Believe it or not, working at a car magazine doesn’t involve jumping from the driver’s seat of one exotic car to another. Yes, we get paid to drive cars and then write about them, but it’s really not the endless, 200-mph party full of hot journalism groupies that you’d think. Most of us live modest lives, have modest incomes, and don’t get to drive a Ferrari or a Lambo but once every twelfth blue moon. (If that.)
As a result, we have pretty modest tastes. More than anything else, we dig practical, fun, and affordable wheels–or anything that simultaneously hauls kids, groceries, and ass. So on that note, we bring you two examples of Real Cars. This is the reality check; these are the cars we own. But they are two very special cars. The 1988 BMW M3 and the 1987 Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.3-16 shown here not only kicked off the German horsepower war, they helped revitalize their respective makers–and in doing so, established themselves as icons.
It’s 1991, and I’m a sixteen-year-old kid sitting in the back seat of my parents’ station wagon. We’re on the A5 autobahn, and out of nowhere, I hear the demonic wail of a racing engine pass us at tremendous speed. I’m confused, because it seems to have come from a sinister-looking, black Mercedes-Benz 190E, and I am under the impression that Mercedes makes only boring cars for half-dead old men.
When I got home, I dug out some car magazines looking for information on the baby Benz with the big spoiler. Mercedes had planned to race the 190E from day one, and in order to participate, it needed to produce at least 5000 street-legal versions of the race car for sale to the public. This homologation special, the 190E 2.3-16, was introduced in 1983 following a spectacular endurance trial during which it broke nine international and three world speed records, including covering more than 31,000 miles in eight days at an average speed of 154 mph. It was as if Stuttgart had put on a set of brass knuckles embossed with the numbers “2.3-16” and backhanded everyone in the room. I knew that I had to have one.
The 2.3-16 was sold here only in 1986 and ’87. Fabulously expensive, it had the usual arsenal of Mercedes luxury and safety equipment. Its aggressive body kit cut aerodynamic lift by almost half. The contemporary journalists who criticized the car for looking too boy-racerish missed the point–nothing about the 2.3-16 was done for looks or subtlety.
It was all about performance. Compared with the standard 190E, practically every part of the driveline was upgraded. The twin-cam cylinder head was designed by Cosworth; bigger brakes, wider wheels, a firmer suspension, and a limited-slip differential were also fitted.
Driven gingerly, the 2.3-16 shares the regular 190E’s indifferent confidence, relaying filtered messages through its taut suspension and solid chassis. It’s difficult to drive it gently for long, though, once you’ve heard the Cosworth’s ferocious bark. Gearing is short and close, so you constantly work the shifter to keep the 167-hp four in the meat of its power band–which, thanks to a ridiculously short stroke, is crammed into the top half of the tach.
Braking is superb even by modern standards, and the chassis is perfectly balanced–mild understeer on corner entry is easily nixed with a gentle application of throttle. A little more gas, and you get a neutral, four-wheel drift; a lot more, and you’re on your way to a lurid, giggle-inducing power slide.
It was a long time before I could afford one of these cars, and in the intervening years, I owned lots of other Mercedes-Benzes, including a 450SEL 6.9. But unlike the 6.9, the2.3-16 is a focused driver’s car, not just a cushy luxocruiser with a big engine. Compared with the modern Mercedes AMG muscle cars, the old sixteen-valve may be slow, but it’s pleasantly devoid of electronic crap. It’s more direct, more visceral, and infinitely more fun.
Finding the right 190E 2.3-16 took me six years–Mercedes sold only 1953 of them in the United States, and low-mileage, unmodified examples are practically nonexistent. I bought mine sight unseen while I was on vacation. It was all original, down to the ding-free, 38,000-mile factory paint, but it had been in a little bit of trouble: it turned up at a police auction in Pittsburgh, where it had been confiscated in a narcotics raid and then used by the police in prostitution stings.
I never found out why, but there was ketchup all over the interior, the paint was so dirty that it looked like charcoal, and the car needed a bit of mechanical TLC. But I bought it anyway. It took about a hundred hours of work to get my Benz back to its original splendor, but every time I drive it on a back road, I’m even more certain that it was worth it.
Prostitutes, cops, and ketchup? What an appropriately sordid history for a car that started the long-running German horsepower race–perhaps the biggest automotive barroom brawl of them all. JC
At 7000 rpm, the 2.3-liter four-cylinder in BMW’s first-generation M3 screams loud enough to loosen your molars. Even with fresh engine and transmission mounts, tiny buzzes are everywhere; the whole car feels alive and fluid. At idle, a busy valvetrain whirr mixes with exhaust thrumm, and the combined noise floods your head with conflicting images: Machine shops. Construction sites. The pits at Monaco.
It is not, to paraphrase an old slogan, your father’s BMW.
It’s easy to believe that the 1986-91 BMW M3 was the response, the retort heard ’round the world, the all-encompassing answer to Mercedes’ sixteen-valve stonker with the Cosworth heart of gold. But it wasn’t, no matter how convenient the timing. The one-and-only four-cylinder M3 was conceived not in response to Mercedes’ homologation special but as a carefully tailored, balls-to-the-wall reply to a rulebook.
Like the Mercedes, the M3 fell under the FIA’s then-new Group A rule set for international touring car competition, which dictated stock bodywork, production-based powerplants, and 5000 street-legal examples. Faced with such constrictive limitations–Group A rules also vetoed nonproduction aerodynamic devices–the boys in Munich came up with a plan: rather than build a race car out of a road car, they would build a road car out of a race car. The result was a bewinged, fat-fendered blow dart that wore license plates and shared little more than a basic body structure with the “ordinary” 3-series. The M3’s peaky, 7200-rpm four-cylinder had its roots in BMW’s legendary 2002 and the 1000-plus-hp Brabham-BMW Formula 1 cars. The wing actually worked, helping reduce lift in concert with a new front bumper/air dam, and it sat on a redesigned, higher trunk lid made of fiberglass. A new C-pillar and reangled rear glass helped direct airflow over the wing and decrease drag. A limited-slip differential was standard.
My first ride in a four-cylinder M3–a friend took me to lunch in his–began with little more than a passing interest on my part. It ended with a slightly sideways, full-throttle jaunt up an on-ramp at the top of third gear, the M3 pumping out an unearthly live-from-the-Nrburgring wail. I wasn’t even driving, and I was hooked. Less than a month later, I had sold almost everything I owned–including a 2002 that I loved almost as much as life itself–and bought the first M3 I looked at.
Around town, there’s not much to be impressed with. The 192-hp, sixteen-valve four is geared shortly and lacks low-end torque, so you spend a lot of time shifting and flat-footing it to keep up with traffic. Peak power checks in at 6750 rpm; below five grand, things almost feel sluggish. Surrounded by a workmanlike, understated interior, you can’t help but wonder, “What’s the big deal?”
Funny thing, though–as ill-suited as the M3 is to the daily grind, that’s how at home it feels once you set it free. Romping down a winding road, ripping from apex to apex, it all comes together: The engine’s raspy, passionate yowl. The near-perfect throttle response and travel. Brakes with astounding bite and weighting. A state of suspension tune that tolerates–endlessly!–your clumsy lifts, your early turn-ins, your sloppy inputs. Good driving is made to look like great driving–and great driving is made to look like an act of genius. If you are half awake, you are a hero. In the end, that’s what matters. SS
With both the 2.3-16 and the M3, the charm lies in how they make you feel, not in an abundance of brute force or absolute speed. What gets you is their personality, their finely focused sense of purpose, and the soul that permeates every panel. It’s the kind of soul that might prompt someone to spend a hundred hours scraping ketchup off a dashboard–reconstituting it slowly with cup after cup of water so as not to scratch the finish underneath–or lead a dude to sell, on the spur of the moment, almost everything he owns for the sake of four wheels and a wing.