1998 BMW Z3 M Coupé E36/8

1998 BMW Z3 M Coupé E36/8

The S50-engined Z3 M Coupé might not be your first choice over another M car of the same era, but as Tahmid Haque’s example shows, today it makes for a pretty wise investment… Words: Simon Jackson. Photography: Jason Dodd.

Abnormal Attraction?

Back in our November 2019 issue we covered a bunch of buying tips for, and delivered a bite size history of, the Z3 M Coupé. It’s a BMW that has been the subject of a serious rise in popularly over recent months and years, and that makes it worthy of yet closer attention in our book. When the Z3 M Coupé first appeared in 1998 it rocked the boat somewhat with its unique looks and E36 M3 rivalling performance. Indeed, at 5.4-seconds, early versions were around half-a-second quicker to 62mph than the E36 M3 Evo with which the model shared its engine, and at just under 12-seconds to 100mph, a second faster to the “ton” than the much revered E39 M5 – complete with its gargantuan V8 powerhouse. The secret was that the 321hp straight-six from the E36 M3 Evo was allowed to breathe more freely in the Zed via a revised exhaust system, add to this that the M3’s six-speed manual gearbox was ditched in favour of a smaller five-speed affair with a pretty tall final drive ratio designed to assist economy, and things were nicely mixed-up – all this left us with a free-revving unit which was happy to perform. Out back a limited-slip differential was fitted to an uprated rear axle and there were no electronic traction control systems to interfere. Revised suspension, stiffened for the most part and boasting a strengthened rear subframe, wider track and longer wheelbase, enabled the chassis to offer rigidity to compliment the power on tap. Finally, the E36 M3 Evo donated its brake system, the stoppers residing behind staggered 7.5- and 9x17-inch alloy wheels. The interior, very much of the era, made reference to BMWs of old with retro-style gauges and swathes of wall-to-wall leather.

1998 BMW Z3 M Coupé E36/8

Whether you were onboard with the styling or not, this was a true performance BMW – a genuine M car with credentials to match, beating too its existing roofless sibling, the Z3 M Roadster, in the performance stakes. And speaking of the Z3 M Roadster, many were generally not onboard with it, at least at first. It wasn’t so much the looks of that model which split opinion but the driving experience it offered – a real insult for any BMW. For a BMW M car to have criticism of its handling – steering feel and chassis – together with questions over its general character, was something of a shocker yet it was an opinion that persisted in the press. That the Coupé version answered a few of those critics was one thing, despite its styling proving even more controversial, it was some 2.6 times more resistant to flex, the increased chassis stiffness offered by the added roof making it the stiffest BMW then produced – this improved handling dynamics tremendously.

In 2001, the Zed swapped its E36 M3 Evo’s 3201cc S50 engine with the 3246cc S54 unit from the E46 M3, that divisive styling remained. With the change in power plant came only a slight hike in power to 325hp, certainly not the night and day leap you might expect as this time a somewhat restrictive exhaust manifold served to choke performance. Another – for many crucial – alteration was the addition of traction control.

Quite a few of the early cars had ended up facing in the wrong direction prompting BMW to have a rethink. Come 2002 model production ended, some 1977 right-hand drive examples sold in total – an almost 50:50 split of Coupé version to Roadster models. What you’re looking at here is, unlike the later car showcased back in our November issue, an earlier S50-engined, owned by serial BMW enthusiasts Kiron and Tahmid Haque – this car being one of the latest additions to their ever-evolving collection, much of which we have brought to you in previous issues of BMW Car.

“This is a 1999 S50 car – there were two engines; S54 and S50, this being the E36 3.2- litre engine – it’s a lot different to the Roadster version,” explains Tahmid, “It’s a completely original car, it’s done 58,000-miles and has a full service history. We’ve had it about a year and a half now.”

Without wishing to repeat ourselves from previous issues, the Haques got into collecting signifi cant BMWs around two years ago and have since built-up, bought and sold, an enviable collection of cars – including last month’s 850CSi cover car. The pair added this Z3 M Coupé to their current collection due to its increasingly popular status as a modern classic BMW.

“In all honesty I never really liked them! My dad felt the same way. But in the last couple of years they’ve been growing on us,” admitted Tahmid. “A lot of people have said the same, maybe as a result of that they’ve gone up in value a lot in the last two years. There are S54-engined cars selling for £50,000 – the cheapest Coupés are currently £25,000.”

Looking over this car today I feel that it has aged pretty well. Its pronounced proportions remain unusual, over the years many have described it as a caricature and it’s easy to see why – those muscular arches, the larger than average glasshouse, long bonnet and squat rear end wouldn’t make it look out of place in a comic book. However, while I’ve always personally been a fan of the exterior, I seem to recall that the interior was a touch dated even at launch. Peaking inside this car I’m pleasantly surprised, it’s all every E36-era inside, sure, but the retro gauges on the centre console, the switchgear and the two-tone colour-matched leather wrapped around those figure-hugging bucket-style recliners today all looks classically cool – perhaps that oversize steering wheel is the biggest giveaway that this is a car conceived in the late 1990s, not in the 21st century. In addition, things have worn nicely in here, it’s all solid, well engineered stuff, resulting in the cabin feeling fresh and inviting. Old BMWs were built well. Of course, like all M cars, this is all designed with a purpose in mind – driving. It gets me wondering what we said back in the day about the way these cars drive, so I dug out some old BMW Car road tests and one stood out in particular from our June 2007 issue. In this we’d given an early Z3 M Coupé some proper stick up against an E46 M3 and E39 M5 – back when niche magazine budgets stretched to track hire (those were the days!). In this archive piece we summarised the car beautifully and given that, a) we don’t have a track to hand for the shoot of this car, b) I’m not about to smoke Tahmid’s latest acquisition fully-lit around a commercial industrial estate like Ken Block for the purposes of this feature, and c) we’re shooting this during a slight lifting of lockdown regulations so I’m trying not to touch the car or get too close to anyone, why look to reinvent the wheel? So, in ‘07 we said of the S50-engined Z3 M Coupé: ‘The five-speed manual gearbox is not the slickest of shifts: you need to use the full length of the clutch’s travel and be accurate with the throw to get the best from it, but it is short and satisfyingly positive when you get used to it,’ we said. ‘This is an early model with the 3.2-litre 321hp engine from the E36 M3 Evo and no traction control. This last detail an important consideration on brand new tyres and damp roads. You need to be judicious when measuring out the car’s potent performance or be quick with the corrective lock.

‘It doesn’t ride at all badly compared to current sporting BMWs and there’s surprising body roll. The E30-derived rear suspension features semi-trailing arms rather than the E36’s multi-link Z axle. While compact, it lacks the sophistication of more modern setups. Later, at the track, when we tackle the Chobham Snake, a sinuous handling section of the test track we back to back the M Coupé with a 987 Porsche Cayman 2.7 that sister mag GT Porsche is testing and the little Porsche blows the BMW away in terms of composure, control and agility. On a B road, despite the M Car’s far superior performance, you wouldn’t see which way the Porsche went. But that isn’t the point of the M Coupé. It’s more muscle car than sports coupé. The wild looks are more than matched by its awesome thrust. The long, bulging bonnet lifts perceptibly when you floor the throttle and the acceleration is prodigious. Five forward ratios give the car a loping, longlegged feel but it’s never anything but quick.

‘It makes you work hard to get the best from it. The short wheelbase means you have to be swift with steering corrections to keep the car stable, and driving fast on give and take roads requires smoothness. It seems to respond best to a slow in fast out technique, relying on the fat rear boots and monster grunt to catapult you out of the turns. ‘For wow factor and excitement, both from pavement and driving seat, it’s hard to believe that this car is so affordable – or that it really is a BMW. You can forgive the slightly cheesy interior plastics, the lack of space for tall drivers, the lairiness: its mad and bad in the best possible way. I reckon you ought to get one now while they are still this cheap: this car has got future classic written all over it.’

So, some 13-years on from that track and road test it is safe to say that the Z3 M Coupé’s time as a classic, albeit a modern one, has arrived. As Tahmid has already pointed out, interest has grown rapidly in these cars over the past few years and with that has come a subsequent hike in values. When new £40,595 was the original asking price for both M Coupé and M Roadster in 1998, exceptional examples today have far exceeded that price. A reputation for being not the sharpest driver’s car produced by BMW M during this era has perhaps led to a glut of low mileage cars coming to market, drawing interest from those more interested in investment than driving potential. Unusually for the Haques – genuine BMW enthusiasts and keen drivers both – that seems to be the case here. I wonder how long this car will sit as part of their collection.

Back in that 2007 group test where Z3 M Coupé met E39 M5 and E46 M3 we put our money were our mouths were, buying the actual M5 involved in the feature. Almost a decade and a half on I wonder which of those cars would we now take home? I have to say that the M3 and M5 remain the standout driver’s choices, but that’s not to say that the Z3 M Coupé is not an exciting prospect – it just isn’t quite in the same league. Having said that, were the decision to be based purely on investment potential, then the Z3 M Coupé, with its unique concept and striking looks, suddenly becomes a front-runner. In that context it’s easy to see why enthusiasts have been clambering to own these cars in recent years. To this day an unconventional M car, the Z3 M Coupé could well be a wise and rewarding prospect, offering a real break from the norm…

It’s easy to see why enthusiasts have been clambering to own these cars in recent years...

1998-2002 BMW Z3 M Coupé E36/8

ENGINE: 3201/3246cc, straight-six, 24-valve

MAX POWER: 321/325hp @ 7400rpm

MAX TORQUE: 258/269lb ft @ 4900rpm

TOP SPEED: 155mph (limited)

0-62MPH: 5.4/5.2-seconds

WEIGHT: 1465kg

ECONOMY: 25.4mpg

HOW MANY: 6291 (April 1998 to August 2002)

PRICE WHEN NEW: £40,595 (1998)

PRICE TODAY: From £25,000

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