Replacing a legend: Why the E36 was underrated until now

Did the ball-tearing m3 go from DTM to WTF in one generational change?

Legends BMW E 36 M 3 Cover MAIN Jpg

Just rarely, a car is launched that is so revered that it creates a huge headache for its manufacturer. We examine 10 instances where car makers asked “how the hell do we replace this?”

BMW E36 M3 | 1992-1999

TRIGGER WARNING – unpopular opinion arriving. The BMW E30 M3 wasn’t the hyper-focused racetrack émigré of contemporary lore.

In fact, if you remove the rose-tinted glasses for a moment, you realise that it was anything but.

Homologation did indeed create the E30 M3. In order to gain its certification to enter Group A touring car racing in Europe, BMW needed to build 5000 M3s per year.

Look beyond that and the facts are undeniable. Costing half as much again as the range-topping 325i, the M3 was a car that could never have been sold as a barely disguised road racer.

You could buy an E30 M3 with a 13-button computer, air conditioning, leather seats, central locking, electric windows and sunroof, a premium stereo, map light mirrors, an ‘active check control’ diagnostics panel and so on. Some cars were fitted with heated seats.

Even the more Spartan Euro-spec cars got Electronic Damper Control by Boge. This offered three shock stiffness settings, Komfort (K), Normal (N) and Sport (S) in order of increasing firmness, adjusted via a dial handily located on the dash.

BMW even released a full convertible version as if to subtly clue us in to the fact that this wasn’t quite as motorsport orientated as some had liked to believe.

What the E30 M3 did have on its side was crisp steering. The stock rack with a 20.5:1 ratio was swapped for a 19.6:1 item. The BMW E36 M3 was different. It leant on no homologation requirements to make production and its steering was night and day different.

At three-turns lock to lock, it promised much the same feel as other E36s, but its variable ratio meant that it was actually slower to respond until a huge 200-degree hand/wheel angle. Fitting the quicker rack from the Z3 1.9 has become a popular aftermarket fix.

BMW tried to change this with the updated 3.2-litre E36 M3 Evo in 1996, reverting to the standard E36’s rack but by then the damage had been done. Largely due to its steering, the E36 M3 had been positioned in the minds of many as more of an E36 CS; a fast road GT car.

We’re a little more savvy these days about how manufacturers leverage the power of their brands, especially through motorsport associations and, in hindsight, the E36 M3 probably got a rough rub of the green. Its image is being rehabilitated of late, however, and prices of the rarer GT and GT2 models, as well as the ultimate, the Australian-market only M3R, reflect that.

By today’s standards, that first E36 M3 3.0 looks pretty special. Who wouldn’t want an atmo straight-six that developed 70.2kW/litre? Or which tipped the scales at a mere 1460kg?

It took a while for the world to come round to the charms of the E36 M3. Perhaps the introduction of electrically assisted power steering served to remind us that its hydraulically helped tiller wasn’t such a bad thing after all, and it was fairly easy to fix that flaw in its dynamic repertoire.

And a note on unpopular opinions? Stick with ’em long enough and fashions will eventually catch up.

The Icon: 1986

Steering Committee

The one thing that tied together the Evolution I, Evolution II and Evolution III, the Tour de Corse, Europa Meister 88, Johnny Cecotto and Roberto Ravaglia cosmetic upgrade cars and, yes, even the E30 M3 Convertible was delightful steering.

Admittedly, the engines do feel slightly weak by today’s modern turbocharged standards.

Three E30 M3 facts you may not know

1. S14 engine named for the 14 days between design and first prototype stage
2. Euro markets got the Getrag 265 dog-leg manual. US and Japan got the H-pattern 260
3. Original non-cat 1986 E30 M3’s 240Nm torque figure identical to final Sport Evo III special


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