As far as BMWs go, this is about as rare as it gets. What you’re looking at here (and what I’m about to cover in a thick layer of Roundel-shaped dribble) is a 2001 BMW (E46) M3 GTR road car. That “GTR” and “road car” designation is what’s important here because only six cars were ever built this way from the factory, three of which are still in road-worthy condition but almost never seen.
So when an unabashed BMW fan (just don’t mention the 2 Series Active Tourer for the love of god) stumbles upon one of those three cars sitting unattended after the conclusion of last weekend’s Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion at Laguna Seca, what does he do? In order: freak out, cry, Snapchat it to every contact, Instagram it, cry some more, and then break out the camera to get as many shots of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity as possible before the backup battery dies.
Click past the jump and join me in what will surely be the most unobstructed view of this rare beast I’ll ever get.
For me this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for two reasons. First off, only six of these were built and the remaining three are seldom seen – it was shown in America once before – so there’s a real chance I’ll never see one again. And second, there was nobody else around besides the crew packing everything up. I’m accustomed to crowded shows where I have to stand around with my camera pointed at a car waiting for someone to stop standing directly in front of the car everyone’s trying to take a picture of and GTFO *anger intensifies*. So having some alone time with such a rare subject is a treat which I’m glad to share with you.
As you’re scrolling through admiring this wonderful machine, I might as well provide some back story as to why an E46 M3 is rare because of the GTR road car designation it bears.
Full size images are available on my Flickr.
The story begins as any BMW M car’s story should, and that’s with racing, specifically the 2001 season of the American Le Mans Series. BMW was competing with a car built off the E46 M3 street car but with a different engine and reworked aerodynamics. The car was called the M3 GTR and its most distinct feature was the 4.0-liter, 444 horsepower “P60” V8 which replaced the 3.2-liter, 333 horsepower “S54” straight-six in the standard road car. The very act of racing with a car and engine combo that wasn’t sold to the public was technically legal by 2001’s ALMS rules, but was still controversial.
This one was taken earlier at another event.
It was a sweet engine though so you can hardly blame them for wanting to use it so badly. This P60 V8 was the first engine designed and constructed by BMW Motorsport specifically as a racing engine. It’s also the first V8 ever stuffed into an M3 by the factory and despite the two extra cylinders, it was 30 pounds lighter than the S54. It featured dry sump lubrication and a flat plane crankshaft for a “very reliable” 444 horsepower at a delicious 7,500 RPM.
The rules that season allowed for manufacturers to compete with a purpose-built racing engine as long as a small number of road cars were produced with it. Ten cars were ordered to fulfill this requirement. Meanwhile, BMW Team PTG and BMW Team Schnitzer each raced two M3 GTRs starting with the third race of the eight race ALMS season. With six races left in the season, the two teams combined to win every remaining race from five pole positions while setting six new race lap records. The BMW M3 GTR easily secured the ALMS Manufacturers’ Championship for BMW, the Team Championship for BMW Team Schnitzer and the Drivers’ Championship for Jörg Müller.
After BMW’s dominant performance, the rules changed and BMW had to produce far more M3 GTR road cars than was economically feasible. BMW pulled factory support for ALMS but continued racing in Europe with more success. They had also cut the orders for the road going M3 GTRs after the sixth one was built. Three of the cars were engineering development cars that were later recycled while the other three cars were production-spec and still survive as part of the BMW Group Classic collection, seldom shown to the world.
So that brings us to this, one of the six road-going M3 GTRs. The only reason this car saw the light of traffic lights was because of the homologation requirements. The road cars were built in parallel with the race cars and thus shared many of the same traits, such as the P60 V8 (though detuned to 380 horsepower at 7,000 RPM) and similar aero treatment. It also featured dry-sump lubrication along with a sharply canted radiator with hood functional vents. A six-speed manual gearbox with a racing style twin-disc clutch and a variable locking M differential sent power to the rear wheels.
Even the M3 GTR road car featured an extensively stiffened chassis and a proper sport suspension setup, all derived from the race version built on the same line. It’s much lower than the standard car and also has additional bracing. The front and rear fascias resemble those of the race car but the rear wing was all-new. Speaking of which, the fascias, hood vents, wing, and roof were all made of carbon fiber-reinforced plastic (CFRP) – just as on the race version. BMW is still using CFRP today extensively today.
The interior was lightened up a bit too to make it more of an office fit for a racer. Leather-wrapped Recaro racing seats were added while the rear seats were removed.
For the last fourteen years, the BMW M3 GTR has been a rather mysterious but beloved car. It’s been immortalized in video games since (which I played) as a hero car and there are plenty of clones, all of which add to the lore. Fans of BMW know about its existence but almost have to trust that what BMW were saying about it was true because it was just never seen. The car made its world debut at the 2001 Petit Le Mans but was only shown for an hour before shipping off to Munich. It’s been in a basement ever since along with the other two. It’s a very unique car given the circumstances of its creation and certainly with how it’s lived its life thus far.
This was only its second trip to North America – the first being at Road Atlanta fourteen years ago – and I got to see it twice. Once parked on a golf course under a small tent (rather unceremoniously) and then in the paddock at Laguna Seca. The latter of which may have been the best place to see a car of this nature.
But ermagherd you guys I saw it and that makes me so happy.
But wait, there’s more!
Special bonus photo.
As I was snapping shots of the road car, the newly restored “Stars and Stripes” M3 GTR race car was being pushed into its trailer. This car was on display next to the road car but this was the only mostly clear shot I could get of it. The quick story behind this one was that it was raced at the 2001 Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta, the ALMS season finale, by Bill Auberlen, Boris Said, and Hans J-Stuck.
As a tribute to our grieving nation and to those lost in 9/11, BMW Team PTG owner Tom Milner ordered this patriotic livery for the race. This car won the race and became an instant legend for BMW. It’s seen here just after BMWUSA Classic partner Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing completed a ground-up eighteen month restoration.
It looked gorgeous. And as I sat there staring at it, bearing in mind its significance, I was filled with regret for not knowing about the awesomeness that was American Le Mans Series racing at Road Atlanta, a track that’s an hour away from my home for the last 18 years. Dammit.
[Images © 2015 Hooniverse/Greg Kachadurian | Factual information from BMW USA]