71,242 built across coupe, sedan and drop-top variants
BMWs NOWADAYS GO through a similar lifecycle as fast Fords and Holdens of old. Once out of the hands of the first few owners, they’re modified, thrashed, crashed and often die, unloved and riddled with tin worm.
Just look what’s happened with E30 3 Series and the E28 and E34 5 Series. They’ve either been driven into the ground or driven into trees, wearing questionable body kits. The cars that are left are now seeing prices rising rapidly, even for run-of-the mill variants. The E36 is only just emerging from its time in the cheap rear-wheel drive doldrums.
We shouldn’t be that surprised. Though contemporary road tests complained that the E36 M3 had lost some of the hardcore immediacy of the E30, time has treated it well. For those hitherto unconvinced by the cult of M Power, the E36 M3 is worth an extended sampling session.
But it’s best to get that done sooner rather than later, as prices are finally on the march upwards. Good, wellmaintained cars are now somewhat scarce, and the very best are breaching the $40,000 ceiling and touching $50,000 for pristine, concours examples.
Bargains can still be had, but there are lots of abused M3s out there. Sifting through them takes care, patience and informed knowledge, so we’ve lined up the factors you need to take into account before pulling the trigger on a prospective M3 purchase – it could even be a sound investment.
In 1992, when the M3 was launched in coupe form, it cost $129,600. At its lowest ebb you could have bought a ropey one for a bargain. You’ve already missed the boat on a really cheap one, but don’t let today’s moderately priced consideration of today drift into an expensive missed opportunity two years from now.
In many ways, the BMW M3 epitomises all that was good and bad about the era in which it was sold new. It was bigger, heavier and softer than the car it replaced, and was lambasted for that back in the day. But jump in one now, and you’ll revel in a car full of feel and fizz.
The M3 is a perfect modern classic, and ticks all of the boxes. It’s great to drive, good to own and it will look after you financially if you look after it.
Specialist support is great, and it’s intimately understood by those who service it – even if, being an M, some jobs can drain the bank. Owning one will be a joy, though, and purely on dynamic grounds.
The one elephant in the room is the E46 M3. Cheaper, faster, and way more capable. Is that really the longer-term clever money choice now the E36 has already turned?
BODY 4-door, 5-seat sedan
DRIVETRAIN front-engine, rear-drive
ENGINE 3201cc inline-6, DOHC, 24v
POWER 236kW @ 7400rpm
TORQUE 350Nm @ 3250rpm
TRANSMISSION 6-speed manual
1. THE REAR damper top mounts and rear trailing arm bushes often wear. Move the car up and down via the rear arch to spot any odd movement or play around the damper. If the car feels wallowy during the test drive, this could be a tell-tale sign. It is possible to DIY fix – bimmerforums.com has a guide. The lower control arm bush on the front can also wear, causing wayward handling and uneven tyre wear.
2. THE 3.0-LITRE M3s have a single VANOS unit, the Evos have two. Issues arise at around 70,000km. Piston seal failure, intake gear growling, solenoid/seals failure, snapped pistons and solenoid cover bolts shearing can all be indicated by rough idle and a lack of power throughout the rev range, particularly below 4000rpm. The common cause is leaking solenoid seals and independent specialists can fix these for around $450. BMW dealers will charge significantly more.
3. THE MUFFLERS can rot at the front and rear, where they’re attached to the exhaust pipe. OEM parts are expensive, though non-OEM stainless steel ones are available. The flexi on the manifold is prone to splitting.
4. RUST CAN be an issue on the E36. Thanks to a design fault the inner lip collects water and rots from the inside out. Check areas around the body kit too, as the metal clips rust. A tell-tale sign is misaligned body mouldings. The rear wheel arches merit attention, as does the area behind the number plates and lights within the boot. Check the boot floor while you’re there. Jacking points and tubes can also be tin worm victims.
5. CHECK THE air-conditioning works as fixing a leaking condenser unit is expensive. Start to haggle if it needs re-gassing.
6. THIS IS a high-performance car and as such needs high-performance tyres (Michelin Pilot Sports are recommended, M3s are fussy). This can work out at $1000 or more for a set of four. If the car’s on cheaper rubber, what else hasn’t been cared for? While looking at the tyres, take a look at the wheels. If they’re diamond cut and damaged then start to worry – refurbishing is largely pointless as the lacquer comes straight off and new wheels are pricey.
7. ALWAYS GO for cars with two keys as 1994-on cars are chip-encoded. If you lose the one remaining key you’re looking at a hefty bill just to sit in your M3 again.
8. A LOT of E36 M3s have lived hard lives and many may have been pranged. Check that the shut lines are equal and that panel gaps are the same size throughout. Also check the engine bay to see if there’s any clear-coat paint missing – a tell-tale sign it’s been damaged and repaired.
9. IF THE manual gearbox is notchy in first and second from cold, it just needs to warm up. It should be smooth through all gears once warm. Planting the throttle in fourth will show off clutch slip. If the car has the SMG option check the hydraulic fluid level – if it’s not where it ought to be that indicates a leak. The gearbox may lose pressure and jump out of gear, suddenly selecting neutral. You can get an SMG converted to manual, but it’s not cheap. The gearboxes are actually the same, as the only difference is the presence of a hydraulic actuator on the SMG system.
10. LOOK FOR regular oil changes with high-quality stuff as the M3 engines are known to spin their big end bearings.
A big departure from the four-pot E30, the inline-six E36 remained rear-wheel drive, keeping the purists happy
Introduced initially as a coupe, the E36 M3 later spawned a four-door sedan and drop-top variants powered by the same S50 straight six
Performance figures for the 3.0-litre were healthy for the time with the 0-100km/h dash being taken care of in 5.69sec and the quarter in 13.96sec
The E36 was predominately computer designed, a first for BMW
Launched in coupe guise-only, these early cars use a 3.0-litre straight-six producing 210kW. Convertible and sedan follow in 1994
Homologation special M3 GT has an upgraded 220kW engine and British Racing Green paint. Production is limited to 400 cars
Engine size is upped to 3.2 litres and so is the power. It now packs a 236kW of punch to become the first road-going BMW to go above 100bhp per litre
Aussie-developed and rarest of them all, 15 were built using a 239kW version of the 3.0-litre six, 100kg weight loss, uprated brakes and stiffer suspension.
A UK special edition, this time 25 convertibles all finished in Carbon Black metallic and fitted with extended walnut trim