How To Buy (And Own) A BMW E36

Blog Feature

The BMW E36 gets a reputation for being unreliable and costly to own. In actuality, the E36 is one of the most reliable and affordable BMW's you can buy today. With prices on the rise, clean examples of these cars are becoming harder to find as they're making their way into collector's garages. 

The BMW E36 was one of the most influential cars to come out of the nineties. Produced from late 1990 to early 2000, the E36 was a major step forward for the 3-series. Featuring a larger, more contoured body over the outgoing E30, the engineers at BMW were able to achieve a perfect 50/50 weight distribution. Add new technology and safety features into the mix, and it's no wonder why BMW hit a home run with this generation. To this day, the E36 has features that don't come standard even on new cars. The driving dynamics are still so highly regarded that, even now, it's used as a baseline for comparison. If you can't afford to purchase a new 2-series, many notable media outlets have crowned the E36 as a viable replacement. 

The E36 is an extremely versatile chassis; you can daily drive it fairly comfortably (even with today's potholes) or turn it into a highly-competitive track monster. Coming in multiple body variants throughout its production, the E36 appealed to every market. In 1990 it launched with the sedan, followed by a coupe, convertible, estate (wagon) and even a hatchback. Today, the wagons command a premium if you can find them, whereas the convertibles are generally worthless. As a track car, the E36's dominate. In the nineties they were a force to be reckoned with on the motorsports world stage. Almost anywhere, you could find them competing (and winning) - from touring car series all the way to rally. The new motors proved to be incredibly durable, which in turn meant reliable; easily outlasting the competition. If you walk through the paddock at any track day across the United States or Europe, you can almost guarantee you will come across a few examples of an E36.

One of the main selling points of the E36 is that it has simple to service components. Unlike newer German cars, the E36 is easily maintained at home with basic tools and access to the internet. Every job there is to do on these has seemingly been done and documented. Usually, cheap E36's are either heavily modified or completely run to the ground. More often than not, you come out ahead by purchasing as clean of a car as you can afford from the beginning. All of this is why I purchased a completely stock Dakar Yellow M3 Sedan, and still own it over five years later.

E36 318 Race

 

Here's a list of extremely helpful resources in the research phase when buying your E36, as well as support for afterward:

  • Bimmerforums - I basically live on these forums with my M3. It has died down over the past few years but it's still an amazing resource. The classifieds are one of the best of any forums.

  • Facebook Groups - These are mostly local, but it seems a lot of buying and selling has shifted to Facebook groups. This is especially the case since they have their own classifieds system. I don't have a link since these are local to you. 

  • Panjo - There's a lot that carries over from the forums onto Panjo, but a lot sneaks through the cracks. Contact the seller and do the sale directly as the Panjo payment system doesn't always work properly.

  • RealOEM - You're going to live and die by this website. I recommend adding your VIN and bookmarking the page that comes up; you will be referencing this website often. Once you know the part you need, just copy that number and paste it into our search tool!

  • Bring a Trailer - Bring a Trailer serves as a great tool to gauge market values. Almost always cars go for top dollar here, though, you can use it to recognize market trends. If you go to the car specific pages, popular models like the E36 M3 have a price history graph and old auctions for reference. 

 

These first tips apply to all used car buying, not just the E36. By sticking to these, you will most certainly end up with a better car than otherwise. It might seem like extra hassle and work now, but how long do you foresee yourself owning your car? The added hassle in the buying stage will save you untold amounts of headache in the long run.

  • Use patience - My first suggestion and I will say it over and over again. If you've not done a lot of car buying in the past, this will make the biggest difference in the quality of car that you buy. You get to drive more cars during your search, giving you a good baseline on what makes one car better or worse than the next. Don't jump on the first car you see; a better car will always come along. 

  • Look far and wide - It isn't nearly as expensive to ship a car or fly one-way to a car as it may seem. By expanding your search, your options open up ten-fold. If you live in the Northeast, expanding your search to the South and to the West opens up cars that haven't experienced the horror that is winter in the Northeast. 

  • Learn the signs of flood-damaged cars - These last few years there have been an unusually high amount of severe coastal storms. As a result of this, there's currently an abundance of cars coming from down South that have been damaged in the resulting floods. Just personally, I've seen flooded cars being sold as far north as New Hampshire! Stay away from these at all costs. Here is a great write-up on the subject from Carfax.

E36 M3 Avoiding Harvey

Image courtesy of Texas E36 Garage

  • Look for cars with maintenance documents - Maintenance documents can save you a remarkable amount of money. Knowing how the car has been treated throughout its life can tell you a lot about how it will treat you. Anyone can claim parts were replaced and work was completed; unless they have the documentation to back it up, their word is meaningless.

  • Have a pre-purchase inspection done - I can't tell you how many people I've suggested have one done when buying a car, then not have one and regret it down the line. They're really not expensive relative to the price of the car. I just had one done on my new (to me) Mini Cooper S at a mini dealership and it cost me $90. They normally range anywhere from $80-$150 and can be done at many independent shops, dealerships, and mobile inspection services.

 

These following inspection points are BMW E36 specific and are some of the most common issues you will come across. A few of these would be deal breakers for me when buying one, others make good bargaining points. 

  • Cooling System - You want to look for cars that have had their cooling system overhauled. This is easily the most common point of failure on the E36 and will have to be done sooner or later. This is where maintenance documents come in handy. If you see the car has a new radiator, that doesn't mean it's all been overhauled. It can actually be due to a front end collision. It's not even just one problem with the cooling system; almost every part is prone to failure. Older water pumps have plastic impellers that are known to fail and send their corpses through the engine. Cracked leaking fittings, thermostat issues, failing water pump bearings; the list goes on. I wouldn't let this deter me. Instead I would just negotiate the price lower to compensate for the work I would have to do. At least this way I would know it's properly taken care of. Our Mishimoto Cooling System Kit is one of the favorites when overhauling the complete system. After installing, you can take the longest of road trips without the fear of a cooling catastrophe. 

E36 Water Pump Failure

Image courtesy of Reddit user EMTtech

  • Shock Tower Failures - The shock towers are known for cracks and failures caused by regular stress. This can be so severe that the shocks actually blow right through the towers. In the rear where this is the most common, you need to pull the carpets back to be able to check for signs of issue. Shock tower reinforcements are cheap and a good sign that someone has looked after their car. Our shock mounting kits come with the reinforcement plates included. Shock tower failures are expensive and time-consuming to repair. So, unless I was building a track car that requires more work than just replacing parts, I would immediately cease looking at a car with this issue. 

  • Rear Subframe Mount Failure - E36's are known to have the rear subframe tear away from the chassis if they haven't been reinforced. BMW even offers weld-in reinforcement plates to remedy this issue. You can inspect these simply by getting under the car. Any pre-purchase inspection at a BMW shop should already have this as a main inspection point. It's much cheaper to reinforce this area before failure than to repair it afterward. Again, this is another expensive and time-consuming fix. Unless the intention was a track car that was getting completely stripped, I wouldn't consider one in this condition. 

  • Leaks - These cars usually aren't too bad when it comes to leaks. The most common is the valve cover gasket at the rear of the motor. While the valve cover gasket isn't that bad of a job, it does tend to open a can of worms. It's a "while I'm in here" scenario where you might as well reseal/replace the Vanos and take care of a few other small things. After fifty thousand miles of driving my car, I'm about to dive into this exact job myself. The other common leak is the power steering system. It's pretty common right around the bottom of the power steering fluid reservoir. Power steering fluid usually traces down the power steering lines so it appears worse than it actually is.

E36 Valve Cover Gasket

Image courtesy of Nathan's DIY Garage

  • Don't (Try Not To) Buy a Car with Rust - Hopefully, your budget is high enough to keep you out of this class of car. There's not much you can do about rust; repairing it will usually cost more than the car is worth unless you're a body guy yourself. It doesn't hide very well on the E36, so a  basic look around the car will tell you all you need to know. 

E36 Rusted Chassis

Image courtesy of jmeisl

  • Look for a Clean Car Aesthetically - This goes for exterior as well as the interior. The mechanics of the E36 are easier and cheaper to fix than body and paintwork. Body and paint is an art that takes many years to master, and you certainly pay a premium for that. This applies to interior work just the same. Re-upholstery is expensive and something that you can't learn overnight. Thankfully, you still can find interior parts in decent condition with some thorough searching. It's widely known that for some reason, the E36 interior wears terribly over time. Minor cracks in the leather can be taken care of with products such as a Leatherique restoration kit (their products are honestly amazing). It's extremely common for the headliner to sag; the foam deteriorates between the fabric and the headliner board. There isn't an easy or cheap way to remedy this, and requires the entire headliner to be replaced. If the car's interior that I was going to look at was in too poor of a condition, it'd be a deal breaker for me. Overhauling an interior can easily cost half the car's value to repair.

  • Aftermarket Suspension - Not all suspensions are created equal. I stay away from cars that have been lowered on lowering springs or cheap coilovers. These add extra stress on other components of the car that were never designed for it. This is especially the case for lowering springs since they change the geometry of the suspension. The stock shocks on E36's aren't very good; they tend to fail quickly. Because of this, it's common to find cars with stock suspension with aftermarket shocks. Two common choices in the aftermarket are Koni Yellows and Bilsteins. Personally, I feel Bilsteins compromise the very nice ride that the E36 normally has in stock form. This isn't an issue if you live somewhere with smooth roads, or if you plan to auto-x or track the car. Koni Yellows are a great compromise and don't make the ride any more harsh than stock. A good set of coilovers is also a good compromise depending on what you're looking for. I highly recommend riding in a well-sorted E36 with stock suspension prior to buying one of your own. This will give you a good reference to gauge exactly what you're looking for. 

  • Inspect the Suspension - Inspecting the E36's suspension is something that anyone can easily do. This can save you a lot of money as some jobs are fairly involved, such as the rear wheel bearings. You can jack the car up and visually inspect bushings; it's apparent if they're dry rotted, cracked, or just completely falling apart. With the wheels off the ground, you can grab the wheel/tire and shake. What you're looking for when you do this is play in any of the components. While the wheels are still off the ground, spin them, listen, and feel for grinding. Doing so will let you know the condition of the wheel bearings. While the front wheel bearing/hub assemblies are incredibly simple, the rear wheel bearings are an absolute dog of a job. It requires special tools and you have to take apart half of the rear of the car. It's easily my least favorite job I've ever done on an E36.  If you're looking for a simple indicator of a worn suspension, check for uneven tire wear. 

E36 Uneven Tire Wear

 Image courtesy of Rfitz

 

Once you have your car, you're going to need some tools. Working on your E36 yourself will save you copious amounts of cash. For me, I probably wouldn't buy an E36 unless I could work on it myself, or have plenty of disposable income.

  • Cordless Impact Gun - Without a doubt, one of my most used tools. Just get one. I prefer Milwaukee since I own a lot of tools in their battery ecosystem. However, these impact guns do test better than the competition in breakaway torque. I never want to go back to pneumatic if I can help it.

  • Metric Impact Socket Set - If you're just starting out, cheap and effective is good. You will learn what you need as you go along. I like to recommend Harbor Freight for newcomers, but some things just aren't worth it. I tried a set of impact sockets from there and the tolerances were extremely poor.

  • Metric Wrench Set - Again, these seem like a good value over Harbor Freight even though I have a few sets from there that get the job done. We carry CTA tools for specific sizes and needs, but these are great to get you going.

  • Aluminum Race Jack - Just get one. Bring it with you when you go to inspect the car to make your life easier. These cost-effective ones from Harbor Freight work well enough. You will see dozens of them in the paddock at any track day.

  • Good Jack Stands - A good set of jack stands can be the difference between a successful DIY job and being alone, crushed below your E36 on a cold garage floor. Really though, don't risk your life trying to save twenty bucks on cheaper jack stands. 

  • Underhood Work Light - Okay, this one isn't mandatory, just highly convenient. We just received these here at FCP Euro and we love them. It works incredibly well and makes life a lot easier. One of those "didn't know you needed it until you have it" type tools.

  • OBDII Scan Tool - You're going to want a scan tool; I'd actually suggest buying one prior to purchasing your E36. Fuses and bulbs are easy to pull to mask check engine lights. By hooking up the scanner, you will be able to see any codes that have come up and are potentially being hidden.
  • Socket Wrenches - I'd personally just go to Harbor Freight and grab a few that feel good in your hand. I've had really good experience with them and they test just as well as the big name brands. You'll discover what you like best and what works for you along the way. If you're looking for something from elsewhere, these Tekton socket wrenches are a great value. 

  • Car Tool Kit - Until you know how reliable your car is for you, I'd get accustomed to carrying a tool-kit in the trunk. Add in some screwdrivers, a breaker bar, and other basic tools and you'll be pretty set to tackle whatever roadside troubles you run into.

Hopefully, this gets you going and instills a bit of confidence in joining the E36 club. We have a quite few owners here at the office and it seems everyone loves them. If you have a specific DIY project that you would like to see an article written for, just let me know in the comments below. The DIYs and installations are also filmed and added to our YouTube channel.

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