW M3 E36 M3R rearIt’s amusing to think this car was the M3 CSL or GTS of its day as it feels extremely civilised; about the only evidence of its motorsport connection is the squealing from the brake pads. The ride is pliant and the engine much less raucous than in later models. Less raucous, but no less brilliant; it’s so smooth and incredibly responsive.

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Like the E30 the M3R feels to sit squarely on all four tyres and quickly inspires confidence, though the steering lacks feedback and the overly-large wheel dulls initial response.

30 years of BMW M3 E36 M3R branding
In a more general sense, the E36 took the M3 into the mainstream. There was a sedan for those who missed four doors and a convertible for those who missed the point entirely. In 1995 BMW introduced the updated E36 M3, which brought with it a 3201cc engine with 236kW/350Nm, revised chassis (with quicker steering!), the option of an SMG gearbox and MOTOR’s 1997 Performance Car of the Year title.