In the latest installment of Buy This Neat Thing (so the BMW morons on staff don’t have to), we offer this eBay listing. On the digital auction block: The beating heart of BMW’s greatest road car, the 2.3-litre S14 inline-four that powered the first M3. Why should you spend nearly $6000 (at the time of this writing) on a burned out engine with half a million miles on it? We are very glad you asked.
Annex A: The engine note. If there’s a better sounding inline four on this planet, we haven’t heard of it. (We’ll let the Cosworth BDA contend for the crown, but that argument tends to be drowned out by the S14’s overhead intake growl.) That should be reason enough to rebuild this lump and put it in a standby E30 M3 shell, or tribute 320is, or even a 2002.
Exhibit B: The Story! The design of the S14 was carried out by BMW legend Paul Rosche, with the help of his deputy, Jost Capito, the current CEO of Williams F1. At its most basic level, the S14 is merely two-thirds of the six-cylinder masterpiece that powered BMW’s first M car, the mid-engined M1. As for bragging rights, it’s hard to beat: “I have (mostly) a supercar engine in my compact Bavarian sedan.” Then there is the motor racing pedigree. According to BMW, the S14 powered the winningest road-based race car in the history of speed on four wheels.
Exhibit C: They’re great! People like former R&T editor Jason Camissa will tell you the S14 feels clunky, taciturn, and overworked. He is right. The S14 indulges in all those worn-out clichés about road racing cars. The 2.3-liter lump powers one of the all-time great homologation specials and doesn’t even pretend it wants to show up on your doorstep with a bouquet of flowers for Mom. This engine develops all its power in the upper part of the rev range, which in daily driving is barely acceptable; but in spirited driving, and I mean things truly bordering on sanity, it hits the divine. If you’re looking for smooth power delivery and crystal clear torque, look elsewhere. If you’re looking for spiky, grunty, “ring-my-neck-daddy” power, the S14 is your blueberry.
Of course, here is the issue of price. This particular S14, with 50 percent of its cylinders blown, will no doubt sell for five figures. I bought a complete E30 M3 track car in 2013 for less, and it doesn’t haunt me at all every waking minute. Yes, I’m OK. I SAID I’M FINE.
However, if you take this buying advice seriously, rather than as an excuse to indulge my love of the ur-M3, be warned: rebuilding an S14 is insanely expensive in 2022. If you send it to a pro, figure the gross end of $20,000. If you’re willing and able to do the work yourself (gods bless you), tracking down parts for this rare engine can be more difficult than writing checks to your favorite parts supplier.
Despite the difficulty and cost, whoever buys and revives this particular S14 is in for a surprise. These are robust, long-lasting engines if maintained properly (my E30 endured dozens of track days at the ripe old age of 25, with something like 235,000 miles on the clock). Plus, there’s a direct connection to a vein of BMW’s richest history and the satisfaction of preserving something deeply special. And the sound. Don’t forget the sound.
Buy this neat thing (so the BMW chumps on staff don’t have to).