What were you doing in 1992? Were you even alive? Gerhard Richter was. He was BMW's head of E36 chassis development when the E36 M3 made its debut. And what a debut it was. As Gerhard said at the time, the E36 M3 represented a huge change of focus over the old E30 M3. 'While the focus of the E30 was competitiveness, this changed with the E36 M3. Here it was important for us to find a combination of racing technology and an increase in the ability for everyday use. The aim was to exploit the limits on both sides.
'Obviously the complete package was perfect. It had the power, the understatement, the comfort and the potential for everyday use.'
That sounds a bit arrogant, but it's actually a pretty decent summation. Your humble scribe attended the UK launch of the E36 M3 coupe back in late 1992. By 'UK launch' he means the launch for UK journalists. The actual venue was not the UK, but the network of roads north of Nice, mainly because there aren't that many roads south of Nice.
These narrow snaking mountainside tracks have seen plenty of press launch action over the years. The major risks are going off the side and taking a long, rocky ride to the bottom of a gorge, or going around a blind corner too quickly and being confronted by a roadful of gaily-attired cyclistas.
What you needed in that kind of driving environment was a responsive and accurate car, and those launch-spec E36 M3 coupes in Dakar Yellow were certainly that. Europeans were lucky in that they got the full fat 286hp/258lb ft model rather than the watered-down 240hp/225lb ft version without individual throttle bodies that the Americans had to put up with when it finally landed there three years later in 1995.
Unlike the fizzy, high-revving and fun 325 Convertibles that were also made available on that French launch, the Euro-spec M3's barrel-chested 286hp 3.0 S50 straight six (increased to 3.2 in 1995, when it produced nearly 320hp in Evo guise) gave it a remarkably wide and friendly performance palette. It didn't seem to matter whether you razzed it through the revs in search of peak power at 7,400rpm or simply stuck it in third and surfed on the 3,250rpm wave of max torque, you'd very likely be going as fast as just about anything else on the road.
You had to watch out for understeer snapping into oversteer, but even with that proviso many fans consider the E36 M3 to be a better handling car than the later E46. The fact that the E36 M3 ran on for two years after the new E46 came out in 1997, and that the E46 M3 wasn't released until 2000, tells you something. Interestingly, or possibly not, BMW handbuilt an E36 M3 Compact which got as far as the road test department of Auto Motor Und Sport before being canned.
Anyway, as noted, the European E36 M3 was released in coupe form in 1992. It weighed in at around 1,460kg. The four-door saloon (1,535kg) and convertible (1,615kg) versions came along two years later. That's all a very long time ago, but it's a measure of how good the E36 M3 was that a zero miles E36 M3 would still hold its head up as a fast road car even today. They certainly look like excellent value compared to the first E30 M3s (skip to the end if you want to know how amazing).
However, with even the youngest E36 M3s now being exactly 20 years old, some care needs to be exercised when buying. It was a lot more sophisticated than the rawer E30 M3, but it was still targeting enthusiasts, so there's a higher probability of it having been 'extended' on a regular basis than might be the case with, say, a Kia Rio.
Non-M3 E36s have their own generic mechanical, suspension, steering, bodywork and interior problems, plus all the normal old car problems affecting all areas. Inside that big E36 bubble is the M3 subset with a few of its own specific issues. We'll cover as many as we can here.
Remember that this is a buyer's guide, not a non-buyer's guide. Fundamentally these E36 M3s are great cars that even now will deliver a brilliant mix of performance, usability and practicality. You just need to find the right one. The coupes are by far the most numerous E36 M3s, with over 46,000 sold. Around 12,000 saloons and the same number of convertibles were built.
Bodywork & Interior
The first thing to say is that any E36 will rust. They're old cars. Vulnerable areas are the boot, rear wings, jacking points, front anti-roll bar mountings, and the rear suspension generally, where surprisingly thin metal was used for the damper mounts and other areas.
Front wings are rust prone thanks to a dodgy bit of water-collection design on the inner lips, and you may well find corrosion in the boot both under the carpet and on the rear panel to the outside of which the numberplate is mounted.
If the bonnet catches look new, be suspicious, as the original M3 ones get loose if the car has had some accident damage repair. Look for uneven bonnet and door gaps and for inconsistent bumper alignment. Inner seam welds should look good and should match side to side. If they don't and there are no original BMW labels on the front slam panel and inner wings, again be wary. Metal hides behind those M Sport bodywork side mouldings. Make sure they follow the lines of the car properly and that all the clips are in good shape.
Rust can affect the area around the windscreen, and particularly where it meets the roof. Blocked drains will obviously add trouble not only in terms of corrosion but also when it comes to the electrics, so check that passenger footwell for dampness. Lift the carpets to check the state of the drain plugs behind both front seats.
E36 trim bits are quite fragile, and the door handles especially are known to fail, as are the window regulators, switches and motors. You'll really want to ensure correct window operation as they're part of the full closure alarm system. Test all the locks, too, and check the state of the door cards as these can fall out or sag. Rear window rubbers perish, and air-con is expensive to sort out if the condenser is blown.
Convertibles have three motors and a hatful of microswitches in the roof mechanism. Tot that lot up and that's how many opportunities there are for the roof operation to go wrong. Add in the fact that the M3 was designed as a coupe, not a convertible, and then throw in over 20 years' worth of British roads and you might want to think quite carefully about choosing a ragtop M3.
Engine & Transmission
Gerhard Richter described the first 3.0 E36 motor as 'mechanically perfect'. It was indeed mighty, but every engine has weaknesses that will eventually be exposed, and for this generation of BMW motors it was VANOS, their equivalent of VTEC variable camshaft technology. M3s started off with a single VANOS operating on the intake cam only, with 1995-on M3 Evos switching to a twin VANOS system operating on both intake and exhaust camshafts.
The symptoms of a failing VANOS - which is usually the result of wear in the helical gears on the cam, sprocket and splined shaft that attaches to the VANOS unit - are (1) rattling like marbles in a can; (2) poor idling; and (3) a reduction in bottom-end power. Leaking solenoid seals typically become an issue at around 45,000 miles. A main dealership might try to flog you a complete new VANOS at enormous cost but good independents will replace the seals for around £250.
A little noise from the hydraulic tappets is normal and nothing to worry about. Blue smoke coming out of the exhaust on a rev-up is, though, because that probably means worn rings. If the vendor won't let you arrange a leakdown test, walk away. Oil can leak past the sump and valve cover gaskets too.
Like its cam timing, the M3's oil pump is chain-driven. The sprocket that it runs on is attached by one 19mm nut, which can come loose, so a tube of Loctite (other thread lockers are available) is a sensible investment. Another pump you need to be aware of is the one that squirts the engine coolant around. The water pump bearing is known for failure. BMW cooling systems generally are not brilliant. Coolant leaks are almost to be expected.
Parts prices aren't especially low, but that's a BMW thing rather than an M3 thing. On the plus side, many driveline parts are common with the 325i, there's a wealth of internet knowledge, and because they come from an earlier time E36 M3s are not that difficult to work on.
The first ZF 5-speed automatic that US customers could specify doesn't have a bad reputation for reliability but, like many others, was trumpeted as having 'lifetime' lubrication, which as we all now know was nonsense. If the fluid level gets low you might find the trans slipping into neutral when (for example) you slow down for speed humps. Or it might stick in 3rd or 4th. Sometimes the classic IT Crowd solution of turning it off and on again will fix it, but not if it's a worn clutch plate.
In 1995, as part of the coupe's facelift which included a displacement increase to 3.2 litres and an extra gear in the manual taking it to six, a 6-speed SMG automated manual was introduced. The first automatic M3 for customers outside the US, the SMG performed well under pressure but wasn't very polished in normal use. Again, if the oil level is low in the SMG it can pop out of gear or drop into neutral at an inconvenient moment.
Another SMG fault reported by a PHer is the warning light coming on followed after ignition switch off by a refusal to default back into neutral for a restart. In his case, BMW dealer diagnostics came up with an overpressure fault code and the 'solution' of spending three grand on a new pump. For more realistic help with what is much more likely to be an electronics/sensor problem, Forsa GB (used to be Forsa West) in Chepstow has been recommended by PHers.
Bushes for the gearbox and differential mounts wear, as does the flexy-disc that cushions driveshaft torque. Exhausts are expensive - around £500 for the OEM back box alone - and cats (which rust at the front and rear) aren't cheap either.
Suspension & Steering
Increasing driving looseness creeps up on owners. It's only when you replace the bushes in the moving parts that the veil is drawn back and you recapture much of the driving pleasure that the car was designed to deliver.
This is very much the case with E36 M3s. You'd think that every bush in a typical M3's suspension would have been changed at least once by now. If it's due for another refresh and you're looking to tighten up the handling you should think about polyurethane bushes. Powerflex purple or black are well liked for road car use, although for longer-term performance and trackdaying many M3 enthusiasts will always point you towards OEM replacements.
Rear trailing arm bushes wear and unfortunately can be a bit of a swine to replace if you don't have the special BMW tool to take out the old ones. Some amateur mechanics have found themselves having to buy a reciprocating saw to get them out.
Wallowing on the test drive may very well be down to weak rear damper mounts. Check these for wear by girding your loins, grabbing the rear arch and heaving up. If you hear something go ping you've just got a hernia. You can get reinforcing plates to beef up these mounting areas, which in standard trim are surprisingly flimsy-looking. The ball joints on the outer tie rods and front control arms wear, and power steering leaks are common.
Replacing a tired M3 steering rack will bring immediate driving benefits. Fitting a Z3 rack is a popular move as it's a lot quicker, albeit with a bit less lock than a standard E36 unit.
BMW spent a fortune developing the ideal M3 stance. Lowering it will not only hurt the ride, it will almost certainly hurt its resale value. Ask yourself this: what do you think whenever you see a lowered M3 for sale? Exactly. Think about thicker anti-roll bars instead.
Wheels, Tyres & Brakes
Something for you wheel/tyre geeks here. Replica wheels abound, so this mini-guide should help you to identify what your prospective M3 should be rolling on.
Four types of alloy were used on M3s, depending on age and model. The first coupes had 17in 7.5J DS1 double-spokes (Style 22) all round, wearing 235/40-17 Conti SportContact tyres. Saloon or Lux package M3s got M Contour 'Soccer Ball' alloys (Style 23) in staggered 17in sizes (7.5 front, 8.5 rear) with 225/45-17s up front and 245/40-17s at the back. These were an option on all M3s for the last two years of production ('98-'99).
From 1996 to 1999 the coupe wheels changed to staggered DS2 'Sunflower' double-spokers (Style 39) with 225/45-17 front tyres and 245/50-17 rears. The rare US-only Lightweight model weighing less than 1,340kg had Style 24s with same-size 235/40-17s all round. The Convertible had those alloys too but with the differentially sized 225/45-17 and 245/40-17 tyres.
Depending on what brand you buy, some tyres can appear more 'stretched' than others on the bigger back wheels.
Like beauty, affordability is in the eye of the beholder, but E36 M3s do look good value at the moment. Examples of the first four-cylinder E30 M3s are now topping £65,000, or considerably more than that for a special edition like a Ravaglia. Against that, prices like £15k for this very decent M3 saloon or as little as £10k for an interesting project like this do give you pause for thought.
These M3s are old-school cars with a lovely mechanical feel to them, making them just as suitable for sensitive modification as they are for pottering around in standard trim. It's true that not many E36 M3s have been properly restored, helping to keep values relatively low, but you might see that as an opportunity rather than a problem. Buy and enjoy.