RIGHT NOW, you can order more than 30 different BMW models with an M badge on them. Back in 1998 it was a different story. The Garching plant found the cupboard surprisingly bare. With no M5 model on the market, and the M-built 850CSi similarly deceased, focus instead switched to the ageing E36 M3 and the new Z3 based M Roadster being assembled at BMW’s Spartanburg plant in South Carolina, neither of which were, at the time, particularly lauded iterations of the M-car lineage.
The M Roadster spawned a vehicle that Auto Motor und Sport claimed looked like “a bullfrog with a damaged hip”. You can thank Burkhard Goschel for that one. Heading up a group of five engineers on an after-hours project, his brief was to sort the chassis flex of the M Roadster. Off came the wings and a shooting brake-style coupe body was grafted on.
The design they came up with was shocking, challenging and quite unlike anything BMW had ever produced. Yet the M Coupe redressed a lot of the failings of the roadster. Although mechanically identical, the fixed roof served to stiffen the chassis ensuring the semi-trailing arm suspension wasn’t overburdened. Introduced in September 1998, the coupe found immediate favour with buyers, outselling the identically priced M Roadster by nearly three to one.
Developed in Garching, but built in Spartanburg, North Carolina, the M Coupe was built with three engine options. The US specification car got the short straw, with a 179kW 3152cc S52 six. In Europe, the M Coupe was offered with the more exotic S50 3201cc double VANOS lump good for 236kW. All official Aussie imports feature the S50 unit.
From June 2000, the M Coupe was offered in Europe with the 3254cc S54 engine. Marginally more powerful at 239kW it also got switchable stability control. Whichever version you chose, it came with a ZF Type C five-speed manual gearbox with a limited-slip differential with a maximum locking of 25 per cent.
The chassis? The team at Garching did a great job, M Coupe emerging with a static twist resistance 2.6 times that of the roadster. At the time, it was the most torsionally rigid car BMW had ever built. One of the few real downers is the tiny 51-litre petrol tank, which can see the fuel light blink on after little more than half an hour of spirited driving.
IN THE MARKET
The Z3 M Coupe might have outshone its soft-topped sibling, but it was never a big seller Down Under. Much of that came down to price. At $132,810, it was within a sniff of the E36 M3 coupe and more expensive than a Porsche Boxster S, so it was perhaps unsurprising that sales were hard to come by. BMW built 6291 Z3 M Coupes but only 821 of that number were right-hand drive S50 versions, with the UK and South Africa accounting for most of these. A mere 45 were divided between Australia and New Zealand, with the car in market between August 1998 and May 2002. A combo of cult status and rarity now means you’ll be lucky to find a car for less than $85,000 with really nice examples easily topping six figures.
BODY & CHASSIS
The bodies generally last well, but check for corrosion around the bolt on outer sills and guards as well as the tailgate lock. Flex from the diff can pop both rear cross member welds and boot floor spot welds, so give these the once-over. The front spoiler can also be easily damaged by grounding.
Finally, check for accident damage. Look for overspray under the bonnet and on the boot floor or signs of misaligned crash structures.
ENGINE & TRANSMISSION
Listen out for rattly VANOS units that don’t offer power at low revs and keep an eye on the temperature gauge. Head gasket failures are not uncommon, so make sure the water temperature gauge doesn’t shift from the 12 o’clock position. The ZF five-speed manual ’box is a pretty solid unit with a 3.15:1 final drive and drives through a limited-slip diff with a 25 per cent locker.
If the ’box is recalcitrant when shifting into first or second, it’s usually down to worn shift pins. If the gear lever rests in front of fifth gear when in neutral, you’ll need a detent repair kit. A much simpler problem to rectify is a stretched throttle cable on cars with the S50 engine, a symptom of which is a sticky pedal action. If the cable has fatigued and stretched, it won’t allow the engine to deliver full power, but it’s a quick fix to replace the cable. BMW developed a drive-by-wire throttle for the S54 engined M Coupes, eliminating this issue.
SUSPENSION & BRAKES
The M Coupe can trace the lineage of its suspension right back to the E30 3 Series, and the uprated dampers and springs at the back help counter the sometimes unnerving rear-end squat of other Z3 models. If looking for aftermarket wheels, bear in mind the offset of the rear alloys is just 8 ET, so getting wheels to fit without huge spacers can be tricky.
INTERIOR & ELECTRICS
The cabin can be a little ‘German fashion’ for some with the lairy colour combos, chrome-ringed gauges and leather facings. It was cool in the ’90s, but there’s no denying the great driving position and excellent all-round visibility. Materials durability is so-so, with dashtops fading badly (especially the reds) and the driver’s seat plastic bushings often failing. You’ll notice that one the first time you accelerate hard. Seat motors can fail, and unless re-greased religiously, bonnet-release mechanisms can get sticky.
THREE OTHER OPTIONS YOU MAY CONSIDER
1. Porsche 968 Clubsport
You like rear-drive collectible coupes, right? They don’t come much better than the 968CS. While the four-pot 3.0-litre engine lacks the shock and awe of the M crew’s six, in terms of handling purity, the Porsche still stacks up well in comparison with some of today’s best.
2. Mazda RX-7 SP
This Aussie special enjoyed a run of a mere 26 road-going units and featured a 204kW twin-rotor, bigger brakes, a 100-litre carbon fuel cell, 17-inch alloys and a 4.3:1 rear diff. DJ and JB beat the Porsches in one at Eastern Creek in the ‘95 12-Hour. A true collector’s item.
3. Alfa Romeo SZ
‘Il Mostro’, the charming but exotic Zagato-styled Alfa Romeo SZ (‘89-91 with a production run of 1036) was loosely based on the mechanicals of the Alfa 75 and only packs 154kW, yet delivers huge grip and a supersized serving of charisma.
1998-2002 BMW Z3 M Coupe specs
Body: 3-door, 2-seat coupe
Engine: 3201cc Inline-six, DOHC, 32v
Power: 239kW @ 7400rpm
Torque: 350Nm @ 3250rpm
Transmission: 5-speed manual
Used range: $85,000-$120,000
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