As car enthusiasts I think we all instinctively categorize cars into two groups, cool and uncool. But even the cool cars are divided, in my mind at least, into those that have mass appeal (like a super car) and those that only die-hard car nerds “in the know” will recognize (quirky limited editions). Although they are few and far between, I think the coolest of all are those that somehow fall into both categories. I’d argue that the E30 M3 is such a car.
Any petrol head worth his weight in salt knows that this is the genesis of the now iconic M3 bloodline. With its light weight, FR layout, high revving engine and raw driving feel this car is everything that a sports car should be. This is a car enthusiasts would kill for. On the other hand with its sleek German design and reputation for quality even the random bystander can appreciate it.
I have read countless articles that praised BMW’s golden chariot but I’ve always wanted to get behind the wheel and give it a go myself. Finding a car to drive would be a hard nut to crack, not only because of the rarity of the car itself, finding someone crazy enough to let me take it out for the day would be a challenge. Fortunately through a mutual friend, Mike Chang from Evasive Motorsports, this car actually found me.
As it turned out the owner, George Ruan, was looking to get some photos of his beloved M3 before selling it in the coming weeks. I was happy to oblige but with visions of canyon carving dancing in my head I suggested that I might take the car out for a spin, and kill two birds with one stone so to speak. Luckily for me, George was kind enough to agree to the idea, entrusting me to look after his baby for the day.
Now granted this car isn’t the 100% factory original that Bryn featured, but for all intents and purposes this is about as good an example as you can reasonably expect to find. Besides which, beggars can’t be choosers – I was going to be driving one of the most iconic sports cars of the ’80s and I couldn’t be more excited. It’s days like this that I really love my job.
I met with the owner in Irvine to takeover the keys, and after a brief set of instructions (don’t crash), I was off. Those of you that have been to Irvine will know it’s not exactly world renowned for its driving roads. You see Irivine is actually a planned city, which means that when the architect designed it he did everything in his power to reduce traffic gridlock. This means very wide, very straight, very boring roads. Therefore the first thing I did was get the hell out Irvine, quickly.
I decided to head to Orange County local’s favorite driving road, Ortega Highway. Connecting San Juan Capistrano to Palm Springs, Highway 74 is 111 miles of perfectly smooth twisty tarmac that slices through scenic canyons. The bit I was particularly interested with was the westernmost portion which I would take east towards Lake Elsinore.
While California has many canyon roads, Highway 74 is somewhat unusual. For starters the road is incredibly smooth, a rare sight in America, and secondly it has a decent speed limit of 55mph (89kph) in most places. While ultra-tight switchback roads can be fun, after about ten minutes I usually find myself wishing I could stretch the cars legs a little more. On Ortega that isn’t a problem, so stretch I did.
After twenty minutes or so I decided to pull over in a turnout to reflect on the car thus far. I didn’t expect the car to be perfect, and it wasn’t, with a few minor creaks and rattles it definitely felt like a car of its age. But these are things we can quickly overlook, in fact on the way up the hill I was thinking to myself “I quite like this… I think I could sort this car out in two months, easy.” I was already hooked.
But of course it wasn’t enough to simply admire the car, I had to capture it to share with all of you. Although it may have been designed in Germany it looks shockingly at home in the canyons. Although I find it very cliche to compare a car to a fine wine, I must admit the E30, in terms of driving pleasure and design, has improved with age.
While the car might not be as taught and peppy as it once was, everything that the car stands for remains. In today’s market of crash standards and electronic gadgetry it is very easy to appreciate this car, perhaps even more than when it was originally released. It comes from a time when the driver was a required piece of the puzzle, not a mere computer operator.
While 200hp doesn’t quite mean the same thing today as it did in 1989, it’s still more than enough power to motivate this nimble chassis. With a redline at 8,000RPM the power doesn’t really come on until just over 4k, which is very familiar territory for someone growing up around Honda VTEC engines. The powerband felt fairly linear, not overly torquey or peaky, but just right.
Serious M-Power enthusiasts out there will by now have realized that this car, although close, is not completely factory. Fortunately all of the mods are very subtle and tasteful and I would suspect that most people would hardly have noticed the changes. One upgrade that is always welcome is a high quality wheel, in this case the go-to staple – BBS RS mesh.
Inside the cabin remains mostly standard, the major changes are upgrades designed to enhance the driving feel. The deep suede Nardi steering wheel was quite comfortable and places the steering wheel in a more familiar location for my posture. The tacky suede also works wonders combating sweaty palms and ensuring a steady grip at all times.
The seats have also been upgraded with newer items retrofitted from a current generation Mitsubishi Evo. They look surprisingly at home inside the car and I’d argue that even the minor design elements like the harness eyelets match perfectly. Purity aside, there’s no arguing that these heavily bolstered seats did a great job keeping me planted in the corners.
With the car beckoning it was time to soldier on, there was a job to be done here after all. I had promised the owner I’d bring the car back just after sundown so with the clock ticking it was time to get back to it. So many corners, so little time.
While the 74 is a recipe for automotive bliss, what I hadn’t taken into account was traffic. Being that it was a Monday afternoon I wasn’t expecting many people would be out on the road, but then again this is Southern California. After spending a few more miles stuck behind slower moving vehicles I decided to venture off the beaten path to find something a little more desolate.
This is what I found. Although the road wasn’t quite as smooth as the highway, nor did it has as much leeway for mistakes, it was completely empty. With the sun moving ever closer to the horizon I decided that this looked about as good a place as any to spend my last hour with the M3.
With each passing corner I felt more connected with the car, and hence fell more deeply in love with it. The minor imperfections were now nothing more than an afterthought. I continued to climb ever higher until the inevitable happened, I reached a peak…
And what a peak it was. Off in the distance was a panoramic view of mountain peaks cascading off into infinity. My favorite scene was the one above, with the black ribbon slicing through the rock face and the hills in the distance masked in California mist back-lit by the sun. This is the kind of stuff we live for.
As I made a few laps up and down a one mile stretch of the road I became more familiar not only with each corner, but also the character of the car. In the photo above you can see the beginning of Lake Elsinore, which was a beautiful but quite distracting view if I do say so.
On this canyon road the M3 was impeccable. If I had to pick a flaw it would have been my talent that was the limiting factor. The car did everything it was supposed to do and did it all very well. The car is very willing to change direction but it doesn’t scare you while doing so. The line of communication between the car and the driver is a genuine two-way experience.
Although I was having an incredible time behind the wheel, being a photographer I’m not one to pass up on epic photo ops. I would say that this qualifies.
Over the years I’ve done more press drives than I care to remember, but there’s a huge difference between putting around in brand xyz’s latest compact and slaying the tires of the cars we dream of. It’s a strange situation for me because I can’t decide which side of the car I enjoy more: orchestrating the symphony on the inside or framing a masterpiece on the outside.
Therein lies the biggest problem living the life of a Speedhunter, it’s a tough job but somebody’s got to do it! After great contemplation I’ve come to a verdict – I enjoy whichever side I am on at the time. In this case being on the outside wasn’t too bad.
Losing daylight by the minute it was time for one last iPhone photo before gathering my thoughts and hopping back inside this amazing machine.
If there’s one thing I have to commend the E30 on, it’s the steering. The car isn’t particularly powerful and it might not have the most impressive brakes, but when you turn the steering wheel, even a fraction of an inch, that’s when it comes to life. I’ve driven hundreds of cars, both stock and heavily modified, but I’ve never driven anything that felt quite like this.
It was my previous understanding that there were two ends to the steering feel spectrum. On one end you have that awful light and floaty over-assisted commuter feel and on the other the heavy forearm burn inducing racing feel. I thought that these two ends were mutually exclusive with no reasonable middle ground, that is until I drove the E30.
It’s very difficult to put the experience into words. The steering is both light and communicative, a very bizarre experience I must say, but an addicting one indeed. At virtually any speed you can turn the car with nothing more than your index finger and thumb, but you’re given a full report on everything the front tires are experiencing. Finding the perfect slip angle has never been more easy.
Unfortunately all good things must come to an end, and with my curfew well and truly expired, it was time to return the car. After all the miles we had just been through together I felt like we had come to an understanding, we bonded. Even the monotony of the I-5 freeway, previously unbearable, was now quite pleasurable and I dreaded the thought of turning the car in. Was this M3 the Ultimate Driving Machine? On this day, on these roads, for this driver, yes. It was.
Special thanks to George Ruan, Mike Chang, Neill Bachand and Brett Walters – without them this simply would not have been possible. You guys are the best!
1989 BMW M3 E30
2.3L DOHC I4; 10.5:1 compression; Magnecor wires w/Gustave Bracket(NLA); Eisenmann cat-back exhaust
Iigo 91 performance chip
5-speed manual transmission; UUC Double Shear selector rod; 1.9L Z3 Shift Kit
SUSPENSION / CHASSIS
Ground Control/Koni coilovers installed w/ camber plates; Zionsville Quick Ratio Conversion Kit (ST-3)
11.0″ rotor (f) / 11.1″ rotor (r)
WHEELS / TIRES
17×8.5 (f) /17×9.5 (r) BBS RS wheels; Bridgestone RE050A tires
Recaro EVO X seats w/ custom brackets; Nardi Classic suede steering wheel; Mtech illuminated shift knob; Evo red seat belts, European rear headrests
Evo3 OEM undertray w/ carbon fiber splitter, Evo3 adjustable rear wing, Evo3 carbon fiber brake ducts, Evo hood; carbon fiber DTM vented style mirrors; European bumpers, tow hook covers, front grilles, Hella smiley headlights w/ wipers; Startec Euro tail lights
PERFORMANCE / DIMENSIONS (FACTORY)
192hp @ 6750RPM; 170lb-ft @ 4750RPM; top speed 228.5 kph / 142.0 mph; 0 – 60 mph 7.0 seconds; 0 – 100 mph 19.8 seconds; 1/4 mile 15.4 seconds; weight 1300 kg / 2866 lbs; wheelbase 2565 mm / 101.0 in; front track 1412 mm / 55.6 in; rear track 1425 mm / 56.1 in; length 4346 mm / 171.1 in; width 1679 mm / 66.1 in; height 1369 mm / 53.9 in
If anyone is interested in purchasing this car it will be for sale shortly. I can assist serious buyers with contact information.
photo by Sean Klingelhoefer
photo by Sean Klingelhoefer
photo by Sean Klingelhoefer
photo by Sean Klingelhoefer
photo by Sean Klingelhoefer
photo by Sean Klingelhoefer
Speaking of suspension, did anyone notice the Ground Control/Eibach/Koni setup? No "real" coilovers here, just a shock with a sleeve and custom spring rates, yet it hasn't affected the steering feel one bit, at least not negatively. If only people were this serious about handling of their cars instead of buying the overly-hyped JDM coilovers.
From our crew over at Stanceakademy.com i just wanted to say what an amazing car, read and pics! Sean you killed this article very well written made me feel like i was there with you! You have also solidified another car/drive to my bucket list (no easy feat mind you). Thanks for the great read and can't wait to delve into some more of your work!
Glad to hear you guys are enjoying these. I hope to do more drives with iconic older cars in the future.
As a hardcore E30 enthusiast, I love this article, and I love the love for E30's lately on Speedhunters! Two wonderful articles, both both having stunning examples of how good E30's are. Good job Sean!
as the guys over at import bible put it....is a dying breed!
P.S you should have been wearing that tee!!
'It comes from a time when the driver was a required piece of the puzzle, not a mere computer operator.'
Better words have probably been said but not in this context, great right-up.
Fantastic ! i've taken a real interest in older BMW recently.
My mum owns a 320i convertible and my dad uses a 318i for work both cars are E30 shape i've driven both a few times, i instantly loved the way the cars handled the way the steering felt.
sitting nice and low with a big 'old fashioned' steering wheel in front of you, leather seats and even the way the doors close and the sound they make. It's how i want a car to be.
When you start the 6 cylinder up its the rumble its the almost course-ness of it. It makes me smile just hearing it.
I have a 1990 ford mondeo ghia and after driving my parents cars you can tell they are from the same time - the steering wheel, the electrics. but my car is so .. floppy, so .. worn. It just hasn't aged as well.
This really is my favourite car. A brilliant write up with great pictures A HUGE thumps up !
Finally a story about Sean reaching a peak! Phew. I need a cigarette. Only thing that would have made this better would have been an epic beard. Why no beard!? Why!?!? :)
There have been a lot of articles like this on speedhunters lately and they are amazing! Please keep em coming!
being a drifting fan, i personally encountered this car when i watched the europe drift scene. so is this is the first ever version of the great m3?
Great writing, being a huge e30 nut made this one of the most pleasing article's I've ever read on Speedhunters, thank you.
One of the first cars I ever drove was my Dad's e30 M3. It was black, just like this one. It was sold years ago to a gentleman who wanted to fully restore it( it had some miles). I wonder what happened to it, if I found the car I might very well buy it back.
@Nate047 You know it! :P
@apex_DNA The Koni/GC setup has been pretty thoroughly proven for most vehicles in a track setting. It might not be "baller" but it definitely works. I've driven a handful of Civics with this setup as well and they were all superb.
@StanceAkademy I appreciate the kind words, glad to hear you liked it! I look forward to delivering more articles like this in the future.
@sean klingelhoefer i think it would be great to read something similar about the audi quattro, alfa 155or the mercedes 190E cossie.
@Nikhil_P Had I known it existed, I probably would have.
@Dave Pratte buh-dun-chhhh. The beard was quarantined by the city of Los Angeles :P Don't worry, it'll be back soon. It always comes back.
@yanes33537 It is indeed. This is the father of M3's.