The design is a plot twist. In front, a postmodern spin on art deco; in back, a mid-century hot rodder’s fever dream, all flared fenders and fat rubber. Visual tension gives the BMW M Coupe a sardonic edge, more like Bud Cort’s doomed Jaguar E-Type hearse from Harold and Maude than an earnest tin-top like the Triumph GT6 or a purposeful British shooting brake.
But you knew this, right? No doubt, the M Coupe is one of the most-loved, most-talked-about, most-up-bid cars of our current youngtimer-era craze. It’s also one of those cars that happened against all odds, driven purely by enthusiasm within the brand. Not to mention, it’s built on the bones of a roadster that bubbled up through a staid business process, by a brand that once considered enthusiast positioning serious enough to take a rare risk.
On the occasion of the M division’s 50th anniversary recently, I drove the M Coupe and its droptop sibling, the Z3 M Roadster, on the same weekend. Sold between 1997 and 2002, they represent remarkable achievements from an era of BMW before turbochargers or hybrid power or full-on EVs joined the fray.
The two-seaters made their acquaintance on a road trip from BMW’s U.S. home in Spartanburg, South Carolina, to the Amelia Island Concours in Florida, on a route that combined freeway driving with the flat, winding B-roads of the Southeastern Coastal Plain. While not a proper performance test, one thing was certain: There’s still no beating BMW’s sublime six of that era for power, sound, and mechanical theater. The demo cars were both later-period models from BMW’s own collection. Both had the naturally aspirated S54 inline-six engine, with its joyful combination of old-school German motorsports engineering and late-20th-century tech. That S54 continues to justify the collector-market premium for every model in which it was standard issue.
While both cars lack the steering crispness of their mid-engined rival from across the Danube, the Porsche Boxster, their massive grip plus low seating position and pivot-at-the-hips center of gravity make them hugely satisfying on secondary highways. Neither is particularly intuitive to drive, however; both require deep concentration and a bit of faith in what comes after the limits of adhesion. Both cars should have been sold with a free afternoon on a skidpad, far from immovable objects, to get a feel for their breakaway behavior before venturing into public. Still, considering how the M Coupe devours the high-speed corners of Georgia’s State Route 252, I’m still shocked to have left the Peach State without donating three figures to local law enforcement.
The freeway stretches offered time to think about more than driving dynamics. I imagined BMW in the early 1990s. The Bavarians by then had shrugged off their coltish past and were leaning into serious autobahn metal. Why then, after a couple of unhurried roadster-building attempts over the years—like the oddball retracting-door Z1 that never even got sold in America—did BMW suddenly go all-in on the Z3? And further, where did BMW find the corporate quirk to express its ethos as—what’s the word I’m looking for? extemporaneously?—as it did with the M Coupe? This is the kind of stuff that keeps me up at night. Later on, I did some research and found answers.
I loved the M Coupe the moment I saw it, 20-odd years ago—in Oxford Green II Metallic over black—on New York City’s Belt Parkway in Laurelton. The aberrancy of such a car exiting from the mature, efficiency-driven auto business was jarring. More jarring than even the Plymouth Prowler, whose premeditated cartoonishness landed with the honk of a clown’s squeeze horn. The M Coupe hit so acutely that I wound up launching a website in 2004 devoted to the often unexplainable thing that makes some cars more than just a convenient way to acquire TV dinners and Cat Chow.
For the M Coupe, that thing was a certain beauty in imperfection. In Japan, that’s called wabi-sabi, which according to Psychology Today is either a feeling, an aesthetic, or a philosophy. It’s a mood evoked by randomness layered atop order: a pattern of moss on a cobblestone, a crayon-scribbled heart taped to a fridge, a tree that looks like sadness. However you define it, the BMW M Coupe’s idiosyncrasies deliver wabi-sabi all over the place.
Of course, BMW didn’t build the M Coupe with wabi-sabi in mind. A group of enthusiastic engineers were, after hours, solving a problem. That problem was a lack of structural rigidity that made the Z3 Roadster, while fun to drive, imprecise as a high-performance car. A fixed roof would keep the Z3’s frame from flexing as cornering forces acted on it, making it more alert, reactive, and responsive to dynamics tuning. In the parlance of the time, an Ultimate Driving… well, you know.
Those engineers, led by Burkhard Göschel, who’d headed the Z3 Roadster development team, had a second problem to solve: making the coupe cheap enough to produce alongside the roadster. The most elegant answer was a simple roofline reminiscent of the 1940 BMW 328 Mille Miglia, which could be incorporated into the existing tooling. It created an upright bearing with copious window space, giving the Coupe a Series 3 Jaguar E-Type 2+2 vibe. A boardroom debate about whether or not to build the Z3 and M coupes kicked off, and—oh, to be a fly on the wall in those days—BMW’s product development boss Dr. Wolfgang Reitzle, a notorious hardass with a mischievous streak, and BMW’s boss at the time, Bernd Pischetsrieder, sided with the engineers and gave them the green light.
The M Coupe debuted at the 1997 Frankfurt Motor Show, and assembly started alongside the Z3 Roadster at the company’s U.S. plant in Spartanburg, South Carolina in 1998. Over a five-year run, BMW sold just under 6,300 M Coupes and around 11,600 Z3 Coupes globally. The base Z3 Roadster was a huge hit; it starred in a Bond movie and brought the brand tons of new customers who hadn’t considered BMW their kind of brand. (Although don’t get enthusiasts started on the cars’ subframe issues.)
This is the point in the story where we ask why BMW, with no foreknowledge of the success it would have, might consider building a roadster in the first place? No doubt Mazda’s success with the Miata affected its calculus, but there were other considerations, which I found, oddly enough, in Harvard Business School’s case studies archive. As BMW evolved from a cult of German motorsports engineering to a mass-market brand, it needed a new corporate message that embraced a broader line of vehicles, built at larger volumes, and with wider appeal. Not to mention, with the Spartanville plant opening, BMW’s technical axiom would have to shift from “made in Germany” to the more universally self-seeking “made by BMW.”
At the same time, BMW’s plans to expand involved courting younger buyers to add incremental sales. To do that successfully, BMW executives posited, the corporate image needed a makeover to go along with a new product development program capable of sustaining that image. As AdWeek had put it: “BMW needs to be perceived as a little less serious and tradition-bound…they need to preserve their reputation for driving performance but reposition their German-made cars as being stylish and fun to drive as well.”
In 2002, Susan Fournier and Robert J. Dolan published a Harvard Business School case study titled Launching the BMW Z3 Roadster that describes the internal discussion leading to BMW’s roadster project. Oddly enough, it started with the decline of the motorcycle market during the global recession of 1990. With economic clouds looming over BMW Motorrad, the moto division’s parent hatched a plan to identify passenger-car concepts that were capable of hitting the same marks, meaning the “feelings, emotions and fantasies” motorcycles once satisfied. In hindsight, that brief explains a lot about some of the bizarre show cars BMW rolled out soon after.
In fact, BMW displayed so many out-of-left-field concept cars, it was as if the company’s AutoCAD had been hacked. If you’d gone to auto shows in the early-to-mid 1990s, you would have seen the 1993 BMW Z13, an aphid-like hatchback with the haunches of a Renault 5 Turbo 2; the 1993 BMW Z18, a 3 Series-based dune buggy; and the BMW Z21 “Just 4/2,” a rear-engined roadster with the drivetrain from a K 1100 motorcycle. Although out of sync with the rest of its lineup, all of these styling experiments aligned snugly with BMW’s “emotional fantasy” theme.
In the end, BMW landed on a conventional roadster for reasons that now seem obvious: it fit best with the company’s spirit and positioning (i.e., driving excitement), and it hit on the aspirations of young buyers motivated by excitement and Baby Boomers who dreamed of roadsters in their youth. It also evoked BMW’s heritage, however limited, as a producer of roadsters in the past. Also, as Fournier and Dolan pointed out in their case study, while roadsters were a niche opportunity, they fit with BMW’s corporate goal of “being the best, not the biggest.” With rumors swirling that other luxury carmakers like Porsche and Mercedes-Benz were working on similar projects, BMW had to act quickly to gain the advantage. It did.
This kind of conceptual-development thinking wasn’t unprecedented for BMW. Years before, the company had set up a kind of corporate conservatory, known as BMW Technik GmbH, dedicated to developing new concepts, materials, designs, and technologies. That team, led by future Aston Martin boss Ulrich Bez, had developed the Z1 Roadster. The Z1 never came to the U.S., but its plastic skin and vertical sliding doors made it an intriguing novelty among buyers in Europe and, for Dr. Reitzle, a symbol of the company’s innovative approach to research and development in service of the brand.
BMW’s 1990s roadster story didn’t end with the Z3, either. In 1997, honoring the 50th anniversary of the 507 roadster—BMW’s other big roadster experiment—revealed the Z07 show car. It was a gorgeously retro-tinged specimen that harkened the 5 Series-based BMW Z8 at the Tokyo Motor Show. These days, the Z8 is both a quickly appreciating asset and a design icon, just as the M Coupe is.
Another thought crossed my mind on that road trip: How deeply automotive enthusiasm relies on aberrations like the M Coupe to sustain itself. It’s striking how much of our love for crazy machines stems from their origin stories, and how often those calls have come from inside the house. Despite car companies’ aversion to risk, there has always been some character clamoring for more excitement: a John DeLorean courting street drag racers with the Pontiac GTO, a Yukihiko Yaguchi angling for a sport compact halo with the Lexus IS F, a Jerry Hardcastle sawing a Nissan GT-R into pieces and smooshing them into the weird, little Juke CUV to build the bananas Juke-R.
Can car enthusiasm exist without these well-told tales of engineering bravado? After all, ours is the dreary age of Six Sigma efficiency improvements and supply chain optimization, not “take the boys out back and see what they can do.” Can new stories built around staid business cases have the same effect? For example, does the way-over-the-top GMC Hummer EV count as an enthusiast project if the point of it is to be bought without government incentives? Will we be talking about it on Weird Car Twitter in 20 years?
Either way, it’s not likely we’ll see anything as playful, as random—as, you know, extemporaneous—as the BMW M Coupe from an automaker ever again.
Mike Spinelli has covered cars and car culture in print, online, and on family cable TV, which is as glamorous as premade pancake batter. Send him tips, comments, and story ideas at [email protected].