Many purists see BMW’s E30 M3 as the definitive incarnation of the model, which is well known for blending competition-honed performance with the practicality of an everyday saloon.
BMW built the car to compete in the European Touring Car Championship, which had introduced new regulations requiring 5000 cars to be homologated. On salability grounds, the firm based the new racer on the 3 Series, rather than the more expensive 635CSi, which also had a fine track pedigree.
It was decided that a four-pot unit – an M635CSi’s twin-cam engine minus two cylinders – would be better suited to racing, thanks to its light weight, high-revving nature and compact size. The latter allowed it to be placed further back in the chassis for improved weight distribution, too.
Even now, the power produced by the engine (which ranges from 195-238bhp depending on model) is impressive for a small-capacity naturally aspirated unit.
The chassis was similarly lauded. It was stiffer than a standard 3 Series, thanks to a reskin that changed every panel bar the bonnet and doors, and included a steeper-raked rear window.
The result was handling that won many accolades, with Motor saying: ‘We don’t think it’s stretching a point to say that there’s no better saloon car chassis in existence. It has everything – terrific steering feel despite the presence of power assistance, very strong grip wet or dry, superb traction, closely controlled damping, impeccable balance, rock-solid responses, a feeling of total security.’
Sadly, some M3s won’t feel like this now. Chassis rigidity is a particular concern and a history that includes no accidents or track work is key. Some former track-day machines have been turned back to road spec since values have risen, so be careful.
Stiffer suspension – a popular upgrade – can put the chassis under additional strain, ruin the car’s ride and upset its predictable handling.
A thorough checkover is a must. Check for indications of damage including ripples in suspension legs or wheelarches, ill-fitting panels and doors, welding, plus missing undertray panels and wheelarch liners.
Proper maintenance of the mechanicals is also vital. The engine is durable, but look for signs of overheating, oil leaks and a clattery tickover, which could mean the timing chain is tired. Fitting a later E46 tensioner can rectify some of the problems.
A detailed inspection of the suspension bushes, anti-roll bar links and lower steering column coupling is important. While you’re there, check thoroughly for subframe cracks, broken springs and leaky dampers.
With a specialist machine such as this, it’s worth doing your research by getting to know enthusiasts on sites such as www.bmwcarclubgb.co.uk, www.M3forum.net and www.e30tech.com. Aside form providing a wealth of information, they’ll likely be the first place to catch wind of a good example coming on the market.
The E30 M3’s reputation means that it has become a treasured model with values to match, which explains this £21,450 car’s price-tag. It sounds honest, though, coming with a detailed history that includes almost every MoT certificate and a wealth of paperwork.
If that seems a bit steep, though, a back-up plan comes in the form of this Italian-market 320iS. With a 1990cc S14 engine, it has slightly less power than the full-fat M3, but is almost as fast and sports the same quick-rack steering and limited-slip differential. Doing without the M3’s flared wings and bigger spoilers, it’s also a more subtle choice.
But if it’s a pukka M3 that you crave, this car looks like the best in our classifieds. Priced at nearly £40k, it’s a rare Evo 2 with (despite what the advert says) 220bhp. It also comes with two boxes full of documentation, photographs and history, plus the original service book with owner’s handbook. A top Sport Evo, the runout limited-edition model, could cost you more still though.
Credited with making BMW’s Motorsport division a household name, the M3 brought genuine race-bred technology in a practical bodyshell. It’s a mix that proved so popular that the M3 still exists today, several models later. Choose a good E30 M3 with the help of our free buyer’s guide and you can lay claim to one of the Bavarian firm’s ultimate driving machines.