REVIEW: BMW E36 M3 Evo Hartge 3.5

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For as long as human beings have roamed the earth we have been drawing and writing on walls; from our early cave drawings depicting the hunt, through to the Romans and Greeks who protested by writing on their building walls. In more modern times, the rise of writing on walls, or graffiti as it became known, started in the US city of Philadelphia in the 1960s. By the end of the decade, this new urban art form had moved to New York and during the 1970s its popularity had grown exponentially. Walls, buildings, the subway, no city medium was exempt as gangs marked territory by tagging, or street artists made political and humorous statements for all members of society to see. Like it or loathe it, graffiti’s impact on modern art history in the Western world is assured.

At around the same time as graffiti’s popularity rose in the US, Alpina, Schnitzer and Hartge were making their own pioneering statements at the race tracks across Germany. Some were drivers, some engine tuners, some both. All were pioneers in BMW racing and performance engineering. But more than racers, they were each smart enough to recognise that ‘Win on Sunday, sell on Monday’ would hold true as the fascination with fast road cars continued to grow in their homeland, the derestricted sections of their local autobahn providing the perfect and unique vmax playground.

Almost 50 years later, on an unusually warm and stunning Sunday morning, I find myself driving one of these fast road cars in towards the east end of London, a Hartge E36 3.5 M3 Evo. As we pass through the Blackwall Tunnel, I ease off the throttle and create a bit of space. A quick change down in to 2nd gear, blipping the engine and, whaahhhhhh, change to 3rd, pah,... whaahhhhhh I haven’t even gone above 3,5000 rpm, but the hairy chested exhaust reverberating off the tunnel walls is simply awesome; I’m already totally addicted to the noise this car makes.

This Hartge is unlike any other E36 I have ever driven, driving nothing like a regular M3 Evo. This stunning example, finished in Estoril blue, belongs to Club member and photographer Dean Grossmith. As we come out of the tunnel and I tickle the throttle once more, whaahhhhhh. Ahead I see Dean’s arm extend out of my E90 M3 driver’s window up head, fist clenched and thumb pointing upwards. I think he approves. 

This particular M3 Evo was first delivered to a Mr George Brown in early January 1998 for the not inconsiderable sum of £45,419.00. For this money the car was, as you would expect, well optioned: light grey leather; double spoked alloys; electric sliding sun roof; polished burr walnut; auto air conditioning; passenger air bag; and of course, the obligatory rear spoiler. And as the revised ‘Evo’ version it had the larger 3.2 litre straight six producing, according to BMW, and more on this later, 321 bhp and 258 lbft. The S50 B32 engine in this later Evo version was the centrepiece of this M3, its accessibility endearing it to M fans and track addicts alike. It was a seriously fast road car off the shelf, softer than the original E30 M3, which was more of a racer turned into a road car of course. But it was also a more grown up, rounded and comfortable place to be, coming from a road car base as it did. 

So, for most people this would be all the car you could ever want. But not for the first owner, Mr George Brown. He wanted something a little more impressive. He wanted to make a statement. He wanted a car with bragging rights.

Less than three weeks after delivery, the car was driven from Tyne & Wear down to Kevin Bird at Birds Garage in Uxbridge for a few upgrades. Being the UK distributor for Hartge, Kevin promptly stripped out the brand-new engine and shipped it over to Herbert Hartge and his team at the Hartge factory in Beckingen, Germany. 

When it arrived, the engine was taken to the Hartge Engineering workshops and the precision engineering and high capacity conversion began. Unlike other ‘superficial’ (sic) tuners, Hartge had their own automated engine test bench in house. Both stroke and bore were increased over the standard engine, the capacity now up from 3.2 litres to 3.5 litres. It is often cited by those in the know that many BMW engine performance claims during the 90s were a little stretched and that the reality was often a little shy. Not so for Hartge. 

By the time Hartge had finished their engineering, the performance was precisely substantiated on the engine test bench; there was no room for marketing bluff here, the measurements made were accurate. Power had increased 9% to 350 bhp and torque had increased 14% to 294 lbft or 400Nm. In a car weighing around 1,500Kg, these gains had a pretty impressive performance difference over the standard M3 Evo. The 0 to 60 sprint dropped 0.5 seconds, down to 4.8 seconds. The top speed, now unlimited, increased to a jaw dropping 181 mph.

Whilst this work occurred in Germany, Birds were busy making a number of other Hartge based modifications: the catalysts removed, rear silencer and tail pipe replaced, white dials were added to the dashboard and stabiliser kit fitted. Once the engine was received back from Beckingen, Birds re-assembled it. The Hartge 3.5 was now ready for the road. The price for such bragging rights? £14,121.51. Or to put it another way, another third of the price of the original 1998 M3 Evo. That price also bought a pretty rare beast on these shores as there are only six such Hartge 3.5 E36 M3 conversions thought to have been performed by Birds. For reference, and in today’s money, the finished car with Hartge conversion would be a staggering £102,000.

The effect this Hartge upgrade has on the M3 is dramatic. The engine performance delivery, and especially the increase in torque, transforms the car. At first it seems completely alien compared to driving a regular E36 M3. For a start the idle is race car lumpy and quite disconcerting when you are used to the regular S50 straight six. But this is how they came. However, if you don’t like it, all you need do is have a prod on the relatively weighty throttle pedal and a glorious hairy chested sound emanates out of the Hartge tuned exhaust. Make no mistake, this car is no baritone like a regular E36 M3, this is operatic bass after a heavy night on the tiles.

On the road the car is a joy to drive, quickly inspiring confidence to lean on its many talents, with the engines strong torque always making itself felt. The brakes are light and delicate, a complete contrast to the robustness required for the throttle and the low biting clutch. However, this delicacy provides great confidence in its capability under braking with very precise inputs being rewarded. The steering wheel is wonderfully 1990s thin, which lends itself to a feel for the road surface at low and medium speeds that is often lost in the latest generation M cars. The only real downside with the steering is its turning circle. Steering agility like London taxi cab it does not have; it’s comically poor in fact; particularly noticeable when one is going back and forth and performing three, okay five point turns for the numerous panning shots along Hackney Wick’s tight and graffitied back streets.

The only slight disappointment with the Hartge, and another trait I personally suffer with 90s BMWs with sunroofs, is the lack of headroom. Being 6’ 2” plus and fairly long in the body, I have the indignity of having my head bounce off the headlining more often than not, but I experienced the same in my 8er. I can only assume that the head clearance check process was performed back in the day by a vertically challenged Munich engineer, or perhaps someone simply forgot that sunroofs could be added as an option on the manufacturing line but would reduce head clearance by 40mm.

No matter, there are too many wonderful traits in this Hartge to counterbalance my own physical anomalies. The gear change on this 6-speed box is a real delight. The short throw combines deliciously with the low biting clutch and throttle to enable expertly timed and rev matched downshifts. Of course, more rev matching means more exhaust noise and more aural joy can be generated. That’s a good thing. I don’t think I know many fast BMW road cars that make quite so much noise this low down in the rev range; it’s a proper Tunnel hunter, this Hartge.

Even as Dean and I drive around Hackney Wick seeking out the next photoshoot location, the Hartge gets a lot of positive attention. And even more so when we are parked up posing for the next shot: sitting on its perfectly proportioned Hartge 17” wheels, its silver grey Hartge side stickers perfectly highlighted against its Estoril blue paintwork, the graffiti backdrop contrasting wonderfully with both. This part of town is some location, half Armageddonville, half uber city chic. 

After the last shot, I jump back in the Hartge for one last drive, and one last time to enjoy that glorious 3.5 litre engine. The downtown graffiti laden streets give way to normality which in turn gives way to the multi carriage roads heading out of the city. It is here the Hartge can be extended as its maker intended. The power delivery is glorious and absolutely linear, pulling strongly throughout the rev range. There is no let up to all the way to that wonderfully high 7,400 rpm redline. Even at a modern classic(ish) 21 years of age and with 64,000 miles on the clock, this Hartge shows absolutely no signs of slowing down; this car is a proper ‘Bahn stormer’.

And what of its maker? Well that seems both a sad and mysterious story altogether. I spoke to a number of people in preparation for this article, including Kevin Bird as Hartge UK distributor and Jeff Heywood, former BMWCC Chairman and now Vice President, who had sometime before met Herbert Hartge and organised a road trip which took in the Hartge factory with the Car Club. Even as the Hartge UK distributor, Kevin only heard second hand that Herbert had decided to close the doors, from a fellow distributor and contact in Greece. 

The story goes that after a number of years, the Sales & Marketing Manager told Herbert in 2017 that he would be leaving Hartge. On hearing the news, Herbert was believed to have told staff that after his pending three-week holiday he would advise on the next step for the company. That next step, surprisingly on his return, was to close the factory. So today, there are no more Hartges being produced. The Hartge website is now a one-page shadow of its former self, with the only centre caps available to purchase. The doors are closed, and from those folks that visited Beckingen last summer, the feedback is that the Hartge signs are completely removed from the factory building and the weeds have taken over. Other stories exist about Hartge family members wanting to continue with the brand and even buy the facility, but apparently all to no avail. 

There are not many people in this world with enough vision and enough cojones to stick a 5.0 litre V8 in a 1 series. But Herbert Hartge did. It’s often said, “There is no replacement for displacement”. And although Hartge embraced forced injunction mainly with supercharging later in its existence, it’s the large and occasionally outrageous capacity engine installations that Hartge did so well. But maybe there is a replacement for displacement, and that was the problem? With the rise and popularity of turbocharging, an unprecedented amount of power and torque is being derived from all kinds of engines by all kinds of new turning houses. Is it possible these unexpected competitors and the subsequent reduction in engineering experience required to achieve such huge performance gains, is somehow to blame?

We may never know the real reasoning, but what Herbert Hartge has left us with is a statement and legacy of some of the most powerful and high performing BMWs ever built. 

And as for the lucky owners of these ever more rarefied beasts, such as Dean and his Hartge 3.5 M3 Evo, bragging rights are absolutely 100% assured. What a truly awesome fast car it is.

Author: @TurnAndClipiT

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