1998 saw the introduction of the Z3 M Coupe; also known as the bread van, the clown shoe, or my personal favourite, the smurf hearse. It started life as an engineering study to work more structural rigidity into BMW’s Z3 M, but today it has been elevated beyond a mere mechanic’s experiment and has earned cult status among bakers, circus-folk, and petrol heads alike.
The idea for the clown shoe came about when the engineers over in Munich took a look at BMW’s cute little roadster, the Z3, and thought (in German) “this car isn’t torsionally or structurally rigid enough”. They were right; although roadsters are perhaps the perfect distillation of what a sports car should be, not having a roof doesn’t work wonders for the strength of a car’s body shell—after all, if you cut the roof off anything its bound to become a bit more wobbly. So their solution? Put a roof back onto the car they designed without a roof, the clever Germans.
The Z3 M Coupe was off to a good start, building from a strong base, with the Z3 M roadster following the tried and tested petrol head recipe of putting a big engine in a small car by shoe-horning the 317 bhp straight-six (known as the S50) from the the muscular E36 M3 saloon into BMW’s cute little droptop. Having added a roof, the boffins from Bavaria found that the car’s torsional rigidity was 2.7 times better, making the car handle corners much flatter and with less body roll. They also found that the roof had made the appearance rather challenging, a factor which contributed to rather slow sales. However, I’d argue that the fact that the design was, and still is, so unique is why the car still manages to turn heads today.
So that was the recipe BMW followed from 1998 to 2000, and although it was an excellent car—winning Automobile Magazine “Design of the Year” 1999, European Car Magazine Grand Prix winner in 1999, and the Top Gear “Best Driver’s Car of the Year” 2000—the S50 engined Z3 M Coupe is not the one to have. That’s because in 2001, BMW made the clown shoe even more of a petrol head’s wet dream by putting an even more powerful engine in the minuscule coupe, using all the butter and dishwashing liquid in Munich to squeeze the new 3.2-litre S54 straight-six from the E46 M3 under the bonnet.
Looking at the spec sheet, the S54 seems rather underwhelming as it only produces 4 more horsepower (I know, try to contain your excitement). However, the S54 is supposed to be more reliable, with service intervals spaced further apart, supposedly improved throttle response, and reportedly stronger torque lower in the rev range. There’s also the matter of rarity; just shy of 3000 of the S50 engined cars were produced, while only 1112 of the S54 engined cars left the factory. This is reflected in the price, and in recent years the value of these little coupes has shot up. A couple of years ago, a good example could be had for around £15k, but these days you’re looking at around £30k for an S50, and as much as £60k for a good S54. With such minimal improvements over the S50, it’s hard to justify paying almost twice as much for the latter car, but either way, if you added one to your garage I’d wager you wouldn’t be disappointed.