Stumble across the above image with no context, and you might think you’re looking at a sad, neglected old E36 BMW M3 Lightweight. In reality, however, the BMW enjoys one hell of an existence doing what M3s do best - tearing around a track. Specifically, Michelin’s Laurens Proving Grounds in South Carolina.
The tyre company’s US arm bought the 1995 M3 in 2000 when it was showing 10,000 miles on the clock. All of the subsequent 40,000 the car covered were on track for purposes of tyre development. A hard life, yes, but one of glorious purpose.
Jonathan Benson of Tyre Reviews (who’ll you’ve seen in various CT photos and videos) had the privilege of driving the car for a recent showdown of various 17-inch track tyres. It was as special an experience as you’d imagine.
He too was a little troubled at the apparent state of the exterior on first glance, but his fears were allayed upon arrival at Laurens. “When I’d gotten there they’d given it a wash and it was magnificent,” he says. That tired bonnet finish which Michelin lovingly refers to as “patina” is there because the lacquer peeled away from years of heavy stone chipping and a lot of jet washing. There’s talk of having it resprayed, but if you ask Benson, and us, it’s better left as is.
Although its 17-inch wheels and smaller arches preclude the M3 from testing the latest and greatest ‘ultra ultra high performance’ boots from Michelin, the car is still used for tyre evaluation. High demand for smaller track-focused hoops in the USA, partly driven by the autocross scene, means it won’t be retired any time soon. The E36 the ideal car for the job, thanks in part to a ‘square’ tyre setup. This means the boots are the same size all round rather than staggered - unusual for a rear-wheel drive car, and perfect for testing given the rotation possibilities.
Benson gave the car a damn good workout at Laurens, clocking 88 hard laps over two days - around the equivalent of an F1 Grand Prix distance. The E36 took it all without a single issue arising - no warning lights, no overheating, nada. The car did all this on a single set of brake discs and pads to boot. “You wouldn’t get that from any modern car,” Benson says.
As for why this particular M3 is so easy on its brakes, the clue’s in the ‘Lightweight’ bit of the name. To create this US-only special, BMW stripped out the radio, air conditioning and much of the soundproofing, shedding around 130kg. Just what the doctor ordered - the US-spec M3 needed all the help it could get, given what was under the bonnet. The S50B30 inline-six did without the aluminium block and individual throttle bodies of Euro-spec M3s, producing a more modest output of 237bhp.
The Lightweight stuck with this powerplant but fixed that other US M3 problem by ditching the softer American suspension setup for one that matched Euro M3. To cap it all off, BMW filled the boot full of goodies including additional bracing, a bigger oil pan and an M3 GT-style wing.
Benson tells us it doesn’t feel hugely fast and the chassis flexes quite a bit, but it still offers up a special, feedback-laden driven experience, the kind the latest M3 can’t quite replicate.
BMW only made 126 of these, and as a consequence, the survivors are commanding ever-greater sums. A few auctioned examples this year have hovered around the $80,000 mark, and famously, one a 100-mile Lightweight, which still had some the extras in their original packaging, sold for an astonishing $154,000.
Buying one of these and never using it seems like a crime, doesn’t it? That pretty much unused Lightweight was and probably still is the finest around, but I’m more interested in the battle-scarred hero holed up in Laurens.