The road’s surface channels straight through the Alcantara wheel as I attack a series of fast, off-camber corners. I’m doing my best Ravaglia-style wheelmanship in a stealthy black Japan Evolution M3 on Hong Kong’s Repulse Bay Road. This scenic highway overlooking the South China Sea is a curvaceous ribbon of pavement that winds up, down and along the southernmost peninsula of Hong Kong island—essentially the Chinese Rivera.
The bark of a proper motorsport soundtrack fills the cabin as I complete a full-throttle upshift from Third to Fourth gear, feeling the engine coming on cam twice, first at 4800 rpm, then bang! again at 6000 rpm, powering onward to the 6750-rpm redline. Still, the four-cylinder’s sound is overshadowed somewhat by the primal scream emanating from the gray E46 M3 CSL on my tail. The E46 is itself being chased by a red E36 M3 Evolution, and together they serve as my motivation to press on with conviction.
Peeling down a rock-lined pass, the E30 feels securely planted as I continue the attack, the chassis allowing me to gain confidence, and with it, speed. The ride is firm but perfectly acceptable—this go-kart can still slide when provoked but regains posture fluidly. Like all E30 M3s, it was designed to do one thing and one thing only: win races.
With a comparably small production of 19,576 units produced versus 85,440 units for the E46 M3 and a “projected” 100,000 for the E90 and E92, the original is revered within collector circles. Particularly the rare special editions. There were no less than eight “series” (more than one example produced), or special editions. Three were specific homologation models: Evolution I, Evolution II and Sport Evolution. These were joined by an additional five limited editions.
Among the rarest and most desirable are the elusive Japan Evolution cars—consisting of merely two cars, and the only ones produced in right-hand-drive. These were never officially announced or put into a catalog by BMW; they were supplied to preferred customers. Because both examples resided in private collections in Japan until early this year, very little was known about them.
The story of the Japan Evolution begins with being at the right place at the right time. By chance, Mr. M. Mori, a Japanese BMW customer, visited BMW M’s facility in Garching during the summer of 1988. Tucked away in a corner of the workshop among various competition cars, he spotted a bespoke yellow M3 convertible that featured bright-red leather upholstery and… right-hand drive.
The technicians explained that it was a one-off commissioned by the Brunei royal family. The car was experiencing production delays due to the fact that many of the bespoke materials (woods, leathers and options) specified were still undergoing M division’s rigorous testing regime.
Upon returning to Japan, Mori contacted a friend and fellow BMW enthusiast Mr. Y (who prefers to remain anonymous), who personally knew BMW M Managing Director Adolf Prommesberger, to inquire if it was possible to commission a small batch of RHD cars for “traditionalist” Japanese customers. (While it is legal to drive both LHD and RHD in Japan, traditionalists maintain a preference for RHD cars.)
The timing was perfect as Prommesberger was in the process of proposing a new bespoke car customization business concept to the BMW board. Prommesberger proposed two Japan Evolutions based on the then-current Evolution II. This would allow BMW management time to evaluate a business case of further developing the E30 into a factory RHD offering. Unable to manufacture such a small run at the main production line, BMW supplied them in conjunction with the M division.
The conversion from LHD to RHD was straightforward, as the principal mechanical work required the fitment of a modified right-hand-drive rack-and-pinion steering rack from the 325i, along with RHD pedals and dashboard—all easily sourced from the parts bins. Otherwise the cars retained standard M3 mechanisms, although bespoke sport exhausts were fitted to both.
The first to arrive was Mori’s Alpine White example that featured a black extended Nappa leather interior. Mr. Y’s car was delayed as he had second thoughts about the color. He had originally ordered it in Diamantschwarz metallic (metallic black) but after further consideration, and while BMW M was performing the RHD conversion, he requested that the car be repainted Jet Black non-metallic—to match his Jet Black Ferrari Testarossa. While the car was at Garching, Mr. Y was informed of the upcoming Sport Evolution (due at the end of 1989) and seized the opportunity to convince BMW M to include the upcoming model’s interior in his Japan Evolution M3.
After the Japan Evolutions were delivered, BMW decided against any further development of a RHD M3. The reasons included the fact that BMW did not anticipate substantial orders for RHD versions of the models from places like Japan, where the stock market crashed in 1989. From an engineering standpoint, the work required to reconfigure the M3’s production line would have been too extensive to be cost effective.
The current custodian for the black Japan Evolution is another Mr. Y: Kevin Yeung, a Hong Kong businessman and car enthusiast. It is actually his second E30 M3. “I had a 1988 U.S. specification M3 while I was living in New Hampshire,” he says. “Since then, M3s in various guises have always been part of my life. But the E30 remains my favorite. I’d been searching for one in RHD since returning to Hong Kong over a decade ago. Earlier this year, I was alerted on the possibility of purchasing a black example in Japan. Only after it was delivered did I finally realize just what I had purchased.”
At first glance, it resembles a standard Evolution II with the Sport Evolution’s distinctive red bumper highlights. Once I noticed the steering wheel was on the right side, though, the realization hit—I was standing next to one of the rarest M3s in the world.
I board the car and settle into the generous Recaro seat (Mr. Y. is a large man by Japanese standards and requested BMW M to provide his car with a large size Recaro seat). A special dashboard plaque sits prominently ahead of the gearshift, clearly designating the car’s Japan Evolution provenance. The only modification Yeung, an audiophile, made has been installing a bespoke McIntosh stereo system.
I twist the key and the S14 wakes with a meaty wrarrrap. This is followed by the powerplant’s distinctive tapping sound at idle. It sounds raw. These S14 Evolution II engines were reworked with the introduction of high-compression pistons (11:1 up from 10.5:1) while the air intake was revised to include a 265-degree intake cam.
Evolution II aerodynamic modifications specific for homologation purposes were included on the Japan Evolutions. They received deeper front spoilers with brake cooling ducts in lieu of fog lights and rear lip spoilers on the boot. While the standard Getrag five-speed dogleg gearbox was carried over from the standard M3, the final drive ratio was changed from 3.25:1 to 3.15:1, resulting in a 0-62 time of 6.2 seconds and a top speed of 152 mph.
However, as I found, the E30 M3 is not without flaws. Its Achilles heel is its archaic braking system. The Bosch ABS braking system was developed in the early 1980s and worked with tiny two-piston calipers clamping on 280mm ventilated discs in front and 282mm solid discs at the rear.
Yeung also recognizes the problem and has commissioned a bespoke braking system based on modern AP Racing components. “When my car arrived,” Yeung says, “it came with two sets of 7.5x16-inch alloy wheels—the polished ones on the car today, along with the factory alloys. I wanted to keep the car on 16-inch wheels, but by doing so, I was unable to fit proper off-the-shelf brake upgrades.”
At length, my early-morning E30 blast comes to an end. As I part ways with my driving companions, I glance back at the trio of M3s and ponder the question: Which one would I want?
The answer is simple: The one that claimed victories at the 24 Hours Nürburgring, Spa 24 Hours, Guia Race, European Touring Car Championship, Manx Rally, Deutsche Tourenwagen Meisterschaft—and of course, won World Touring Car Championship titles.
1988 BMW M3 Japan Evolution
Longitudinal front engine, rear-wheel drive
2.3-liter I4, dohc, 16-valve
Wheels and Tires
BMW factory alloys, 7.5x16
Michelin Pilot Sport, 225/45
Recaro driver seat, M Technic II steering wheel, custom McIntosh audio system
Peak Power: 220 hp @ 6750 rpm
Peak Torque: 181 lb-ft @ 4750 rpm
0-62 mph: 6.2 sec.
Top Speed: 152 mph