BMW E30 M3: 50 years of BMW M cars

By: Mark Higgins, Photography by: Unique Cars Archives, BMW

bmw e30 m3 bmw e30 m3
bmw e30 m3 ontrack bmw e30 m3 ontrack

March 1986 saw the launch of the E30 BMW M3, arguably the most iconic of all M cars

A road going version of BMW’s new Group A racing saloon was the concept behind the model. It combined the E30 3 Series two-door coupe body with a 200 horsepower, normally aspirated four-cylinder engine, close ratio manual gearbox, lightweight body panels and superb handling. It was the complete package and is still lauded today.

To comply with Group A rules, 5000 had to be built and a small number of M3 convertibles were made, one of which was turned into an M3 ute.

While the convertible went on sale the ute was a one-off, used until 2012 by BMW M as a workhorse.


The only exterior body panels the regular 3 Series and the M3 share are the bonnet, roof panel and inner door panels. As the M3 had to be light for racing, designers and engineers created plastic front and rear bumpers, side skirts, boot lid and spoiler. It tipped the scales a tad under 1200kg.

| Read next: BMW E30 M3 review

Maximising aero was achieved with wider and flatter C-pillars than the standard two-door 3 Series, a flat rear window, a 40mm raised boot-lid and a glued-in windscreen. Completing the bodywork are its huge (for the time) rear wing and wheel arch flares so fat racing rubber could slip under the guards.

The E30 M3 engine is from the two-litre, four-cylinder unit in regular 3-Series models. BMW’s M Division increased its capacity to 2.3 litres, added a four valve head giving it 150kW, a redline of 7250 rpm redline and a top speed of 235km/h.


Bolted to it is a Getrag 265 five-speed dogleg pattern manual gearbox, except in America, which used a conventional five-slotter and the M3 has a clutch-type limited slip diff.

Stopping power is from 280mm vented front and 282mm solid rear disc brakes and master cylinder that are exclusive to the M3.

| Past Blast: BMW E30 'M3'

Providing the sublime handling the M3 is known for is a MacPherson strut front and independent, semi-trailing arm coil spring rear suspension that is tweaked using offset control arm bushes up front for greater caster angle, aluminium control arms, revised strut tubes and brake calliper bolt spacing.


Over the course of its life and to comply with homologation rule changes while ensuring its competitiveness, several limited-edition models were produced.

With the launch of the Evo 1, Evo 2 and Sport Evolution variants came ongoing weight reduction, improved aerodynamics, larger front wheel arches (to allow 18-inch wheels for racing) bigger brake ducts and more power.

| Read next: Time capsule 1988 BMW E30 M3 sells for AU$352,000 (2020)

Come 1990 the engine capacity increased to 2.5 litres and in racing trim the engine put out a staggering 280kW with an 8250rpm redline and one of the sweetest induction/exhaust notes you’ll ever hear.


The M3 was built for motorsport and remains perhaps the most successful touring car of all time. It won the 24 Hours of Nürburgring five times, the Spa 24 hour four times, numerous national championships, including Jim Richards scoring his second Australian Touring Car Championship.

Its only blemish was the 1987 Monza 500, the first round of the inaugural World Touring Car Championship. While M3s filled the top six places all were disqualified for being underweight, handing an unlikely victory to Allan Moffat and John Harvey in an HDT built VL Commodore. Moffat had recently acquired from Peter Brock.


Production of the E30 M3 ran from 1986 to 1991 and in that time almost 18,000 units were produced, while the M3 model line to be part of every 3 Series generation since.


50 Years of BMW M cars:

Part one - BMW M1

Part three - BMW E24 635 CSI M6

Part four - BMW E39 M5

Part five - BMW 1M 

Part six - Z3 M coupe


From Unique Cars #462, Feb 2022


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