E36's, a modern classic?


Ermmm, so despite essentially being an E24/E28 specialist, Bahnstormers HQ is about to be inundated with E36’s with a whole week in April entirely consumed by them. “E36’s,” I hear you say, “I’ve got pairs of pants older than that!” Well perhaps you ought to think about replenishing your underpant collection a little more often, as the E36 3 series was launched in 1991 and even the youngest models are now 19 years old. 



Three words… Super Touring Car! Without doubt the most exciting era of the British Touring Car Championship was the 90’s! Frenetic driving, fast development fueled by the backing of the manufacturers, huge rivalry and Volvo, racing estate cars??? History will record that the E36 was in with a tough crowd: the Alfa 155, Volvo 850T5R, and Audi A4 Quattro. In retrospect, all three are fantastic cars, which signaled the interesting changes in the car market and brand perception that began to occur at the time. They also represented large leaps forward in design, safety and refinement beginning to close the gap between the traditional brands associated with quality and refinement and the manufacturers of more economical and utilitarian vehicles. 

 BMW had a very definite mandate for the E36. It represented a move towards a much more modern way of doing things. No longer the 3 box saloon car design but an aerodynamic ‘dolphin’ shaped design with Z link rear axle setup which would prove to be a successful recipe for most of the BMW range that followed it until the Bangle years. Some would argue that the E36 was the first grown up 3 series and critics at the time said that the E36 had lost some of the fun associated with the E30 and E21 that came before it. This may be true, but the E36 was part of a brave new world that had begun to focus on fuel consumption and emissions as well as safety and customer satisfaction surveys. It was a strategic attempt to attract customers away from the Mercedes’ C-class, and stave off the emerging challenge from Audi’s A4. 

The E36 was also built during a new social era when, for the first time, finance and credit were being used by the masses to purchase new cars. This new financial accessibility meant that more aspiring customers than ever could own a BMW, and consequently the E36 sold by the bucket load and was the first BMW to become a common sight on the driveways and car parks of my youth. 


The Present 

The tide is turning for E36’s, no longer in the absolute doldrums as they have been along with E34’s for far too long, and beginning to stand out as an interesting and more unusual profile against the bulbous silhouette of modern traffic. I have found myself on more than one occasion rating early coupes with the bottle top alloy wheels particularly highly. Prices are finally beginning to creep up to. When I started university, I remember having a conversation with a lad on one of my first days there about the value of E36 M3’s. At the time you could pick them up for £3500 – 5k, and I said that by the time we would have finished our degrees, they would have doubled in value, and guess what, I was right! But that’s an M3 right, the rest of the range is still cheap as chips and you can buy one on every street corner??? Well at least that’s what I thought. 


We recently had a request to see if we’d be interested in doing some welding and mechanical work on a 1992 E36 318i saloon owned by a gentleman, who had decided to take our local main dealer up on a free health check of his car and then probably wished he hadn’t. Unsurprisingly, the list of things that the technician filming the complimentary video highlighted was quite significant. What really got my attention was the mileage, 294,000 miles. This I had to see. Now, I am an advocate of high mileage cars that have been looked after and of course BMW are legendary for their ability to travel huge mileages but lets focus for minute, that’s 294,000 miles on a four cylinder M40 engine. It is certainly the highest mileage I’ve heard of on an M40, and bearing in mind that the Americans did not have the 4 cylinder engine, could this be the highest mileage E36 318i on the road? 


As it turns out, the owner had bought the car brand new in Germany in 1992. As a member of the armed forces he was entitled to tax relief and so purchased the car directly from the factory for £12,000. He has subsequently used it as daily transport for 27 years commuting up and down the M4 and proudly achieving starship mileage with by the sounds of it almost zero drama: no major engine work, and running almost entirely on original major components, quite an effort for one man. 

 On seeing the car in the flesh, it was obvious almost immediately that the work required to sustain this E36 was going to far outstrip the value of the car. The owner and I had been in conversation about doing some work on his E36 over the summer for some time beforehand, exchanging emails on a semi regular basis. The summer overhaul we had been concocting had been brought into sharp focus, when, while his local garage had been tasked with changing a rear wheel bearing, they found what can only be described as a massive hole in the structural area above the rear axle carrier. They then told him that the car he’d driven over 100 miles the day before was unsafe to drive, and by all accounts they weren’t too keen on repairing what they had found. 

 I took our fabricator with me to view the car and a brief assessment revealed a gloomy forecast: the sills were bad, the floors were bad, the front wings were bad, the rear wheel arches were bad and that was just for starters. A week or so later we had it in the workshop and Pete was able to reveal the true size of the project. It was an impossible phone call to make, in which I had to tell the owner that the bill would most likely amount to roughly ten times the value of his beloved stalwart E36. I went with, “You should probably come down and have a look for yourself.” 

 I love the story of one man owning something from new and having driven it that far and wanting to continue to do so, but I really wasn’t convinced that he would want to go for it despite his enthusiasm and sense of humour about the whole thing. When he said he needed to discuss it with his wife, I did not think there was a lot of hope for the plucky 36. As it turned out, he simply had to agree a budget for the bathroom she would get in exchange as a sort of hush money deal, and to my very great but happy surprise, we now find ourselves embarking on the most comprehensive restoration of an E36 we have done to date. 

 It’s a remarkable story, the progress of which I will keep updated here in detail. I am determined to help keep the price down and the budget under control as much as possible. It is a restoration that has captured the interest of the whole team, and I am sure that we will have a lot of fun with it, which I will share both here and on our Instagram page which is classic_bahnstormers where we post daily pictures and videos of what we are working on.