The US-spec E36 M3 is probably the least admired of the M cars. Some say that it’s not a real M car, primarily due to its engine. The S50B30US is basically a mildly tuned M50 motor out of a 325i. M purists also point out that this engine did not rev very high, or have individual throttle bodies – the traits of all M-power engines. As a result, it produced a whopping 42bhp less than its European counterpart. And horror of horrors, the American market M3 was offered with… wait for it… an automatic transmission!
If it sounds strange that BMW would leave their most important export market without a “real” M3, the BMW M Registry website can explain everything:
When the E36 M3 made its European debut in 1992 there were no plans to produce a North American version. Sales of the previous M3, the E30 of 1988-91, had amounted to just under 5,000 units and BMW’s only other North American-spec M car at the time, the E34 M5, was not selling in large enough quantities to justify the addition of another M model in the American market. However, a letter-writing campaign initiated by the BMW Car Club of America sparked such an overwhelming response by the enthusiast BMW community that BMW of North America decided to reconsider. The main issue was price: BMW NA was determined to keep the MSRP down to around $35,000, about the same as the last of the E30 M3s. The only way to meet this price point was to develop a specific version of the S50 engine without the costly individual throttle bodies and continuously variable VANOS valve timing system of the European-spec motor.
So why on earth would anyone want this bastard child of the BMW M Division? For starters, it’s still a child of the BMW M Division. All US E36 M3s come with the WBS prefix to the VIN number, which means that the vehicle was a product of BMW M Gmbh. Standard BMW models have a WBA prefix (there were reports of several E30 M3s with the WBA prefix, for reasons unclear). The amazing chassis dynamics of the Euro M3 was mostly unchanged. And best of all, the simpler engine means having a car that’s easier to live with on a day to day basis (no more periodic valve adjustments).
What you get is a great entry-level M car, that can serve as a great starting point for something that can truly special. And that leads us to the AutoPerformance Ph project car. The idea is simple – enhance the characteristics that make the M3 a great car, and work on the perceived weak points of this forgotten classic. The end goal – to have a car that’s at home both on the street and on the track, the best of both worlds. Before all the upgrades go in, however, we need to get the car back to proper working order, and for that, we take the car to ARC Automotive.
Tune in to the next episode and see the surprises we uncover with this M3. As always, drive safe!