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BMW Celebrates 30 Years of M3 Heritage

30 years, really? BMW has been turning out these little brutes for that long? I know, they’re not so little any longer, but when they started out, the first M3 was sort of like a 2002 Tii on steroids, or perhaps an updating of the original concept.

By now, we’re onto BMW’s game, but at the time, the M3 came as a bit of a surprise. Way back when, cars were divided into two distinct camps: sports cars and sedans. If you wanted to go fast, you got the former. If you wanted to haul the kids around, you got the latter.

The twain did not meet.

That is until BMW (okay, and Datsun and Alfa et al) said, “Warte eine Sekunde!” and turned out things like the aforementioned 2002 (especially the Turbo variant). It was like you could have your cake and eat it too. Blast through some twisties on a Sunday morning, commute to work on Monday, pick up the spouse and kids on Wednesday night. Friday, an evening out on the town . . . best of both worlds.

BMW M3 family. Photo: BMW of North America.

Race Inspired

Chuckable, slideable, playful almost, the chassis was competent enough, but really what it came down to was the M in BMW. It stands for Motor, which translates into lots of grunt, top end power, and flexibility to exploit the good parts of whatever lightweight chassis they’ve dropped it into. The M3, like all good things automotive, was a product of racing.

Let us, brothers and sisters in speed, quote directly from the Bavarian Testament: “The BMW M3 was not an attempt to produce a sporting flagship for a volume produced model range; instead it originated from the idea of developing a racing car for motor sport that would also be available in a road-going version.”

In other words, BMW’s impetus here was not, “Hey! Let’s go make a sporty car to drive up showroom traffic!” It was more, “Hey! These new racing regs make for an interesting excuse to build some fun cars that we get to race and we get to sell.”


Competition Driven

To wit, BMW decided to go Group A production touring car racing. In their specific case, that meant building a competitive car for the German Touring Car Championship, or DTM in the German tongue. For those of you that don’t know, and you really should, cause DTM racing is an outright hoot to watch, the DTM series is like NASCAR run on road courses with cars of a much higher level of sophistication, but still the same level of crazed competition.

Banging fenders, swapping paint, trying to root Hans out of the groove at turn two all the while Wilhelm-Bob is giving you the nudge and you’re coming up to lap that Swabian Trottel, what’s his name; lots of cursing in German (I guess?) sparks, semi-rude hand gestures, payback, the whole thing – only you’re going left and right. Oh, and they also race in the rain.

Anyway, the DTM regulations at the time stated that “for a racing car to be homologated, at least 5,000 road-legal units had to be sold within 12 months.”


Okay, let’s crack that open. First off, homologated means that for your car (or engineering sub-system for that matter) to be accepted into the series, you have to make a specific number of them. A production run in short. Then there’s the two important modifiers: 1 – 5,000 road-legal units and 2 – had to be sold within 12 months.

That means you couldn’t just bang out a few shade-tree specials and say you’re homologated, no, you had to make 5,000 of the guys and they had to be road-legal. And to make your job even harder, you had to sell them. This means BMW had to make a production run of cars (which they already knew how to do) but they had to make them at a price point people could actually afford.

And so, out of the fairly casual thought of, “Hey, let’s go run some races!” grew this now 30 year strong automotive icon.


Steady Progression, Stellar Power

Sure, sure, they’ve gotten bigger and heavier as time has progressed since that first M3, but you could say that about most cars (except Miatas and Lotuseseses). You could also say that about most people too, sadly.

Last time I saw a new one, at a local autoX, it had all the high tech, whack-a-doodle goodies; sophisticated V8 engine, carbon fiber everywhere etc. It had enough tech to look like the European Space Agency was going to fire it at a comet. It was also quick around the cones, and had the seeming ability to go from New Mexico to British Columbia in eight hours without trying too hard.

So, ja, the original idea of “developing a racing car for motorsport that would also be available in a road-going version” worked three decades ago, and it’s still working today. Happy 30th birthday this year to the BMW M3.

Tony Borroz has spent his entire life around racing antique and sports cars. He means well, even if he has a bias towards lighter, agile cars rather than big engine muscle cars or family sedans.

BMW M3 30 Years Gallery

Photos & Source: BMW of North America