By Stuart Grant with photography by Douglas Abbot

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Clown shoe, clog and hearse… not exactly the complimentary nicknames you’d expect to be associated with a leading cult car, but these are what BMW’s Z3 M Coupé is often referred to by those in the know. We get to grips with one of the most controversial-looking cars to come out of Munich and discovers that South Africa added even more specialness with batch of AC Schnitzer units.

Manufactured from 1998 through to 2002, the BMW Z3 M Coupé is a leading light in the world of car fan polarisation. Thanks to the shooting-brake look that earned the nicknames, one either loves it or hates it – and there’s nothing in between. Chances are that those who hate it haven’t driven it, and those that have will shell out obscene amounts of loot to own one. I fall into the latter category, a sucker for sheer driving pleasure and a background story that defies the corporate red tape. Sadly, my bank balance keeps me in the hater sector.

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The legend goes that engineer Burkhard Göschel and his team of development engineers set about creating the ultimate driver’s car by adding torsional rigidity to the existing Z3 Roadster chassis. This meant the addition of an ungainly structural roof. This didn’t sit well with the bean counters and board of directors, and it took some serious convincing to get the go-ahead for production. When it was finally granted, the condition stipulated was that its manufacture had to remain cost-effective.

To meet this requirement the doors, everything from the A-pillar forward and majority of interior goodies were borrowed from the Roadster parts bin. A car with such a brief needed some extra go too, and for this the engineers put the 3.2-litre S50 engine from the E36 into the mixing pot. Unveiled at the 1997 Frankfurt Motor Show, you’d have thought that with 236kW at 7400rpm and 350Nm of torque driving the rear wheels, that the recipe was just right for the ‘real’ driver. However, when production units went on sale in April the following year, the performance on the spreadsheets was anything but stellar – and the fact that it resembled a melted station wagon was the problem.

Orders didn’t really speed up with the release to the American market (here the less powerful S52 engine was used to meet more stringent emission regulations) and the M Coupé ambled on, selling just 5 179 units by June 2000 – 2 178 LHD and 821 RHD S50s, and 2 180 LHD S52s.

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Six months of nothingness followed before BMW launched a more powerful version powered by the S54 engine from the E46 M3. In European guise this saw an increase to 239kW and 354Nm, while the Americans got 235kW and 341Nm – the difference due to the American catalytic converters being located closer to the engine, which allowed them to heat up faster and reduce cold-start emissions. With the arrival of the new Z4 on the horizon, Z3 M Coupé production ceased in February 2001 with a total of just 1 112 S54-engined cars – 269 left hookers for the Europeans, 678 for the States and 165 right-handers for the rest of us.

With just 986 of both generations made in right-hand-drive guise, it’s impressive to see a decent percentage of these in South Africa. But, as with the international trend, sales of the initial S50-powered cars were a little slow. So our well-known resourcefulness and marketing smoke-and-mirrors skills came to the fore when approximately 40 of the new S52 cars landed on our shores. Off they went and were fitted with goodies from well-known German tuning house AC Schnitzer – these included a more sporting suspension package, exhaust, short-shift kit, gear knob, grey dials and 18-inch Type III wheels.

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It’s confession time. Until a week ago, I had never driven a Z3 M Coupé. Even so, I have always been smitten by the machine. Is it only me who thinks it has a combination of Volvo P1800ES and Reliant Scimitar lines? And those aren’t ugly by any stretch of the imagination, so why all the BMW haters?

Fearing that I’d built up my expectations too high, it was with a bit of trepidation that I took the keys to one of only 42 RHD Dakar Yellow Coupés. Sliding into the supportive bucket seats, there’s not much other than the roof to tell you that you’re not in a regular Z3 roadster. Glance in the side mirror and the sight of the child-bearing-sized hips starts to give you a hint, though. Then you turn the key and the fruity six-cylinder tells you that you’re in something special.
It’s a short notchy throw on the lever to get the manual five-speed ZF Type C into first, and the M moves off effortlessly to one of the best soundtracks known to man. With the amount of torque on hand there’s not a huge need for gear swapping, but thanks to one of the best-feeling change action ever and the cogs matched perfectly to the power curve, you’ll find you want to get in as many changes as possible – just for kicks. Did I mention the sound? The tune from the exhaust just gets better and better as the revs pick up and each downshift gives you the chance to play that heel-and-toe tune.

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The M Coupé might be getting on a bit, but it was the leading protagonist in the acceleration game back in the day and is still no slouch, with a sub-6-second zero to 100km/h sprint. However this is not all that makes the car so great: there’s also the tightness, obedience and response. It’s the way that it inspires confidence with its E36 M3 brakes – not only stopping well but also giving exceptional feedback. The steering is perfectly weighted and instantaneous, and the car turns into a corner and then exits with a decent amount of grip from the stocky rubber. Minimal understeer can be cured with the addition of some loud pedal, and the resultant oversteer is quickly tamed thanks to the rapid steering action.

But be warned: when pushing on you need to keep your concentration at peak level as the short wheelbase and semi-trailing arm rear suspension has a tendency to toss inconsistent throttle users backwards into the scenery with disgust. But hey, it’s a driver’s car after all.

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Built more with the heart than the business in mind, the result is a car that you’ll never get bored of driving. As for the looks… who cares? You won’t once inside and you’ve cranked the key. The story of the BMW Z3 M Coupé is the personification of the Ugly Duckling story: initially spurned but now highly desirable.

Rarity and the driving experience have put them at the forefront of the appreciating modern classic fraternity, but good examples are now difficult to find. When one does pop up, it usually comes with a relatively hefty price tag. It’s at times like these that it is best to repeat the mantras ‘you never pay too much, just too early’ and ‘you get what you pay for’ to ensure you make the correct decision.

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