Throttle blip, downshift, trail brake into an inky black corner. Gobsmacking scenery, uncountable waterfalls, and endless switchbacks, endless. I wonder if I can fit it all in a cargo ship. I need to bring it home, all of it. I'd settle for the car.
Plucky weirdos, forbidden fruit, and absolute legends are the stock and trade of BMW Classic. They're the archivists of sheet metal and motor, maintaining and coddling rolling museum pieces, rare and unusual, and often very, very good. Their judgement is, perhaps, less good. They've given me the keys.
The Classic Group rolled out some of its finest small coupes for a drive from the Concorso d'Eleganza Villa d'Este on Lake Como through the Italian Alps, through Switzerland, Austria, then finally home to Munich. Epic? It was epic. I'll spend years plotting how to liberate more cars from their stewardship.
Conceptually, we were celebrating the 40th anniversary of the 3 Series. In practice, I was coveting the 3 Series cars that never crossed the Atlantic. At the end of a week of glorious, glorious driving I'd found three favorites that you'll never see stateside.
BMW E30 320is—1987-1990
In 1987 Italians were taxed heavily for cars with engines over 2.0-liters. To satisfy their performance hungry neighbors, BMW simply de-stroked the 2.3-liter that powered the M3 and dropped it into a stiffly sprung 3 Series chassis. So the 320is is an Italian tax dodge. Also, it's the cheapest way to get all the thrills of the E30 M3.
Over the road, the 320is has the charm and flingability of its increasingly valuable stablemate. Think of it as an M3 without a pedigree. It doesn't share every piece of bodywork and suspension, the rude fender flares are gone, and you'll have to settle for less wing. Larger brakes plucked from the six-cylinder 3 Series are more than sufficient though, and the M3's Getrag gearbox managed to make the cut. It might be a parts-bin special and lack the mystique of the E30 M3, but the 320is is cheap. Even more importantly, after a back-to-back thrash through the German Alps, the 320is was exactly as enjoyable to drive.
BMW E36 M3 GT—1995
While the 320is is a sleeper standout, the E36 M3 GT looks like exactly what it is: A limited edition homologation special. A badass. A rare and radical thing worthy of lust. It's exactly that. The production run was limited to 350 cars, another six pre-production models. Rare as they are, they're easy to spot as BMW appropriated British Racing Green for the paint. It's weird and subtle. The rest of the car isn't at all.
Starting with a 3.0-liter M3, the GT added a gutsy list of performance tweaks. Lightweight aluminum doors, a shorter final-drive ratio and an upgraded engine making just shy of 300-hp help the GT pull much harder than the already amusing E36 M3. Stiffer suspension, a strut tower brace and adjustable aero front and rear keep it remarkably planted. Really. Remarkably.
The GT brakes like a champ then points and rails. Flat and fast. On wet roads it was a saint. Steering feel for days, great sight lines, all the power and thrust and noise I've ever wanted. The M3 GT was the only car all week that left me a little breathless. Inside, lots of carbon fiber, green leather trim and a few very-1990s limited edition badges let you know you're in something special. As if you needed a reminder.
BMW E21 323i—1977-1982
The E21 series doesn't get the love it deserves. Sandwiched between lithe legends, the 2002 and the E30 series, the E21 admittedly looks a little portly. Still, the E21 is a driver's car. It's flickable and intuitive, and giddy oversteer is never far away. Especially in the six-cylinder 323i.
Powered by BMW's S20 engine, the fuel injected 323i was good for a ripping 143 hp and a top speed approaching 120 mph. The number seems thin today, but without the optional power steering, hustling the 323i can be a lively experience. Fortunately, the car was equipped with four-wheel disc brakes.
What really sells the 323i as a driver's car though, is the 5-speed dogleg gearbox paired with BMW's then-new, now-iconic interior concept. The E21 series was BMW's first to turn the dash toward the driver, something that continues to this day. Muscling the nose-heavy 323i into tight switchbacks, then metering out the power of the M20 through a great gearbox and thin, flexy tires made me wonder how the E21 never cemented itself in legend like its predecessor and successor. It also made me think a 323i would fit nicely in a US-bound freight container with the aforementioned 320is.