[27 December 2003] It's BMW M-car day. Through the dank October grime of an early morning at the Top Gear test-track, hidden away in darkest Surrey, a steady trickle of Munich's finest assemble on the tarmac. Twenty cars arrive in all, spanning the lifetime of the M-Car. There's everything you could think of, from an M1 via each generation of M3 and M5 (yes, even a Touring) through to today's M3 CSL. There's an M635, an M Coupe and even an original 3.0 CSL, the grand-daddy of the lot. Should be plenty to keep us amused. The cast Star of the day is ex-BTCC racing driver Steve Soper. During the BTCC's mid-'90s hey-day, Soper's fortnightly battles with the likes of Alain Menu and John Cleland always formed the centrepiece of any decent Saturday afternoon's Grandstand. Other than Steve, Top Gear staffers Peter 'Frog' Grunert and James Mills are on site to direct the day's proceedings, and I'm there with a stop-watch. Forming the cast of thousands are the BMW owners. They took some tracking down, since many of these high-performance Beemers are now rare cars. BMW specialists Munich Legends made a heroic effort to source the cars, using their contacts among the BMW enthusiast fraternity to track down the scarcer models. The BMW press office also chipped in, supplying the M1 and M635 CSi from their historic fleet, as well as most of the newer machinery. Their cars were immaculately prepared, as you'd expect. With a week to go until M-Day we were only one car short - we needed an M Roadster. Ironically, it wasn't so long ago that Top Gear ran one of these on its long term fleet, but this time we couldn't get one for love nor money. Technology came to the rescue, as a swiftly worded plea on the Top Gear web-site turned up a willing participant at the last minute. The cast was complete. The mission It sometimes seems a shame, on the day, that features such as this have to have a structure. The temptation is to forget that there's a job to be done, to combine the 20 BMW M-cars with the one test track and to enjoy the day. Alas, these basic fine ingredients alone do not a good feature make. There always needs to be a plan, a point, a purpose. On this occasion the plan is just what you might have hoped: we hand the car keys to Soper, put the stop-watch on him and tell him to go and play. By the end of the day, hopefully, we'll have 20 lap-times, plenty of pithy quotes from Steve about the cars' respective merits, a clear-headed sense of the evolution of the BMW M-car, and of course lots of pretty pictures. That lot ought to make a fine feature, because the subject matter is petrolhead heaven, the variety of cars keeps every page fresh, the analysis comes from a respected racing figure and the photos are all of attractive motors. With raw material like that in place, the journalist's life is made a whole lot easier! The method It's 9.00am, and we decide to get the dull stuff out of the way first: the photography. It's hard to credit just how much time the snapping can devour. After all, on the page a photo can take but a second to glance at - though if it's any good hopefully you choose to linger longer. But time must be spent labouring away with buckets and sponges and glass cleaner, getting the cars looking spick and span for their moments on the cat-walk. After this the cars must be positioned for the shots, which is always a trial-and-error process. Normally a variety of different shots are taken for each car, involving action (more cleaning), static and detail photographs. When you've got 20 cars to get through, it's a marathon process. The first job on M-Day is to get the 'header' shot done, the main picture that will lead the article in the magazine and appear as a spread. The intention is to manoeuvre the cars into a letter 'M' formation out on the track and photograph them from the air. Snapper Mike Baillie and TG art director Charlie Turner are suspended in a crane from the back of a cherry-picker lorry, towering over the muddle of cars and directing them into position. "Can we move the M5 forward a bit?" bellows Mike unhelpfully, and four keen-as-mustard M5 owners all lunge for their cars. "No, not that one!". Once everything is lined up, a Polaroid shot of the proposed photo is taken and studied. The cars have formed rather an effective-looking 'M' after all. When photographer Baillie is happy, he drops the Polaroid from his lofty vantage point and it flutters to the ground for the approval of the multitude. "It's not in the right BMW 'M'-font", complains one owner. "Don't worry, it will be once we Photoshop it!" cracks Charlie from on high. Several reels of film are shot, then after a lot of throat-clearing all the cars' lights are switched on. More film is shot. By 11.00am the process is finally done, and the cars dissipate back to base. Except the M5 Touring, which has a flat battery. With the main shot done, the driving can begin. While Steve starts feeling his way around the track in the older machinery, various groups of cars slope off to a quiet corner of the test track complex to have more detailed photos taken of them. I stand out in the field in the middle of the track, stop-watch in hand, twitching my finger as a two-door car blurs past with a whiff of something burning and a straight-six engine gurgling. This process would repeat itself many times before the day was through. For those without formal duties such as lap-timing, it's a chance not only to examine the cars close-up, but to go for a ride with a top-class driver and learn how to drive a track. This enables the owners to see the full potential of their cars demonstrated. Steve Soper's lapping takes the majority of the day: 20 cars, each with a warm-up lap, a hot lap and a cool-down lap means 60 laps with 20 car swaps. With notes to be taken at the end of each driving stint, morning swiftly becomes a memory. With the list of cars to be checked off diminishing, however, I finally manage to off-load stop-watch duties to picture co-ordinator Pete Trafford, and blag a ride with Soper myself. We're in an M3. The latest 343bhp M3. Oh my. As we head out onto the opening straight my heart thumps, and I know this is just the warm-up. Steve turns gently into the first bend, but as it tightens the back of the M3 steps out before Steve calmly corrects and gets back on the power. "The key is to make the straights as long as possible - that way you can get on the throttle for longer", he informs me. I try to nod, but my head is pinned to the head-rest. By the time we slither to a halt I'm somewhat glad to stagger back to the sanctuary of the field and time Steve in what should be the fastest lapper of the day, the M3 CSL. It's a humbling experience, riding with a driver that good. The madness With the lap-times in the bag, the remaining task of the day can now be completed: the action shots can be taken of the cars sliding around the track. Yep, it's sideways action time. Steve, Frog, James, Charlie and myself breeze down to the 'Hammerhead' section of the circuit, a corner complex ideal for oversteering the cars as nature intended. We have with us a delightful array of overpowered rear-drivers: two M5s, an M Coupe, an M635CSi and the M3 CSL. I'm down there first in the M635, and watch James approach in the CSL. He's going rather quickly, accompanied by a piercing metallic howl. The CSL nosedives as he turns late into the Hammerhead, before a bootful of throttle sees the rear tyres squirm wide. Opposite lock ensues and a cloud of smoke forces out from the rear wheel arches, the car completing the corner in a graceful sideways arc. Perfectly executed - who is this Soper guy anyway? Next up is Charlie in the M Coupe, and he attacks the Hammerhead with the confidence of a man who's just been granted eternal life. The car's looking very sideways though... oh dear. He's spun - too much opposite lock sees the Coupe snap back the other way and pirouette onto the grass. There's no damage, but Charlie emerges looking sheepish. "What happened?" asks James with a grin. "I dropped it", confesses Charlie. His blushes were spared, though, when Soper managed to do exactly the same thing in the M Coupe five minutes later! The result By the end of play, we'd bagged our photos, nailed our lap-times and our feature was on course for deadline day. Steve Soper posed for photos with a few still-excited BMW owners as darkness descended, and as the last cars burbled away from the trackside, Frog contemplated the one remaining task. He still had to write the damn feature. For the official Top Gear verdict on the BMW M-cars, and the full list of lap-times Steve laid down for us, read on. Steve Soper: the man's a legend He's owned 10 different M5s. He used to commute 60,000 miles a year between European circuits in a variety of first and second-generation M3s. He now drives a current SMG-equipped M3 coupe. If anyone knows M cars, he's the man. To fully understand Steve Soper's connections with M-powered BMWs, however, we need to take a rewind through his 24-year long racing career. He was continually at the centre of the mayhem in M3s and 318is during the British Touring Car Championship's most exciting years, taking second spot in 1993. He campaigned in the German DTM series for four years and won the Japanese Touring Car Championship in '95. He's also won the Nurburgring and Spa 24-hour races and was runner-up in the FIA GT Championship in '97 in an (M-engined) McLaren F1. Plus he took fifth place at Le Mans in '99, in a BMW V12 LM sports prototype. Steve Soper is the British driver most closely associated with BMWs. It's ironic that his career was ended in 2001 in a Peugeot 406 Coupe, sustaining a severe neck injury after crunching into the barrier during a BTCC race at Brands Hatch. His time is now mostly taken up running his (BMW, of course) dealership, Soper of Lincoln. Providing brief distraction, we've now returned him to his preferred environment, a track with a comprehensive selection of M cars waiting to be thrashed. He'll be setting lap times and rating each based on which car's driving experience best matches up to his memories and, in the M3 CSL's case, his expectations. The rankings 20 - 1972-73: 3.0 CSL Alloy-skinned homologation special, the car that Motorsport GmbH was initially set up to develop Engine: 3153cc 12v in-line 6-cyl, 200bhp Performance: 0-60mph in 7.3 seconds, max speed 134mph Price: £12,000-£16,000 Soper Says: 'I joined BMW Motorsport just after the ultimate race version of this car came to an end. I was never a lover of the road version. It has a long, slow gearchange and generally feels its age' 19 - 1980-81: M535i (E12) The second-fastest BMW of its day and the first M-badged saloon, using a detuned engine from the M1 Engine: 3453cc 24v in-line 6-cyl, 218bhp Performance: 0-62mph in 7.5 seconds, max speed 138mph Price: £2,500-£6,000 Soper Says: 'I don't really like old cars, so this one's a surprise. Yes, it rolls a bit and, yes, it's slow at getting into the corner, but once it's there it tucks into its line. It's got great torque - it's an effortless Q car' 18 - 1988-91: M3 cabrio (E30) BMW lopped the roof off the hard-core 'Eighties M3, reducing rigidity and adding over £10k to the price Engine: 2302cc 16v in-line 4-cyl, 215bhp Performance: 0-62mph in 6.9 seconds, max speed 143mph Price: £9,000-£12,000 Soper Says: 'Though it doesn't have the horsepower of most of the other cars here, you can still feel this one's race car origins. It's nimble, light and resists understeer well. Nice, but the saloon is nicer' 17 - 1996-00: M3 EVO cabrio (E36) Roofless second-generation M3, in later Evolution spec with added bhp and six-speed 'box Engine: 3201cc 24v in-line 6-cyl, 321bhp Performance: 0-62mph in 5.7 seconds, max speed 155mph Price: £12,000-£16,000 Soper Says: 'More steering movement is required to cope with the same corner in this one than in the equivalent Evo coupe; that could be due to the increased body flex. Quite pleasant, though harder work overall' 16 - 1992-95: M3 Coupe (E36) The first of the second-generation M3s, with straight-six engine matched to five-speed gearbox Engine: 2990cc 24v in-line 6-cyl, 286bhp Performance: 0-62mph in 6.0 seconds, max speed 155mph Price: £8,000-£11,000 Soper Says: 'Quicker than the M3 it replaced. Even so, it leaves me feeling cluttered, unless you get it absolutely perfectly balanced entering a corner you're going to need armfuls of opposite lock everywhere' 15 - 1984-87: M5 (E28) The first M5, with bigger brakes, quicker steering and oodles more bhp than the contemporary M535i Engine: 3453cc 24v in-line 6-cyl, 286bhp Performance: 0-62mph in 6.5 seconds, max speed 152mph Price: £9,000-£13,000 Soper Says: 'The engine's the thing that stands out: above 5,000rpm it really gallops away. Then you find yourself with a quicker approach speed and discover that it's not as nicely balanced as the M535i' 14 - 1998-02: M roadster M-tweaked Z3 with a body structure stiffened in an attempt to cope with power borrowed from the M3 Engine: 3201cc 24v in-line 6-cyl, 325bhp Performance: 0-62mph in 5.3 seconds, max speed 155mph Price: £18,000-£26,000 Soper Says: 'Loses speed where I expected it to, with understeer in places. Clearly slower and not as sharp as the M Coupe, although I feel this is a car that mostly does what owners would want it to' 13 - 1989-90: M3 sport evo (E30) The first M3 solely existed so BMW could go racing. All were lhd. This Sport Evo is the ultimate version Engine: 2467cc 16v in-line 4-cyl, 238bhp Performance: 0-62mph in 6.5 seconds, max speed 154mph Price: £8,000-£20,000 Soper Says: 'The version I drove in the DTM revved all the way round to 10,800rpm. Straight away you can feel how taut this car is. It's easy to drive very quickly and I'm impressed by how well it's held together' 12 - 1995-98: M3 evo saloon (E36) Rare four-door M3 did without the coupe's M-tuned suspension and love-handle clenching sports seats Engine: 3201cc 24v in-line 6-cyl, 321bhp Performance: 0-62mph in 5.5 seconds, max speed 155mph Price: £12,000-£16,000 Soper Says: 'Slightly more body movement than in the coupe and slightly more slip in corners; feels mostly similar in most respects and nearly as quick. Not at all sure about the wood trim inside. One for the wife' 11 - 1995-99: M3 evo coupe (E36) More power, quicker steering, stronger brakes and new springs and dampers next to first E36 M3 coupe Engine: 3201cc 24v in-line 6-cyl, 321bhp Performance: 0-62mph in 5.5 seconds, max speed 155mph Price: £12,000-£16,000 Soper Says: 'Pulls like crazy away from corners and very comfortable at high speeds. Enough torque to avoid messing about with constant gearchanges, so I can concentrate on getting the steering inputs right' 10 - 1984-89: M635 CSi Sizeable grand tourer that shared its engine with the M5 and its price tag with the Ferrari Mondial QV Engine: 3453cc 24v in-line 6-cyl, 286bhp Performance: 0-62mph in 6.4 seconds, max speed 155mph Price: £10,000-£15,000 Soper Says: 'Surprisingly clumsy in the slower stuff and doesn't flow as easily as the M535i. It's disappointing to drive, but I've always wanted one and I still love the look of it, so I'm giving it tenth place here' 9 - 1992-95: M5 Touring (E34) The first ridiculously rapid load-lugger, with 340bhp and a five-speed 'box. Never officially sold in UK Engine: 3795cc 24v in-line 6-cyl, 340bhp Performance: 0-62mph in 6.1 seconds, max speed 155mph Price: £10,000-£13,000 Soper Says: 'Performance is strong, there's little roll and it feels like a limo to drive gently too. Pushes on in the tighter stuff and there's a tiny bit of brake fade - fairly acceptable for a car of this size and age' 8 - 1988-95: M5 (E34) Finest of the second-generation M5s has 340bhp, six-speed 'box and 'Nurburgring' suspension set-up Engine: 3795cc 24v in-line 6-cyl, 340bhp Performance: 0-62mph in 5.9 seconds, max speed 155mph Price: £10,000-£13,000 Soper Says: 'I could do 700-800 miles a day in one of these and still feel fresh when I got in a race car at the end of it. Great fun and gives me so much confidence. In its era there was nothing that could touch it' 7 - 1979-81: M1 Mid-engined M-powered supercar, styled by Giugiaro and developed in part by Lamborghini Engine: 3453cc 24v in-line 6-cyl, 277bhp Performance: 0-62mph in 5.6 seconds, max speed 163mph Price: £40,000-£55,000 Soper Says: 'Night and day compared to the 3.0CSL. It sounds great, the steering is quick, the gearchange is good and it dives into the apex. A very focused sports car, yet one that you feel at home in straight away' 6 - 2001-: M3 cabrio (E46) The current-generation M3 packing 343bhp and promising maximum 'bling' in convertible guise Engine: 3246cc 24v in-line 6-cyl, 343bhp Performance: 0-62mph in 5.5 seconds, max speed 155mph Price: £35,000-£42,435 Soper Says: 'Clearly another leap up in technology. So much less effort is needed in this than in, say, the M Roadster. Driving it in isolation, you'd struggle to know it was a convertible. Extremely high limits' 5 - 1984-87: M535i (E28) Not the M anorak's favourite: essentially a re-badged 535i, with bodykit and Bilstein suspension Engine: 3430cc 24v in-line 6-cyl, 218bhp Performance: 0-62mph in 7.4 seconds, max speed 143mph Price: £2,500-£5,000 Soper Says: 'Feels so fresh. Has a lovely balance to it - there's some measured understeer, then you can use the throttle to get the nose in and step the tail out. I really didn't think I'd like it. Deserves fifth place' 4 - 1998-02: M Coupe Odd two-seat Z3-based coupe only offered in the UK as an M, later using a detuned E46 M3 engine Engine: 3201cc 24v in-line 6-cyl, 325bhp Performance: 0-62mph in 5.3 seconds, max speed 155mph Price: £19,000-£32,000 Soper Says: 'The weirdest thing you've ever seen and one of the stiffest chassis BMW's made. After the M Roadster this gets everything done quicker, making the straights and the corners seem far shorter' 3 - 2000-: M3 coupe (E46) Present M3 coupe, with toys such as sport-mode drive-by-wire throttle and trick M Differential Engine: 3246cc 24v in-line 6-cyl, 343bhp Performance: 0-62mph in 5.2 seconds, max speed 155mph Price: £30,000-£39,735 Soper Says: 'Easier by a gnat's around here than the current M3 convertible. Holds its line tighter, feels that bit stiffer. Capable of going so quickly that if you end up having an accident, it'll be like a plane crash' 2 - 1999-03: M5 (E39) The plushest and most powerful M car so far, also the only one to receive a V8. Just cruelly killed off Engine: 4941cc 32v V8, 400bhp Performance: 0-62mph in 5.3 seconds, max speed 155mph Price: £24,000-£44,000 Soper Says: 'If I hadn't had three passengers with me at the time, it could well have approached the M3's best time. Carries so much speed, sounds so dramatic, makes you ask why you'd ever want another car' The winner: the M3 CSL One M car remains to receive the Soper treatment. It's ominously black, it's covered in carbon-fibre bits and it's a bit loud... Engine: 3246cc 24v in-line six-cylinder, 360bhp Performance: 0-62mph in 4.9 seconds, max speed 155mph electronically limited, (or around 170mph with limiter removed 'for holders of a valid racing licence, for track use only') Price: £58,455 With 19 M cars down and 57 laps of the TG track behind him, every expectation is that Steve Soper will now be ready to succumb to the combined effects of so much accleration, deceleration and tyre smoke inhalation. While he's fairly convinced that the 400bhp M5 sets an unbeatable standard, there's the latest Motorsport creation still to be rated, the lightweight M3 CSL. "These would soon finish me off," he says frowning in the direction of the severely winged, fixed-backed seats. He opts to avoid 'Track Mode' which only allows the Dynamic Stability Control system to intervene in the most extreme circumstances, relying on his reflexes instead. The Sport button is pressed to maximise throttle response, the paddle-shift Sequential Manual Gearbox is switched over to its most aggressive setting and then he launches the car in an explosion of tyre shriek and exhaust wail. After pitching the CSL into a series of lurid angles whilst warming through the no-cost-option semi-slick Michelin Pilot Sport Cup rubber, he sets about laying down a full-on lap time - the fastest of the day by over four seconds. "Just listen to it," he shouts, unleashing the 360bhp peak (or 17bhp more than the regular M3 has to play with) at an intense 7,900rpm, clearly enjoying himself. He slings the CSL through the corners, the smirk now spread across his face revealing the increase in lateral forces next to the standard car. "It just grips," he grimaces. "There's far more stop-point to it, it's absolutely positive in the way it responds to steering inputs. That's down to the tyres and the weight; not just that it's lighter, but that all the weight's low down - that's why they've given it a carbon fibre roof." He continues, "It feels and sounds so much like a race car, I'm surprised it's road legal. The paddles are quicker than messing around with a gearlever too; in the twisty stuff, they allow you to always keep your hands on the steering wheel." So isn't our former Touring Car star needing a rest now, given that he's just passed the 65-lap mark? "This is the sort of car you never want to stop going round in," he responds, confirming the M3 CSL's top placing and showing no sign of slowing, "at least, not until it ends up buried in the grass, needing a new front spoiler."