There has always been something audacious about the ambitions of BMW’s ultimate creations. Taking an everyday sports saloon like the 3 Series and pitching it price-wise against a Porsche 911, a car that has spent its whole life swatting away far more exotic machinery, may have sounded like a bad joke, but in 1989 BMW’s M3 wasn’t laughing.
In the seventies the 3.0 CSL had already squared up to the 911 Carrera RS 2.7, perhaps one of the finest of the breed, and come the late eighties it was time for the 3 Series to have a go. The M3 had proved highly effective both on road and track and to mark the end of an era the most potent, focused and of course expensive E30 M3 was rolled out – the Sport Evolution.
The best way to look at the M3, and to understand it, is that BMW Motorsport designed its E30 race car first, then applied the changes necessary to the road car for homologation. This was not some spruced-up 318i, it was a serious attack on Group A racing, and as such 5,000 production examples had to be produced.
The car’s S14 four-cylinder powerplant featured four-valve technology and was a development of the M10 unit. It was picked because it was compact and light, and the longer crankshaft on the six-cylinder engine started to vibrate at much lower speeds than the four-cylinder. BMW’s engineers made the crankdrive on the BMW M3 so stiff that it was able to run even at speeds of 10,000 rpm and more – an increase in engine speed by approximately 60% over the four-cylinder built in regular series production.
The M3 may look like a 3 Series but in fact the only body panel the car shared with the cooking versions was the bonnet. The flared wheelarches, which were made of steel, were not there to give owners a bit more street cred, they had been designed specifically to accommodate the larger wheels and rubber of the racing versions.
Rather ironically, considering the car’s brick wall front end, BMW’s engineers put a lot of effort into improved aerodynamics for the M3. Not only was there a deep front spoiler and large rear wing, the C-pillar was slightly wider and lower on the regular production model in order to ensure a smooth flow of air along the edge of the roof and to direct the air rushing by even better to the rear wing.
The windscreen and rear window were even bonded on to the body to enhance stiffness. The rear window itself was re-angled to improve aerodynamics. But if the standard E30 M3 took race-inspired obsession to a new level, it was when the Sport Evolution arrived that the OCD really kicked in.
Produced in late ’89 and early ’90 it was the most extensively modified of all the Evolutions. Displacement had grown from 2.3-litres to 2,467cc thanks to an increase in bore from 84mm to 95mm and a long-stroke crank. The pistons were cooled by oil jets, there was a more aggressive cam fitted, larger inlet valves, and sodium-filled exhaust valves.
The front wheel arches were modified to accept 18” competition wheels when racing, and 16” painted cross spokes were fitted to the road cars. A smaller fuel tank further reduced weight and of course the spark plug caps were now red. Inside there were Recaro racing-style seats and a suede-trimmed M Technic II steering wheel. The Sport Evolution was only offered in Jet Black with red bumper stripes or Brilliant Red with black bumper stripes.
But what did all this jiggery pokery mean, apart from a good way to bore someone to tears if they aren’t into cars. The answer: 238bhp at 7,000rpm, 177lb ft at 4,750rpm, 201.5bhp/ton, 0-60mph in 6.1 seconds, 0-100mph in 16.0 seconds and a top speed of 154mph. And breathe…
To find out if the hype was indeed worth believing PistonHeads headed to Hertfordshire, where, hidden in a garage off the main road through a sleepy village lives one of, if not the best Sport Evolutions in existence. It belongs to Pradip, a man with BMW DNA running through his veins.
To get an idea of his obsession with the blue-and-white propeller just take a look at his everyday cars over the years: Two M1s, a 3.0 CSL, numerous E30 M3s, an E46 M3 CSL, an Alpina E12, a 2002 tii…to name but a few. His particular Sport Evo is one of around 40 officially imported to the UK (there were 600 made in total) and to call it immaculate is an understatement.
Climb inside, strap in and adopt your best touring car-style driving position. Upright and close to the wheel with everything in easy reach. The Recaros, in optional leather, are firm and comfortable and there is a refreshing simplicity to the layout. The suede thin-rimmed steering wheel feels solid and doesn’t have the bulk and buttons you associate with modern cars.
As with all LHD drive cars there is that feeling of being closer to the door than when you are on the other side, but apart from that it is business as usual. The gearbox has a dog-leg first but before I engage the first cog it is worth noting the small switch that sits next to the handbrake.
Pulling away it is clear that the relatively small amount of torque on offer is more than adequate to shift this 1,200kg car and it is easy to feed the M3 leisurely through the back streets, as I chat to Pradip about the car. The only thing that takes a little getting used to is the gearbox, because of its unusual pattern and the fact I am using my right hand, thus meaning I have to look down from time to time.
The car will rev to around 7,200rpm and with peak power arriving at 7,000rpm you get an idea of this car’s character. Weaving down a long and winding B Road behind a slow moving truck, I see my opportunity to find out exactly what it is all about.
The engine spins immediately, with instant throttle response, and once you hit 5,000rpm you swear that’s all it’s got, but hold on and it seemingly comes on cam twice, becoming stronger, almost V Tec-like, around 6,000rpm.
But addictive as it is straight-line speed is not the Sport Evolution’s trump card. It’s the steering. It feels like a racing car wheel and the communication coming through it is pure competition car. It vibrates, jiggles and wriggles in your hands, but only in a good way, telling you exactly what is going on below. Sitting close to the wheel, feeling the suede in your hands, you begin to lock in to the experience.
There is zero play in the steering, just instant, razor-sharp response and although it is light the feedback is incredibly delicate. By this point I’ve stopped talking and started focusing manically on controlling this car. Get the shift right this time and the click/snick combination of the clutch and lever is grin-inducing.
It is at this point the left-hand side of the car hits a raised man-hole cover and the ultra-stiff shell pops up as if it has clipped the curb on a race track. If I hadn't have been sitting down I'd be floored. This is an exotic quasi-race car in the body of a 3 Series and the desire to push it harder and faster is overwhelming the fact it is an ultra-rare collector’s piece.
Even on slightly greasy roads the legendary tail-out behaviour of just about every other E30 seems to have been tamed. Set the dampers to Sport and it becomes even more hardcore, although the ride is perhaps better suited to the track.
The brakes have an exquisite feel and inspire trust, much like every other control in the car. Slowing things down a little and you are back again in a reasonably roomy, adequately comfortable, small sports saloon that is perfectly liveable day-to-day.
It’s all over too quickly and time to put the Sport Evo back in its box. It’s an astonishing achievement that BMW could create something so special from such an everyday car. You could go and buy a four-cylinder E30 tomorrow for £400 but to buy a perfect M3 like this could set you back between £20K and £30K. But that’s not bad for a touring car.