Shed isn't that good with figures. It doesn't help that Mrs Shed hasn't got one, but for once Shed's shortcomings aren't her fault. Shed reckons his problems started with his daft old granny who had some queer ideas about, well, everything. She once told him always to choose apples rather than grapes when buying fruit by the pound, as apples were a lot heavier.
Things went from bad to worse when Shed was trying to understand algebra at school. One day x equalled five, the next it was two, the day after that it was something else again. How was anybody supposed to keep up with that? Anyway, by graduating from the school of hard knocks and scoring a postal degree in used motor sales, Shed managed to learn the value of cars at least, and specifically the value of used versus new.
If you walked into a BMW showroom today and demanded the equivalent new model to this week's Shed, an E36 323i Coupé, the smiling operative will first of all inform you that there is no equivalent. The only coupé in today's 3 Series range is the M4 Coupé, starting at £60,985. All right, you say, that's a bit much... how much would it cost to take the style hit and go for a regular saloon with that nice 2.5-litre six-cylinder engine BMW is famous for?
Ah no sir, says the smiling operative, we don't do that engine any more. We can however do you a lovely 136bhp petrol four-cylinder 318i SE that will do 0-62 in 8.9 seconds. It's just £27,800, plus options... we could probably get you kitted up and out of here for not much more than £30k. At this point, clutching the period brochure that tells you about the 323i's 9.0sec 0-60 time and the designer cup containing the remains of your mochafrappachino, you make your excuses and leave the showroom.
Our Shed in classic trophy wife spec has just 79k on the clock, three owners' names in the logbook, and all the signs of having lived a pampered life. It looks totally original and near enough mint - and it's more than £26,000 cheaper than a new 318. That's the kind of value Shed understands. He'd be very happy smoking around in this excellent example of the E36, the first 'modern' multilink-suspended Three produced from 1990 to 2000 and, in two-door form, arguably the most elegant 3 Series ever.
Obviously, there are ways in which that shiny new 318i will have the beating of our ancient 323i. Fuel consumption, for one. The 323i had a slightly detuned 168bhp version of the classic 2.5-litre straight six, nominally to satisfy those on a budget, but as many posters will undoubtedly mention in the forum accompanying this piece, BMW's 'economy' plan for its smaller sixes never really worked in the real world. Bigger was better in pretty much every aspect of performance and efficiency. In the 323i, you were looking at average mpg figures in the high 20s, or low 30s if you weren't trying too hard. The modern 318i will near enough double that.
What the 318i doesn't have is the character or the creamy mechanical smoothness of the six. This 323i was first registered in January 1998, which means it would have had the Nikasil-lined block that, when worn, killed the compression and ultimately the engine. You'd think that if it's made it this far the issue will have been addressed at some point, but just the same it's worth checking the paperwork for evidence of the right work having been carried out. An uneven idle, lack of power and high oil consumption are your guides.
Apart from that, the dreaded plastic water pump impeller and the RWD Three's skittishness in slippery conditions, there's not much else to complain about. The E36 can be quite fussy about its wheel alignment, and front suspension ball joints fail, as do rear bushes and springs. With good suspension in place, you'll like the ride, the style and, if you're like Shed, the fact that it's not been Barried to hell and back.
There looks to be a bit of LED dulling on the radio display, but other than that it looks as clean on the inside as it is original everywhere. Check that the windows go up that last few mm that they should drop by when the doors are opened. Naturally, rust is an issue with any old car, and the E36 is far from perfect (check the rear arches), but Shed is thinking this one might have been kept in a garage most of its life and so could be okay.
A new Three, the G20, is due to land at the Paris show this October. It will undoubtedly be more expensive than today's F30, but even if we stick with the current car for the purposes of our comparison, there's plenty of comfort to be found in the knowledge that the £26,000 difference between an F30 and our E36 buys about 20,000 litres of petrol - enough for around 125,000 miles even on the most pessimistic consumption estimate. And the E36 won't drop a big chunk of its worth in the first minute of ownership either.