The DTM Golden era: BMW Vs. Mercedes-Benz

Rewind to the 1970s: The compact executive saloon market was flooded with boring, affordable versions of their full-size executive counterparts. One car stood out from the pack, nicknamed the “Flying Brick”, the E21 320 turbo was a force to be reckoned with on the racetrack but also in the showrooms – proving true the “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday” mantra.

Ayrton Senna Vs. Niki Lauda

To replicate that success, Mercedes invested a lot of time and money to develop their first compact executive saloon with help from the legendary race engine builder: Cosworth. The result was the 1983 190E 2.3-16V (W201). It was Intended to compete in the grueling Group-B World Rally Championship (WRC) but Mercedes shied away from motor sport due to the costs high risk of death and injury.


Despite their decision, a handful of Mercedes engineers worked with AMG in secret to enter the 190E in the German Touring car championship (DTM). The “Baby Benz” took home 12 speed and endurance records. It was then that they had caught the attention of BMW.


The, then, CEO of BMW decided to bring the competition to Mercedes with a new track-focused 3-series. He was so serious about beating Mercedes that he green-lighted the motor sport division to create an  E30 based M3 prototype within 2 weeks.

Photographed by: Guillermo Guadron

Homologation rules dictated that competing cars must have a minimum of 5,000 road going production units, but BMW’s sales department were adamant that the demand for that quantity of a highly specialised car did not exist. So, in typical BMW fashion, they created the demand by racing the hell out of it. As a result, the E30 M3, not only competed in but, dominated the German, British, Italian, French, Australian and World Touring Car Championships as well as the 24 Hours of Nürburgring. It even bagged a win in the 1987 WRC Tour De Corse just for good measure. It is safe to say that the E30 M3 is one of the most successful race cars of all time.


The two manufacturers would constantly one-up each other with evolutionary improvements for that slight competitive edge. These improvements would include bored out versions of the same engines, improvements to the brakes, suspension and aero. By 1989 Mercedes had gone through two iterations; The Evolution I and II while BMW had gone through three; EVO I, II and Sport Evolution. Each of these had significant power upgrades that would push these lightweight cars to around 360HP! The power to weight ratios was so high that the cars were rarely seen with on all four wheels on the track:




For the evolved cars to be homologated, an additional number of production units had to be made to mirror the changes in engine displacement and aero, alas, these cars were detuned for a much more consumer-friendly 230HP.

It is because of this legendary rivalry that even these road-going models are now worth up to twice their original sticker price. Inevitably, this means that they would get locked away in dehumidified garages for the sake of “preservation”.  We believe these cars deserve to be driven hard (on the track of course) because who, born after the electric car revolution, will really appreciate these cars for how we remember them?


By Jamil Jafri

Editor at The Mechanists