Some cars are instant hits. Others take far longer to wheedle their way into your affections. Roll forward the BMW M Coupe. Arriving in 1998, it should have been just what the enthusiast ordered. BMW M badge: excellent. Rampant 317bhp straight-six from the E36 M3: spot-on. Stiffer bodyshell than that of the Z3 M Roadster that lots of folk wanted to love, but couldn’t: splendid news. Thuggish stance to complement its hot-rod mechanicals: oh yes.
And yet… A lot of people struggled with the M Coupe’s looks. Really struggled. And still do. The negativity is perhaps a little surprising given that other ‘sports estates’ such as the Reliant Scimitar GTE, Lancia Beta HPE and Lynx Eventer generally get a good press, but the haters really stick it into the BMW. Amongst many insults slung in its direction from early on was ‘clown’s shoe’, and it remains the most oft-repeated epithet for the maligned M-car.
Another factor that may not have worked in its favour was the lack of driver aids in the first-generation model, which is known by its engine code of S50. Even with 245/40 ZR17 rear tyres, the M motor’s prodigious output could easily create back-end mayhem.
So it’s easy to write off the BMW M Coupé without even driving one – which is exactly what a lot of people do. But take the time to acquaint yourself with the M Coupé and you’ll soon see that it gets under your skin – especially if you’re a fan of razor-sharp driving machines.
The M Coupé was one of those out-of-hours projects created by engineers rather than designers – which is pretty obvious from just the briefest of glances. Drive it though and it’s a different story. With a bodyshell three times as stiff as the M Roadster that sired it, the 325bhp M Coupé is also 120kg lighter than the 343bhp M3 coupé.
There’s oversteer on demand, yet comfort, refinement and practicality aren’t sacrificed in the quest for a great drive. Strong and well-equipped, the M Coupé makes a great track day tool but a brilliant cruiser too, and with good ones becoming collectible this is also likely to prove a very canny investment.
Which M Coupe to buy?
There aren’t many M Coupés around at any one time as not many were made. Although BMW built 294,537 Z3s, just 16,806 of these were Coupés and just 6,291 of these were M Coupés – there was a regular variation on the theme offered outside the UK, powered by BMW’s sonorous 2.8-litre straight-six.
If you fancy a Coupé but you’re not hell-bent on having an M edition, shopping in Europe will turn up a 2.8-litre car with left-hand drive. But if you’re going to buy a Coupé we’d (obviously) suggest you go for the ultimate incarnation – a right-hand drive M Coupé. As enthusiast machines that never got truly cheap, most of these cars are cherished, so you’re less likely to get your fingers burned.
Total global right-hand-drive production amounted to just 821 units by the time S50 production ceased in 2000. So an S50 M Coupe is a rare bit of kit. But not as rare as its successor, the S54 M Coupe, global RHD production of which totalled a paltry 168 units (with 123 coming to the UK).
That tally is a tad unfortunate, as the S54, which went on sale in the UK in 2001, is the model to go for. Cosmetically little changed over the S50. However, it was powered by the in-line six from the E46 M3. Power and torque figures barely rose from those of the E36 engine, but it enjoyed a drive-by-wire throttle that made for smoother power delivery; the S54 had stronger mid-range torque, too. On the other hand, the S50 was more of a rev-hound, a rawer drive, if that’s your thing. Critically, though, DSC traction control was standard on the S54.
All M Coupés come with leather trim, air-con and electrically adjustable seats along with anti-lock brakes, remote central locking and airbags. Optional extras included cruise control, audio upgrades, a sunroof and headlamp washers, while some M Coupés have been breathed on by aftermarket tuners such as Hartge and AC Schnitzer. Only you can decide which is the ideal spec; the key is to find a car that’s been truly cherished and comes with a full service history to prove it.
Performance and specs
BMW M Coupé
Engine 3201cc, in-line six-cylinder
Power 325bhp @ 7400rpm
Torque 258lb ft @ 3250rpm
Top speed 160mph
Fuel consumption 27mpg
Gearbox Five-speed manual
Insurance group 38
Dimensions and weight
Kerb weight 1450kg
• The lack of driver aids in the S50 has seen a fair few written off. Check that you’re not looking at a Cat D or C, and even if it’s clear look everywhere for signs of accident damage; body panel gaps should be tight and even while there should be no rippling in the boot floor or front inner wings. The clamshell bonnet is especially hard to line up after a crash, so start your checks here.
• As you’d expect of a modern BMW, corrosion isn’t a huge issue on a car that’s not been shunted. Even the sills and wheelarches shrug off corrosion, thanks to an excellent standard of rustproofing, but it’s best to take care of any small rust patches, as it can develop quickly. Paint chips can be more of an issue though, so analyse the bonnet’s leading edge and make sure the floorpans are rust-free as they can get scraped then left to rust.
• In 2001 the 3.2-litre in-line six-cylinder engine from the S54 M Coupe (and, of course, the E46 M3) was awarded the title of International Engine of the Year. And BMW M did such a fine job of its engineering that although the engine is now 15 years old, and by its very nature is likely to have been used hard, it remains largely trouble-free. Provided – as always – that it has been regularly serviced and maintained.
• Big time gaps between service stamps will probably be because the owner does few miles and heeds the advice of the on-board service indicator. These days keen owners tend to have their S50 serviced every 12 months or 9000 miles, while S54 models can wait until 12,000 miles or a year and a half.
• With both engines rough running and power loss can be caused by problems with the Double VANOS variable valve timing system. It’s a relatively easy fix but could still cost you £600-900. Ticking sounds from the top of the engine could indicate badly adjusted valve clearances: BMW dealers and specialists should adjust them as a matter of course at each service, but always ask.
• A potential death sentence for S54 engines is crumbling crankshaft bearing shells caused by defective oil pumps. BMW recalled E46 M3s to replace them under warranty, but not Z3 M Coupes… By now most owners are likely to have had the shells replaced, but make sure – replacements could cost you upwards of £750, while if they fail in use then the cost of a full engine rebuild will bring tears to your eyes.
• These engines also aren’t always as oil-tight as you might expect, so look for weeping from the cam carrier, underneath the block and the cylinder head; it’s the latter that costs the most to fix.
• The narrowness of the Z3’s transmission tunnel means that the six-speed manual from the M3 doesn’t fit, so M Coupes ‘made do’ with a five-speeder that has proven remarkably robust. However, the lever springs in high-mileage cars can stretch, making the lever sloppy. Replacement springs are relatively inexpensive, but dropping the gearbox to install them rather less so.
• If the clutch pedal is heavy the clutch is probably worn out – especially if there’s a high bite point too. A low bite point suggests the clutch and flywheel need to be replaced, which is costly.
• Diff mounting brackets can sometimes fail and as they move around start to rip the boot floor – lift the boot carpet and look for cracks around the floor’s outer edges.
• All M Coupés came with hydraulic power steering so check for leaks in the rubber gaiters. Also inspect the various suspension and steering ball joints which may well need to be replaced.
• Every 30,000-40,000 miles the shock absorber mounts tend to need to be replaced because they’ve deteriorated. It’s given away by rattles as the car is driven, but it’s not an expensive job.
• A comparatively light car (1375kg), the M Coupe doesn’t stress its brakes too much, so discs can last 20,000-30,000 miles.
• The alloy wheels don’t tend to give problems either, but they’re kerbed easily to inspect the rims for signs of damage – but they’re easy enough to refurbish, and it’s not especially costly either.
1998: The BMW M Coupé is launched with a 321bhp straight-six ‘S50’ engine, denoted by the words M Power on the camshaft cover. These cars have a limited-slip diff. As with the Z3 roadster, all M Coupés are built in BMW’s Spartanburg factory in South Carolina.
2001: A facelift brings a new 325bhp straight-six engine, this time the S54 unit given away by an M badge on the camshaft cover. There’s a more sophisticated engine management system, along with ESP and tyre pressure monitoring – but no limited-slip diff.
Owners clubs, forums and websites
Summary and prices
Now that punters are finally feeling the love for the M Coupe, prices are climbing. Even private sellers are asking a minimum of £25k for an S50 with 80,000-plus miles. With fewer miles – say, 36,000-46,000 – S50s are hitting the forecourts at £36k-40k. S54s are hard to find – it’s estimated that only around 100 survive with RHD – and are even stronger money. An 11,000-mile example recently sold for £58,500 at auction.