Buyers Guide BMW 3 Series E36
One of the most sensible and satisfying purchases on the market right now, says James Walshe
BMW 3 Series E36 WISE BUYER
James Walshe shows you how to buy BMW’s bargain 3-Series before it’s too late.
There aren’t many modern classics that combine a rewarding driving experience with such exceptional usability as successfully as an E36 BMW. After years in the shadow of its mighty E30 predecessor, BMW’s 1990 3-Series is now finding an ever-enthusiastic band of owners who love its handsome shape, build quality and – particularly in the case of the six-cylinder models – smooth but satisfyingly brisk performance. With a genuine Q-car vibe, the ultra-subtle glamour of Munich’s range of straight-sixes has begun to spark an interest among collectors and investors, meaning prices won’t be this low for very long. Here, we take you through the process of how to buy and enjoy the best.
Why you want one
It’s worth mentioning values first and foremost, as the E36 is still quite affordable when compared to other generations of 3-Series. This particular one is a great way into classic BMW ownership. Why values have remained so low is anyone’s guess, especially since the E36 was originally seen as being far more rounded, engaging and desirable than the equivalent Audi 80/A4 and Mercedes-Benz 190E W201 – great though they were. Buyers of any E36 model will be rewarded with a superbly engineered saloon (the company began E36 development in 1981!) and in typical BMW fashion, it’s exceptionally good to drive with its ‘Z-axle’ multi-link rear suspension and smooth engines.
Clubs and online groups will lavish you with assistance too, and parts are still readily available. As you’ll find out, the E36 is also mostly very reliable, thanks to the thorough developmemt work undertaken by Munich’s supreme band of engineers.
Which one should I buy?
There were officially five different body styles, beginning with the conventional booted models. The four-door saloon and two-door coupé were built from 1990 – both lasting until almost the end of production (1998 and ’99 respectively). There was a two-door convertible from 1993, plus a five-door ‘Touring’ and three-door ‘Compact’ hatchback, both of which arrived in 1994. All got reasonable levels of kit, including airbags (from 1993), ABS and electric front windows, but appealing period options to look for include electric sunroof, climate control and leather. Go for an early car and you’ll find a four-cylinder engine carried over from the E30. They were later upgraded with new units (M43 in 1993 and M44 in 1996). The boot badges associated with those engines are 316i, 318i and 318is.
The six-cylinder cars are badged 320i, 323i, 325i and 328i. These were launched with BMW’s M50 unit in 1990 and got variable valve timing two years later. In 1995, the 325i was replaced by a new 328i model, with its new M52 unit. Still with us? Good, as the diesels arrived in 1994. If you want one of those, you’ll be shopping for a four-cylinder 318tds or two six-cylinder diesels: 325td E36 or 325tds E36 (M51 engine).
All E36s were rear-wheel drive and got a choice of five-speed manuals and four- or five-speed automatics, depending on the model. Only the E36 M3 got a six-speed gearbox. That car was a whole different kettle of fish, as was the Alpina E36. If you want to go for the full Alpina Q-Car experience, you’ll have to choose between the subtle B6 2.8, B3 3.0, B3 3.2 and the B8 4.0 and B8 4.6 V8 monsters. For the discerning driver who couldn’t quite justify shelling out the extra for the highly strung M3 or Alpinas, the 328i Sport was absolutely the one to have. It’s our tip for future stardom, anyway. While Tourings are desirable and Convertibles command higher prices, the Compact is generally unloved. We rather like the idea of a grunty rear-wheel drive hatchback. ‘Modern day’ Lotus Sunbeam or Vauxhall Chevette, anyone?
What should I look for?
Beware of the dogs! There are still many clunkers around, many of which wear terrible boy-racer modifications that could be hiding a multitude of calamities. Likewise scruffy, abused examples worth a few hundred quid will hold little appeal. As with any car, neglected E36s won’t reward you with anything but grief. This is a quality car but even a 3-Series isn’t immune to poor maintenance. You’ll be looking for evidence of annual oil and coolant changes on four-cylinder models, while it’s wise to avoid six-cylinder cars that smoke or run badly. Early M52 units with Nikasil bores can give trouble and although BMW recalled most, there might be the odd example out there. Again, check the bills. Elsewhere mechanically, there is little to be concerned about. Gearboxes are robust, although ignore BMW’s nonsense about automatic ’boxes being sealed for life. Seek advice from the owners club on getting the oil changed. The suspension is tough and simple to work on, while the brakes are straightforward, ABS sensors cheap to replace and control units plentiful.
The E36 is a comfy place to be inside, but it’s worth taking the time for a close look at your prospective purchase and checking that everything electrical works. The seat covers and foam are easy to remove, so don’t worry too much if you come across worn upholstery. Door cards can wear but are easy to detach and revive.
Grot-wise, bodywork can suffer from age and abuse so check beneath any plastic trim and the rear bumpers particularly. Beware rusty rear arches and rot in the base of the front wings. But most of all, get underneath the car and look at the floors and sills. All four jacking points love to corrode, and inspect the rear trailing arm mount for rust too. Once your E36 is in the driveway, there are numerous improvements you can make under the skin and it pays to join the BMW Car Club GB, whose members will share the secrets to making the most of ownership. For instance, the plastic pulleys used on the E36 are prone to failure as they age – replacing them with aluminium pulleys not only prevents a disastrous timing belt failure, but they are also lighter, reducing ancillary power drain. The inlet manifold of the earlier M50 straight-six is freer flowing than the manifolds fitted to M52s and S52s. Kits are available to fit a used M50 manifold, though you’ll need to remap your ECU to get the most gains. Cars that haven’t had recent suspension bush replacement will almost certainly need it. Just replacing them will be transformative but upgrading to stiffer polyurethane bushes is recommended. Meanwhile, for those wanting a sportier feel from their non-M3s, a stiffer front end can be achieved for not much outlay.
The installation of an under-the-engine X-brace, as fitted to convertible E36s, is a common solution.
WHAT TO PAY
- PROJECT £325-£600
- GOOD £1000-£1650
- EXCELLENT £3750-£6000
- ESSENTIAL CHECKS
- 1 Engines are typically BMW across the range. Tough and smooth, although the four-cylinder cars weren’t very powerful and need new belts every three years. Check the work has been done. The creamy smooth sixes are also tough but listen for lumpy running and worn valve gear due to lack of oil changes.
- 2 Coolant bleeding can be a really frustrating process so you’ll need specific instructions when it comes to filling the system yourself. Bleeding the air takes patience on an E36. So much so, many owners leave that job to their friendly local BMW specialist.
- 3 M-Tech body kits are popular with both owners and scumbags, so if you’re parking yours on the street, know that some add-on trim is very easy to steal. You won’t have issues with this 320i, obviously.
- 4 Brakes are disc/drum on four-pot cars and are clearly not as effective as the better set-up on bigger engined models. Check ABS works on all cars, although sensors and control units aren’t pricey. 5 Bodywork can rot quite badly if neglected. Check around the jacking points, floors, sills and rear arches and underneath plastic cladding.
- 6 Cabins wear with abuse, unlike E30s. Door cards can be refurbished though and the seats are easily dismantled to fit new fabric. Spinning ignition key is a common issue, easily fixed.
- Performance: 5/5
- How easy to work on: 3/5
- Parts availability: 4/5
- Running cost: 4/5
- Usability: 5/5
I OWN ONE
Proud owner Matthew Wilkin says the E36 is his perfect car. ‘It is well made, has a decent amount of power and handles beautifully. But then you remember this is a 30 year-old design. Mine is almost a quarter of a century old yet still feels like a new car. With parts still very available and good value, plus brilliant quality, the E36 is a classic BMW you can use every day.’
- Engine 1991cc/6-cyl/OHV
- Max Power 148bhp @ 5900rpm
- Max Torque 140lb ft @ 4200rpm
- Gearbox 4-speed auto
- 0-60mph 9.1sec
- Top speed 133mph
- Fuel economy 32.5mpg
- Length 4.5m
- Width 1.7m
- Weight 1270kg
MARKET ANALYSIS with James Walshe
If it’s an M3 you’re after, you’ll be paying between 15 and 20 grand, depending on how many doors it has. For the rest of us, the E36 is still in bargain territory. The 316i and 318i are pleasant, but not exactly exciting. So, with the best six-cylinder coupés selling for barely £5000, the clever money is on a six-pot. Try £1500 for a well kept saloon, with the best available for under three grand. Tourings carry a small premium but decent Convertibles can be bought for as little as £2000. The oddball E36 Compact is the true bargain of the pack though. Weird looking things usually are.
BMW Car Club GB, bmwcarclubgb.uk
Munich Legends, munichlegends.co.uk
CPC Performance Engineering, cpcpe.com
BMR Performance, bmrperformance.co.uk
TWG Automotive, twgautomotive.co.uk
The six-pot engines are real marvels.
WHAT WE SAY ONES TO BUY
Yes, I know it goes against the grain, but I quite like a sheep in wolves’ clothing. In the case of the E36, a tidy four-cylinder coupé with BMW’s M-Tech body kit would do just fine. All the visual appeal of an M3, but without the running costs and priced accordingly. Never has a BMW 3-Series looked this good.
Matt G likes...
If I was to go for another E36, I’d stay patient and seek out a 318is. It might ‘only’ have a 1.9-litre engine, but that engine happens to be the same lump that was used in the base model Z3, complete with 16-valve cylinder head for added oomph. I owned one back in 2017 and it was a hoot – another one I wish I’d kept. Matt G likes...
THE BIG ONE
For me, a modern classic like this has to be useful, versatile and spacious. That’s why I’d be going for the E36 Touring if it was my money at stake. The best of all worlds, the Touring combines load lugging capability with five seater comfort and is a supremely fun steer when you’re on the way back from the tip run… Danny likes...
THE Q ONE
As this is the Q-Car issue, then I am going to have the Q-ist E36 of them all. It’s quick, but doesn’t look it. Yes, the 328i in saloon, Touring or soft-top format will do me. It gets to 60mph in seven seconds and yet looks fairly sober. If I end up with a soft-top I would have to have the optional hardtop to go with it though.
‘Despite high quality, even a 3-Series isn’t immune to abuse’
Adrian Flux Insurance
35-YEAR OLD MALE,
3000 miles, postcode SP2: £185 (£250 excess).
*Policy benefits, features and discounts offered may vary between insurance schemes or cover selected and are subject to underwriting criteria. An additional charge may be payable.
*Quote based on a 1992 BMW 320i saloon, valued at £2500.