Driver error: Buying a BMW M3 E30 on reputation alone was madness

by Steve Bennett
8 November 2021 5 min read
Driver error: Buying a BMW M3 E30 on reputation alone was madness
Photos: Steve Bennett

They say you should never meet your heroes. I say you should never drive them, either.

The disappointment can be crushing, not to mention expensive. Or to put it another way, in car terms, one man’s meat and two veg’ is another chap’s airline pretzel snack.

As a car enthusiast, you’ll know as well as me that certain cars gain a cult-like status, revered by motoring writers, owners and the legions that read their verdicts or hang on their every word over a pint and packet of pork scratchings down at The Queen’s Head.

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So permit me to bare my soul – and let you know that just because a car gains some sort of hero status, it doesn’t mean that everyone is right, or that it’s going to be right for you. It certainly wasn’t right for me.

Here then is a tale of the Emperor’s new clothes, and a warning that everyone should drive a car before they buy it. (Although I don’t think it would have made much difference, because I refused to see the reality of my situation.)

And this story has got nothing to do with buying a wrong ‘un, either. No, I bought the very best example that I could find, one of the most expensive on the market with provenance aplenty and even a couple of concours trophies.

I know this is confession is dragging on, but getting to the point is still painful. Time to spit it out: The car I should never have bought, was a BMW M3 – an E30. Yes, that M3.

BMW M3 E30 isn't as good as people say, argues Steve Bennett
Bennett’s M3 – great on the track, not so great on the road

So how did I get myself into this mess? Well, rewind to 2002 and I was driving the Editor’s seat at Circuit Driver, a monthly magazine dedicated to the track day scene. Prior to that I’d spent most of my career at Cars and Car Conversions, driving an exclusive diet of performance cars and track-tuned machinery. Despite that, I’d never driven an E30 M3, but that didn’t stop me from lusting after one, and they were a popular car in the track day scene too. To my mind, it seemed like just the sort of thing that I should be seen behind the wheel of.

As the homework began I soon found myself hopelessly hooked by the whole homologation, touring car vibe that surrounded the E30 M3, not to mention is sparring partners, the Mercedes 190E 2.3 and 2.5 16, as well as the Ford Sierra Cosworth. I would be Roberto Ravaglia or Steve Soper at the wheel of a true homologation hero, drifting around the outside of my rivals at Brand Hatch’s Paddock Hill Bend or outbraking them at the bottom of Craner Curves around Donington Park.

I put the word out that I was looking for the best M3 that my £10,000 would get me. Don’t laugh. Back in 2002, such a sum of money was the top of the market for such a car. Today, as the Hagerty Price Guide will show you, a concours example of the standard, 2.3-litre M3 would cost you more than £70,000. It didn’t take long, either, before a super late example popped up. On a K registration plate, making it a very late (1992) example, it was an ex-BMW UK dealer demonstrator and had been used on BMW driver days, before being sold to the Chairman of the BMW Owner’s Club, who lavished love and attention on it – with a couple of concours trophies to prove it.

BMW M3 E30
Steve Bennett, back in the day, grappling with his M3 – and his wrestling with his mistakes

In silver, this was the one. There was an extensive picture and history file to illustrate its past, plus the glowing testimony from others on the E30 M3 scene: “Buy it before I do,” was the general advice. So, I did, sight unseen and undriven. What could possibly go wrong? I, mean, c’mon, it’s an M3 for heaven’s sake. Again, that M3.

The excitement was unbearable. For weeks, ‘the M3 deal’ was the only topic of conversation with colleagues in the office. I got the cash together, hopped on a train and went to pick it up from the outskirts of Birmingham. On face value, it was absolutely spot on. I couldn’t fault it, worth every penny, a bargain if anything.

But the M3 and I didn’t hit it off. At first, I tried to push any nagging doubts to the back of my mind. I did a few track days in it, took it to the Nürburgring, where it was impressive, and generally tried to fall for one of the greatest rear-drive chassis of them all. And in theory, mine should have been greater still, because it had a Schnitzer suspension kit and polyurethane suspension bushes all round. And on the track, it was, indeed, good.

But on the road… Oh, on the road it was hateful.

This disturbed me. So during an event at Lotus’s Hethel track, I handed it over one of the Lotus chassis engineers, who was writing for Circuit Driver magazine on all things handling. He did a few laps in it, sort of shrugged his shoulders, and then opined that the best front-engined rear-wheel drive machine he’d ever driven was the Porsche 968 Club Sport. Which, for the avoidance of doubt, is not the same as the BMW M3 E30.

BMW M3 E30 four-cylinder engine
The S14 four-pot engine didn’t live up to Bennett’s expectations

But perhaps the biggest disappointment – for me – was the engine. It looked magnificent, with a black crackle-finish cam cover with ‘M-Power’ carved into it, but its actual performance was lacking. Despite boasting more than 200bhp, actually getting at its oomph meant climbing the peaks of the power curve, but usually not getting beyond base camp. Power delivery was flat, dull and uninspiring. Again, that’s not such a problem on a race track, where you can keep an engine buzzing along, but it’s a pain on the road.

Something with 2.3-litres – biggish for a 4-cylinder engine – should have produced more shove/torque. Apparently not, and the figures did rather bear it out: 177lbs/ft at 4750rpm.

To top everything off, it didn’t even sound good.

Despite all this, I was determined not to be defeated. I resolved to unlock the true potential of my M3’s motor. At that same Lotus track day, I bumped into engine tuning guru, Iain Litchfield, then in his pre Skyline/Subaru/Porsche modifying days. He’d just unlocked the hidden potential of his own E30 M3, thanks to some MoTec ECU tweaks and more. Was I interested? I bit his hand off.

Steve Bennett's BMW M3 E30 on a rolling road
On a power trip

So, the standard ECU was binned in favour of a full MoTec device, which was mapped via crank and throttle-position sensors. Also binned was the primitive fuel metering flap, that the standard ECU relied on. In its place a massive intake pipe pumped air straight into the plenum, unblocking a restriction, that meant bigger fuel injectors had to be fitted to keep up.

And boy, did it work. We weren’t after peak power, but still gained an extra 10bhp. More crucially, through the rev range, the torque curve became the fat and bloated thing that I had always wanted. Without giving you a full torque curve graph, at just 3000rpm it was producing 135lbs/ft, way up on the standard 120lbs/ft. That’s the sort of difference that you can really feel. It simply flew.

A happy ending, then? No, I still got rid of it. The damage had been done. Fine car that the M3 is for some, it just wasn’t for me. I didn’t feel duped, as such; I simply shouldn’t have taken the car’s reputation at face value.

There is a happy ending to this story though. The M3 wasn’t the only car on my shopping list and before I was gripped with road-racer fever, my choice was divided between the Beemer and a Porsche 911 Carrera 3.2. No, I hadn’t driven one of those either. But then I did. The penny dropped and I part-exchanged the M3 for a gorgeous 911, which I absolutely adored.

I lost some money, but you live and you learn. “Don’t look back in anger,” as Noel Gallagher once crooned.

So, don’t do what I did. Do try before you buy, especially in these days of online auctions, where it’s now so easy to rely on a bunch of pictures, a glowing description and, of course, a car’s reputation. What counts is bum on seat time and a gut feel.

Like most things in life, if doesn’t feel right, then it probably isn’t.

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  • Simon C Potts says:

    I remember K ARD at Bmw car club track days. I took the plunge on an evoII for £8k at a similar time, my only regret was selling it for an Evo sport

  • Cliff Lamb says:

    I can understand this article totally, in my case a Toyota GT 86.
    When pushed and the engines singing in the power band 5000>7500 its an absolute joy, handles beautifully and very precisely. Not super fast in straight line but great on the epitomised country road.
    Everday use is a different thing little torque at low revs , below 4000 rpm. Steering so precise and the hard track like suspension means it’s never a relaxing drive.
    Admittedly I am a 65 year old who still likes a blast round but for the majority of time it’s hard work!
    Do I regret buying it heart says no but head keeps saying sell it !

  • Ed Smith says:

    Great to read such an honest review of a car generally viewed as motoring Viagra from Munich! Refreshingly, we all have different tastes and it is super important to drive a car before buying. I bought a brand new E61 M5 touring wile living in NL without even hearing the engine note (days when I had more money than sense!) and regretted every day of ownership as I struggled with the gearbox and visited petrol stations every 2nd day..

  • Sam Lever says:

    It’s ironic, but for me, the E30 M3 is the one car I truly regret selling. Mine was a stolen-recovered 1990 Sport Evo that I bought very reasonably in 2001. I do recall driving the car home and wondering to a degree what all the fuss was about. However, I went on to do a further 85,000 miles or so in the car over the next 8 years – as a daily driver, track day and go anywhere friend. It was a superb car to drive. The fact that it all happened at the top of the rev range made it ultra-safe on the road, as you only had power + torque when you were really digging for it, with the car being docile and easy for the rest of the time. That docility, coupled with supple (standard) ride and wonderful turn in and balance made the thing a lovely bit of kit to be in every day, and very safe on the mudded, bumpy and broken roads we sadly tolerate.

    I know they weren’t fast, by modern ‘big fat diesel’ standards, but at 1200kg or so and with super steering, they didn’t need to have superchargers and big everything.

    I drive a 2.7 987 Boxster as a daily these days and the feel is very similar – delicate and rewarding and you can take as long as you like to keep on digging for fun. So many other cars either give it all the first time you tramp the throttle on a straight bit of road and you find that gets boring really quickly, or they don’t even have that level of basic charm, relying instead on fancy instruments or other glitter – all to cover up the fact there isn’t much beneath the surface.

    To my huge regret, I sold the Sport Evo and got myself into an M3 CSL. That was a whole different ball game and was massively impressive, somewhat intimidating and MUCH more fragile. On balance, I would have the Sport Evo E30 every day, thanks!

    I’m really surprised you found your M3 such an anti climax. Clearly it wasn’t a dud, as I remember seeing the car in period too, and you obviously had the right people sorting it out. I suppose that is what makes the petrol head community so much fun – we all like what we like and don’t mind others being different. If only the world were like that more widely!

  • Steve Bennett says:

    Interesting comment re the Toyota GT86. I’ve just sold my Subaru BRZ, which I loved. But, in light of my above BMW E30 M3 experience, I made absolutely sure I drove it before I bought it. Both GT86 and BRZ are cars that split opinion, and obviously I had been bitten by torque shy engines, and track biased suspension before. The Subaru flat-four has a definite torque dip, but I could live with it, in exchange for its handling, which I found just perfect for UK roads and certainly not too stiff. Maybe the Subaru does have different spec dampers? A big improvement, also, was binning the eco Michelins, in favour of Michelin PS4s. Wish I still had it, but a change in work circumstances meant it had to go.

  • Gordon Robinson says:

    I used to own a Nissan 350Z import 325bhp
    Automatic very quick and fast a great car to drive it had electric soft top
    Great value for the money

  • am junior says:

    Steve we own this car now haha. And it has an s50 3.2 engine and boy does it blow

  • Andrew Berzins says:

    I have not regretted buying an E30 M3 yet, bet I have not tracked it yet. The central point though is well taken, drive before you decide…I purchased a twin cam Lotus Europa once upon a time, because a very track savvy friend said its a skateboard on wheels – you will love it. Well, it needed some work so I did not get to drive it, but I borrowed two others and was so disappointed with the driving experience that I sold the Lotus without fixing it. The car just was too loud, not comfortable for me, while light I still had no confidence in its behavior. I have a 2002 and another E30, so an M3 was a logical step forward…if you like a stock E30.

  • Carl says:

    In the early 2000’s, I was fully bought into the E30 M3. I went over to Barcelona (family connections, I don’t speak Spansih well!), and picked an ’88 car up for less than £2500. It was sort of rough, was at least 5 different colours of red, but crucially no rust. And only 70k miles or so (in Km obvs). Not worth sorting back then when £5k could get a really tidy one and the best were going for £10k. The drive back to the UK was memorable only for the Peripherique around Paris. The only time I’v ever driven it when the French gave me room (spanish plates were still on at this point!).
    Truth was the E30 M3 was a total disapointment, not fast at all, lacking in torque big style. Add in some rain and the back end was a liability. An LSD is great on a track but on a wet road it just means both wheels are spinning sideways, especially with peaky power delivery. Easy to catch, I guess that was the handling thing. I had an E36 328i as a daily at the same time and it was in a totally different league even though on paper they were similar.

    It’s still one of the best looking cars ever produced though, and it is one of my biggest regrets that I sold it (did I mention I bought it to sell as everyone was doing it, but struggled to get £3k back for it!), only because the prices now are simply nuts for what they are!

  • J.mawdesley-Thomas says:

    Brilliant article , never meet your heroes …..it can only go way , down hill ! ( so true )

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