Design icons: BMW E30 M3
Great moments in design: From family sedan to racing legend
Words— Jeremy Freed
1986 was a banner year for human achievement—and not just because it saw the premieres of Top Gun, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Blue Velvet. While Kenny Loggins was inviting us to ride into the danger zone and Whitney Houston was explaining how children are our future, something big was happening in Munich that would change the world of sports cars forever. It was the year the world met the BMW M3.
In 1982 BMW launched a new generation of its 3 Series sedan dubbed—with typical german panache—the E30. With its boxy lines and quad round headlights, it was an attractive, if modest, entry to the German compact car market. This might have been all very well and good if not for their biggest competitor, Mercedes-Benz, who was causing a stir with a compact of their own. In the early 1980s, Benz was dominating the DTM (Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters) racing circuit with their new 190E 2.3-16, a hot little number based on their 190E compact family sedan. Not to be outdone on their home turf, BMW put its engineers to work building something that could bring it to Merc on the track. The result would be a milestone in automotive design, and a huge leap forward for BMW.
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Unlike other high-profile racing events that use highly specialized vehicles, DTM was a competition of street-legal cars. This meant that in order for a manufacturer to enter a car into the race, they’d have to make and sell at least 5,000 of them. The result was a so-called “homologation special,” a car ostensibly produced for sale to the general public, but whose real purpose was to win races. That was the M3.
While it was supposedly based on the regular 3-series coupe, the 1986 E30 M3 had very little in common with it. The 2.3-litre engine was a highly-tuned four-cylinder that produced 200-horsepower without the use of a turbocharger—a serious feat for such a tiny motor in 1985. The exterior was even more noteworthy. Keeping almost none of the panels from the regular 3 Series, the M3 featured flared wheel arches and a higher trunk lid topped with a distinctive rear spoiler. Even the windows were glued in place to make body structure stiffer. These changes, as well as a low front splitter, side skirts and rear bumper were added to improve aerodynamics, but they also made the car look—in a word—badass.
“The E30 M3 hit a sweet spot in design,” says Ken Cummings, a former automotive designer, now a professor at the Humber Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning. “Not until the E30 M3 arrived did style begin to match performance in a smaller package.” Not only was the E30 a big step forward in automotive design, he says, it also created a design language that would define BMW’s direction for decades to come. “It was the E30 that carried the most influential elements of its maker into future years.”
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While it had begun as a passion project for the engineers in Munich, the E30 M3—and the countless other M cars BMW would go on to produce following as a result of its success—would become a mainstay of the brand.
The rest, of course, is history. The E30 M3 became one of the most winning racing cars of all time and BMW had no trouble moving those first 5,000 M3s (and the next 5,000, and the 5,000 after that.) Over the next six years until the E30 M3 was retired in 1991 (replaced by the more powerful, if less visually exciting, E36) BMW built more than 17,000 M3s. Now a favourite of collectors, pristine low-mileage examples can fetch over six-figures at auction. Like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and “The Greatest Love of All,” the car stands as high point of cultural achievement, not just among the class of ‘86, but of all time.