As soon as the E36-Chassis M3 arrived, BMW took it racing

David S.
By David S. Wallens
Apr 8, 2022 | BMW, E36 M3 | Posted in Features | From the May 2018 issue | Never miss an article

Photography Credit: Tom Suddard

Ever since its release, enthusiasts have lamented that the E36-chassis BMW M3 didn’t get the high-zoot, Euro-spec engine. No individual throttle bodies, no 300-horsepower engines, no 7400 rpm redlines. 

According to Erik Wensberg, who served at the time as BMW M Brand Manager, the reality of that U.S.-spec M3 was that despite the lamentations, it enjoyed tremendous sales numbers.  And that showroom success helped justify an aggressive, factory-backed motorsports program featuring the M3.

Less Power, More Appeal

The E36-chassis M3 was released in Europe in 1992. The award-winning coupe would finally come stateside for the 1995 model year.

One small problem: BMW North America simply saw the Euro-spec M3 as too expensive, too complicated for the American market, Wensberg explains. BMW wanted to position the M3 against the Nissan 300ZX, Mazda RX-7 and various pony cars. If sold here in European trim, the M3 would have retailed for about $55,000–about $20,000 too high, Wensberg adds. 

There were other expenses to consider, too. The solid lifters would have required regular adjustments, while the M3 was expensive to insure in its home market. “It was simply a car carrying too big of a penalty,” he continues. 

So the BMW North American product development team asked for an M3 sporting a conventional cylinder head and intake setup. “Munich flipped,” he recalls. “They were not happy to hear this.”

BMW North America knew that 70 percent of past M Division sales came in urban markets, and computer simulations showed that a simplified M3 would be nearly as quick to 60 mph as its Euro-market sibling. The deficit would only be two-tenths of a second. To save $20,000, that difference in performance in the American market was “inconsequential,” Wensberg adds. “All of a sudden, we got some traction on a car costing $35,000 instead of $55,000.”

The American arm of the company had some work to do. Would customers even buy an M3 in the first place? 

“We had a letter-writing campaign orchestrated by Bob Roemer,” Wensberg explains. Roemer, at the time a very influential columnist for the Roundel, the BMW CCA’s club magazine, challenged his readers to prove that an American market existed. 

The membership replied enthusiastically, sending in hundreds of letters. “And I read them all,” Wensberg says. He delivered those letters to Vic Doolan, then president of BMW North America. “To Vic Doolan’s credit, he took it very seriously,” he adds.

BMW North America had one more request for its M3: an optional automatic transmission, a first for a BMW M product. “World-class performance that you could drive everyday–that was our credo,” Wensberg explains.

Karl-Heinz Kalbfell, head of BMW’s motorsports department back home in Germany, listened to the Americans. He went out on a limb to give them the car they desired. 

“Without his blessing, this wouldn’t have happened,” Wensberg notes. “Without him, this would have all stopped in its tracks.”

The all-new, American-spec M3 arrived in time for the 1995 model year. MSRP started at $35,800.

This M3 might not have been as radical as its predecessor, but it was still a big step above the rank-and-file 325i. The M3’s suspension was stiffer and included reinforced control arms, bushings and knuckles. The brakes were bigger. The body kit came right from Europe. 

The 3.0-liter, inline-six engine was more or less a big-bore version of the one found in the 325i. In M3 trim, it produced 240 horsepower–a huge number for 1995. BMW said that the new M3 could hit 60 in 6.0 seconds. Car and Driver recorded just 5.6.

The American-spec M3 didn’t get the individual throttle bodies found on the European version, but the press–and the marketplace–immediately fell for the new M-car. BMW had a huge success on its hands, and with that momentum the manufacturer approached its next step: top-tier motorsports programs. 

As hoped, the five-speed automatic eventually became an option during that first year. It was the first automatic that could survive behind an M Division engine.

Right out of the gate, the new car won praise. Automobile magazine immediately declared it its car of the year–a first for a BMW. “This led to an avalanche of positive press for the car, the likes of which BMW had never seen before,” Wensberg recalls. “It was also a tremendous wind at our back.”

Other publications reiterated that enthusiasm. “Out on the road, the M3 performs that rare trick of translating an impressive spec sheet into a car that’s equally impressive to drive,” Peter Egan wrote in his Road & Track review. “A genuine pleasure, in fact.” Car and Driver’s review ended with the highest of praise: “The M3, it has to be said, is a car very near the top of our wish list.” 

Our own initial drive report opened with more accolades: “The new M3 is a phenomenal machine for both road and track.”

Buyers reacted very favorably. During its entire four-year model run, BMW had sold about 5000 copies of the original M3 in the States. The new M3 destroyed that figure in just its first year.

Time to Go Racing

BMW’s worldwide motorsports legacy is legendary. Name a track or an event, and odds are strong that the auto maker has dominated it–likely more than once.

That wasn’t quite the case in the U.S., though. “The M.O. at BMW was in and out, in and out, in and out,” Wensberg says. BMW’s American motorsports program had bouts of dominance punctuated with periods of inactivity. 

“I was brought in to help rescue a very expensive GTP program,” Wensberg recalls. The year was 1985, and BMW North America was knee-deep in a GTP program with constructor McLaren.

Erik Wensberg, in the black shirt, was hired to jump-start BMW’s motorsports program. Not long after, BMW had a competitive IMSA GTP effort. Soon after, BMW was racing in IMSA Firehawk. Photography Credit: Courtesty Erik Wensberg

Wensberg came from the beer industry, and marketing was his game. Miller was his client, and in 1983 he and Penske had put together the biggest deal ever seen in CART racing. Wensberg had Miller involved across motorsports: “We did funny cars, did everything.”

Wensberg also put together the deal that put the Löwenbräu colors on Al Holbert’s Porsche 962. It was the most lucrative package in IMSA history. 

“I got a call from McLaren,” Wensberg recalls. Their request, in his words, was to the point: “We’re about to do a deal with a major manufacturer and they need someone.”

That major manufacturer was BMW. 

Wensberg first signed on as a consultant, and the delayed GTP program finally hit the track in Miami, the second stop in the 1986 season. The two-car effort featured Davy Jones and John Andretti in one machine and David Hobbs and John Watson in the other. 

BMW’s GTP car was quick but unreliable. If a BMW didn’t finish near the pointy end of the field, it likely came home on the hook. By the end of that debut year, the team had just one victory to show: Watkins Glen.

Photography Credit: Courtesy BMW

“We should have won two or three of them,” Wensberg says. “Al Holbert told me that if you come back for 1987, the championship is yours.”

BMW killed the program at the end of that debut season, however, even though Wensberg had American Express on the line for a major sponsorship deal. “They were livid,” he recalls. 

After that, Wensberg and his M Brand raced on a shoestring budget. Preproduction cars destined to be crushed were sold to racers. Most went club racing, but a few headed to other venues, including Bonneville. 

A one-year-only program for 1987 with Ray Korman and his Korman Autoworks had BMW North America racing in the IMSA Firehawk series. Even though the M3 first arrived stateside for the 1988 model year, those cars went on sale early in 1987. IMSA allowed them to race that year. 

Photography Credits: Courtesy Korman Autoworks

Korman Autoworks, already a championship team, fielded two cars–a pair of preproduction cars. They finished one-two at the Watkins Glen 500-mile affair. “In the years leading up to 1995, we literally raced with vapor,” Wensberg says.

Flush with the prospect of a giant sales success, in 1994 Wensberg approached the BMW board with a request: Let’s go racing in a more serious fashion. 

IMSA GT: BMW’s Return to IMSA

For 1995, Erik Wensberg was ready to race the M3 on America’s grandest stage. At the time, that was IMSA GTS competition. Call it the spiritual predecessor to IMSA’s current GTLM program and you’ll be close. There was a big difference: tube-frame race cars. 

BMW, though, planned to field production-based cars. “We wanted to race what we sell,” Wensberg explains. The manufacturer’s big competition in the GTS-2 class would be various iterations of the Porsche 911.

Wensberg sold the idea to the BMW North American board, but he admits making one mistake: He accepted half of his original budget request. As a result, the factory-backed BMW race cars would carry outside sponsors throughout the program: Yokohama, Red Bull, Valvoline and others. 

He hired Tom Milner’s Prototype Technology Group to run the effort. Since money and development time were tight, getting on track right away required finding cars that were already prepared. Friends at BMW Motorsports and longtime BMW driver Dieter Quester located the first two cars. 

Photography Credit: Courtesy PTG

Chassis 001–the one that we checked out–was originally built as an FIA Group N development mule, supposedly for wind tunnel testing. FIA Group N rules, a motorsports standard for decades everywhere but here in the U.S., welcomed homologated, nearly showroom-stock cars. Picture something close to an old IMSA Firehawk or current SCCA Improved Touring car. 

PTG basically had to turn one of those machines into something that could compete against bespoke competition cars. That called for extra power, which came courtesy of the fact that IMSA homologated the higher-output, Euro-spec engine. 

The chassis came from BMW Motorsports and already featured full seam welding and an integrated roll cage. Chassis pickups were reinforced but not relocated. 

PTG and BMW made their debut at the 1995 Rolex 24 At Daytona–where both cars scored DNFs due to engine problems. 1995 was a bit of a development year, though, with the team entering only seven of the 11 races on the schedule. 

For 1996, Milner’s crew and BMW refined their current M3s while also building their own from scratch. The biggest outward change starting that year was the fender flares that covered a wider track. “We fully punched it out to what the rules allowed,” Wensberg adds. 

The renewed effort came out fighting, claiming the manufacturer championship for 1996. And it followed up that feat with three titles for 1997: manufacturer, team and, thanks to Bill Auberlen, driver. Together, BMW and Prototype Technology Group would dominate GT racing through 2006, capturing 14 championships as well as wins at the biggest races in the U.S.–namely Daytona
and Sebring. 

This Car Here

Of all the M3s campaigned by PTG, this one was the first. In fact, it was the first E36 chassis prepared by BMW Motorsports. Its serial number is 001. 

PTG mostly used it to develop the updated package that would appear for the 1996 season, including the fender flares and widened track. It’s believed that during that 1996 season, this chassis usually wore No. 07–but not always, Wensberg notes, as car numbers occasionally moved from tub to tub. Its graphics weren’t static, either. After sporting the Valvoline colors, the chassis then wore the green and white of First Union Bank.

When BMW decided to race with IMSA, they started with this Group N development car. The IMSA rules allowed it to gain the flares and widened track. Photography Credits: Tom Suddard

Records show that Dieter Quester and Marc Duez ran this car in Red Bull livery for the 1997 season, as both drivers were sponsored by the popular energy drink. After a DNF at Daytona, the duo bounced back, rarely finishing outside of the top five for the rest of the season. Chassis 001 won the last race of 1997 and was sold soon after. For a professional race car, it was old; the team introduced the E46-chassis M3 in 2000.

By the time Scott Hughes found the car several years later, it was a mess. Even so, Scott wanted a genuine PTG car, so the deal was signed. TC Kline’s shop handled the full restoration, which included a new trunk floor, quarter panels and front frame rails. Then it was repainted to its Valvoline colors. 

M3 Lightweight: A Race Car for the Public

Factory-built race cars aimed at independent race teams and drivers were again becoming a big deal in the 1990s–it was almost like the 1960s all over again. The competition-tuned Camaro 1LE, already a motorsports staple since the ’80s, was joined by more options.

Dodge and Plymouth dealers both started to offer the race-ready Neon ACR in 1994. It quickly dominated both club racing and autocross. That same year Mazda unveiled the Miata R: no factory frills yet a stiffer suspension and handy Torsen differential. It
also dominated.

Ford’s SVT division reintroduced the Cobra R for 1995. Up front was a fiberglass hood. Out back: a Fuel Safe fuel cell, right from the factory. Other niceties included bigger brakes, stiffer suspension and upsized wheels. The big news could be found in the engine bay, though: The standard 5.0-liter V8 was replaced by a 5.8. 

Porsche was on the scene, too. The first 356 ever produced went racing soon after it left Gmünd, followed by a long lineage of factory-built race cars–some fashioned from street models, others designed from the ground up as competition machines. 

In the early 1990s, Porsche offered several different competition-tuned variants of the 964 to both the European and American markets. They all followed a familiar formula: less weight, more power. 

Photography Credit: Gordon Jolley 

“I specifically set out to do what Porsche does so well,” Wensberg says. “I always admired what Porsche has done on the customer racing side.”

For the 1995 season, Wensberg planned to deliver the M3 Lightweight. As the name implies, pounds were shed. Aluminum door skins, deleted sound deadening and a lack of air-conditioning helped the car lose about 200 pounds. 

The M3 Lightweight also received wider wheels, stiffer suspension components and a quicker final drive. Plus, the ECU didn’t receive the speed limiter found in the standard M3. And like the Cobra R, this track-ready M3 was offered in just one color: white. 

Then there were the trick extras that the factory couldn’t install, so they were shipped loose in the trunk: a deeper oil pan, lower X-brace, adjustable front splitter and rear wing. Prototype Technology Group was tasked with installing the kit before delivery.

The M3 Lightweight was designed for the the day’s professional road racing series. For sprint races, that was the SCCA World Challenge. Endurance teams faced off in Professional Sportscar Racing’s Speedvision Cup, the successor of the old IMSA Firehawk series and an earlier incarnation of today’s Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge. 

“We were going to build a hundred of them,” Wensberg says of the M3 Lightweight. Unfortunately, the factory couldn’t deliver. He was able to plead for 10 cars right away, but the rest didn’t show up until the end of the 1995 season. He figures that close to 120 to 125 were eventually built. 

MSRP was $47,470, some $10,000 more expensive than the standard M3. “You could not give them away,” Wensberg says. “In the end, a lot of dealers squirreled them away.” 

The M3 Lightweight might have missed the 1995 professional season, but it did eventually make the grids. It became a popular club race car, too. For 17 years, Michelin developed tires on one of the cars at their Laurens Proving Grounds. 

Today, the M3 Lightweight is a bona fide collector: We’re seeing pristine examples fetch about $150,000. 

This Car Here

The M3 Lightweight saw a lot of laps in club racing, too, and that’s where this example is believed to have run. “Scott’s car is a good one,” Wensberg says, “and also very cleanly presented, with some club race miles on it only as far as we can ascertain.”

The M3 Lightweight was aimed at both the professional and amateur ranks. Scott Hughes’s example mostly served club racing duty, but for a while these cars were popular in pro series, too. Photography Credits: Tom Suddard

Super Touring: European Touring Cars Come Stateside

The ’90s sport compact movement was defined by big wheels, big wings and big graphics. The British Touring Car Championship helped influence that look.

But the BTCC was more than looks and attitude. It featured some of the day’s top drivers locked in close-quarters competition. The series was notorious for sending cars up on two wheels, various flotsam flying through the air. This was pre-internet, but fortunately we had Speedvision on TV. 

The BTCC featured sedans from Ford, Vauxhall, Alfa Romeo, Renault, Volvo, Honda and, yes, BMW. The cars were powered by naturally aspirated 2.0-liter engines making at least 300 horsepower. These engines had short fuses, and for a brief period that motorsports spark came stateside. 

“By the early ’90s, the British Touring Car Championship was a well-proven race operations scheme and became a franchisable business opportunity,” explains Kurt Spitzner, then the marketing director for the North American Touring Car Championship. “By the time it arrived in the U.S. in 1996, there were over a dozen other countries with their own Touring Car programs. Some of them–the North American program included–used the BTCC Group A-type vehicle spec, while other countries went the much more cost-effective Group N route. In the end, one of the nails in the North American program’s coffin was the Group A decision.”

The North American Touring Car Championship folded after only two years, but right out of the gate it attracted factory-supported efforts. The Ford Modeos and Honda Accords were imported right from Europe, but Dodge reportedly spent millions of 1996 dollars building its Stratus sedans from the ground up. “The thing to remember is that Super Touring cars were essentially full-bodied F1 cars of the period in terms of technology,” Spitzner explains.

Despite all of the hype and exposure, BMW didn’t commit to the series. “We didn’t really did see a place for it here,” Wensberg explains. “We did not see the marketing value for the brand in the U.S.” He adds another reason for the hands-off approach: the embarrassment that would result if BMW lost to cars from a lower price point.

Randy Pobst won the inaugural driver championship in a Honda Accord prepped by TC Kline Racing, but BMW drivers could vie for factory contingency dollars in 320i touring cars imported from other markets. Darren Law, now a winner at Daytona and NASA’s 25 Hours of Thunderhill, ran one for Hartong Motorsports that debut year, while the top BMW belonged to sixth-place finisher Steve Petty.

This Car Here

After securing the 1996 Super Touring championship, TC Kline Racing switched to a BMW for the following year, putting Randy Pobst in this BMW 320i that had previously run in the Italian Super Touring Championship.

BMW never entered a factory effort in the North American Touring Car Championship, but E36-chassis BMWs still found their way into the series. Randy Pobst drove this very car; his team distributed the top photo to the media back in the day. Photography Credits: Tom Suddard

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Comments
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randyracer
randyracer New Reader
2/4/19 10:59 a.m.

My salad days!  Great story, David and GRM, Brings back so many memories.  And thank you TC for putting me in so many fabulous BMW’s in the 90’s, including the amazing M5 in IMSA Bridgestone Supercar series.  Be sure to catch my few paragraphs later in story, GRM readers!  I was SO there.  With TC Kline Racing, we also had a strong run at the Rolex 24 in about 1998 in an ex-PTG E36 M3, finishing fifth, ahead of all the factory cars, as I recall.  Bob Mazzucoula (spelling? sry)and Aspen Knolls sponsored, w Shane Lewis, too.

adam525i
adam525i GRM+ Memberand Reader
2/4/19 11:34 a.m.

Don't forget, BMW Canada brought us the real E36 M3 (you can read that either way) back in 1994 instead of the lower spec North America version. I wonder if the car would have sold as well if it had been an M330i with the real M3 also available throughout the US/Canada considering they did something similar with the E34 during the same time frame (M540i and M5) and later E46 (330i ZHP and M3).

Adam

red_stapler
red_stapler Dork
4/4/19 8:44 a.m.
randyracer said:

With TC Kline Racing, we also had a strong run at the Rolex 24 in about 1998 in an ex-PTG E36 M3, finishing fifth, ahead of all the factory cars, as I recall.  

That was 1999 - 5th in GT3, 13th overall:

MATTER
MATTER
4/19/21 11:04 a.m.

Thank you for the detailed information.

MATTER
MATTER New Reader
4/19/21 11:10 a.m.

Hi,

i am Loopings for the Original BMW MOTORSPORT ECU 6A for my MATTER E36/N-002-96 Race car.

Thank you from Vienna Austria 

racerdave600
racerdave600 UltraDork
4/19/21 3:50 p.m.

Is the E36 M3 still competitive anywhere?  Are any vintage eligible?  I followed a street version going to work, they are still a good looking car.

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