The first-generation BMW M Coupe is a raw, angry sort of beast, the kind of asylum-think car we cannot help but love. It's a machine devoted solely to the art of being bonkers. Let's take a look at its credentials.
More so than just a Fantasy Garage entrant, the original BMW M Coupe may very well be the Official Car of Jalopnik. Before we get to the myriad reasons why that is, let me relate a little anecdote. Like most car
enthusiasts nerds, I read about the M Coupe well before I ever saw one. And of course, I knew all about it. Best handling BMW ever, Ferrari-like acceleration, re-donk-ulous rear tires provide gecko-ish grip, sounds like a jet-engined rollercoaster, etc. I knew about the increased stiffness over the M Roadster, that they crammed the E46 M3's straight-six under the long snout and that Adolf Prommesberger, managing director of the M Division, went on record stating that the M Coupe is the car he drives home most nights. But you know how it goes. Every six months the buff books perform a collective circle jerk over the hot piece of German-ass de jour. Right now it's the R8. Come summer it will be the new M3. Hell, I'm guilty of giving the RS4 a no-look handjob or two. But the first time I saw the M Coupe, well friends, it stopped me cold. For while a 911's design may be more resolved/cleaner, and a Ferrari sexier, no car since Shelby's Cobra has looked as muscular and purpose built as the M Coupe.
See, unlike the majority of cars, and especially those from Germany, the M Coupe is not the work of brand managers. No, the M Coupe is purely the work of pistonhead engineers that built the car in secret and then somehow convinced upper management to sell the thing. Don't get me wrong. In general, German rides are (duh) the Bruciest. However the extreme anal-retentiveness that goes into each company matching each other car by car is old and dull. 3-Series/C-Class/A4 begatting 5-Series/E-Class/A6 begatting 7-Series/S-Class/A8 begatting X5/ML/Q7 is fantastic if, as a nation, you suffer from OCD. Sure, the Mercedes CLS was a welcome departure from the rigid norm, but almost immediately, BMW and Audi both set out to copy the Benz. But the original M Coupe, a South Carolina built, British-style shooting-brake putting out (nearly) 100 hp per liter is unique as modern cars get. Engineers who really, really, really love driving created this car to kick butt round the Ring and haul a dog. And that's it. And the result is so far beyond the pale that no manufacturer even bothered, let alone imagined, producing any competition. The M Coupe was free to live its short life unbenchmarked and unmolested by market expectations.
This car belongs to Carlos Segura. The lucky bastard
Arguably the best part of the M Coupe's story is that it shouldn't have happened at all. A renegade group of five BMW engineers, led by Burkhard Göschel, got a hold of a soon-to debut Z3 and decided to help it. They were displeased with its saggy bottom and the way its open top wreaked havoc with the trailing arms in the rear, causing the car to wobble. Cause wobble ain't precise. For the next few months, after work and on the weekends, the heroic five performed rhinoplasty on the diminutive retro drop top and out came the Z3 Coupe. Only these guys didn't spend all their free time just to make an odd looking wagon. They were thinking ultimate driving machine from the get go, rationalizing that they could convince BMW to build the M Coupe if there was a cheaper, lesser model. Which is why while Z3 roadsters have narrow hips and M Roadsters have broad ones, all Z3 Coupes never had anything but child-bearers. This new body made the Coupes 2.7-times stiffer than then their roadster siblings and at the time, the most rigid BMW yet built. The Z3 Coupe, unlike some 1.9-liter Z3s we know of, was never offered with anything less than a six. And thankfully, for the purposes of our fantasies, they dropped the M-Division's miraculous 3.2-liter straight six into the M.
Now the technical garbage. Tragically, BMW decided to make the initial M Coupes (1998 to 2000) different depending on the market. Meaning that west of the Atlantic cars got the short end of the engine stick. North American-spec cars received the peppy S52 inline-6 from the US E36 M3 that cranked out 240 hp and ran the M Coupe up to a limited top speed of 137 mph. Meanwhile European spec cars got the stupid-silly Euro E36 mill – known as the S50 B32 – which was good for 321 hp and a limited top speed of 155 mph. The engines were quite similar (stout iron blocks with aluminum heads) but there were differences. The more powerful Euro motor had higher compression, individual throttle plates and double VANOS for both intake and exhaust valves (the weaker S52 only had variable intake valves).
Then, in September of 2001, everything changed for the better when the "Engine of Damocles," the now familiar S54 B32 power plant from the E46 M3, was slammed into all M Coupes (and roadsters) regardless of national destination. The European model saw its power rise to 325 hp, while the American version came equipped with 315 hp. A word about this discrepancy. Initially BMW said the reduced power (compared to the 333 hp in the M3) was a result of different intake manifolds and exhaust doodads. Liars! The truth is that shoddy third party connecting rod bearings were exploding M3 engines at an alarming rate. You must never forget that while the men behind the M Coupe are the engineers from one of the most respected names in the biz, pr hacks still craft the press releases. Anyhow, the redline of the S54 was quietly dropped from the M3's Luciferian 8,000 rpm to a more minor-demon-like 7,600 rpm. Though plenty of aftermarket folks will re-chip the engine and replace the faulty rods. The difference between the US and Euro versions is smaller than it seems. True, tougher catalytic restrictions choke the US engine a bit more, but remember that 315 hp SAE Net is 320 hp DIN. And what are five horses among friends? Plus, the Porsche 996 only made 300 ponies back in 2001, so 315 hp in a lighter car was plenty.
Naturally, the M Coupe's performance is immense. 0-60 in 4.3 seconds is 0.3 seconds faster than a 427 Cobra. The quarter-mile goes by in less than 13 seconds, about the same as a 427 Cobra. While the top speed is supposedly limited, lots of hoons report 170 mph not being much trouble. And with de-limited M3s hitting 180+ mph, we figure the much lighter M Coupe (3,046 lbs. for the M Coupe vs. 3,415 lbs. for the M3) could dance that jig without much troublle. Though we would imagine the relatively primitive suspension would begin to fizzle at that pace. More importantly, third-gear is good for triple digits. Handling is in another realm compared to most cars, though more than one driver has cautioned against driving an M Coupe in the rain because of the giant tires, trailing arms and teeny wheelbase all conspire to hydroplane the car. In fact, many owners remove the wipers altogether, as they don't need them. Sure, there are cars that go faster, stop quicker and turn harder. But there were a lot less of them five years ago. And very few had normally aspirated 6-cylinders plus room for Fido.
To our minds, the M Coupe just frigging nails it. The styling is a Teutonic rendering of an E-Type coupe where the overt sex-appeal has been removed, leaving the M Coupe still phallic yet somehow perverse. The intent behind the car is pure Carroll Shelby, "Hey buddies – let's stuff a monster engine into a puny car and beat up on Ferraris." And the result is a TVR that's been to finishing school. The M Coupe might not drag its knuckles, but it will still smash a pint across a noggin from time to time. So, British style, American zeitgeist and German precision all come together for a brief moment and BMW doesn't even bother to market the poor thing. From 1998 to 2002 BMW only bothered to make 6,318 M Coupes. And only 10% of those are US-spec versions with the S54 engine. Even its fans refer to the M Coupe as the "clown shoe" and the annual M Coupe gathering is called Dorkfest. True, BMW has since replaced the old car with the new Z4-based M Coupe. But something fundamental is missing as the new car is too sterile, too well planned and, well, not nearly insane. Like the 959 or a Jenson Interceptor FF, the M Coupe is the way too rare result of what happens when engineers take over the asylum. Better than all its siblings and rarer, too, the M Coupe is without question more M than all the other M cars. As such, we strongly feel that the blackest sheep from the BMW farm deserves a pile of hay and a salt lick in our Fantasy Barn. What say you?
Valhoona Quality Video of an M Coupe Fleeing From Ghostrider
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This post originally appeared on Jalopnik on May 8, 2007 at 12:15 PM EST.