Automotive history

Ad Break: Hartge’s BMW Compact was an E30 M3 for the 1990s

by Antony Ingram
18 April 2023 2 min read
Ad Break: Hartge’s BMW Compact was an E30 M3 for the 1990s
Photo: Hartge/Birds

While generally remembered fondly, the E36 BMW M3 wasn’t a universal hit. Fast, handsome, and sophisticated, it could go toe-to-toe with the Porsche 911 of the era, but those expecting the raw, focused drive of the original E30 M3 were left somewhat disappointed.

Then, as now, the aftermarket was only to happy to put a foot through any door left ajar, and for BMW that manufacturer was Hartge. If fellow BMW specialists Alpina were known for ramping up the luxury of BMW’s range, Hartge was racier, offering engine and suspension upgrades and visual tweaks to endow Bavaria’s saloons with a track-ready edge.

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And Hartge knew just what to do when the E30 M3 went west, taking the closest thing BMW had in its E36 range, the Compact, and turning it into something of an M3-lite: The Hartge H3-2.1S.

The Compact wasn’t such a bad starting point, given it was something of a mishmash of E30 and E36 parts. Okay, perhaps that’s unfair – it was hardly a cut-and-shut, but it did use E30-style semi-trailing arms at the rear rather than the Z-axle of other E36s, while inside, the two-tier dashboard had a distinctly last-generation feel.

And while some markets received a six-cylinder 323ti variant, the UK only ever received four-pots in this E36 generation, the top model (at launch) being a 1.8-litre M42-engined version making 138bhp, the same engine you’d find in the 318is coupé and saloon. It was fun in standard spec, but certainly warm rather than hot, just sneaking under the 10-second mark to 60mph.

Plenty of potential then, and Hartge was only too happy to exploit it. With a 2mm rebore (to 86mm) and 10mm longer stroke (now 91mm), Hartge extended the 1.8’s capacity to 2.1 litres, and with a new exhaust, the car was now good for 170bhp, and a bump in torque from 127lb ft to 162lb ft. Thicker anti-roll bars, 30mm lower suspension, and a set of 17-inch alloys wrapped in 235-section Pirellis completed the transformation.

And a transformation it was. As Hartge’s ad proudly quotes, Peter Dron at Fast Lane reckoned it was “easily equal to BMW’s own M3”, while Gavin Conway at Autocar was even more positive. “That engine is simply a gem,” he said, calling it “one of the best conversions we have ever tested.”

It got better: “Ducking and diving along country lanes, the Hartge reacts with the fluency of Porsche’s 968, the immediacy of a 205 GTi”. Blimey. In all, the magazine reckoned it “captures the spirit of the original M3 like no other we’ve driven.”

This E30 M3-style behaviour didn’t come cheap, costing £6577 on top of the price of a standard 318ti Compact, or a shade over £23,000 in 1995 according to that Autocar test. But then your alternative, the real M3, was more than £36,000, and good though it was, clearly didn’t push those E30 buttons like the Hartge.

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