Even from the official launch, the E36/8 has produced polarizing reactions. Love it or hate it. It is hard to believe that these cars are now 20 years old and already considered a classic, but there it is. At the time, the swoopy styling quickly gave rise to knicknames like the bread van, and then the clown shoe. Not flattering. However, just like the BMW GS, 2000 CS, and many other BMWs over time, this was an example of the engineers winning over the accountants and the sales people. The legend maintains (with plenty of evidence to back it up), that a group of engineers led by Burkhard Göschel, worked after hours an on weekends to turn the Z3 platform into a vehicle which would realize its full potential. They toiled away into the night, and developed a car with more than 3 times the torsional rigidity of the roadster, and with the M3 engine shoe-horned into the engine bay. They then asked BMW for permission to produce it. The answer was yes, with two big caveats: First, in order to control costs, it would have to share as much as possible with existing cars. Second, it could not outperform the mighty M3.

The engineers were thankful, and with a wink and a nod, went off to figure out production. The result is a true driver’s car worthy of the purist M label. The wink was that it did in fact outperform the M3 due to a superior power to weight ratio, and so gearing was altered to slow it down a bit. The nod was that from the nose to the A pillar, it shared sheet metal with the Z3, so costs were saved. Mission accomplished. The result is patently unique, and for some people, beautiful in its own way. Rear wheel drive, 0-60 in 5.3 seconds, top speed electronically limited to 155 mph, and a beast not easily tamed. Three engines were used over the short 4 year production life, eventually producing 321 hp and 253 ft/lbs of torque from a 3,130 lb car. The design of tokyo-born Joji Nagashima is officially designated a “shooting-brake”, although it can also be considered a hatchback. Almost immediately upon production, the M Coupe began to rack up both design and performance awards and accolades. Road & Track, Automobile, Car & Driver, Top Gear, etc. All placed it in the top 5 or top 10 M cars of all time. All acknowledged a future icon.

As is often the case however, sales were not as kind. While the regular Z3 enjoyed robust sales, the M Coupe struggled. It was already aimed at a narrow slice of the market, and the styling was enough to further limit appeal. 6,318 M coupes were produced over the 4 year production span from 1998 to 2002, with 2,870 of those being the US market version. It was replaced by a much less polarizing, and less insane, Z4 M Coupe. Regardless of how you view these cars, they represent perhaps the last time in modern times that the engineers at BMW were left in charge. As a driving enthusiast, however that happened, I am very glad it did.

  • ECE S50 (LHD): 2,178 built from 04/98 thru 06/2000
  • ECE S50 (RHD): 821 built from 08/98 thru 06/2000
  • NA S52 (LHD): 2,180 built from 07/98 thru 06/2000
  • ECE S54 (LHD): 281 built from 02/2001 thru 05/2002
  • ECE S54 (RHD): 168 built from 02/2001 thru 05/2002
  • NA S54 (LHD): 690 built from 02/2001 thru 05/2002

5 Replies to “A Bavarian Shoe”

  1. Fascinating story from behind the scenes. It reminds me when Robert Lutz was in charge of global marketing at BMW in the early 70’s. He had the foresight and vision to know that a bold, brash new model was needed to save the Motorrad divsion from financial ruins. Without upper managements permission, Lutz had his engineers punch out the mediocre 750cc, R75/5’s engine to 900cc, add a hotter cam and some higher performing Del lorto carbs to give the bike some zip. Then brought in the talented young designer Hans A. Muth to add some flash and pop. Only then did Lutz present the new R90S model to upper management. They were impressed, but not convinced it would be a sales success until the overwhelming positive response from the European Motorrad Shows told them to go ahead with production. Robert Lutz, Hans A. Muth and Udo Gietl are the ones responsible for saving BMW Motorrad from extinction. Now you know the rest of the story.

  2. Fascinating story from behind the scenes.
    It reminds me when Robert Lutz was in charge of global marketing at BMW in the early 70’s. Even though his was hired to increase sales in the motorcar division, he had the foresight and vision to know that a bold, brash new model was needed to save the Motorrad division from financial ruins.
    Without upper managements permission, Lutz had his engineers punch out the mediocre 750cc, R75/5’s engine to 900cc, add a hotter cam and some higher performing Del lorto carbs to give the bike some zip. Then brought in the talented young designer Hans A. Muth to add some flash and pop. Only then did Lutz present the new R90S model to upper management.
    The top brass was impressed, but not convinced it would be a sales success until the overwhelming positive response from the European Motorrad Shows told them to go ahead with production.
    Robert Lutz, Hans A. Muth and Udo Gietl, who ran the extremely successful racing campaign and won the Superbike Championship in ’76 with the modified R90S are the ones responsible for saving BMW Motorrad from extinction. Now you know the rest of the story.

    1. Thanks Todd, Lutz was behind many cars and bikes that we treasure today, and he was a singular force in the industry. It is probably impossible today, to have a pet project developed in secret before senior management (or the accountants) see it. Could another R90S come out of BMW? Another RS? Another GS?

  3. Agreed 110% Wayne ,it was/is a wonderful example of Bavaarian engineering and design that I hope continues for many moons to come. Sadly, I don’t have the vision to see any future Iconic designs in the making among the plethora of “me too “star wars automotive designs in production today. Maybe I just don’t have vision to see the hidden diamond in the rough.Anyway,Its always a great day when the engineers beat the bean counters .
    Remember,shiny side up on two wheels and no trading paint in the corners on four !

    1. I also have a hard time imagining a global company like BMW letting the engineers loose like this, but if they want to set themselves apart from a sea of cars where you can’t tell the brand until you get up close and read the emblem, they will periodically need to do something like this that reminds everyone what BMW was all about.

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