Brilliantrot E30 M3

As a child of the 1980s, I was started down the slippery slope of car obsession by the original (E30) M3. Originally sold to meet Touring Car Racing homologation requirements, the E30 M3 had motorsport street-cred in spades; indeed, it was built in an era where M stood exclusively for Motorsport. At its heart was the high-compression, high-revving S14 engine that breathed through a pair of dual throttle bodies into a shortened version of the M88 head above a revised four-cylinder M10 block. It was high-strung and lightweight, putting out nearly 200 horsepower in the initial 2.3-liter version (by comparison, a 1987 Ford Mustang with a 5.0 V8 made just 225 horsepower with more than twice the displacement).

He may not have the mustache, but you get the point.

To put those high-strung horses to the road was an E30 M3-specific suspension under aggressively flared fenders, with exclusive aerodynamics to round out the package. A small hump was even added to the roof above shallower-raked C-pillars and the rear window to channel air onto a raised trunk lid and rear spoiler. The only body components the M3 shared with the regular E30 3 Series were the hood and sunroof panel. Whenever I open the door and sit down in an E30 M3, images of mustached men wearing tinted aviator sunglasses and brown perforated driving gloves fill my mind. My own mustache hair may even grow a little faster as a result—an unintended consequence of the E30 M3 experience (extra razors are not included!).

If I’m honest, as wonderful as they are, E30 M3s can be equally terrible. In normal everyday driving, the torque of a regular E30 325iS makes it a much better car; they both share the “God’s Chariot” E30 chassis. However, despite the 325iS’s recent strong appreciation, you can still have a top-of-the-market 325iS for thirds of what the worst E30 M3 costs.

Moreover, when it comes to parts, some M3-specific bits can be a nightmare to find, and carry a proportional premium when they are eventually pried away from the annals of some hoarder’s collection. And speaking of prices, despite the current classic-car bull market, there were decades when even the nicest E30 M3s could be had for four-figure price tags, and many did not survive that era unscathed. Some of those examples might still wear the paint job of a four-figure-car, but many were not treated to the specific maintenance needs that an S14 engine demands. Buying and selling an E30 M3 is never easy, since they are extremely precious to their owners—and despite all of the hype, buyers can be very fickle.

Good and bad, I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying several E30 M3s over the years, but recently a special one came through. I wanted to wait until it was sold to write about it, so as not to cross the streams, but now that’s it’s gone, I’m excited to share my experience with it.

A 1990 Brilliantrot over Black M3 had some special bits.

It was a 1990 Brillantrot-over-black-leather example that was a car well known within the S14.net community. After a relatively long ownership, it was bought and sold several times mid-decade before one flipper tried to sell it (without disclosing his short-term ownership) on Bring a Trailer. The community called him out, and the auction was canceled early, after which the trail went dark for several years—until the car showed up on my doorstep one dark, cold, rainy night (funny how that happens).

Since its last known ping on the M3 radar several years before, it had received some considerable finishing from Castro Motorsports in Southern California.

The work included a DTM-style carbon-fiber snorkel and airbox, along with Super Sprint headers and exhaust, which allowed the S14 engine to breathe a lot better on both sides of the fire. Engine management was accomplished via a Miller Performance Alpha-N conversion, while Ground Control coil-overs tuned similar to Sport Evo settings over sixteen-inch Nogaro Silver Evo 3 wheels added agility in the handling department (these are the best OEM wheels for an E30 M3, in my opinion).

The front end features lots of Euro and Evo bits.

A DTM-style Carbon Fiber intake and Super Sprint headers are hidden under a wrinkle-coated red valve cover.

Sixteen-inch Nogaro Silver Evo 3 wheels perch under Ground Control coil-overs.

Other cosmetic improvements included an Evo 3 front splitter and under-tray, brake ducts, and front bumper and fender seals. Euro grilles and genuine Hella Euro “smiley” headlights rounded out the front end. Beneath the hood, the valve cover was winkle-coated in red, which offset the black carbon of the intake wonderfully.

Inside the cockpit, a small-diameter M Tech II steering wheel wrapped in Alcantara matched an Alcantara Evo “mushroom” shift knob—my favorite of the E30 shift knobs. Continuing the red theme was a rare factory BMW fire extinguisher mounted under the driver’s seat. If water pumps and cooling systems are to be the example, I would never trust a fire extinguisher with a roundel on the side, but damn, was it cool!

The Alcantara-wrapped M Tech II Steering wheel matches a “mushroom” shift knob.

The original-equipment BMW fire extinguisher lies beneath the driver’s seat.

No E30 M3 is fast by modern standards, but that just makes them more enjoyable to drive. Fire up the S14 engine in this one, unfettered by the stock intake and exhaust, and it foretells a sense of urgency. It is hungry; it wants to be pushed hard—and because that S14 is nestled in the honest and predictable E30 chassis, you can push it!

Roll onto the throttle and that sense of urgency comes to life. You can almost hear the air being mixed with fuel and exploded through the carbon-fiber intake’s reverberation inside the cabin. The power band is wonderfully linear; like all S14s, this one needs to be revved to extract its power, but where the stock S14 falls off, this one just keeps pulling because it breathes so much better.

The sound is intoxicating.

This one had a sense of urgency to it, even at rest.

The E30 M3 is in its natural element in twisty corners. I longed for a race track, but the empty country roads north of my hangar, where the hustle and sprawl of the city haven’t quite found their way to the prairie, were a worthy substitute. It was springtime, the prairie grass was green, and there was still snow on the distant peaks of the Rockies. Despite its being marginally heavier (on paper) than a regular E30, there is a lightness to the E30 M3 that translates directly to the driver. The suspension on this one only adds to that experience; it was set up perfectly for the E30 M3’s mission. It’s so communicative that you can play, mid-corner at speed, with weighting each tire, using throttle and steering through the turn. If you’d like to add a little slip angle to point the exit, it’s as easy as a dash of throttle and a hint of steering.

The car does everything you ask of it with little drama, as long as you are in the powerband. And that is the secret to the E30 M3’s success; it is incredibly easy to drive near the limit. You feel that lineage when you are behind the wheel; if you have a drop of BMW enthusiast blood in your veins, there is no way can drive an E30 M3 and not feel special.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was summarizing these thoughts as we made a driving video for a potential Bring a Trailer auction for this M3. Smatterings of clips from that are above. The M3 sold long before we ever got to that point, and of all of the E30 M3s I’ve sold and even owned temporarily, this is the one I would have kept if I didn’t have a bush plane sitting in the basement.

Life is about experiences, and my brief time with this M3 is one that I am grateful to have had. In the end, the car went to a young enthusiast who will no doubt have his own stories to tell, his own lineage to feel, and his own surprising mustache-hair growth.

I probably should have sent a few extra razor blades along with the car.—Alex McCulloch

[Photos courtesy Peter Thompson.]

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