BMW M EvolutionBMW M Evolution

Published: Apr 22, 2012
Words by Ya'acov Zalel

By focusing on performance over luxury in the 1970s, BMW created a legendary performance division that is still unmatched to this day.
The origins of BMW's M cars are buried somewhere in the 1960s and '70s when BMW was just climbing the first few rungs of the automotive ladder. At the 1961 Frankfurt Motor Show, the German automaker revealed a new platform on which a compact sedan and coupe were to be assembled. It was still a year away from its commercial launch, but the crowd was hard to control. During that time, however, BMW was far from the powerhouse it is today.

«The Origins of the M Division»
At least two decades were to pass before it would take on the might of Daimler-Benz, and another decade would pass before it was recognized as a manufacturer of luxury cars. No one dared in 1961 to envisage its climb to the top of the world's premium car manufacturers. The M brand, which had an important role to play in that Cinderella story, had still yet to be conceived. In the automotive world as well as in car marketing, there is one certain way of gaining your competitors' respect and your potential customers' attention and admiration: using the motorsport platform to prove your products' competence.

During the '70s as BMW became more and more successful, it became clear to its dominant manager, Eberhardt Von Kunheim, that in order to promote his cars and give them a unique character and flavor, a radical course of action was needed. And since competing head-to-head against Daimler-Benz in the premium segment was out of the question at the time, the motorsport route remained the only viable alternative for fast glories. The motorsport course was partially taken during the '60s when BMW took part in competitions on the national and international levels with its BMW 1500 model, the first product of the New Class series.

The New Class possessed excellent potential as a racing machine and that was proven in 1964, the car's first year of competition, when Hubert Hahne established easy domination over his rivals. He recorded 14 victories in 16 races on the way to being crowned the German circuit racing champion. In 1966 with the 2000TI, propelled by an enlarged engine, Hahne won the European Touring Cars Championship title in Division 3. Two years later Austrian Dieter Quester repeated this success with the 2002. The New Class was also a competent competitor in rallying, winning 8 out of 10 rounds in the 1968 German rally championship.

The engine block of the 1500 endured a long career and its peak was reached almost at the end of its life. During the Formula 1 turbo era (1977-1989), BMW developed on that engine block a turbo charged racing engine used by the Brabham team. In qualifying configuration it was the strongest ever F1 engine with over 1500hp, however it was dogged by poor reliability. That didn't prevent Nelson Piquet from winning his second out of three F1 world titles in 1983 driving a Brabham-BMW. Its fuel legal status was a source for malicious rumors ever since.

The racing success of the New Class led to the foundation in 1972 of BMW Motorsport GmbH, known also as either M-Technik or just as "M" (for Motorsport) that facilitated BMW's racing program. It then became more complex with the introduction of the BMW Formula 2 engine. Those 1600 cc engines propelled single-seat cars of various marques in the European Formula 2 championship when that category was at its zenith, second only to Formula 1. F1 drivers at the time were even still competing in Formula 2. For a few years BMW-engined single seaters dominated the F2 series, winning multiple races and a few championships. In later years when BMW Motorsport GmbH became more involved with road cars than racing, the "Motorsport" was replaced by "M" only. Also at that time the famous M logo was decided upon. It was designed with the M and to its left three slightly angled stripes. The one on the right was red, representing the team's biggest sponsor at the time, Texaco. On the left was BMW's traditional blue and in the center was purple, a combination of the two. When Texaco ended the partnership, BMW bought out the rights to the logo, a transaction they would never come to regret.

The M1 Placed Munich at the Supercar Level

What is the common denominator between the M1, the only BMW ever to have a midship engine layout that was conceived to be a racing car, and the Chevrolet Volt, a car that was designed from the get-go to enhance frugal motoring in an era of growing emissions standards? After all, those are two very different cars from two very different eras. The answer is one Robert A. Lutz, aka "Maximum Bob", automaker executive and genuine car guy.

During the 1970s, while Lutz served as BMW Vice President of Sales, he found it necessary to initiate a project to build a sports car that would represent BMW in international racing. In 1976 he initiated the E26 program that led to the creation of the M1. He assigned the car to take part in Group 4 racing, a category that was intended for sports cars with production of at least 400 units in a 24 month period. Years later when Lutz became General Motors "cars czar" and following a long time resistance to the EV concept, he changed his mind and steadfastly promoted the development of the much more complicated and expensive solution, the range extender.

In the first case the project didn't achieve the anticipated success while the jury is still out on the latest project. Naturally the E26 project was loaded on BMW Motorsport GmbH that had only so far prepared racing cars based on production cars and that is a vast difference from building a legal road car from scratch that also aims directly at the world's race tracks. To overcome that insurmountable obstacle, BMW outsourced the styling to Giorgio Giugiaro, the famous Italian designer. Clearly the M1 doesn't look like a traditional BMW and its configuration is a one-off in BMW's history.

«M1 didn't look like a traditional BMW»
To add insult to injury, BMW contracted out the car's production to Lamborghini, although that relationship didn't materialize any further when the Italian automaker went bankrupt and BMW people had to go and salvage the panel molds from Lamborghini's facility. The car was modeled around the gull-wing turbocharged concept car created in 1972 by BMW designer Paul Bracq (whose previous employer was Daimler-Benz for whom he designed the second generation SL-Class). Continuing from this design study with its rounder lines, Giorgio Giugiaro created the sharp profile of the M1 with its distinct, almost jagged edges and corners.

Bracq and Giugiaro had already cooperated in the past in creating the 6-Series coupe. BMW engineers actually considered two engines for the new car: a V10 and an inline-six, choosing the latter because it conformed better to BMW's traditional engineering values and experiences. And with this experience they produced a 3.5-liter engine with 277hp based on a production block with 4-valves per cylinder that was borrowed from the racing engine heads. That midship engine propelled the fastest German sports car at the time to a top speed of 164.47 mph.

The all-electronic digital ignition system also reflected the latest in state of the art technology and the dry sump lubrication bore clear testimony to the sporting genes of the M1. Two fuel tanks from both of the engine's sides supplied fuel and a ZF five-speed gearbox connected to the engine via a two-plate dry clutch. Although the M1 was conceived to mark the success of BMW Motorsport, the sporting division was not involved in producing the car, apart from its engine. Since Lamborghini couldn't perform the job, it was divided between Marchesi, who built the frame, T.I.R who produced the glass-fiber-reinforced plastic body shell and ItalDesign, where the cars were built.

They were then sent to Baur in Germany where all mechanical systems and components were assembled. The unexpected delay forced BMW to come up with a solution to keep the public's interest in the car alive. So a new idea emerged to create a racing series for the car that would be a sidekick to the European round of the Formula 1 championship races. That arrangement lasted for two seasons, in which the M1 Procar Series took place with the participation of a few F1 drivers. Niki Lauda was crowned champion in 1979 and Nelson Piquet took the crown in 1980.

The M88 engine was also tuned up to 490hp, it weighed just 2,250 lbs. and with long gear ratios top speed was set at 193 mph. Marc Surer, the former Swiss F1 driver, lapped the Nordschleife of the Nurburgring in just 7 minutes 55.9 seconds. The M1 was sold for 100,000 Deutsche Marks (more than $500,000 today), quite expensive for a BMW. However, the demand was much higher than the supply and all cars were sold before production ceased. When the time arrived for the M1 to take part in Group 4 racing, after it reached the 400 units production milestone, it was already too late. The FIA changed the regulations of the Group 4 category so the car was retired, though its unique and idiosyncratic heritage in BMW history is assured.

The First M3 - And With a Four Cylinder Engine

"Mr. Rosche", Eberhard von Kuenheim, the BMW Chairman, said to Paul Rosche, engineering manager of M GmbH, "we need a sporty engine for the 3 Series." With that, von Kuenheim set the tone for generations of M automobiles to come. "Whether you believe it or not - we had created an outstanding four-cylinder engine for the 3 Series within the space of two weeks," said Rosche. "Under the development name S14, this engine generated headlines in sport and volume production over the years to come.

One Sunday, I drove to von Kuenheim's flat and gave him the car for a test drive. When he came back he said: 'Good, I like it.' And that's how the M3 came into being. "The main attribute of the M series in all its guises is what lies at the front of the car, i.e. its engine. Power plants were always the pride and joy of the Bavarian marque as exterior design and other non-functional essentials were less of a priority. Of course a powerful engine cannot live up to customers' expectations without improved chassis components, but in BMW's case they were always secondary in importance to the engine.

Therefore it is no wonder that the technician who was chosen and was most competent to lead the development team was Paul Rosche, a mechanical engineer with sound knowledge and experience of engine design. In addition to his duties at M GmbH, Rosche also headed the F1 turbo engine project which had powered Nelson Piquet to the 1983 F1 World Championship driving a Brabham-BMW. That was a unique engine in the F1 field, based on an inline four-cylinder block, as opposed to the V-configuration of most other competitive F1 engines. The reason was probably frugality; BMW had an off the shelf block which could be adapted to Formula 1 (and in qualifying setup could produce up to 1500hp). To go back from F1 to a powerful sportive engine in a road car posed different challenges to the designers. And having an F1 engine block in your car was also something special. The first M3 appeared in model year 1986, based on the E30 platform and with two variants, a two-door coupe and a convertible. It was equipped with a 2.3-liter engine, which was assembled of components from various BMW engines.

The four-cylinder block was taken from the M10 engine which was developed for the New Class series. It was over bored and reinforced to the M88 inline-6 engine block specifications. Head architecture and valve train were copied from the M1 engine. Later, the M6 inline-6-cylinder was adopted for aggressive breathing. Engine output was at 200hp and a top speed of 146 mph. Testing on the Nurburgring was hard on materials, particularly on the exhaust system. The cause was unplanned growth in the exhaust system because of high temperatures at full load as the system expanded up to 25 mm and became distorted within its mounting.

A simple set of different washers solved the problem and the car was successfully tested at high speed at the Nardo test track. The M3 body was different to the regular E30 due to 12 new panels that were supposed to improve aerodynamic efficiency. The bodywork was made of metal and only front and rear bumpers, side sills, trunk and spoilers were made of lightweight plastic, so the E30 M3 weighed in at 2,568 lbs. and remained a sporty lightweight with only 12.8 lbs. for every 1 horsepower. The E30 M3 was in production for six years in which it campaigned extensively as a works team in international racing and international rallying.

It was homologated for Group A Touring Car racing and also found a true adversary in the Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.3-16V that was introduced in 1983. In its final years of competitions, known as Evolution III (or Sport Evolution), the 2.5-liter S14 engine in full race trim was capable of over 250hp. The M3 road-going version produced 195hp. Evolution models continued with the 2.3-liter engine though with a few improvements such as a revised intake camshaft profile and modified exhaust camshaft timing, increased compression, and a more efficient cylinder head intake port design that increased output to 220hp. Larger wheels, thinner rear and side window glass, a lighter trunk, a deeper front spoiler and an additional rear spoiler, were found on the evolutions models. As expected, these original M3s have increased in value over the years and are highly sought after by collectors.

The Next M3 Was a Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

In 1990, BMW launched a new 3 Series based on the E36 platform. Two years later the series was complemented with the M3. This version wasn't as charismatic as its predecessor, however. Its appearance was more user friendly, with rounded edges rather than sharp ones; its engine now in the classic BMW inline six configuration. Gone were the idiosyncratic elements that bequeathed the 1st generation its character and with it the high revving power unit.

BMW also began its unstoppable march towards acceptance by the masses as a luxury car brand. The first E36 M3 was introduced as a coupe version only. The convertible and four-door sedan were added to the lineup in 1994, the latest one as a stopgap in the absence of the M5 for a few years during the mid-90s. However, despite the effort to create a more friendly and civilized car, the emphasis on the engine remained as before, as BMW engineers tried to squeeze out every ounce of horsepower. The first E36 M3 series was propelled by a 3.0-liter engine generating 286hp and 236 lb-ft at 3600 rpm.

The engine was also equipped with an advanced VANOS system (for variable valve timing). This allowed the opening point of the inlet valves to be adjusted to the engine speed and load, and so torque, power and consumption could be optimized simultaneously. That engine had the highest specific output, 97hp per liter of any natural aspirated engine and the 80lb-ft per liter was an impressive figure as well. The coupe's sprint to 62 mph lasted just 6.0 seconds; top speed was electronically limited to 155 mph. The increase in engine performance also demanded parallel enhancements to the chassis and its ancillary systems.

Low profile 17-inch wheels combined with a wide tread surface required an innovative approach to develop a suspension system that would soften the harsh ride expected from such tires. A key element in achieving that was a single-joint spring strut front axle with reinforced spring plates and axle knuckles. The centrally guided rear axle reduced body movements when driving off and braking. The dampers and anti-roll bars also had to be tuned more tautly. The changes lowered the bodywork by 31 millimeters compared to the 3 Series Coupe. The adhesion limit was reached at a lateral acceleration of 0.8g.

A powerful braking system was equipped with a generously dimensioned inner-vented swing-caliper front and rear disc brakes specifically tailor made to the M3 and combined with a modern ABS system. At a speed of 62 mph, the car only needed 2.8 seconds or 35 meters to make a complete stop. Braking from 124 mph was possible in less than 6.0 seconds. A unique mirror housing was attached by two wing-shaped struts to keep drag to a minimum. A 325hp, 2866 lbs. M3-based racing car made its debut in April 1993. It was driven by Johnny Cecotto and Kris Nissen, the former ultimately to win at the end of the series.

However, the E36 M3's racing career was short-lived because of regulation changes. The American market M3 also changed, and for the worse, because of an engine regulatory requirement. The car's engine was taken from a BMW 525i, bored out to 3.0-liters and generated modest a 244hp and a top speed of 137 mph. The launch of the four-door sedan variant was another stroke of genius, at least at a commercial level, since it made sense to thousands more customers to purchase an M3. In spring 1995, BMW M GmbH introduced M3 GT Coupe for homologation.

This car was also intended to compete on the race track in the IMSA GT Series in the U.S. Engine output was raised to 295hp and acceleration to 62 mph was shortened to 5.9 seconds. The aerodynamic design boasted striking spoilers at front and rear and the front spoiler's angle could also be adjusted from the cockpit. That version was available only in British Racing Green color. A larger 3.2-liter engine was introduced in 1995, though it retained the original 6-cylinder inline configuration. Thanks to new computing and electronic capabilities, torque rose to 258 lb-ft. at 3250 rpm and output increased to 321hp at 7,400 rpm.

GTR and CLS Packages Made the E46 M3 Even More Special

For two years after the end of the second generation M3, no one could lay a hand on a new M3. The reason why was because the third generation was still being designed and developed and was released to the market only in 2001. As is always the case for the community of M3 aficionados, it was a golden age for rumors and debate. The new M3's look was revealed in concept form at the 1999 Frankfurt Motor Show and a pre-production version popped up six months later at the 2000 Geneva Motor Show.

People had to wait another seven months before the commercial launch. When it finally came, they discovered a car equipped with the inline-six, 3.2-liter S54 engine with 343hp and 269lb-ft of torque. The S54 engine, International Engine of the Year for 2001, was the final and most powerful evolution of the M50 engine line. It incorporated individual throttle bodies, a drive-by-wire throttle control, and variable valve timing (VANOS) for both intake and exhaust camshafts. The engine block was made from grey cast iron rather than aluminum for greater rigidity. It had reinforced forged steel connecting rods, graphite coated cast aluminum pistons and a forged steel crankshaft.

The engine control unit was specially developed for the M3 with a multiprocessor system that included two 32 bit microcontrollers and two timing coprocessors. All told, it computed power of 25 million calculations per second. The E46 M3 was an elegant car thanks to a special front apron with integrated fog lamps and large cooling air intakes. It presented a significantly different profile to all other models in the 3 Series lineup. The engine compartment lid was made of aluminum and was curved in the center, creating space for that special engine. The car's width was increased by 0.8 of an inch, giving it that beefier appearance.

The M3 accelerates from a standing start to 62 mph in just 5.2 seconds and just 5.4 seconds from 50 to 75 mph in fourth gear. A special switch, the M Driving Dynamic Control, allowed drivers to select between sporty and high-comfort engine response. Another world first for the M3 was a variable M differential lock. This sophisticated but powerful performance curve could be effortlessly transferred to the road with the six-speed manual gearshift to provide efficient support. The chassis was characterized by a high level of stiffness. A high-performance braking system contributed to effective braking from high speeds.

And only a few months later the new M3 convertible was launched. In 2001 a racing version under the GTR moniker made its debut in the U.S. and was equipped with a 4.0-liter 450hp V8 engine. It was raced in the GT class of the American Le Mans Series (ALMS). In 10 races it achieved seven wins as Jorg Muller won the Drivers' Championship and BMW won the manufacturers title. A year later, the GTR, with a de-rated engine to 350hp, was available to the general public at a price of $330,000. Its V8 was equipped with a dry sump lubrication system coupled to a six-speed manual together with a double-disc clutch like the one used in the racing car. The body was also similar to the racing version with the roof, rear wing, and front and rear aprons made of carbon fiber reinforced plastic to save weight. The M3 GTR also received a Sequential M Gearbox (SMG) controlled by paddles on the steering wheel, changing gears in 80 milliseconds without the driver easing off the throttle. The M3 CSL was another show of technological force from BMW. At the 2001 Frankfurt Motor Show, the M3 CSL was revealed as a concept and two years later it became a reality. The initials stood for 'Coupe, Sport and Lightweight'. That version was slimmed down by more than 243 lbs. at just 3,053 lbs.

The engine generated 360hp as the power-to-weight ratio stood at only 8.5 lbs. for every 1 horsepower. The classic sprint from a standing start to 62 mph lasted 4.9 seconds and zero to 124 mph took 16.8 seconds. Top speed was limited electronically to 155 mph. The M3 CSL's lightweight construction, specifically the carbon fiber reinforced plastic roof, created a striking visual profile. Glass-fiber reinforced plastics were used as well as a honeycomb sandwich panel for the under-boot floor. The rear window was made of thin glass.

The E46 M3 was also sold with a Competition Package (ZCP) that was based on the CSL (which was never sold in the U.S.). The Competition Package was introduced for 2005 and it offered a $4,000 option package of upgrades taken from CSL. That included 19-inch BBS spin-cast alloy wheels, larger wheels and tires, specially tuned spring rates, CSL steering rack and more direct steering ratio. There was also the CSL's M-Track Mode DSC with a button mounted on the steering wheel and compound cross-drilled rotors.

The M3 Receives a V8 with 420hp

At the 2007 Geneva Motor Show, the E90 M3 made its first public appearance, but was lightly disguised as a concept. Six months later the first and likely only M3 with a V8 engine (bar past racing M3s) was launched at the Frankfurt Motor Show in its coupe version (E92). The sedan (E90) and hard top convertible (E93) versions were to follow a few months later. As with all of its predecessors, the M3's configuration remained front-engine and rear- wheel-drive.

Installing a V8 engine in an iconic BMW model was probably a traumatic experience for traditionalists, but a happy one for Teutonic engineers who had been wanting more horsepower for their most important sports car. Its S65 engine is derived from the 5.0-liter V10 engine that powered the E60/E61 M5 and was developed with some input from the V10 Formula 1 engine that represented the manufacturer in F1 racing during the previous decade. The engine weighed 33 lbs. less than the outgoing six-cylinder and its output stood at 420hp at 8300 rpm and maximum torque of 295lb-ft at 3900 rpm was squeezed from the naturally aspirated power plant.

Acceleration from a standing start to 62 mph took 4.8 seconds and top speed was once again electronically limited to 155 mph. A six-speed manual gearbox came standard and an optional seven-speed Getrag double-clutch gearbox was optional. It reduced shift pauses to less than a tenth of a second and shortened the car's 0-62 mph sprint time by 0.2 seconds verses the manual. Befitting some 21st century creativity, electronic and digital equipment and many other gizmos became prominent features. Those traits of slickness and sophistication were also evident in the car's sleeker exterior design.

The kidney grill received a treatment that softened its corners and the headlamps were elegantly built into the bodywork and were made of two halogen bulbs. The front bumper received three air intakes, the air vents were cut behind the front wheels and two air vents were also cut in the hood. In addition, four exhaust pipes were threatening things from behind. It wasn't flamboyant styling but rather a solid one in which the designers were quite sure of their goals. The front axle was designed as a double-strut and all of its components were made of aluminum. The rear suspension was a five-link arrangement of a lightweight construction.

More weight was saved by using a high-performance braking system with compound discs. The rear axle was equipped with the variable M differential lock which could provide up to 100 percent locking power and therefore ensure optimum traction. Also included were Servotronic power steering, a high-performance braking system with all-round vented discs and an electronically managed Dynamic Stability Control. An option of selecting the Electronic Damper Control was also available. The CRP roof also weighed significantly less than a steel equivalent.

This further reduced total weight and contributed significantly to a reduced center of gravity which improved cornering performance. As with previous generations, the new M3 couldn't avoid the racetrack. "Sportiness is undoubtedly in the genes of the series model of the BMW M3," exclaimed BMW Motorsport Director Mario Theissen. "That's what motivated us to develop a racing version of this car." The M3 GT4 was almost a road car, though it was aimed at privateers while the M3 GT2 was for professional racing drivers and teams, long distance racing and was also used to compete as a works car.

The GT2 version boasts a 500hp engine and that power unit propelled it to overall victory at the 2010 24 Hours at the Nurburgring and numerous other prestigious races. An M3 GTS, directed toward club sport, and was powered by the V8 but with increased displacement, 4.3-liters, and enhanced output at 450hp. It also has an optimized seven-gear M DCG Drivelogic gearbox as well as modified chassis technology combined with strategic optimizations in aerodynamics and lightweight design. The car's top speed is 190 mph, which certainly isn't too bad for a Sunday racer.

With a new M3 due to arrive sometime next year, the E90/91/92 will forever be remember as the only M3 generation equipped with a V8 in all versions, regardless of whether it was for the road or track. A twin-turbocharged inline-six will likely power the new car, and all reports are indicating it will be even more powerful than the outgoing V8.