Chances are you’ve got some feelings about the way the new 2021 BMW M3 looks. I know. But let’s not dwell on that right now. Instead, it’s time to revisit an era when the M3 really came to be the car we’ve now known—and mostly loved—for decades.
Welcome to Ad of the Week! Vintage ads are fun. They come from a time when enthusiasts gathered their knowledge mostly from print magazines, TV and radio ads, and billboards sized to fit several land yachts. We’ll be taking a deeper look at one every week to explain the claims, context, and how that all worked out in reality.
The first BMW M3, built on the E30 generation 3 Series coupe starting in 1986, may have turned into a successful race car and become a priced collectors’ item in time, but it was always powered by the S14 four-cylinder engine. It was the E36 generation introduced in 1992 that established the modern M3’s daily sports car formula: four doors (starting in 1994), a stick shift, rear drive, and a rev-happy straight-six engine. Today, the M3 is the sedan while the coupe is the M4, yet the recipe remains the same, even if it looks a lot different now.
The ultra-rare and therefore now very expensive M3 Lightweight came to be after BMW North America convinced Munich that the E36 needs to race in America. The homologation specials came with stripped interiors, aluminum door skins and no sunroof, the same year when the standard M3 got upgraded to having a 3.2-liter engine, a six-speed manual, different wheels and most importantly for the customer of the mid-1990s, clear indicators.
M3s sold in the United States and Canada still came with a less powerful engine compared to their European siblings, yet that wouldn’t stop Bill Auberlen from taking his racing coupés to 12 IMSA class wins in two years.
No doubt keeping mind what a sensible yet fun choice the 1997 M3 Sedan was, BMW North America ran a simple print ad featuring a red four-door turning into the Prototype Technology Group’s 1997 Daytona 24 Hours-winning M3 on the apex, using a decade’s patented blue electric flame effect. BMW did race E36 M3 sedans here and there, but it’s a good thing that the flame haven’t reached the B-pillar at the time of printing, given how all IMSA M3s were coupés. Oh well.
This green-white car wearing the First Union/Valvoline livery won at Daytona thanks to the talent of Auberlen, Javier Quiros, Derek Hill, Boris Said and Tom Hessert, leading up to a GTS-3 championship. Bill Auberlen and the Prototype Technology Group’s new crew continued on in 1998, when the M3 won 5 races, leaving BMW with yet another manufacturer’s championship, this time in the GT3 class.
With their rear wings as high as the rules would allow, these American E36 race cars paved the way for all that followed, from the legendary V8-powered E46 M3 GTR all the way up to the latest GT3 cars teams can buy from BMW today, which are all built around the 2021 M3/M4 generation’s massive grille. Still, find a clean, preferably Euro-spec E36 M3 sedan today, and enjoy the best of both words like BMW wanted you to in 1997.
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