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The wild Z3 M Coupé is one of the M division’s most potent creations, but there’s always room for improvement… Words: Sebastian de Latour Photography: James Lipman

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Z3 M COUPÉ

“I

s that the new one?” We turn to see the source of the question, which transpires to be a rotund builder sort, doing his rounds of the as yet unsold units in this trading estate, who is now sauntering over for a closer look at the menacing Z3 M Coupé, back paintwork glistening in the late afternoon sun. It soon becomes evident that he actually knows less than nothing about cars but so unusual is the original M Coupé and so rare are they that it’s unsurprising that people still mistake it for a new model. When the Z3 M Coupé was first launched people weren’t quite sure what to make of it – it did look completely bizarre, unlike any other BMW and was probably more hatchback or miniature shooting brake than coupé. The looks were probably the biggest hurdle and unfortunately that’s no doubt where most potential buyers fell. Even if you managed to get over that the two-tone interior that most examples came with was likely to raise a few eyebrows and there was probably too much E30 switchgear for a £36,000 car. But, if you could look beyond all this, you would find one of the most thrilling cars BMW has ever produced. Initially powered by the 3.2-litre S50 engine from the E36 M3 Evo, it had 321hp and 258lb ft of torque, and with the M Coupé weighing in at just shy of 1400kg, less than the E36 M3, that meant an impressive power-to-weight ratio of around 230hp/ton. This made the Z3 M Coupé ferociously quick, capable of sprinting to 60 in a whisker under five seconds, while the lack of traction control would turn a spirited drive into a bit of a white knuckle ride. It would light up the rears in the dry if you were trying hard enough and sometimes even if you weren’t while in the wet a delicate touch was required if scenery interaction was to be avoided. It was a savage thing, possibly the wildest BMW ever made and the closest you’ll ever get to a Bavarian TVR. In 2001 the M Coupé received a facelift which included a 3.15 final drive and the S54 engine from the E46 M3 but, due to differences in the intake, exhaust and a lower redline, it only had 325hp with 261lb ft. The newer engine was a welcome addition but it was BMW’s decision to fit DSC as standard that was probably the biggest improvement. However, while it did go some way to taming the M Coupé’s wild ways it was still all too easy to lose the back end due to the traction control system’s lazy nature. There were a few other areas where the M Coupé was

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disappointing such as the suspension, which was quite soft, the brakes, which didn’t stand up to repeated hard deceleration particularly well and the gear change, which was a little slow so there was still plenty of room for improvement. Which brings us neatly to Tony Chapman’s Z3 M Coupé, a car that has had every last ounce of slack beaten out of it, resulting in one of the most finely honed examples I’ve ever seen. But first, a little back story. Tony’s owned his Z3 for four and half years now, the longest he’s ever owned a car, he says, which is surely a good sign especially when you consider that he was never even into cars. Tony used to be a biker and worked his way through a number of track cars, bikes (obviously) and Subarus before this particular M Coupé caught his eye. “I’ve always loved them,” he says, “and this was up for sale at a very good price so I decided to go for it.” Initially, he

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wasn’t planning on doing anything to the car but he got talking to a few owners, which planted the modifying seed in his mind but it was after a couple of track days and a scary session at the ‘Ring that he decided that some improvements were in order. The standard suspension is too soft for serious track work, not helped by the antiquated E30 rear arrangement so Tony completely overhauled it. At the heart of it all sit the adjustable AC Schnitzer Race coilovers, which are much stiffer than the standard items and the adjustability allows Tony to tailor them to his needs. These have been fitted in conjunction with Rogue rear top mounts and are backed up by stiffer H&R anti-roll bars to further eliminate any chassis roll, giving the M Coupé incredible cornering abilities. With its fixed roof, the M Coupé is 2.6 times more resistant to chassis twist than the Roadster, and according to BMW it was at one stage the most

structurally stiff model ever produced by the company. Despite this, the uprated suspension meant that Tony could put a lot more stress on the chassis due to what the car was now capable of so fitted not only a Strong Strut front strut brace but also a Butt Strut rear strut brace, the combination of which means that chassis flex has now been all but eliminated. Tony found that the standard brakes wilted on track so decided to look around for some alternatives and in the end went down a slightly unusual route. Porsches have pretty immense brakes out of the box and a bit of searching revealed that it was possible to pick up a pair of 911 C4 four-pot front callipers for not a lot of money and they’d offer serious stopping power. Tony managed to snap up a pair for just £200, making them a conspicuous bargain, and mated them to some Pagid pads and a pair of E46 M3 CSL front discs. All that he then needed to do was get


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Z3 M COUPÉ

the Z3 M’s lack of traction control would turn a spirited drive into a bit of a white knuckle ride

AC Schnitzer front flippers and Hamann spoiler enhance the Z3’s looks

some mounts machined and the setup was ready – all for under £1000. Clearance wasn’t an issue for him either, the big callipers fitting nicely beneath his sexy 18-inch BBS LMs, arguably the best-looking wheel out there for the Z3. The M Coupé was fitted with a 3.15 ratio 25 per cent locking limited-slip differential as standard but Tony decided to go one better and bought a spare Hawthorns Motorsport Britcar diff, as you do. It’s been rebuilt inside and boasts a shorter 3.64 ratio, modified ramp angles and a 40 per cent lock, making it a more aggressive piece of kit than the standard diff. With the chassis sorted, Tony was after a bit more power and actually came very close to getting an E39 M5 V8 installed in the M Coupé’s nose but unfortunately the plan never came to fruition. “I bought the engine, ready for the conversion,” says Tony, “but the company that was going to carry out

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It’s a really rev hungry engine and it’s never happier than when its gulping down gallons of air right at the redline

the conversion went bust so that was that.” In the end, he opted for a couple of rather more sedate but nonetheless potent modifications to squeeze a little more power from the S54 lump. The car’s been fitted with a Pro Speed exhaust system complete with 100 cell cats to minimise restriction and it’s also had a couple of Evolve Automotive goodies installed. Lift the long bonnet and you’ll see the gorgeous carbon airbox and plenum that dominates the engine bay – it looks stunning, a real centrepiece and it produces the most sensational M3 CSL-style induction roar. What you can’t see is that Evolve live Alpha N remap that the company has carried out – as its name implies, the remap is carried out with the car being driven on the road to give the best possible gains. The end result of Tony’s tuning is a dyno confirmed 341hp which is a fairly small on paper gain for what is quite a lot of work but such is the way when tuning naturally aspirated engines and it’s pretty impressive for an S54. It’s more than enough power out on the road but for track days Tony reckons it could do with a bit more grunt. Unfortunately, the options available aren’t plentiful or cheap. The S54 isn’t really suited to supercharging as it’s not strong enough so if you were to spend around £6500 on a kit you’d need to spend another £3-4000 on the engine internals. He reckons the M5 engine conversion would be perfect and it’s cheaper too, weighing in at about £7500 for an engine and the fitting costs, but it’s a very involved conversion and it’s extremely hard to get the M5’s V8 to work properly with the Z3’s electronics. “It’s actually a lot easier to fit the LS1 V8 that you’d find in a Corvette,” says Tony, “and it’s a solid, reliable engine with more torque than the M5’s S62 can muster.” For now though, Tony’s happy with the Z3 M in its current state of tune and it’s going to be a while before he splashes out on any more performance upgrades. Open the door and it’s obvious this is no ordinary M Coupé. Tony has removed the standard seats and replaced them with a par of Recaro Pole Position chairs instead, which have not only saved a whopping 40kg but he says they also offer a better driving position as well as being exceptionally supportive. Dropping into the snug Recaro seat, the Z3’s cosy cabin doesn’t do much to put you at ease. You sit

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low, your legs tucked into the footwell with your left foot trying to find somewhere to perch between the clutch pedal and the transmission tunnel. The view ahead is pretty much steering wheel – Sparco in this case – and bonnet, its swooping lines disappearing somewhere into the middle distance. The M Coupé may be a small car but it feels pretty intimidating from the driver’s seat and it’s an odd sensation, sitting so far back in the car, your bum almost over the rear axle. Despite their single-piece design, the seats are surprisingly comfortable and the steering wheel’s suede rim feels fantastic beneath your fingers while the standard gear knob has been replaced with a Whalen Shift Machine item. This 18oz metal ball sits over an inch lower than the standard knob, giving you a short-shift effect at a fraction of the cost and without having to take apart the shift mechanism. Because it weighs three times as much as the standard knob it takes less effort to change gear, despite the reduced height, and it’s an absolute joy to use. Lever travel is significantly reduced, shift times are shorter and each gear slots home with a satisfying thunk. It might not be a cheap item but it’s money well spent. Within 50 yards you’ve pretty much got the measure of this Z3 – it’s hardcore and then some. The suspension is extremely stiff, probably too stiff for everyday use, and a world away from the standard car’s slightly wallowy set up but for track use it’s bang on and that is what Tony geared the car towards after all. It’s surprisingly easy to drive, though, once you get used to peering along the bonnet and the additional power and torque from the performance upgrades mean it’s particularly tractable, happily pulling a higher gear at town speeds. That’s all well and good but Tony didn’t buy this car to drive it slowly around town – drop down a couple of gears, open up the throttle and the Z3 comes alive. It’s a really rev hungry engine and it’s never happier than when its gulping down gallons of air right at the redline, a fantastic howl emanating from the carbon intake. The M Coupé was always a seriously quick car and Tony’s example is just that little bit more responsive, that little bit more savage. It’s intoxicating stuff and I can’t resist giving the Coupé a bootful of throttle

Interior resembles that of a Touring Car; BBS LMs look very sexy indeed


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whenever a gap in the traffic appears. The exhaust sounds fantastic too, giving the straight-six a deep burble at idle which transforms into a high pitched wail as you rush towards the redline. The uprated brakes are immense, biting right from the top of the pedal and generating some serious stopping power when you stand on them. It’s just a shame that the roads around here aren’t best suited to showcasing the M Coupé’s cornering capabilities but from the way it responds to steering inputs you can tell it would be sensational down a challenging back road.

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While the wider rear tyres have gone some way to taming the Z3’s tail-happy nature, in the wet Tony says the car is lethal and while there’s more grip in the dry once you overstep the mark it lets go in a big way. I can’t imagine what it would be like with a 400hp V8 tucked under the bonnet… Tony says he can’t see himself selling the M Coupé anytime soon – it’s a nice club to be in, with most M Coupés owned by enthusiasts and the cars are not yet cheap enough to fall into the hands of those who can’t look after them properly. Despite eyeing up a

few 911 GT3s and test driving a TVR 350 – which broke down a mile down the road – nothing’s managed to top the M Coupé. Having driven it, it’s easy to see why; where the standard car is a bit of a rough diamond this one is unapologetically raw, a road-legal track warrior and it’s all the better for it ●

CONTACT: Evolve Automotive: Tel: 0870 0850 111 website: evolveyourcar.com


Coupe De Grace