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Genesis of a Legend: 1988 BMW M3 brochure

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Images are from the brochure collection of Hemmings Motor News; courtesy of Bruce Zahor

BMW’s M3 is a car that’s spoken of in reverential tones, and if the topic of the ür-M3 arises — that being the “E30”-chassis model of the late 1980s — you will see a wide swath of enthusiasts genuflecting. After all, this was the most accessible M car, following the exotic M1 and pricey M535i/M5/M6.

What is it about that particular compact two-door sedan that made such an impression on so many, and why is the value of the remaining examples notching ever skyward?

Perhaps it’s that this car was created, not to fill an ever-thinner market niche (as the latest bizarro hunchback SUV “coupes” in the Munich automaker’s current lineup), but to go racing. The first-generation M3 was a true competition special — a production car series-built to homologate a racer — that would result in BMW clinching the 1987 World Touring Cup Championship.

While a near-identical engine block in BMW’s F1 World Championship engine made horsepower in the four-figure range, the DOHC, 16-valve “S14” four-cylinder in the M3 racer would displace between 2.3 and 2.5 liters, and make between 300 and 355 hp. The street M3 was a bit less high-strung, its 2.3-liter S14 tuned to produce 192 hp at 6,750 rpm and 170 ft-lb of torque at 4,750 rpm in U.S.-spec trim, all that directed to the rear wheels exclusively through a five-speed manual transmission and standard limited-slip differential.

Changes from the standard 325i were notable. From the outside-in, there were new bumpers and lower-body fairings, blistered front and rear fenders, a tall trunk wing and, most interesting, a special extra-raked C-pillar cap with a bonded rear window, for improved aerodynamics (0.33 Cd, down from 0.37). The car sat lower, on a suspension using uprated anti-roll bars, while oversized four-wheel discs with ABS hid behind 15 x 7-inch BBS alloys mounting 205/55 tires. The instrument cluster included a 160 mph speedometer, 7,000 rpm-redline tachometer, and an oil temperature gauge in place of the regular MPG-meter, all using red needles. Leather upholstery and  standard A/C , cruise control and cassette stereo didn’t add too much to the M3’s 2,735-pound curb weight. And BMW’s own performance specs for this legendary car? 0-60 in 7.6 seconds, a drag-limited 143 mph top speed, and 29 mpg on the highway.

Those figures may seem laughable 30 years on, but in context of this car’s time and mission, they were pretty respectable. And of course, with modern BMWs being largely self-shifting/turbocharged/iDriven into feedback numbness, there will always be a passionate following for this analog youngtimer-classic Bavarian sports sedan.

Have you ever experienced an E30 M3?

Click on the brochure images below to enlarge.