When the word ‘skunkworks’ is attached to a car, you know you’re in for something special. It usually means an engineering passion project too unorthodox for mainstream backing. And that’s the case with this week’s Cult Hero, the BMW Z3 M. It’s an unbridled, rewarding and rare sports car that delivers an unforgettable drive.
Developed in secret by BMW’s M division – because the BMW higher-ups didn’t crave such a car – the Z3 M was eventually given the green light and introduced as a roadster in 1997 and a coupé in 1998. When production ended in 2002, BMW had made 15,322 roadsters and just 1112 coupés. That makes the coupé one of the lowest-volume production BMWs ever made and something of a unicorn.
From launch in Europe, both bodystyles got the 3.2-litre in-line six-cylinder engine from the E36-generation M3. Known as the S50, this engine produced 317bhp, enabling a 0-60mph time of 5.0sec. North American Z3 Ms, meanwhile, were fitted with a much less powerful in-line six – the S52 with 240bhp.
However, a 2000 facelift brought with it a new engine for the Z3 M on both continents: the 3.2-litre in-line six, dubbed the S54, from the newer E46-generation M3. This increased power slightly, to 321bhp, and introduced a punchier mid-range. The car also gained a drive-by-wire throttle for smoother responses, in addition to dynamic stability control for better safety.
So there’s a wild six-cylinder engine up front, but how does the Z3 M handle? Well, wild is applicable here as well. In typical BMW fashion, it’s rear-wheel drive and, despite its limited-slip differential, likes to wag its tail. Pre-facelift cars have no electronic safety aids, so it’s up to you to tame each and every one of its horses. Which is actually a blast to do.
That’s because this car brims with character and charm when you drive it. Rev either of its sixes to the redline and you’ll be rewarded by strong performance and a dramatic soundtrack. It’s all delightfully old- school, right down to the five-speed manual transmission. Bear in mind, though, that the cockpit feels notably snug for taller people.