By on May 20, 2012

In the first chapter, we watched how BMW’s in-house motorsports department morphed into a separate company, that soon made its own cars. 16 years later ….

In 1988, the BMW M5 saw its second generation. The straight-six was pumped up to 3.8 liters, its power rose to 340 hp.

To confuse people, the engines dropped the “M” in their internal production code. The M was replaced by an S. To more than make up for the lost letter, the valve covers now sported a big M.

The next 3 Series was set to make its appearance in 1990.
Motorsport GmbH had advance notice, and was already working on the new BMW M3 which was launched in 1992. The new M3 lost its big spoilers and bulging wheel arches. Reflecting the more understated signs of the times, the new M3 looked more discreet. But you could hear it right away. The sound created by the three-liter six was unmistakable. The four-valve plant produced up to 286 hp. It was also BMW’s first engine with VANOS variable valve timing, an infinitely adjustable system varying the intake camshaft.

Customers and the media loved this M3 right from the start. Immediately, the order books were bulging more than the old wheel arches. Awards, from multiple “Car of the Year” to one “Car of the Century,” rained on the M3.

Instead of chopping off the roof as an afterthought – the usual genesis of a ragtop – a convertible was included in the planning process right from the early start.

Fort the racetrack, the M3 GT was produced in a small, special series. It moved up the performance benchmark to 295 hp. From 1992 to 1996, Motorsport GmbH built more than 85 four-door racing 3 Series based on this M3. Amongst the many wins, it brought home the IMSA title in 1996.

If you wanted an M3 – or for that matter any BMW – that nobody else had, then you could order it from BMW Individual, a business unit started by Motorsport GmbH in 1992. Whatever the customer wanted, BMW Individual made it happen – for a price. With BMW Individual, Motorsport GmbH was a pioneer in the market. Soon, other mass market makers copied the idea, and even the name.

With all these activities, “Motorsport GmbH” became a bit cumbersome and limited. On 1 August 1993, the former Motorsport GmbH was re-christened BMW M GmbH.

In 1995, the M3 received even a little more power, 321 hp from 3.2 liters. Double VANOS variable timing was used for the first time.

The BMW M GmbH became the first car maker in the world to introduce the Sequential M Gearbox (SMG), which debuted in the M3. To shift gears, you pulled or pushed the gear lever up and down one level. There was no clutch pedal: The SMG activated the clutch electrohydraulically when changing gears. In the beginning, drivers furrowed their foreheads about this new-fangled technology, but soon, almost every other BMW M3 was fitted with the SMG.

Also in 1995, a big six-liter 12-cylinder based on the 750i engine powered the closed-top McLaren sports car to victory in the 24 Hour Race at Le Mans. Four-valve technology, a titanium crankshaft and an aluminum clutch helped to give the V12 maximum output of more than 600 hp.

In 1995,BMW Motorsport Ltd was established in the United Kingdom, taking over all of BMW’s motor-sport activities. M GmbH concentrated on M Cars, BMW Individual and Driver Training.

1997 brought the M roadster, an eye-watering combination of the Z3 roadster with the 321 hp power unit of the M3.

The M coupé followed shortly thereafter.

What will also follow is the third and last chapter.

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26 Comments on “40 Years Of The M Series – A Pictorial History. Chapter 2...”

  • avatar

    So with all this engineering brilliance, why didn’t BMW launch a direct competitor to Ferrari and Lamborghini, with a sportier looking body?


    • 0 avatar

      Because they are not a boutique manufacture like Ferrari and Lamborghini. There were 71,000+ E36 M3s produced during its run. Which is probably more than all of Ferrari and Lambo output combined. In short, there isn’t much money up there.

      • 0 avatar

        …and the Ms are based on existing truly-mass-market vehicles. The E36 M3 was 90% based on the existing E36 body that sold hundreds of thousands of units. The USA version of the M3 even shared the transmission and engine, although the engine was bored and stroked to larger displacement and fitted with a VANOS system.

        I sure would love to see them bring back the M1 and take on the Cayman, though. But then BMW would be the boutique verses Porsche’s shipping of relatively mainstream car (911) with the go-fast parts rearranged backwards.

    • 0 avatar

      They did in 1999 when they came out with the Z8 which was priced around $130,000. If I remember correctly, it was a flop.

  • avatar

    Just a little correction: the E34 M5 was originally launched in 1988 with a 3,6 liter with 315 bhp. Only in 1992 did it receive the bigger 340 bhp 3,8 liter along with a 6-speed gearbox. It was also at this time that the Touring version became available.

  • avatar

    “What will also follow is the third and last chapter.”

    Right, because the chapter after that is full of 6000lb SUV’s that have trouble getting traction on wet grass. Zing!

    Speaking of the X-M cars (freudian slip?) and enderw’s point about ferrari and lambo being boutiques, the internet says the total sales of X5’s and X6’s were less than 10k last year. I couldn’t find numbers but I can’t imagine the M models made up more than 10% of that. 1000 units a year makes them a boutique. Thus, they should feel free to start working on supercars in their chase for increasingly small niche markets.

  • avatar

    My M Coupe may not have a “true” M engine (S52), but it was far more affordable than a full-fat 321-hp version (which, due to the tiny volume of US sales, can cost almost as much now as they did new). It’s also been mostly reliable, with only one mysterious spark plug vaporization (!) and a total of about $750 in maintenance/repairs in 18 months and thousands of miles of enthusiastic driving (mostly thanks to an awesome, affordable mechanic… love you Saang!).

    I can’t get over how much I love this car. For me, it’s the perfect compromise… not only between fun and practicality (we take it camping and to Costco), but between modern efficiency/reliability and old-school feel. The handling (a bit lairy at times), the interior (simple, stripped down and still smelling of real leather), and the torquey-yet-eminently-revable naturally-aspirated engine give it a vintage feel without the reliability terror, costs and compromises of a “true” classic. At a time when BMW seems to be headed down a coldly calculating, conformist path, this weird yet wonderful car feels almost like the last of a near-vanished breed.


    • 0 avatar

      +1 Ed. I feel almost the exact same way about my e46 330i zhp. I fear it may be my first and only BMW daily driver because they don’t make them like this anymore.

    • 0 avatar

      The price difference between S52 and S54 M Coupes is rather alarming. I definitely understand your opinion of “it is a compromise, but the compromises are worth it and it’s still really fun.”

      @tjh8402 My DD is an E46 330ci. When it is due to be replaced (hopefully many many years from now), it will probably be replaced with another E46. In my eyes, it is the high water mark of the 3-series as a DD (My E30 is still way more fun to drive.).

  • avatar

    When the M roadster and coupe were first introduced, they had the same 240 hp engine as the e36 M3 in the US. It wasn’t until 01ish that they got the same engine as the e46 M3, albeit at a lesser state of tune.

    • 0 avatar
      Sam P

      I think only the North American markets got the 240 hp S52 engine in the E36/7 and E36/8 cars – everyone else got the full-on 321 hp unit.

    • 0 avatar

      Very true…I remember this well. The automotive press was always savvy to point this out in the first line of any review of the cars.

      It seemed like an eternity till the 240 barrier was lifted. From what I can remember there was a “legitimate” reason for BMW doing what they did. That reason escapes me and I hope someone here can chime in.

  • avatar



    • 0 avatar
      Robert Gordon

      Agreed. I believe Bertel is mistaken. I can not find any credible evidence for the assertion that the McLaren F1 featured an engine with a Titanium crankshaft. Indeed for a number of reasons of pertaining to the properties of titanium actually make it a very poor choice for crankshaft material. I am not aware of any mainstream racecar of this ilk that has a titanium crankshaft. The material of choice in race crankshaft these days appears to be 4340 alloy steel.

      If I may speculate, perhaps the confusion arose due to misinterpreting the McLaren F1’s titanium bell cranks as an engine rather than a suspension component?

      • 0 avatar

        @Willmann: I’m not your dude, and especially not your duuuude.
        @Robert Gordon: Maybe you should heed graham’s advice, do your research and get it right or don’t do it at all.

        @all: If BMW tells me, in writing, that “Four-valve technology, a titanium crankshaft and an aluminium clutch helped to give the V12 maximum output of more than 600 hp,” then I will not doubt it. Actually, for a history article, I will simply lift the sentence, in order to get it 100% right. If there are further complaints, please direct them to Herr Grunert at BMW.

      • 0 avatar
        Robert Gordon

        Unfortunately I am not in a position to accept Graham’s advice since it was directed at another.

        I also must say I am somewhat surprised at the vigorous put-down of what I believed was a legitimate highlighting of a technical point of order within the copy of the article.

        For what it is worth, I believe Manfred Grunert is talking through his hat on the subject of the S70/2 crankshaft. If further evidence of technical inaccuracy were needed then look no further than the proclamation that the McLaren F1 had a Aluminium clutch. A what? I can say with utmost certainty it didn’t ( nor does any car I have ever heard of!). In fact the F1 had a Carbon clutch, and this I know because one of my work colleagues had one as a paperweight on his desk, having been given it by Peter Stevens.

        For interest of the rest of the Best and Brightest, here is the press release in this subject which has Mr Grunert’s contact details.

      • 0 avatar

        The “Aluminium clutch” is bunk. It had a aluminum housing, exactly how the fact that the car had an aluminium clutch housing helped the engine deliver 600 horses is something of a mystery.

        “The BMW M GmbH became the first car maker in the world to introduce the Sequential M Gearbox (SMG), which debuted in the M3” is marketing bunk. Of course a BMW company was the first to sell a an automated manual gearbox under the name chosen by BMW, was BMW first with the technology? Well probably not.

        “The lightweight pistons are of forged aluminium, the con rods and the crank of forged and twisted steel, and the exhaust valves are sodium­ cooled.” So according to Autocar, and in line with common sense, the crank is Steel.

        This whole article feels like it’s something that mr Baruth would call marketing department bs if published ells where.

  • avatar

    This is a PARTIAL history, not a PICTORIAL history, Do your research and get it right or don’t do it at all.

  • avatar
    Robert Gordon

    One might also respectfully point out that four valve technology was scarcely worthy of a mention in a Toyota Camry’s spec sheet in 1995. Four valve technology was already de rigeur in high end exotic sports cars by the 1930’s. Furthermore 600hp out of a 6litre engine engine is hardly breathtaking power.

    • 0 avatar

      Everyone seems impressed with GM’s supercharged 7L making 650hp… today.

    • 0 avatar

      The McLaren F1 was launched in mid-1994, and I can’t see anything naturally aspirated over 90hp/L on sale at the time, closest would be the NSX at 89hp/L. The M-B S600L had 400hp.

      I am also dubious about the statement that the S70/2 was based on the standard 750i motor – Gordon Murray quotes BMW Motorsport chief engineer Paul Rosche as saying “We’ll do a new engine” after discussing Murray’s requirements from the engine (pg 99 of “Driving Ambition” by Doug Nye, Ron Dennis & Gordon Murray)

      • 0 avatar
        Robert Gordon

        Look you’re right, the F1 was right at the pinnacle of specific power output in 1994 in terms of road cars – no question about that (although I would point out that the MG Metro 6R4 was road registered at outputs of between 250 and 410hp depending on who the customer was, out of a three litre NA engine).

        What I was getting at though was the copy seemed to suggest that the output by Le Mans Prototype frames of reference was somehow special. In fact it was decidedly underpowered. It won Le Mans by keeping on keeping which is the measure of Le Mans success.

      • 0 avatar

        Ok, well the race power output is pretty irrelevant as it was running under air inlet restrictor rules, which limits and basically equalises horsepower, ironically to less than the road car.

      • 0 avatar
        Jonathan Gitlin

        Couldn’t agree more. To gloss over the engine in the first place doesn’t really do a ‘history of M’ much credit, but the V12 shares far more with the straight six from the E36 M3 than it does with the 5l V12 in the 750 or 850.

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