The BMW M3…an icon.
This is the car that put BMW on the map and kicked off the M badge with a bang. With the introduction of the E30 M3, BMW realized they had created an animal for track duties and gave birth to a legend that 30 years later is still the benchmark of what the performance compact sports car should be.
That being said, they had to follow it up with an equally impressive and even better version as time always keeps ticking and with that, has to come progress.
And progress it did.
The introduction of the E36 M3 was a success breeding another 2 door sports car that was excellent for the track and had performance and poise at the same time. It was a beautiful car and it has all the attributes of an M car that make it an M car…in Europe.
In the US unfortunately, the car was completely humiliated by its European counterpart because of the emissions controls at the time and the fact that the car came with a measly 240hp as opposed to the European’s 280hp.
The US spec E36 M3 came with a non ITB, more aggressive version of their 325i engine, the S50. It was essentially the same block with different heads, cams, intake and tuning to make the car compliant with regulations while still delivering excitement.
At the time, it did just that. It was very well respected and still is a highly respected M car with prices on the rise as finding a clean example gets harder and harder by the day.
That leads me to our next point…
If it’s getting harder and harder by the day to find a clean E36 M3, is it worth buying one?
I think it really depends on how important the M badge is to you. Personally, I wouldn’t pay the prices E36 M3’s are going for when I know that the US spec engines are just M badged reworked 328i engines…seriously, you’re going to get triggered because the E36 M3 is literally just a “beefed up” M50/52 variant from the 325/328i examples.
I also wouldn’t pay the “M tax” applicable to all parts needed for a BMW that raises the price only because it wears an extra M.
Instead, I would pay for an E46 330i ZHP.
I know, I know…"How could you justify a 330i over an M3? It’s not an M? Where’s the extra three colored M???”
There isn’t one. It does however have three extra letters instead of just one and it’s not even on the badge. Its hidden in the options…talk about “if you know, you know” scenarios.
The "ZHP" option came with better shifter linkage, a better differential from factory, upgraded brakes, sharper steering rack, better control arms, lighter bushings, hotter cams, higher redline, more power and everything the E36 had on top of the non M variants, without the ubiquitous up-charge the M badge places on the car.
To make it clear, this isn’t more valuable than the E46 M3 (to most people) as the E46 platform was a different ball game for BMW. The M3 of this generation had a completely reworked and different engine and it came to the US with 100 more horsepower than the ZHP, a real M variant with ITBs, a screaming redline and completely different body styling as well.
However, from a collectibility stand point, I think the ZHP is a better car than the E36 M3 based on the fact that the production numbers are lower. It is also more modern, parts are more readily available, the car has more modern creature comforts, it has an interior that doesn’t melt and fall apart, and it’s still excellently sized being that the E46 was the last 3 series platform that wasn’t swollen.
From a driving standpoint, you get the same, if not more modern and better performing qualities than an E36 M3. Therefore, if I can get a rarer car with better styling, better performance and a better price, why wouldn’t I buy the ZHP?
Collector grade E36 M3’s are in the high $20,000 range with some in the 30’s just based off color. Collector grade ZHP’s are finally creeping into the high teens and low 20’s when five years ago they were still under $10-15,000 showing a rapid growth (and no signs of slowing down).
However to understand the collectibility argument, you need it with cold, hard data:
In the US the E36 M3 came in 2 door manual and automatic variants, convertible manual and automatic variants, and sedan automatic and manual variants (known as M3/4/5’s - 5 being 5 speeds). This is the same for the 330i ZHP, but here’s the real hard pill to swallow…E36 M3’s are everywhere.
E36 M3 North American production numbers total out to 26,672 made throughout their cycle.
The 330i ZHP totaled out to 14,484… all of them.
Given the production numbers are monumentally different, finding low mileage examples that can be enjoyed is getting harder by the day so if you find either, buy it (except for automatics).
Now my goal here isn’t to cancel the E36 M3 collectibility culture, not at all. This article was meant to make you think before you purchase one as an investment. The ZHP in the long run will go up in value to the true BMW collectors looking for rare BMW’s as will a great e36 M3 example for the M3 collectors.
For those that don’t invest and rather collect to enjoy, at the end of the day owning a car is about the attachment you have to it and the emotions it evokes in you when driving the car.
I can’t be the one who decides that factor for you and to be honest after making this article, I do feel more appreciative of the ZHP than before, but the E36 M3 is still an M and to some, that may be all that matters.