Hankering for the ultimate BMW M3 | Thank Frankel it's Friday

10th March 2023
andrew_frankel_headshot.jpg Andrew Frankel

That I should spend my life poring over the classifieds looking at cars I’d love to own but could never afford is, of course, in no way remarkable. I’d bet plenty that most people reading this have been susceptible to this particular kind of self-imposed mental torture too. But I suspect that where we differ is that I’m more than capable to turning my insides to knots looking at advertisements for cars that, with a spot of judicious man maths, I absolutely could afford.


Why not just buy then? Bitter, personal experience is why. What happens is I get all aflutter about something, succumb, part with the readies, collect said car, then hardly ever drive it. It’s role in my life is reduced to one of being made to feel guilty every time I see it in the shed and realising another month has rolled by in which its longest journey was to travel to the outside of the shed to breathe the fresh air for just long enough for me to sweep out said shed before being returned to bed.

One recent example was my lovely Miami blue limited edition 1.9-litre Peugeot 205 GTI. I adored that car but some inner altruism made me constantly think of some unknown future owner who’d be using and enjoying it far more than I ever had or could. So I sold it, and a bloke called Dave is now doing exactly that. The problem – and I concede it’s a nice problem to have – is the job. When you drive cars for a living, there’s preciously little time left for driving cars as a hobby. Which is why the small accumulation of cars I’ve gathered over time exist purely for local journeys when I don’t have to be driving and assessing something else. And there’s no point owning a 205 GTI if you’re only going to drive it five miles to the pub and back.

But still I torture myself, and have been doing so far more of late than at any time since I last gave into these instincts and bought an old crossflow Caterham which I’ve not guilted myself out of yet, though it may only be a matter of time. 


Usually, these flare-ups of what is a very old disease need a trigger. In the Caterham’s case, it was driving a new Super Seven on Jenvey throttle bodies which do a remarkably good job of imitating the induction bark of a pair of 40mm side-draft Weber DCOE carburettors. Next thing I knew I was off to Sevens & Classics and handing over the lolly.

This time the trigger was a 2004 BMW M3 CSL. These lightweight specials are all six-figure cars now because they are rare and extremely highly regarded despite all coming as new with BMW’s flawed robotised manual SMG paddle shift gearbox. It was a mesmerising experience, reminding me of a time when BMW M-cars were light, compact, visually discreet and possessed naturally aspirated engines that spun through 8,000 revolutions while shrieking like a valkyrie.

Still, the price alone meant I wasn’t about to buy one of those. But what about a standard ‘E46’ M3, the car from which the CSL was derived? I have always thought there’s a strong argument for these M3s to be regarded as the greatest ‘M’ cars of them all, greater even than the vaunted E30 homologation special it succeeded. It is, for want of a better term, the Goldilocks car of the BMW M range. Fast enough to be truly thrilling, yet sufficiently comfortable to use as a daily driver, quiet and well equipped, yet fabulously agile and well balanced, a full four-seater with a big boot but with looks that reveal very little of the performance within… when I think of what I want an M car to be, this is the vision that swims before my eyes.

Of course, even if I got in the game now I’d be late to it. Three or four years ago you could pick up clean examples for £12-£15,000. Now the same cars are worth perhaps ten grand more. Yes, of course, they can be found for less but either they’ll be really leggy, have dodgy histories or be in a specification I don’t want, like an SMG convertible. And because these cars have often been thrashed, frequently on tracks, because they went through a period of not being very valuable at all, many will have been neglected. I’d not be that sensitive to mileage, but would reject a car with blanks in its history and not in precisely the right spec (manual coupe, sober colour inside and out). 


And once you’ve filtered out the dross and the cars with question marks hanging over them do you know what? These once abundant cars are becoming quite hard to find in precisely the right specification. And when you do they tend not to be cheap. Probably late twenties to early thirties now. It’s still a fraction of what you’d pay for a CSL, but in my head, it’s still a lot of money to pay for a car made in large numbers over a period of six years.

But I bet it would still look after you financially. Certain cars capture the zeitgeist – the 205 GTI was one and by the time the E46 M3 is that kind of age I’m confident it will be another. So if I were smart I’d just go and buy one, closet it away and wheel it out again in a few years time hoping to pocket a packet. But I’m not smart and I’ve already spent far too much of my time feeling guilty about all the cars I’ve bought but not used. 

The annoying thing is that by the time I retire and find myself in a position to really enjoy such a car, the world will have woken up, prices will have gone through the roof and I won’t be able to afford it…

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    Andrew Frankel

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