There isn't much that hasn't been said about the car that built BMW. While you could argue that there have been many cars that have carried BMW long before this came along, you cannot say that there is anything more iconic than this one, the God-like E30 M3.
While it isn't the first car to wear the M badge, as that's been taken by the 80's M1 supercar, this M3 is easily the most revered M car of all time. I've driven every M3 from the E36 to the F82 M4 (M3 moniker today is only for the sedan version), and I am thrilled to pop the E30 cherry.
"It is the only M3 that holds motorsports as the only fundamental reason for its existence."
Long before BMW's M Division became a badge to entail a very fast track-ready car, it was a genuine motorsports arm of the manufacturer from Munich. Currently, almost half of the BMW range is expected to have an M model, which signifies the most performance driven variant of an otherwise luxurious everyday car. Unlike today's M cars, the original E30 M3 was specifically built for homologation purposes to be able to compete in various Group A Touring Car Race Series, which it set off to completely dominate.
In DTM Racing, it ate Alfa Romeo 75s for breakfast and Mercedes-Benz 190Es for lunch. For dinner, it ate fellow M3s, well, because they were the only ones left in front. As a matter of fact, the M3 is the only car in history that has more racing titles than a Porsche 911. In essence, what we are looking at isn't a fast version of a run-off-the-mill 3 Series, but a road-going version of a race car - and that tells you everything you need to know about the E30. It is the only M3 that holds motorsports as the only fundamental reason for its existence.
"By the time they reached home, his friend claimed that the M3 was a lot more engaging and felt much quicker than his Ferrari."
What you are looking at right now is a Henna Red US-version from 1988. The car is a couple of months older than I am, and time has only made it more painfully beautiful. This M3 is originally from Peter Pan BMW of San Francisco. It was purchased by its current owner at Sherman Oaks BMW in 1991. According to him, he drove this car pretty hard because the car never really gave him much of a choice. He fondly remembers blasting through Mulholland Drive's twisty mountain passes on weekends and onto his corner office space at Beverly Hills' Merrill Lynch on weekdays, at which he was the Vice President at the time.
One of his favorite stories involved a midnight run in Southern California when a good friend of his arrived in a then brand new Ferrari Mondial T. After a night out at Bar 1 in Sunset Boulevard, his friend asked if he could drive the car up the hills to an after party. On the way down on the break of dawn, his friend drove the M3 flat out on the hills and recalls going sideways for the most part. By the time they reached home, his friend claimed that the M3 was a lot more engaging and felt much quicker than his Ferrari. Today however, is my turn. I am finally getting behind the wheel of the icon, a day I've been waiting for since I first rode in one two decades ago.
UNTIL A CAR MAKES YOUR SPINE TINGLE, IT IS MERELY A TOOL.
The moment you open the door, you immediately know that you're getting in something special. The car has an aura that exudes a sense of occasion, a feat that BMW has somewhat lost over the years. The smell of the leather is just plain lush. My biggest frustration with BMWs today is that the cars no longer smell the same. You could be blindfolded in the old cars and tell by the smell of the leather that you were in Munich's finest. The steering wheel is quite large in today's standards and the knobs and switches are obviously from a bygone era. How do they feel? Lovely.
What doesn't feel dated at all is the sound of the engine. The moment I turned the key and fired it up, I was reminded of why I fell in love with BMWs as a child. The impatient heartbeat of its four banger engine is soulful. The engine noise? Mesmerizing. Watching the car on idle while warming up its mechanical parts to optimal temperature is one of the most spine-tingling experiences.
"It may no longer shock you in kilometers per hour, but it most certainly returns priceless smiles per hour - a feat that captures the joy of driving."
The clutch is quite heavy, but not hard enough to bring about muscle spasms. It has a certain delicacy to it, and the moment you swap cogs through the 5-speed gearbox, you'll immediately know that it was developed to work in perfect harmony together. The steering is the best bit with its scalpel-like precision. It is so good that you will forget about the now awkward size of the steering wheel, because it gives such clear lines of communication. It is so good in fact, that when combined with the beautifully tuned suspension, you can tell if you've ran over an ant on the road. It was a red Fire Ant and it had a pinch of a cupcake for breakfast at around 7:25am. Yeah, it's that good. What about the engine, you might ask?
In a time where a 600 horsepower estate car barely raises an eyebrow, the figures on paper no longer impress. It must be said that its 2.3-liter engine loves to spank the rear end of all 195 horses and make them scream and gallop close to 7,000 rpm. From standstill, it will hit 100 clicks in 6.8 seconds and will reach a maximum velocity of 230 km/h, both of which are respectable figures. All of those data are quite irrelevant today, really. Basing the greatness of the M3 on performance figures even in its heyday is the equivalent of hailing the best driver in Formula 1 history by the number of championships he's won. There is some relevance to it, but we all know it's so much more than that. Figures on paper are all but a piece of a jigsaw puzzle.
I can tell you now that given the age of the car, it can still hold its own in a series of corners with the best of them. Surely, you cannot brake as late as you would in a modern sports car and you cannot mash the throttle upon exit, but that's what makes this car such an emotional drive. You are an essential part of the whole experience. There's no fancy auto-blipping gimmick, you need to know how to heel-and-toe to keep the car balanced under braking and upon entry in a corner. The E30 started the M Division's mantra of having a chassis quicker than the engine, and you feel its application as an integral part of the experience.
You are not merely a passenger of a series of complex computer systems so intelligent, it could explain Einstein's theory of relativity if it could speak English. This car has none of that. It needs your input so it can give back to you. It is a confidence inspiring car that you learn to drive quickly over time. It may no longer shock you in kilometers per hour, but it most certainly returns priceless smiles per hour - a feat that captures the joy of driving. At the end of it all, the E30 M3 is still the purest BMW M car that you can buy today, and if you asked me, I would have a pristine version of this over the likes of an M235i or even a new F82 M4.
IN A HEARTBEAT.
The BMW M235i I arrived in is a much faster and far more capable car. It isn't even the full beans M2, but even so, it will eat everything in sight - especially old legends like the E30 M3. It's a manic machine, but in comparison to the E30, it does its business in a rather clinical fashion. It can run rings around the old car, but it will do so without me in it. And there lies the difference. With all the modern sorcery, my 88 year old grandmother can drive the M235i as quickly as I can regardless of road conditions.
Whereas with the E30 M3, it longs for you to bond with it and get to know it a little bit better before it slowly reveals pieces of itself to you. Taunt it a little too much, and it may just bite your head off. After all, isn't getting to know someone along with the journey getting there, the best bit of almost everything in life? I've always believed that the pleasure is never as intense without the foreplay, and I am convinced that this remains true in cars - especially those with a great sense of purpose, like the bewitching E30 M3.
THIS WAS SHEER DRIVING PLEASURE, LONG BEFORE IT BECAME A TAG LINE.
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