3rd September 2021

BMW 333i: The forgotten homologation special

For many enthusiasts, it doesn’t get much finer than the homologation saloon cars of the 1980s. The BMW E30 M3 is often described as the pinnacle of that period; a car which reached immediate hero status upon launch in 1986. It remains among the most celebrated models to wear Bayerische Motoren Werke’s badge – but for ultra-exclusivity, you’ll need to look towards its South African sister.

Since launch in 1985, the BMW 333i has remained one of the marque’s best kept secrets – and possibly the most special 3 Series of them all. The reason for its existence is familiar… But its name may not be.

While the 4-cylinder M3 was homologated for myriad European saloon car racing series, BMW South Africa decided a very different route for the Group One Championship. Alpina Germany was selected as a development partner, it’s factory also being utilised for the assembly. BMW SA designated the significantly larger 3.2-litre 6-cylinder as seen in the contemporary 7 Series – an engine capacity that wouldn’t grace an M3 for another fifteen years.

A degree of shoehorning was required to install the big six into the E30’s compact engine bay - so much so, that BMW required buyers to choose between air conditioning or power steering when placing their order… Not ideal for cars destined for a life in the South African sun.

That enormous engine became a defining characteristic of the 333i, offering a huge wave of power from a standing start. For fans of the ultimate driving machine, it remains hard to beat to this day. Despite being around 5bhp down on the M3, the 333i’s extra displacement allowed it an additional 35 lb/ft of torque. Period road tests described the necessary skill required to enjoy the 333i’s spectacular performance, and the car earned itself a reputation as a force to be reckoned with.

Despite its widow-making tendencies on the limit, styling was more in tune with the established Alpina approach. Unlike the box-arched M3, the unassuming 333i looks far more restrained, and every bit the Q-car in comparison. A subtle lower bodykit and 16’’ twenty spoke Alpina alloys were the only major styling cues that would separate the model in a row of 316i’s – although buyers could add Motorsport-themed decals to stand out a little further.

The 333i’s fate was sealed when Group One was canned in the model’s launch year. Only around 200 examples found homes over the next two years, while its more successful European sister went on to earn the title of the most victorious racing car of all time. The E30 M3 may have taken the racing glory, but for seekers of the most exclusive Munich legend, the 333i is hard to beat.