1996 BMW M3 Evolution Coupé E36/2S
The E36 M3 might not have had the most rapturous of welcomes from the motoring press, but it really was one of the modern greats and is now on the way to deserved classic status.
The E36 M3 hasn’t always been the most popular M car, but this stunning Techno violet example will change anyone’s mind.
Words: Bob Harper
Photos: Gregory Owain
If you asked 100 people what their favourite M3 was, it’s probably a pretty good bet that the E36 wouldn’t come at the top of the list. There will be plenty of votes for the original, motorsport-derived E30 and many, no doubt, for the iconic E36, while the V8-powered E9x and the latest turbocharged machinery will also get a look in. But what about the poor old E36? It’s certainly not been as loved as its siblings over the years, and that’s down to the motoring press who just didn’t ‘get’ what BMW was doing with the M3 when the E36 was introduced.
The original was only manufactured to satisfy homologation requirements, and while over 17,000 were ultimately produced, it was hardly a mass-market model. Greater numbers would be required for its successor, and as there was no need for homologation with the newer car, BMW could make it a little bit more mainstream. While enthusiasts might have been delighted with a screaming four-cylinder engine, a dog-leg gearbox, and wild spoilers and wings, everyone else was looking for something a little more discreet. In truth, the E36 M3 was perhaps more akin to an M635CSi E24 for the ’90s than it was to a homologation special.
But, this didn’t stop the press from giving the E36 M3 a rather lukewarm reception, with Performance Car summing it up thus: “Overall, the new M3 lacks the edge, the clarity of purpose that made the original the car what it was and still is for many: to use BMW’s own slogan ‘the ultimate driving machine’.” What it seemed to forget was that when you weren’t driving an E30 M3 flat out, it wasn’t always brilliant, with an engine that was a bit rough and lacking in power lower down the rev range. The E36 M3 was a far more endearing everyday prospect, and it’s important to remember that these were machines that were designed for everyday use, not supercars to be stored away in the garage and only wheeled out for early-morning weekend flat-out drives.
First revealed to the world at the Paris Motor Show in 1992, the E36 M3 was quite far removed visually from the E30 M3 in terms of how it looked, and this drew some criticism too – did it look special enough?
The E36 M3 was a far more subtle proposition; much in the same way that an E34 M5 looked pretty similar to a 520i, the M3 wasn’t that far off a 318is. There were clues for those keeping an eye out for the ultimate 3 Series, though – a more aggressive front bumper with a large valence and body-coloured mesh, sculpted side skirts, a new rear bumper with diffuser and the now rather familiar aerodynamic mirrors. The final touch was the addition of wider rubbing strips incorporating the M logo. Overall, it was a very handsome, if less flamboyant, machine and its design has stood the test of time well.
Under the body, it was all new, too, even if it was closely related to the rest of the E36 range. Initially, the M3 was only available as a Coupé with the S50 3.0-litre engine and a ZF five-speed manual gearbox transmitting the power to the road via a 25% locking LSD. The S50 B30 straight-six is based loosely on the 24-valve M50 but underwent several changes, including increased bore, stroke and compression, individual throttle bodies, heavy-duty valve springs, single-Vanos, a dual-mass flywheel and freer-flowing intake and exhaust systems. The result was 286hp and 236lb ft of torque, which made for rapid performance, with 0-62mph coming up in a swift 6.0 seconds. As with the engine, the E36 M3’s suspension was based on the regular car’s but with several modifications. The ride height was 31mm lower, the track was increased front and rear, and firmer shocks and springs were fitted, as were reinforced spring mounting plates, along with thicker anti-roll bars and revised geometry.
The M3 also had a special M-tuned steering rack with a variable ratio and vented brake discs all-round. Despite its impressive spec, the press weren’t bowled over by the car, but that didn’t stop it from being a big seller, with over 25,000 Coupés sold before BMW shook things up and introduced the thoroughly uprated Evo model.
In 1995 the M3 3.2 was revealed, which went on sale in ’96. The 3.2 was christened the Evolution in the UK, as BMW GB wanted to distinguish it from its predecessor. While no one had complained that the 3.0- litre had been a bit shy in the power department, BMW pulled out all the stops and thoroughly revised the engine, creating the new S50 B32 3.2-litre straight six. Bore had been increased, stroke lengthened, and capacity enlarged while the compression ratio was raised. BMW/Siemens MSS50 engine management was fitted, along with double- Vanos, lightweight pistons, an improved dual-mass flywheel, graphite-coated con rods, larger inlet valves, a more efficient intake and exhaust system and a second oil pump. The result was 321hp and 258lb ft of torque, making this the first road-going BMW to break the 100hp/ litre barrier. It was genuinely rapid, too, with 0-62mph taking a scant 5.5 seconds.
The Evo was fitted with a Getrag six-speed manual as standard, with a shorter final drive ratio, as featured on the 3.0 GT and an LSD. The suspension on the 3.2 was also reworked, with revised suspension geometry with increased front caster, firmer springs and shocks, stronger wheel hubs, a front anti-roll bar which was linked to the struts for less weight, and a quicker steering ratio was also employed. The brake discs remained the same size as on the 3.0, but the Evo was fitted with floating front brakes. On the outside, the 3.2 featured a black mesh insert in the front air dam, along with aluminium doors and clear indicators. Safe to say that the press were coming around to the charms of the E36 M3, with Performance Car saying: “It’s a stonking car, the M3 Evo, every bit as rapid point-to-point as a Porsche 911 and… more than 20 grand cheaper. It’s easy to see why the previous M3 was a best seller in its class; the Evo deserves even greater success. Using the performance per £ ratio, the revised M3 is the most outstanding performance car on the market today.”
And Performance Car’s words still ring true today. The E36 M3 Evo is still great value, when compared to some of the prices being commanded for E30 and E46 M3s, and it still provides a sublime driving experience, the last of the analogue M3s. The engine is a jewel – free-revving and melodious and plenty powerful too. The suspension changes on the Evo endowed the M3 with some of the steering feel that many thought was missing from the original, and even today, grip levels are mighty high with excellent traction. The car’s styling seems to have improved with age, too, with none of the fussiness and excesses that plague the latest generation of BMWs. It really was a great all-round package, one that was equally at home pottering around town or monstering the Nordschleife. The bad news is that the E36 M3 Evo’s charms are no longer a secret, and prices are on the rise, but there’s still time to bag one before values climb ever further. You will, however, have to dig deep if you want one that’s as gorgeous as the one featured in our pictures that belongs to Gerald Mcwhinnie. We caught up with him just after a weekend of successful show appearances. “Prior to owning the M3 Evo, I had a 323i, which was a family car which had been in the family since 2001, and it was handed down to me, and that’s where my enthusiasm for the E36 really started. Of course, when you own a 323i or a 328i you can’t help but hanker after an M3, and just before I got married, I thought it’s now or never, otherwise I’ll miss the boat! So, I bought one and haven’t looked back,” Gerald says with a smile. His car is a late 1998 model, so one of the last of the Evos before it was superseded by the E46, and looks resplendent in its Techno violet paint with contrasting light silvery grey leather. “I’ve owned it around 11 or 12 years,” Gerald tells us, “but it’s not a daily driver, I never intended it to be used every day as I wanted to take it to some shows and really enjoy the car.”
Gerald is the third owner of the car, and while it was in good condition when he bought it, he’s spent a fair amount of time ensuring that it’s a worthy show contender. “I keep it immaculate, or as best I can, but you have to go the extra mile if you’re doing concours events. When I first got it, I ended up taking the engine out and replaced the bearings and fitted ARP bolts, and I’ve also done a little bit of cosmetic work, just a bit of paintwork, and I’ve fitted plenty of BMW genuine parts to get it up to the standard I wanted it to be. It’s exactly as it was when it left the factory, which is just how I like it. It’s an October 1998 car, so it’s coming up for 25 years old,” explains Gerald.
“I’ve been to a few shows this weekend, the BMW Car Club Sommerfest at Oulton Park, where the M3 was on display in the concours section, and we did alright in the end, it won its class and also won best of all the pride of ownership classes too. I also went to The Classic & Performance Car show at Tatton Park, and I won best modern classic post-1990, so it was a pretty good weekend. At the show at the weekend, I was parked in a really good spot, but the amount of interest it generated was incredible,” says Gerald. Not just at the show but on the way home, too, it would seem. “I was driving back from the show with my nine-yearold son, and as we’re cruising along a Lamborghini Gallardo pulled up alongside, and they rolled their window down and said, ‘We love your car!’ I was pretty pleased with that, and my son was really excited, too.”
Gerald grew up lusting after the E36 M3, and as it was a bucket list car he’s just held onto it. “The numbers are dwindling away a bit now as a lot of people tracked them, or crashed them, or did silly things with them, so the good ones are getting harder to find. It’s only got two previous owners before myself, and it’s just hit 100,000 miles, and I think it was on about 92k when I bought it, so I’ve not done a huge amount of miles in it.
“I wouldn’t know what to replace it with – it’s never really crossed my mind. A lot of people have offered me very good money for it, but I don’t want to sell it – I just love it. It’s a joy to drive; once you put your foot down that six-cylinder is amazing, with its twin Vanos, it really flies with its 321hp. It just puts a huge smile on your face, and when you think about it, 321hp 25 years ago was a huge amount of power – not far off Porsche or Ferrari. I’m not sure if it was the first naturally-aspirated car to develop over 100hp per litre, but it must have been one of the first, and I remember that great advertising poster with a BMW M3 and a McLaren F1 which had the tagline ‘You wait years for an engine to break 100hp per litre. Then two come along together.’ “They’re getting quite desirable now, but it’s just lovely to drive. Just about the only downside is that M stands for money, and if something goes wrong, it costs quite a lot of money to put it right, but apart from that, I absolutely love it. They’re not cheap to maintain, but that applies to most classic cars. I always loved them when I was growing up, and when the opportunity to buy one came up, I had to have it.” The E36 M3 might have had a rocky introduction, but with the Evo, BMW righted the perceived wrongs of the original and produced a truly brilliant machine. It might not be at the top of everyone’s BMW M wish list, but give one a try, and you’ll appreciate what all the fuss is about. It really is a proper modern classic.
The iconic aerodynamic mirrors that inspired countless copies. This stunning E36 is exceptionally clean, and it’s a gorgeous example Gerald has owned this M3 for around 12 years now, and it’s definitely a keeper. With this being a concours car, it’s no surprise that owner Gerald takes cleaning seriously.
TECHNICAL DATA 1996 BMW M3 Evolution Coupé E36/2S
- ENGINE: 3.2-litre straight-six S50B32
- MAX POWER: 321hp @ 7400rpm
- MAX TORQUE: 258lb ft @ 3250rpm
- ACCELERATION 0-62MPH: 5.5 seconds
- TOP SPEED: 155mph (limited)
- ECONOMY: 32.4mpg
- PRICE: £36,550 (1996)
I keep it immaculate, or as best I can, but you have to go the extra mile if you’re doing concours events.… It’s exactly as it was when it left the factory, which is just how I like it