Jim Bim : BMW M3 (E36) Re-visited

Car Specifications
Engine: 
2990cc, 24-valves
Cylinder Layout: 
In-line 6 cylinder
Top Speed: 
248km/h (electronically limited)
Transmission: 
5-Speed Manual
0-100km/h: 
approx. 5.5 seconds
Power: 
286bhp at 7000rpm
Torque: 
320Nm at 3600rpm
Features: 
  • engine as silky smooth as aged whisky and pulls like a runaway train
  • still agile after all these years
  • deceptively fast

Cult Car Central revisits the BMW M3 Coupe (E36)
Vital Statistics
Car: BMW M3 Coupe (E36)
Year of Manufacture: 1994
Owners: 5
Original Registration: 1st July 1994
Mileage: 15+k km
Revisited: 1st April 2010

(Click on thumbnails for larger images)

In any (or rather, every) discussion concerning a past, current or future M3, the topic of the seminal E30 M3 inevitably rears its head. It doesn't matter if the discussion revolves around the E90/92, E46 or E36, there'll always be that voice in the back of the classroom that will bring up the E30.

Of course, in light of its legendary status, this is wholly justifiable. However, like the Cosworth-fettled Mercedes-Benz 190Es' (2.3-16, 2.5-16, Evo 1 and Evo 2), the E30 M3s were of an entirely different era and were true racing homolgation specials; lightweight, uncompromisingly sharp, snappy handlers with high-revving 4-pots that could be thrashed til kingdom come. (check its lap time at Nordschliefe here)

Over time, these cars grew in proportions, got heavier and had a different focus: fast street use with the occasional weekend trackday jaunt. So, as much as the E30 is arguably the grand-daddy cult-car that started it all, it was the E36 M3 that made all the M goodness we're so fond of today, accessible to the masses, which includes a certain modicum of ride comfort, cabin amenities and sound insulation...

This is the second time we're engaging this particular Avus Blue E36 M3 in a 10-year period. Our last interaction with the car took place in the company of its E36 M3 brethren, the E36 M3 sedan and E36 M3 Evo Coupe, as we celebrated the launch of the E46 M3 (yes, even then, the topic of the E30 M3 was brought up almost incessantly!).

The current owner took over the car from a keen track-day advocate who was fastidious in his ownership of the car, which meant everything was detailed and meticulously documented in fat binders that were handed over with the car; it is this sort of pride of possession that goes beyond just 'owning a M3 for the sake of it' that really warms the cockles of cult car fanatics like ourselves - this was a M3 that was really used as it was intended to be, yet taken care of with regular service schedules.

Orange seat-belts are BMW Motorsport items
Despite its age, this car is still a visual stunner, especially with its fresh coat of Avus Blue. To most motorists, this could just be another E36 dress-up wannabe, since the differences between the M3 and its lesser siblings were more under-the skin as opposed to big fender flares and spoilers. The E36 featured elegant lines that worked well to conceal the animal within.

One of the defining characteristics of this car are the DTM-style mirrors (yes, these are original from the factory); beautifully sculpted and executed, these inspired feverish copies in the car's hey-day, with a replica M3-style mirror to fit everything from GTIs to less luminous Korean marques. Of course, these mirrors actually look fresher today, not least because it's no longer the hot 'in-thing' to have... which makes it all the sweeter, we think.

'Flocked' dash prevent the sun's rays from reflecting into the driver's eyes
There's the de rigeur M3 badge on its rump and a smart set of lightweight 18-inch OZ Racing alloys under which peek out a Stoptech Big Brake Kit (BBK), which help endow the car with even more stupendous stopping power.

However, we understand that a spanking new set of BBS rims are en route to Singapore and the current owner may swop out the BBK for the stock Euro M3 brakes (Floating Rotors). 'M3' emblems elsewhere around the car include the door rubbing strips and the scuff sills.

The cabin and headliner have been fully-worked over and re-upholstered. The instrument binnacle has undergone a 'flocked' treatment to eliminate the glare reflecting off the console under bright sunlight and dazzling the driver.

For its age, several panels do need re-finishing, but this car is a constant work-in-progress so expect to see more updates posted, including a more 'period' steering wheel in place of the MOMO one now. The red BMW Motorsports seatbelts also add a nice splash of colour to the otherwise austere black interior.

Compared to the regular 3er, the M3 features a 'M' instrument cluster with red needles and 'M' insignia. The sports seats (with integrated head-rests) are supportive and although the adjustments are manual, the seats can be toggled, dipped and tugged every which way (including pull-out thigh support) to arrive at a perfect driving position, regardless of height, shape and religion (well, maybe not that last bit).

still a work-in-progress... steering wheel will be swopped out for something a little more stock-ish

Fans of BMWs from this era will be familiar with the driver-angled centre fascia. The important controls are within easy reach; this is from a time when the passenger was expected to sit quietly twiddling their thumbs, rather than to muck about with the air-con and stereo controls.

Turn the key and the car erupts to life with a bellow from the Supersprint exhaust before settling into a rather lumpy, irregular idle, but more on this in a bit. Despite the many complaints levelled against the M3's manual shifter, the gear-action is snickety-snick slick with just a hint of notchiness; the throws are short and the engagements, precise and topped with a shiny AC Schnitzer gear-knob.

Updated with a Prodrive suede steering wheel and AC Schnitzer pedals (as of Jun 2010)
(In goes a Prodrive suede steering wheel to match the re-upholstered interior)

Period AC Schnitzer steering wheel looks the business!
(Updated 30th Sept. 2010: rewrapped AC Schnitzer steering wheel looks da'Bomb!)

This car is recently updated with a clutch from the E34 M5 and a UUC lightweight flywheel; best of all, the pedal action is as close to stock as one can get, yet sturdy enough for heavy-duty track usage.

The S50 B30 (euro) engine has had some work done to it, including new cams (whoopee!) to help us red-line junkies get our fixes from the car's crazy high-rpm high-jinks. Moving off from standstill doesn't require that delicate balance that owners of heavily modified Japanese rockets are probably used to and the clutch isn't the 'on-off' type either, which may be wonderful in a race setting but hell-on-earth in start-stop traffic.

However, one does need to keep the revs close to the 2000rpm mark when moving off, or the car will bog down. For slower second-gear turns, one constantly needs to keep the revs up or face the risk of stalling ignominiously...

(Update: With a new LTA-approved Supersprint exhaust slapped on, the power delivery and engine characteristics have been vastly improved; less bog, more punch.)

In the daily grind of peak hour traffic, this can get a little tiring. However, given a clear road on a cool night, everything falls into place the moment you put your foot down and listen to the lusty 6-pot's song as it swells into a rousing finale.

Inside, the engine/exhaust note is muted, so it's only the lucky bystanders and passing traffic who get to enjoy the car's delicious music. Refined and sedate in normal conditions, the energetic engine quickly displays its Jekyll-Hyde character as the soft note transforms into an aggressive snarl, which rises to a fever pitch all the way to the red-line.

The 6-cylinder is creamy smooth and revs as cleanly and eagerly as any Honda DOHC VTEC engine. Case in point, the E36 M3 Evo with its 3.2L (to be exact, 3201cc to produce 321bhp) was pit head-to-head in the 100bhp/L contest against the Honda NSX.

S50 B30 (euro-spec) in-line 6 came with Individual Throttle Bodies
Another nugget that not many people are aware of is the fact that there was a 'special' E36 M3 for the USA market. Initially, BMW had no intention of launching the E36 M3 in North America due to the lacklustre sales performance of the earlier E30 M3.

Although this decision was later reversed (petitions used to work well in those days, it seems!), for cost and emissions reasons, the M3 sold in the USA was a slightly de-tuned variant of the S50 B30 found in this car.

For starters, the USA version lacked the delicate 'M' touches the Euro had that really transformed the M3 from sheep to wolf (240bhp vs. 286bhp!): Individual Throttle Bodies, reinforced internals, ported and polished head, increased bore and stroke, increased compression ratio, single VANOS (intake), freer flowing intake/exhaust systems and a dual-mass flywheel.

The car currently rides on a set of fully-adjustable Bilstein PSS10s, which convincingly demonstrates the difference in suspension tuning philosophies between the Japanese and European brands. The car's standard set-up at the time consisted of MacPherson struts in front and a multi-link 'Z-axle' in the rear.

BBS alloys are already on a slow boat from Japan en route to Singapore
Compared to the regular 3er, BMW M gave the M3 a lowered ride height, thicker anti-roll bars, wider front and rear tracks, firmer shocks and springs, enhanced suspension geometry and reinforced spring mounting plates.

Probably due to the diverse range of road surfaces, the Europeans tend to serve up well-controlled and firm, yet pliant, tweaks that offer ample body control with minimum compromise to ride comfort, versus something that is just teeth-rattling rock-hard over every surface.

Updated with a set of forged BBS REs (as of Jun 2010)
(Lightweight forged BBS RE rims with Michelin tyres have improved the ride and handling over the earlier OZ Racing rims)

Both steering (the engine speed-sensitive steering rack was touched by 'M' for more direct reactions) and brake feel are beyond reproach and the car can be precisely pointed and squirted down your favourite series of corners (in standard guise, the M3 was also equipped with a Limited Slip Differential, or LSD). There's just a smidgen of body-roll while cornering, but that's a small price to pay for a car that is well-rounded in so many other regards.

Unlike the electrical nanny-aids in modern cars, the only thing that keeps this car on the tarmac is the driver's judicious use of the 'juice' pedal. Tail-out fun into corners is just a prod of the gas pedal away. The back-end breaks traction progressively without much drama, giving one enough time to dial in an armco-avoiding dash of opposite lock.

Even though the subsequent E36 M3 Evo came along with a 3201cc engine with double VANOS and more power/torque, we always regarded the 3L as offering a harder-edged driving experience that continues to literally 'blow our socks off' even to this day.

In addition to coupe and cabriolet, the E36 M3 was also available in four-door sedan guise, a variant that was not carried over to its successor the E46. Happily enough, things have come full circle again with the E9x series of 4L V8 M3s, which now include convertible, coupe and a sedan variant once again.

One of the greatest hurdles to overcome is the fact that too many people obsess over the E30 M3 to the extent that any subsequent M3 to come along is never able to hold a candle to (in many cases, what they imagine to be) the one and only car worthy of bearing the M3 emblem.

tail-out action is easy-peasy to provoke with a little gas on the pedal
More often than not, survival means necessarily evolving to suit the needs of each era, which BMW has ably accomplished with every M3 so far: in addition to a 'regular' M3 for the street and occasional track day, there's typically also a lightweight and more hardcore limited production variant for those who really wanted it; the E36 had the GT (for racing homologation purposes) and CSL (LTW), the E46 had the CSL and CS and today's E92 has the GTS.

Lowered ride height compliments of the fully adjustable Bilstein PSS10 suspension
photos by dk

Summary
A truly under-rated car, the E36 M3 was an unsung hero that was always regarded as the less competent replacement to the E30 M3. However, couple its performance car credentials (even by today's standards) to its iconic Coupe aesthetics and daily-drive versatility (2 adults will fit comfortably in the rear compartment; boot capacity is nothing to sniff at either) and we arrive at a comprehensive and potent package for road and track. Furthermore, the fact that only a handful of these remain in Singapore (including one sedan) creates an even more persuasive argument in its favour in the pursuit for Cult Car status. - dk
Photos: 
Orange seat-belts are BMW Motorsport items
'Flocked' dash prevent the sun's rays from reflecting into the driver's eyes
still a work-in-progress... steering wheel will be swopped out for something a little more stock-ish
Updated with a Prodrive suede steering wheel and AC Schnitzer pedals (as of Jun 2010)
Period AC Schnitzer steering wheel looks the business!
S50 B30 (euro-spec) in-line 6 came with Individual Throttle Bodies
BBS alloys are already on a slow boat from Japan en route to Singapore
Updated with a set of forged BBS REs (as of Jun 2010)
tail-out action is easy-peasy to provoke with a little gas on the pedal
Lowered ride height compliments of the fully adjustable Bilstein PSS10 suspension
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