You missed out on the massive BMW E30 M3 appreciation-fest of the 2000s — during which prices catapulted upward, by percentage, more than the Elephant Man's eye teeth. But with prices flattening, perhaps just temporarily, now may be the best time to secure your piece of Bayerische Motoren history. Ten years on, mark my words, a good 1987-1991 M3 will be harder to find than a Black Lotus card from Magic: The Gathering. Not that I'd know what that is.
It's either the highest expression of the purely mechanical road car, or it's the most overhyped beast in sports car history. It's the E30 BMW M3, and if you have around 20 grand American burning a hole in your Sears Toughskins, you can own a really top-class one right now. A four-cylinder 3-Series going for same-period Porsche 911 money? Yes, and it may be a better long term investment than any Porsche of its day.
Of course, you already know the E30 M3 is not your bank branch manager's 318i. It's a racing homologation model with an engine that's part F1, part M1 (the cast-iron block descended from the BMW 1500 to the turbocharged Brabham-BMW BT52 Formula One car, where it was good for a rumored 1,400 hp; the head was a shortened version of that from the BMW M1).
That 16-valve 2.3-liter normally aspirated four produced around 192 hp when the E30 M3 debuted, and subsequent special-edition "Evolution" models (not available in the US, of course) produced up to 238hp (in the 2.5-liter M3 Sport Evolution). Those are the ones to buy, but only if money were no object. Only 600 Sport Evos were built, and the last one I heard about sold for high five figures (in pounds).
Other than the rarified mill, which pulled all the way to the limiter at 7000 rpm, the M3 also differed from the standard 3-Series in ways cosmetic — those flares, that splitter, that wing — and in running gear — a completely reworked suspension with stiffer springs and gas-filled dampers were only the most obvious changes. The result was a car many described as both capable and forgiving. In fact, while it can't be confirmed, the phrase "confidence inspiring" may have found its first usage by an automotive journalist describing the E30 M3. And if it didn't, it should have.
Nearly 18,000 E30 M3s were sold worldwide during its five-year run, but only 5,280 made it to the US. How many of those survived the '90s, a time when they were cheap enough to be tuned with impunity or haphazardly converted into track cars and thrashed liberally, is unknown.
All of that adds up to one thing. Buying an E30 means buying a surrounding mythology that's as massive as Eurymedon's underpants. It's been touted among automotive journalists in all corners of the globe as a high-water mark for driver's cars. It has leagues of online fans who insist they'd give various body parts to own one. Great fun for sellers, kind of a bitch for buyers. But maybe that's changing, if just temporarily.
According to Octane magazine, whose fantastic profile in its March, '13 issue is worth a look, the E30 M3, has hit a sales plateau, perhaps due to a simple fact. It's getting really hard to find a good one. And that's where the money's going — to the good ones.
Octane quotes Dan Norris, managing director of BMW specialist Munich Legends, who says the trouble is finding a good, unmolested E30 M3, and not getting suckered into an overpriced bad one.
The market has flattened after collectors pushed prices to a peak about a year ago. M3s are quite numerous, but it's difficult to find good ones.
Among the standard cars [not the rarer Evolution models, he means] I've seen only one good one in three years. Typically they've done maybe 170,000 km and have been through hell and back, changing hands, often having unknown foreign histories and becoming trackday weapons.
Still, Sports Car Market, in its 2013 Pocket Price Guide published earlier this year, insists the E30 M3 isn't done. With prices having risen 27% in the previous year, SCM gives the E30 M3 the collector mag's highest rating of five stars, meaning it has the potential to increase another 25 percent in the next 12 months.
So what's a buyer to do? Get in the hunt. Buy the best one you can find, drive it, maintain it and keep it for the long haul. That thing's going to be worth as much as a Black Lotus card someday.