This Special Edition Johnny Cecotto BMW E30 M3 Is Keeping The DTM Fandom Alive In Hungary
Photography by Máté Boér
The legendary status that surrounds the E30 M3 and its touring car compatriots from the DTM has grown rapidly in the last decade if sale prices for these homologation specials are anything to go by. The appreciation cycle of these machines has seen them become highly collectible, but it wasn’t that long ago that cars like the E30 M3 were relegated to weekend track-rat status.
After all, although the M3 was created to homologate a racing version to take on Mercedes-Benz, Ford, and the like, BMW didn’t produce the bare minimum necessary for homologation. In fact nearly 18,000 first-generation M3s were built, but within that rather large population are some truly rare special editions like this beautiful Johnny Cecotto example. Cecotto was one of the foremost talents in the 1980s and 1990s touring car scene, and BMW honored his abilities as an M3 works driver with a limited run of numbered “Cecotto M3s.”
“I started to learn German as a teenager, translating motorsport articles from Auto Motor und Sport magazine word by word into Hungarian,” the happy owner of this car, László, tells me, “I just wanted to know as much about BMW racing cars and teams as possible.”
László has been steadily building on his lifelong passion for BMWs, especially the ones linked to motorsport, and it’s already been something of a full-circle from fantasy to reality. “As a car-enthusiast teenager in the middle of the eighties, I grew up reading about the famous battles in the ETCC and DTM series. This is the era when touring car racing really started to get big in Europe. Out on the streets of Budapest, we were always scouting for the latest and the greatest cars, especially for the ones from Munich.
“I still remember looking in at their dashboards to see how high the tachometer and speedometer went! Back then, when they were new cars, regular BMW E30s with the smaller engines sometimes showed up in Budapest, but a 320i or anything above that spec was a pretty rare sight back then, and therefore always sensational to see. But the E30 M3 was like a UFO. The closest I came to that car as a child was hearing about people who knew someone who might have seen one!”
Years later, already deep into the classic car “hobby,” this Johnny Cecotto edition popped up in Hungary and László’s fond memories linked to the E30 Group A touring cars came back to the fore. “I already had collectible cars at the time, but I never buried my passion for E30 M3s, I was just waiting for the perfect one. In my eyes the M3 is in another dimension, with its racing history and those iconic boxy wheel arches, but my wife for example, hates them. This Cecotto was too hard to pass up, so I traded in my one-of-two Orient Blue E34 M5 Touring to get it. That M5 is much rarer, but I didn’t want a big estate as a weekend driver, and I haven’t regretted the swap.”
Around 2015, Bavarian Classics, a BMW specialist workshop in Hungary, started its restoration of this car, and made clever use of the quickly growing hype around E30 M3s, turning this project into their signature work. They posted about the 029/505 Cecotto relatively often on social media, and soon enough this M3 became the Cecotto between us petrolheads in Hungary. When László contacted me recently and told that he was the new owner of a Cecotto, I promptly asked, “the Cecotto!?”
Cecotto came close but never won a DTM drivers’ championship title in the M3, but his natural talents and good attitude combined with his illustrious racing career made him the perfect ambassador and marketing tool for the Bavarians. The Venezuelan Cecotto is also part of the very limited club of racers who found success at the top level of competition on both two and four wheels, like John Surtees, Tazio Nuvolari, and Mike Hailwood. Cecotto started his racing career on motorcycles, and became the youngest World Champion at the age of 19, winning the 300cc category of the 1975 season and beating the seven-time champion, Giacomo Agostini.
Several big successes (and injuries) later, Cecotto moved to cars in 1980, where his abilities sent him into Formula 1. In 1984 he raced as Ayrton Senna’s teammate at Toleman Racing until a big accident during the practice for the British GP at Brands Hatch canceled his hopes for an illustrious F1 career. After his recovery, Cecotto restarted his cooperation with BMW, which dated back to his years in Formula 2 before the ascension to the top rung of open-wheel racing.
His comeback with BMW was rather spectacular in the 635 CSi, with Cecotto scoring second place finishes at the Spa 24 Hours and at the James Hardie 1000 in Bathurst. In 1986 Cecotto raced for Volvo, but he rejoined BMW Motorsport again in 1987 after the Swedes withdrew from touring car racing.
This time he stayed with the brand for almost a decade, and collected three championship titles above his numerous single-race victories. He came very close to the ultimate title in the DTM, but a young Michael Schumacher—at his first ever DTM race—pushed the Venezuelan off the track in the first corner of the 1990 season’s finale, and Cecotto lost the championship’s leading position. This incident remains one of the most controversial cases in the history of the DTM.
Meanwhile, the marketing brains at BMW Motorsport were busy on their side of the equation, and since the tight competition in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s required continuous development and re-homologation to stay competitive, BMW Motorsport created a few limited editions of the M3 coupe. These special editions carried mostly minimal changes, but there is a noticeable thread of development between the first M3 and the final Sport Evolution. Besides the Evolution models needed to homologate changes to the bodywork and engine, BMW also released commemorative editions alongside these. The first was the Tour de Corse edition in 1987, to honor the staggering WRC win of the Beguin-Lenne duo. Their Rothmans-liveried M3 danced in the hands of the French driver on the fast and tight Corsican asphalt stages and beat the second-place Lancia Delta HF 4WD by more than two minutes. This historic win was significant also for being BMW’s last and Prodrive’s first WRC triumph. Only 40 examples of the “Tour de Corse” were built (on the basis of the first M3 Evolution), to be sold in France.
Next year, in 1988, after winning the European Touring Car Championship (ETCC) with Roberto Ravaglia, BMW Motorsport released 148 units of the Europameister M3, with its special plaque fitted on the center console engraved with Ravaglia’s signature. Then in 1989, the Italian driver became the first BMW-driving champion of the German Touring Car Championship (DTM) and this success was honored again with another special edition, this time with a UK-only Roberto Ravaglia edition, limited to 25 cars.
Outside of the Evolutions, the best known special edition E30 M3 is the Johnny Cecotto edition. Since they were essentially identical models mechanically, the Johnny Cecotto M3s debuted almost simultaneously with the Ravaglia editions, the former only a few months earlier. Even BMW Motorsport handled them together; the Cecotto cars are identified in a common numbering system with the Ravaglia editions, making up 505 pieces in total (not counting the 80 examples built later to fulfill Swiss emissions regulations).
Unlike other special editions, the Cecotto/Ravaglia cars introduced a new version of the S14 engine; the 215-horsepower version of the catalyst-equipped 2.3L S14 first appeared in the Cecotto edition cars in April 1989. One of the hallmarks of the Cecotto/Ravaglia cars are the body-colored valve covers and intake manifold—Misano Red, Macao Blue, or Nogaro Silver. Other distinguishing features are the 16” BBS wheels with metallic black centers, thinner rear window glass, chrome tailpipes, and the Evolution II aerodynamics package including a front spoiler with fog lights instead of brake cooling ducts. Inside the cabin, the engraved plaque is the obvious giveaway. This example, 029/505, was specced by its first Greek owner in Black Bison leather, an extra option at that time that has been beautifully preserved, the original upholstery left untouched during the restoration.
It’s a cliche to talk about the M3’s performance stats in a modern context, but the car was never originally about top speed and outright acceleration, so I’ve never really understood when people malign the fact that new econoboxes are often faster. It’s just not the point. A Tesla will outrun just about anything these days, but a go-kart is still more fun to drive.
The M3’s connection to the road and to the driver is among the peak analog experiences one can find in a production car. The S14 four-cylinder is pretty boring below 4000rpm, there is not much torque nor sound to write about in a positive way, but above that threshold the M3 rises to the occasion. It’s one of that rare group of cars with a 1:1 relationship between the tachometer and the amount of fun being had. Tight curves and narrow roads are the perfect playground for it, and in my opinion it would be a sin to change the factory-spec skinny-by-today’s-standard tires, like turning off one of the driver’s senses. Sure, you can make this car quicker around a track by adding power and wider rubber, but to me its factory settings leave little to be desired.
László is certainly enjoying the ownership experience of his childhood dream car, but he’s always on the lookout for more, and in his free time he is still doing pretty much the same thing he did as a kid: scouting the streets of Budapest for rare, forgotten, or otherwise unusual cars, which he always makes sure to share on his Instagram page for likeminded enthusiasts. Only now instead of a pair of shoes or a bicycle, his mode of transportation has experienced a significant upgrade.