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Motoring: Like a Ferrari in a Savile Row suit

A saloon that performs like a supercar, the BMW M series is a superb second-hand buy.
THIS MAY come as a big surprise, but not all BMWs are equal. We all know that there are small, medium and large BMWs, but if you bothered to look more closely at the badge on the boot, you might also spot a subtle M logo. That M stands for Motorsport and it is BMW's premium performance brand which makes models that already have an enviable reputation for brilliant performance and handling, even more exciting.

Side, by side, apart from a lower stance and wider alloy wheels, an M series and a common-or-garden 3, or 5 series may look similar. However, open the bonnet, or put the M-series car on a ramp and what you will see is a radically reworked beast. An M series BMW is nothing less than a road legal racing car.

No wonder BMW and sports-car enthusiasts all over the world get excited by the very mention of the letter M. It stands for superlative build quality, uncompromising performance and serious understatement. It is the perfect combination and as a used-car prospect, a very affordable and hugely desirable package.

The M story started in the early Seventies, when the newly formed Motorsport division began work on a lightweight coupe for the road and competition. The result was the aluminium-panelled, 200bhp CSL in 1972, which showed the direction the company was going in.

However, the first BMW to wear the M badge could not have been more unlike the subtle saloons that were to make the marque's reputation. The M1 had an Italian-designed body, an engine in the middle and like any self- respecting 165mph supercar, only seated two. Its six-cylinder, 24-valve engine would go on to power legendary and more affordable M-series models such as the M5 and M635CSI.

Enthusiasts believe that the first true Motorsport product was a 5-series saloon, the M5 in 1986. With the engine from the M1 in a discreet and very sober four-door body it was an astonishingly quick yet subtle car. Putting that engine in the 635 coupe gave the marque a much higher profile. For many though, the best M series of all was the M3 in 1986.

The M3 looked similar to the standard two-door saloon, but just about everything else was different, from the body panels, to the suspension and race tuned 2.3 litre, 16-valve engine, which delivered a top speed of 150mph.

Available only in left-hand drive it nevertheless appealed to buyers who wanted a specifically produced car to qualify for international racing, which it went on to dominate. Other Ms followed. Convertibles, new model M5s in 1990 and M3s in 1993, although neither had the same raw character as the early models.

More recently the Z3 has received the M treatment and got a mixed reception. Yet M-series models remain as popular as ever.

To truly understand the appeal of the M series it is important to pay a visit to Europe's leading specialist, Munich Legends, surprisingly enough located in Sussex. Outside of BMW's own museum in Munich, you won't see more race and championship-winning M cars.

Tony Halse has been dealing in M series cars for 10 years. "What people like are the sensible running costs and the Germanic build quality. The best description I've ever heard was that these cars are Ferraris in a Savile Row suit. Buyers are enthusiasts and that is the key thing. My customers can have fun at a track day on Sunday, then use it on the school run on Monday."

According to Halse the first M5 is the rarest (just 187 in right-hand drive) and most fun. Original M3s are an icon and a true driver's car. You can buy M3s for as little as pounds 6,000 to pounds 8,000. Many are recent imports from Europe and not all are as pristine as they could be. A full service history, accident free and engineer-inspected M series is the only safe way to buy.

I would defy any car enthusiast to see and drive a BMW M series like these without being seriously tempted to write out a cheque.

Munich Legends 01825 740456