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A Detailed Look Back At The E36 BMW M3 Lightweight

HotCars 11/6/2022 Philip Uwaoma
© Provided by HotCars

In 2020, a low-mileage M3 Lightweight fetched a cool $385,000 at a Barrett-Jackson Scottsdale auction. The bank-breaking price isn't just because the example was part of a 19-vehicle collection from the late Paul Walker collection. The market has seen the price for classic M cars break the proverbial ceiling and touch the six-figure threshold.

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With only 126 examples rolling off the factory, the BMW M3 Lightweight (LWT) from the E36 generation is one of the rarest M cars ever built, rarer than its super-exclusive Old Continent counterpart with just 356 copies made. BMW offered the LWT as the North American version of Europe’s M3 GT. The GT was the ultimate version of the E36 3-Series, all leaving the factory arrayed in British Racing Green.

The 'LWT' in the M3's name isn't just for decorative purposes. It earned the name through a substantial deletion of important convenient features like air conditioning, radio, and sunroof, leaving the car weighing less than 1,350 kg. BMW also got rid of the alarm system, replaced the standard M3's carpet with a thinner one, used cloth upholstery for the seats, and installed aluminum (instead of steel) doors. It was around 225 lbs lighter than the regular M3, a must-own for serious BMW M car collectors.

Related: 8 Reasons Why We Love The E36 BMW M3 (2 Reasons Why We Wouldn't Buy One

Backdrop Of The E36 BMW M3 Lightweight

The offending Type S50 B30 engine meant that BMW had no plans to offer its flagship 3 Series sedan in the North American market. The US emissions laws wouldn’t allow it, so the Bimmer introduced a diluted version at the 1994 Los Angeles Motor Show, almost two years after the M3’s launch at the 1992 Paris Motor Show.

In 1992, BMW Motorsport raced a wide-arched, heavily spoilered M3 GTR in the German ADAC GT Championship, where it won six out of the eight rounds piloted by Johnny Cecotto. The GTR also appeared and took the fourth position at the Mil Milhas Brasileiras in 1994. This US-focused version of the Type S50 B30 engine featured a cylinder head closely similar to the standard E36 M50.

It had a power and torque rating of 240 brake-horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 225 lb-ft of torque at 4,250 rpm. Meanwhile, the Europe Type S50 B30 engine produced 286 brake-horsepower at 7,000 rpm and 236 lb-ft of torque at 3,600 rpm. The watered-down M3s arrived in the US loaded with standard features, including metallic paint, leather trim, driver and passenger airbags, air conditioning, a third brake light, a ten-speaker stereo, and an economy gauge instead of the regular M3’s oil temperature read out.

Following the M3 GTR’s racing exploits, the Bimmer set its eyes on North America’s IMSA GTS-2 class, contracting the Virginia-based Tom Milner’s Prototype Technology Group to manage the campaign. So, BMW GmbH introduced an IMSA-homologated M3 GTR, a road-legal left-hand drive called the E36 M3 GT. It made some inroads in the 1995 IMSA season but was no match for Porsche's 911 Carrera RSR and the Mazda RX-7.

This was before the wide-arched GTR stunned the 1996 and 1998 campaign seasons. Racing teams in the US pressured BMW for a homologation version to compete in sports-car racing, resulting in the 1995 introduction of the stripped-out track-focused machine called M3 Lightweight. We note that even though the radio got deleted, BMW left the speakers and wiring.

The E36 BMW M3 Lightweight Chassis And Bodywork

Instead of the softer US-spec spring and damper rates, the M3 LWT used the Euro M3 Coupe’s settings with the Bimmer’s forged Double M Spoke alloy wheels measuring 7.5 x 17-inches at the front and up to 8.5 x 17-inches at the rear. As an M3, the LWT got based on the E36 Coupe. The suspension system comprised MacPherson struts up front and a multi-link ‘Z-axle’ at the rear. It used 315 and 313 mm ventilated brake discs at the front and rear with retuned ABS and a larger brake master cylinder.

Other distinguishing features of the M3 LWT include a 30 mm drop in the ride height, thicker anti-roll bars and rear-wheel bearings borrowed from the 850i, progressive-rate springs and stiffer dampers, modified track arms, reinforced spring mounting points, reinforced front stub axles.

It also featured a standard rear spoiler (featuring the third brake light) and borrowed the GT’s adjustable satin-black front splitter to improve downforce. Similar to the M3 GT only available in British Racing green, the M3 Lightweight had only one color scheme – Alpine White with Motorsport graphics across the left-hand front and right-side rear corners. A 62-liter E36 fuel tank hid beneath the rear seats.

Related: Why Every Gearhead Should Drive A BMW M3 E36

The E36 BMW M3 Lightweight Interior

As already stated, the defining feature of the E36 BMW M3 is the deletion of some important amenities. However, not everything was missing – for example – the electric windows. Inside, the extremely basic cockpit saw the bulk of the interior revisions, with a blanking plate where the stereo would’ve been.

The M3-specific high-backed Vader seats gave way for manually-adjustable sports seats wrapped in Anthracite Hurricane “cloth” fabric. No sunroof, either. Shedding over 200 lbs of weight may not sound like much until you consider that the E36 M3 Coupe was already light and even lighter than its successors. In fact, M3s got increasingly heavier after the E36 generation, ergo, the current M3 Competition xDrive clocking 3,990 lbs in US spec.

The E36 BMW M3 Lightweight Engine And Performance

The US-focused E36 M3 Lightweight trailed behind its Europe GT counterpart because of the former’s emasculated M50B25 engine borrowed from the less exotic 325i, while the Euro-focused GT toted the more potent S50B30 making 295 horsepower and 238 lb-ft of torque. The M3 Lightweight made 243 horsepower and 225 lb-ft of torque. A bore and stroke of 86 and 85.5 mm resulted in a 2,990cc displacement, with the power delivered to the wheels via a close-ratio 5-speed ZF transmission with a single-plate Sachs clutch and a limited-slip differential.

Of course, BMW got rid of the speed limiter and shorter 3.23:1 differential ratio compared to the regular 3.15. The cylinder head was not as complex. The M50B25 featured a DOHC camshaft 24-valve straight six with a cast-iron block and light alloy head. Summarily, the title of “rarest E36 BMW M3” goes to the one-off M3 Compact prototype, but the real honor goes to both the Europe-focused GT and US-focused Lightweight.

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