The BMW M3 easily shows up in the top 10 performance cars on just about every critic’s list. With the new M3 just on the horizon, it’s time to pay homage to the original: the BMW E30 M3. It’s a classic that still looks good, calling to mind Sean Connery in The Hunt for Red October — handsome, tough and no-nonsense. All the first M3 did was cement the German sports coupe/sedan category in the annals of automotive history.

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What It’s All About

For Bimmerphiles the E30 name needs no explanation, but the designation means precious little to the masses on the outskirts. The E30 was produced from 1982 to 1993, and if you see the base version on the streets (yes, they’re still around), it’s obvious the clean and simple styling has stood the test of time. The basic three-box design is a bit on the stubby side — but in an attractive way. A lack of extraneous lines lends to a rather understated car. The M3, however, comes across as a far angrier, far more muscular brother. And the results aren’t just on the surface.

If you’ve ever had the chance to see one in the flesh, or even better, to sit in one and actually drive it, the E30 M3 comes across as singularly purposeful. It looks like a regular E30 3-Series that’s done 180 days of P90X. Sure, it was a pretty practical car in that you could drive it every day, but the bulging fenders and sinewy body clearly communicated its intentions — racing. The interior, though embarrassingly spartan by today’s standards, still looks good to us automotive freaks. The driver enjoys a spindly but focused steering wheel, a purposeful dashboard and a driver-focused angled center console, which almost completely ignores the front passenger (though, he too, can appreciate what BMW did with the interior). Aside from the BMW M1 supercar, the E30 M3 is quite possibly the most iconic BMW of all time.

A car such as this — designed solely for racing — was unheard of in the consumer market. The impression the M3 made would stick.

Don’t make the common mistake of thinking that the E30 M3 was birthed from the E30 road car, though. The reverse is actually true. The road car was created to justify homologating the M3 for the racing circuit. The E30 was designed to compete with the Merc 190E on the Group A Touring race series. As opposed to later generations of the M3 performance car, the E30 M3 was specifically promoted by BMW for the DTM (Deutcshe Touren Meisterschaft), and the FIA mandated that 5,000 production M3s were required to enter. BMW, of course, had no problem selling all 5,000 civilian versions.

Technical Rundown

The Other Great BMW M Car

BMW E28 M5
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Modern-era M cars are brimming with praise, but as BMW iterates the M lineup more and more toward engineering Sangri-La, absent of all flaws except its driver, I (and other drivers who grasp the past like 88¢ gasoline) find myself dreaming not of moseying down to the dealer to lease a new M3/5/6 but of scouring the trades and eBay for relics of driving passion — for cars like the iconic E30 M3.

My inquest: a late-80s BMW E28 M5. Not a trophy winner in the beauty department, what the E28 M5 lacked in sheer design appeal it more than made up for in engineering prowess. In answer to the question, “Can a sedan be as awesome as a sports car?”, the E28 M5 responded with a superlative: “fastest production sedan in the world”.

Based off the 535i, and styled quite similarly, the E28 M5 was hand-built and outfitted with a variant of the M1 engine, giving it 282 horsepower (256 for us Yanks) and immediately earning its critical moniker, “wolf in sheep’s clothing”. Only 2,191 were ever built during its production run between 1985-1988, making it one of the rarest M cars ever built. More importantly though, the E28 M5 arguably set the pace for a car we now take for granted: the sport sedan. -Eric Yang

Though the car wasn’t produced until the fall of 1986, research and development began five years before. The first M3 looked a lot like the base E30, though it shared only a hood with its less powerful brother. The bulging fenders housed wider track 10-inch racing rims, and more robust wheel bearings and front brakes were borrowed from the 5-series. The air dam, huge spoiler and other aerodynamic components were built from a composite material to decrease weight, and the larger and more angled rear windshield was designed to improve airflow. BMW engineers even took the time to bond both the front and rear windows to improve the car’s rigidity. Talk about attention to detail.

BMW Motorsport relied on a high-performance four-cylinder engine in the name of responsiveness and to — once again — keep weight down. The E30 M3’s S14 engine had a forged crank, a four valve head and internal components strengthened for durability. The entire car was designed for the rigors of racing; the civilian world just so happened to benefit from that effort. A car such as this was unheard of in the consumer market. That ensured the impression the M3 made would stick.

In keeping with FIA regulations for homologation, BMW produced subsequent models for the market that reflected improvements made in the racing realm. As a result, the Evo II (220 hp) and Evo III (238 hp) models were released as special editions. It is the Evo III (Sport Evolution, 1990) that stands in the minds of BMW worshipers everywhere as the Holy Grail of BMW Motorsport cars, the badass version of the E30 M3 that is still much coveted today.

Why It Matters

Though production of the E30 M3 ended in 1991, attend any autocross event today and you’ll discover M3s still performing in scintillating fashion due to their incredible balance, capable engine and chassis and light curb weight. You’ll also find that the car garners perhaps even more respect than newer, far more powerful M3s. This is in no small part due to the E30 M3’s racing pedigree. It dominated the scene in 1987, winning the DTM, the European Touring Car Championship and the one-off world title, and also took the podium at the 24 Hours Nurburgring and Spa 24 Hours, proving it was not only fast but also incredibly resilient.

The E30 M3’s popularity and fame are unmistakable, the car having sold nearly 18,000 M3s from 1986 to 1991 — a hefty number for a one-off German performance model built for homologation purposes. The car has spawned three more generations of the Motorsport 3-Series, all garnering the respect of the automotive world, and the fifth generation is right around the corner. Cruise around on a Saturday night, and you’ll no doubt find some guy driving around his beautiful M3, new or old. You’ll wish you were him… and for good reason.