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BMW E36 Three Series - The M3


The E30 M3 had been sold as a road car mainly to homologate the racing cars. It had evolved in tandem with them, for example it's 2.5 engine was fitted purely to keep the touring cars competitive. This was never the case with the E36 M3 as by now BMW had realised they had a new way to sell very expensive cars and a new ultra-desirable flagship for the range. That's not in any way to say the new M3 wasn't a real //M car, it most certainly was. But it's focus was now on sales and not competition.

The new car would have an engine that was truly worthy of the //M badge but the overall package would be easier to live with and more rounded. Much of this was an inevitable product of the fact that the E36 was more of a grand tourer than a small sports car.


BMW E36 M3 1994

1994 M3 Coupe with later tail lights.

Euro M3 3.0

A new generation of M3 demanded a new engine as four cylinders could no longer provide enough power for the heavier new three series. BMW had made the S38 24 valve six in both 3.5 (315bhp) and 3.8 (341bhp) capacities but this was based on the M30 which had started life in the late '60s and was a heavy beast. The new S50 would be a three litre based on the M50 and incorporating all the usual toys such as individual throttle bodies and lightweight pistons but with the vital addition of VANOS.

VANOS variable valve timing was the trick that made the new engine docile in town driving but an animal at the track. With racing engines the camshafts are designed to operate at high rpm for maximum horsepower, a consequence of this is that they idle dreadfully and to achieve a stable idle you need to raise the idle speed substantially. Not only does this use fuel but it makes it harder to stay with in emissions limits. With VANOS the intake camshaft could have it's angle changed on the fly to suit any driving conditions and give the best of both worlds.

The new Jekyll and Hyde engine produced 286 bhp at a heady 7000rpm and would rev to 8000 which is no easy feat on a long straight six crankshaft. BMW had solved this problem in the 1970's on the 3.0 CSL racing cars. It sounded glorious and was to prove a very durable and reliable lump. This was a worthy successor to the S14 and no other manufacturer had anything even remotely similar.

As the M3 had been planned from the start of the E36 design there was no need for the extensive body and mechanical mods needed for the older car. Custom shocks and springs along with stiffer anti-roll bars sorted the suspension. Larger discs (315mm front, 312 rear) ventilated on all four corners sorted out the braking but surprisingly the car didn't have four pot front calipers.

The steering rack had three turns lock to lock but was slower in the centre of the rack and had slightly lower travel to prevent wider wheels fouling. Other suspension components had subtle modification to change the geometry. The 3.0 used a five speed gearbox and a limited slip differential was standard.


BMW E36 M3 interior vader

1994 M3 coupe cloth interior with non-airbag steering wheel.

In terms of the body the car had the now famous M3 mirrors and a new body pack comprising bumpers, sill covers, boot spoiler and new rubbing strips. It used the same orange indicators as the standard car. 17" alloys of a unique Motorsport design were needed in order to clear the brakes.

The coupe interior had the "Vader" seats whose headrest boasted integrated shoulder supports, other models had the normal sports seats. Rear head rests were not standard. A large number of cars retained a cloth interior in a special //M fabric which bordered on garish but leather was an option. The dash had red needles and the economy gauge was replaced with an oil temperature gauge (but not on US cars).

The M3 coupe was launched in europe in late 1992 with a convertible following a few months later. A saloon appeared in 1994 and sold well as there was no M5 from 1995 until 1998. There was never a compact and sadly no touring edition.



M3 GT limited edition.


BMW E36 M3 GT interior

M3 GT interior with unique leather and suede seats.


A limited edition of 356 M3 GT's was sold in 1994 as a homologation special. These made 295bhp from a specially tuned S50B30 and all were British racing green with a custom leather and suede interior. The cars boasted external aerodynamic additions and all had a numbered plaque.


BMW E36 M3 Evo

M3 Evo Coupe

Euro M3 Evo 3.2

In late 1995 the Evolution of the M3 saw engine size rise to 3.2 litres and power to 321bhp with a new S50B32 engine. This had the same style iron block as the 3.0 and did not use technology from the aluminium M52. The engine had VANOS on both camshafts which was to become a problem in the years to come (see the S50 page). Power was transmitted through a six speed gearbox which wasn't quite as durable as the old five speed unit and the final drive ratio was 3.23:1.

The new car had far more standard equipment as was the trend throughout the E36 range by now. I've never heard of an Evo without leather, rear head rests, OBC or aircon so at least some of the power increase was absorbed by the extra weight.

The brakes were upgraded not in size but in their ability to still work at very high temperatures. Using a technique more common on motorbikes the disc was made from separate hub and braking area castings held together by pins. This allowed the braking surface to expand and contract without warping under severe thermal load. These discs can be used on the 3.0 and US M3 which didn't get them as standard.


BMW E36 M3 interior vader

Leather "Vader" seats in an M3 coupe.

The interior had wood effect trim which became available on other models. There were standard dual airbags, pollen filter, leather, aircon and the full OBC. Cruise control was still an option.

The Evo coupe and saloon weighed 1535kg with the cabriolet being 100kg heavier. The coupe had aluminium door skins. All wore 225/45/17 tyres at the front and 245/40/17 rear.

The suspension was tweaked and a stiffer rear anti-roll bar was used. The new steering rack was a little quicker with 0.2 turns less lock to lock. It's been said that the Evo felt more stable and composed under hard driving.


BMW E36 M3 S50 engine

The beast inside an M3 Evo.

Special Edition M3s

Special editions of the M3 included:
M3 Euro Canadian Edition
M3 GT-R 1994, German ADAC homologation special
M3-R 1994, 15 white Australian cars with 324bhp and racing upgrades.
Imola Individual / GT2 1996, 250 cars with cosmetic enhancements only.
There was a single M3 Compact based on the Evo.
1999 M3 Anniversary Edition Australia with 50 coupes and 70 cabriolets.



American M3 Coupe in signature Dakar yellow.


In a move that seems strange with the advantage of hindsight BMW North America decided than the euro M3 was too expensive and would sell poorly there. But the marketing case for such a car was strong and a budget M3 was seen as the way to maximise returns. Some said that //M now stood for Marketing but the car sold well and made money so perhaps the bean counters were right.

The new car did without aluminium door skins, the beefed up euro differential and ticked the options list instead. But the big saving was the engine, a new 3.0 with a single throttle body was developed and in it's own right was a good engine developing 240bhp @ 6000rpm. But this was 56bhp less than the euro and just as importantly 1000rpm below, this was no high revving race engine. A later 3.2 made the same power but increased torque.

The US engines should be compared more to the Alpina or Schnitzer versions of the M50 and M52 and in that light they do well. In no way was an Alpina B6 seen as a second best car in Europe, it was a different approach than that of the M3. For one thing european drivers who wanted an automatic could get a performance Alpina but the cars were also seen as more exclusive and more Autobahn fliers than track cars. In fact it's worth mentioning that the US model could be had as an automatic, oh the shame.

But the fact is that track days are more popular in the US than Europe and in this regard the US M3 was not what some buyers wanted, but they bought it anyway as it was the best they could get. There was the issue than the full euro engine would struggle to pass US emissions but that could have been overcome if there had been a commercial case put forward.

I've been in a US M3 and was very impressed by the power delivery and handling. It's a shame we didn't get it in the UK maybe as a 3.2 ClubSport instead of our 328i Sport and at a price below that of the full M3.


BMW E36 M3 ltw

American M3 Lightweight.

M3 Lightweight / LTW

This was a 1995 US special edition which used some of the Euro M3's components. Amongst other upgrades they had the aluminium door skins, 3.23 final drive ratio, euro suspension and thinner sound deadening. They deleted the radio (but not the speakers), sunroof, aircon and even the boot lid toolkit. Total weight saving was 91kg.

The cars had no listed extra power but had the rev limiter removed and engines were "specially selected" from the production line. All cars were white and had blue and red flag decals on the corners which really suited them.

American tuner PTG fitted a revised sump and oil pickups, rear spoiler raise blocks, adjustable front splitter, lower and upper cross braces. They also had slightly wider wheels with 235 tyres.

Today these cars are worth a small fortune even with a decent mileage on the clock. Around 125 were built.


BMW E36 M3 Evo cabriolet

M3 Evo cabriolet.

M3 Cabriolet

An M3 cabriolet was available almost from the start of coupe production. It was the most expensive M3 and weighed around 100kg more than the coupe or saloon.

The soft top was available in the US market but only for the final few years of production and always as the 3.2.


BMW E36 M3 smg

SMG shift lever.

M3 Sequential Manual Gearbox / SMG

BMW's engineers loved new toys and SMG was a very shiny one, so much so that they even bet Ferrari into production with the technology. It was a six speed unit and in simple terms was a normal manual gearbox with computer controlled shift mechanism and clutch.

The system had a shift bordering on ferocious and was excellent for track days, I drove one on the track and loved it. It had an automatic mode but in way could you drive the car like a normal automatic, it would buck and stutter like a race horse pulling a cart. It was a first generation system and in traffic it felt like one.

It wasn't as overly complicated as you might think but still relied on a hydraulic pump and computer so there was a fair bit that could go wrong. It was quite sensitive to a low input voltage so the car's battery and charging system had to be perfect, always the first things to check if there's a fault. These are now a 20+ year old complex system and anyone who buys one now either owns a bank or needs their head examined.