BMW E30 M3: PH Heroes

BMW M3. Not the first M car, and never the quickest M car, but arguably the one that typifies the brand better than any other model. More than that, it's a badge as iconic as the Golf GTI and Porsche 911, generations of enthusiasts have grown up with an M3 always part of the fast car landscape. Who, at some point in their lives, hasn't lusted after an M3 of some kind? The want may have waned over time, or it might have become a total obsession, but either way, very few cars exist that have been coveted by so many people for so long.

And here's its genesis - the first M3. The one that will be at every single launch of every other M3 for ever more. The E30, if for some incredible reason you hadn't heard. Or got it mixed up with the E31 8 Series. Here for PH to drive, because our old Hero story is duff and won't show the pics. A job that someone has to do, tough though it may seem...

A brief history first, because it would be remiss to not include something even if the story is well known. The E30 M3 remains the most successful touring car ever produced, and even did a few rallies as well. Group A regs dictated that 5,000 cars had to be sold in a year, and the first 2.3-litre M3 arrived in 1986. The range of modifications over a plain 3 Series was extensive, and all focused on racing: the 2.0-litre four-cylinder became a 2.3 including the M1's cylinder head, the C-pillar was reprofiled to improve aero performance, the brakes were overhauled and there was, of course, that dog-leg gearbox. Creating a race car alongside the road car equivalent, because homologation cars did once have to resemble their roadgoing counterparts, already makes the E30 considerably cooler than its successors.

This particular car belongs to BMW UK, and is a very rare Roberto Ravaglia edition. Imagine naming a production car after a touring car driver today - Subaru Levorg Plato or Civic Type R Neal don't quite work the same, do they? The Ravaglia is in fact an incredibly rare car; while mechanically identical to the Johnny Cecotto edition, the Ravaglia was for the UK only and just 25 were made. Discount the 16 Misano Red cars and you're left with nine like this Nogaro Silver car. As one of the more powerful early cars it sits nicely in the middle of the E30 line up, lacking the extra capacity of the later Sport Evos but more powerful than the original 2.3s. Current value? £75,000...

It's that engine that dominates your first few miles with the M3; that and the dog-leg gearbox, of course, because both just feel so motorsport. Alright, very 1980s motorsport, but that's meant entirely as praise. Four-cylinder engines just don't feel this exotic any more, this responsive and this thrilling. The S14 responds to the tiniest twitch of your toe, eager to kick on seemingly before that floor hinge has started squeaking through its travel. It wants revs, too, the engine giving its best beyond 5,000rpm and as you're approaching the 6,750rpm peak; indeed it's easy to snag the limiter early on - sorry BMW - because the appetite for revs is so insatiable that you're convinced it will go further and further still. After this it's markedly less surprising to know that the race cars went beyond 9k - it doesn't want to stop!

The foundation of that incredible DTM noise is here as well; there's no manipulation to make a four-cylinder sound more interesting, simply a sharp and sweet bark that proves this is no poor relation as far as M cars go.

While looser and less precise than it would have been once upon a time, the M3's five-speed gearbox is also a great reminder of a more tangible road-to-race link that gets people like us so excited. Not only is the pattern of course unfamiliar, but the ratios feel like they belong in a race car as well: first is long - it'll go to just over 40mph - and suited just for getting away (or that first hairpin at the Norisring), while the intermediate gears are closely stacked because they're the ones you're going to be slotting between during the race. Or, handily enough, on a B-road blast, second, third and fourth covering all you might need. And the dog leg makes much more sense after a few miles, honest...

Those used to how 21st century M cars drive will initially find the E30 an odd experience, for it simply isn't like anything that followed. Of course that was a source of much consternation for some fans as early as 1992 when the E36 was introduced, its increased size, weight and standard kit list anathema to those who felt M should only ever stand for pure motorsport.

But we all know down which path the M3 proceeded (probably sideways), and so those looking for a link between this car and the rambunctious, boisterous F80 will be disappointed. It's a more delicate, less frenzied experience than that car, and in all honesty a little tame for a car you approach as a raw homologation special.

You can see out of the M3 for a start, slender pillars and compact dimensions lending the driver the sort of visibility that even the most basic supermini won't afford you in 2018. The E30 is narrow, too, meaning you can use the road ahead of you instead of wondering if your M car will actually fit. Light, nimble and agile are not always words you would associate with an M product, but then neither are four cylinders or genuine competition provenance - the E30 really is one of a kind in the family history, and all the more significant as a result.

What you won't get when driving this M3 is the almost gratuitous throttle adjustability of those that followed, this car's focus more on precise and direct road holding than anything so immature. That being said, the M3 still feels taut and focused, certainly not as saggy as you might expect from something approaching its 30th birthday. The relatively slow steering feels slightly at odds with the alertness of everything else, but then it gives more detail about the road than anything produced by M division in this decade.

In 2018 the E30 feels more like a momentum car than the bahnstormers we've become used to from BMW M, one to use that litheness and delicacy to conserve the speed you've built up rather than the slow-in and fast-out that's become the M car norm. Even allowing for the fact it's 30 years old and worth twice what it was just a few years ago, it's easy to adopt a satisfying rhythm with the M3, keeping it in the right gear to make the most of that engine and letting it move with the road rather than bully it. Always nice not to have to adjust five different dynamic parameters, too...

More than three decades after launch, however, the M3's greatest asset - and what strengthens its Hero status even further - is just what it means to people. In our 24 hours with the car it gets the thumbs up in traffic, approached in a pub car park, admired in a petrol station and generally made a right old fuss of. To so many it's just an old 3 Series but, to those who know, this is the teenage dream car, Steve Soper's BTCC weapon and perhaps the beginning of a BMW fascination. Can you really put a price on something so significant and so adored?

Well yes, of course you can, which is probably why M3s currently command the money they do. Combine the fascination in classic circles for homologation cars, the general rise in values and the importance of the M3 in M Division history - as well as its tremendous success - and you have a perfect storm for a huge rise in values. Back when PH first inducted the M3 into the Hero ranks, £30k would have bought you a good Sport Evo; now the very best of those are for sale at very nearly £150,000. And that's a heck of a lot of money.

But then what doesn't sell for a heck of a lot of money nowadays? As the car that Mercedes desperately wanted to beat on road and track with the 190, that took a BMW saloon to the performance level of a 911, and established 'M3' as the sport saloon benchmark, the E30 will always be an icon worth celebrating. It's one of the most important BMWs ever made, in addition to the fact it's a fast car legend. Values may have spiralled out of reach for many, and so it's a less accessible Hero than it's ever been, but imagine a world without the BMW M3; all of the derivatives, rivals and epic battles it has spawned. The motoring world would be a poorer place without it, and that's why the E30 M3 will be a PH Hero forever and a day. Amen.

Inspired? Search for an E30 M3 in the classifieds


Engine: 2,302cc, 4-cyl
Transmission: 5-speed dog-leg manual, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 215@6,750rpm
Torque (lb ft): 169@4,600rpm
0-62mph: 6.7sec
Top speed: 143mph
Weight: 1,200kg
CO2: 205g/km
On sale: 1989
Price new: £28,814 (regular M3 Evo II)
Price now: £40,000 - £150,000









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Comments (83) Join the discussion on the forum

  • LotusOmega375D 10 Mar 2018

    I’m going to get crucified for this, but a friend bought a similar engined one back in the day. I was so looking forward to going in it, but the acceleration really disappointed. I know they handle superbly, but they need more power IMO.

  • Honeywell 10 Mar 2018

    So essentially the same weight, torque, power and performance of a Toyota GT86.

    Just sayin’

  • DanielSan 10 Mar 2018

    Love these sooooooo much! Sadly I couldn’t afford to buy an E30 M3 or use one as a daily if I could. So I got my second favourite M3 instead. As poor relations go it’s not a bad one, unlike the owner who just is poor hehe

  • DanielSan 10 Mar 2018

    Also why do so many of these seem to have MIB reg plates?

  • 1eye99 10 Mar 2018

    I spent a lot of money running a Johnny Cecotto back then, I don’t regret a single penny. Having jumped from a 325 sport into the M3 I was left feeling a bit hmmmm.
    Then I got to know her, and then it all becomes apparent. An epic drive once you learnt to drive her properly, very rewarding and absolutely as iconic as they get. Every drive was an event, just walking up to an E30 makes your chest flutter. Even more so now, and obviously I’m gutted I sold her.
    Worth every penny if you have the balls to drive them properly, it was easier to thrash them back then, they didn’t cost the same as your kidneys!

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