BMW Rally Car has a reputation for luxury performance sedans and sports cars rivaling the likes of Mercedes and Porsche. But BMW also has a significant racing heritage in the unlikely arena of rally racing. From the 2002ti of the 1970s to the E30 M3 in the 1980s, BMW proved it could be competitive in rally events worldwide despite its focus on road cars.
Let’s look at some of BMW’s most significant rally racers who surprised the world by beating more established rally makes.
BMW 2002ti – A BMW Rally Car Giant Killer
Before the 3-Series, BMW’s small 02 Series coupes and sedans formed the core of their lineup. When BMW wanted to go rallying in the late 1960s, they turned to the 02 platform. The 2002ti debuted in 1971 featuring a 2.0L injected four-cylinder pumping out 130hp paired to a rally-prepped chassis.
Against traditional rally favorites like the Lancia Fulvia, big underdog BMW and the 2002ti would pull off a shock victory at the prestigious 24 Hours of Spa rally in Belgium. The 2002ti proved reliable over 24 hours of hard racing, defeating giant makes including Porsche. This giant-killing performance put BMW’s rally efforts on the map.
Group 4 E21 323i and Group A E30 318iS
As BMW transitioned to the larger E21 3-Series in the late 1970s, they developed Group 4 and Group A specification rally cars to continue rally competition success. Based on the production 323i, the rally E21 employed an upgraded 2.3L engine with about 275hp and close-ratio transmission. Lightweight panels and suspension changes honed handling.
Later on, BMW campaigned the E30-generation 318iS as their Group A entry. Like the E21, it featured a tuned engine, and competition suspension and brakes. While not running full factory efforts, privateer BMW E21 and E30 rally cars continued to post strong results through the 1980s and early 90s.
The Legendary M3 E30 Rally Racer
BMW attained its greatest rally success to date in the 1980s and early 90s with the rally-developed M3 E30. Modified from the production E30 M3 sports coupe, the boxy rally M3 used the standard 2.3L S14 four-cylinder pumping out over 250hp. The beefed-up engine internals and drivetrain proved incredibly durable when paired with BMW’s smooth driving style.
The M3 E30 was a force on the world stage, winning the 1987 Rallye San Remo, Portugal Rally in 1988, and taking the British Rally Championship in 1988 and 1991. On European tarmac events, the lightweight and precise M3 was hard to beat thanks to composed handling and strong power delivery.
Privateer Efforts Continue BMW Rally Car Success
While never running a full factory team, private BMW rally teams kept the marque’s momentum going from the 1990s onward. The E36 M3 continued BMW’s rallying spirit into the late 1990s. More recently, the new M2 CS Racing rally car has shown potential with its turbocharged straight six.
At grassroots events and among vintage racers, classic 2002s and M3s still compete with success. Thanks to their agile rear-wheel-drive handling and durable engineering, vintage BMW rally cars thrill fans decades later.
Legacy of BMW Rally Car
Given BMW’s luxury image today revolving around powerful GT cars, their past rally success remains surprising and impressive. Cars like the giant-slaying 2002ti and mighty M3 E30 proved BMW’s prowess at rally competition extending from the 1970s into the early 1990s. They showed off BMW’s engineering talent through adversity.
While not often remembered for rallying compared to brands like Subaru and Lancia, BMW’s competitive spirit in early rally racing helped establish its reputation for performance legitimacy. For fans of BMW’s sporting tradition, their rally racing efforts represent an exciting chapter.