By on December 19, 2016

1996 BMW 328i E36 in California junkyard, front view - ©2016 Murilee Martin - The Truth About Cars

Internet Car Experts have spent the last decade explaining to the rest of us how every example of the BMW E30 3 Series, no matter how decrepit, is worth at least a couple of grand. This claim is even more ridiculous than most of the bad information with which ICEs clog comments sections and forum threads, and I still see plenty of solid-looking E30s at U-Wrench-It-type wrecking yards.

However, the quantity of discarded E30s has declined a bit in the last few years (from a half-dozen per big California yard to two or three), and the E36 has become the reigning King of the Junkyard 3 Series.

Here’s one of six E36s that I spotted at a San Francisco Bay Area self-serve yard a few weeks ago.

1996 BMW 328i E36 in California junkyard, gearshift lever - ©2016 Murilee Martin - The Truth About Cars

This one has a 190-horse straight-six engine, five-speed manual transmission, Arktissilber Metallic paint, and Leder Softhellgrau upholstery.

1996 BMW 328i E36 in California junkyard, convertible top damage - ©2016 Murilee Martin - The Truth About Cars

It has suffered from a few dents and scrapes, which may have occurred after it entered the scrap-cars ecosystem, and the convertible top is in rough shape. The odometer is digital and can’t be read without powering up the car, so this could be a hard-life 75,000-mile car or a lovingly cared-for 300,000-mile car. Either way, the E36 junkyard message is clear: if you want one of these cars, runners with manual transmissions are cheap.

1996 BMW 328i E36 in California junkyard, decklid emblem - ©2016 Murilee Martin - The Truth About Cars

One of my California friends had a daily driver ’95 325iS, a semi-reliable driver with a five-speed, lots of dents, and an icky interior. When he upgraded to a nicer E46, he spent six months trying to sell it for $750, then $500, then $350 … and found no takers. The car ended up getting donated to charity as a tax write-off, at which point its chances of avoiding a fate like today’s Junkyard Find dropped to about 20 percent.

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The E36 has become a very popular car choice for 24 Hours of LeMons racers, because it’s the cheapest rear-wheel-drive vehicle you can find with a manual transmission (excluding small pickups, of course). Even biohazardous four-cylinder Fox Fords sell for more than a hooptie E36 these days. It’s worth noting that, after 166 LeMons races, only one of the hundreds of E36 entries ever has taken an overall win. Here we see that car, the Wisconsin Crap Racing 1995 325i. For reasons nobody can explain to my satisfaction, the E36 has proven much less reliable in low-buck endurance racing than its E30 predecessor, though it gets around a road course well enough.

1996 BMW 328i E36 in California junkyard, engine - ©2016 Murilee Martin - The Truth About Cars

I’m increasingly tempted to buy a runner E36 as a don’t-depend-on-it-every-day extra car, in part due to the excellent availability of cheap junkyard parts. Thing is, the E46 is just starting to become easy (enough) to find in the same yards, though manual-transmission examples are much rarer.

In South Korea, BMW pitched the E36 as a macho machine (as are all cars in South Korea).

In Britain, BMW marketed the E36 Cabrio as a safe car.

Maneuverability. In compact form.

Better traction control than a penguin’s feet.

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34 Comments on “Junkyard Find: 1996 BMW 328i Convertible...”


  • avatar
    OldManPants

    What beautifully symmetric bullet holes in that top photo!

    Small caliber but punchy.

    • 0 avatar
      CincyDavid

      I was never a fan of the E36…the interior is what did it for me…no more hard black plastic on the dash, no rock hard seats…all of a sudden there’s fake wood (at least I assume it was fake) and soft leather gathered on the seats. I flipped a 328i sedan once with the same really light gray leather as the car in pics above, and it just didn’t feel like what I expected a BMW to feel like…turned it in 3 weeks and doubled my money but I was glad to be rid of it.

      I wonder if the E36 convertibles leak as badly as the E30 did…my 87 325i convertible leaked like a sieve.

      • 0 avatar
        e30gator

        My weekender Z3 (E36/7) definitely leaks plenty, even with a newer canvas top, though it doesn’t do much driving in the rain. I found this out the hard way at an automatic carwash on my second day of ownership.

    • 0 avatar
      blppt

      Those are speed holes. They make the car go faster.

  • avatar
    sirwired

    I gotta ask, Murilee… why not start carrying around one of those small and light Li-Ion jump boxes to get enough juice into the car to read the odo? Inquiring Minds Want to Know through how many miles these heaps were pushed.

    • 0 avatar
      namesakeone

      Probably because most cars in the self-serve wrecking yards don’t have keys. (They’re usually unclaimed auctioned-off parking violators.) You would need to turn the key, even with a working battery, to see the odometer.

      Of course, some of those cars would have a sticker in the corner of the windshield indicating when their last oil change occurred…

  • avatar
    gtemnykh

    I’m not much of a Euro-phile, even less so a BMW-phile, but the idea of a cosmetically ragged E36 with a somewhat worked over motor sounds like a lot of fun as a daily driver (I’d just want something Japanese as a backup). I see a guy in traffic driving home every now and then in a beater-M3, a bit of rust, faded paint and badges. That’s perhaps the perfect state for a car that’s truly meant to be wrung-out. Those I6s sounded glorious with what I assumed were cams and opened up exhaust at the ChumpCar race at Watkins Glen.

    Also worth seperating the new BMWs from old. The leap in electronics complexity really stands out. The sheer number of control modules for anything/everything in modern cars but especially Europeans is baffling. Module for rear wiper, module for heated seats, etc. My brother was just troubleshooting the adaptive headlights on an ’09 X5. When he did the full scan, it came back with 50 DTC codes(!!!) Multiple of the issues traced back to failed modules, each of which cost $500+ the hood-rich Russian guy who owned the X5 just threw his hands up and decided to live with it as is.

    • 0 avatar
      Carfan94

      That’s the reason I dumped my 2007 Volvo for a Lexus. It was gonna cost $4000 just to get the air conditioning fixed. And that’s not accounting for all the other problems it had.

    • 0 avatar
      hgrunt

      If you’re seeing a giant pile of codes like that, it could be a ground or voltage fault of some sort. Did the X5 have the original OEM battery in it? And if not, was the car put through a re-learn procedure when it was installed?

      I had an electrical issue on my C5 Z06 that came up as numerous module faults, but it turned out to be dirty contacts in my ignition tumbler not supplying enough voltage sometimes.

      • 0 avatar
        gtemnykh

        I suppose that could have been the case, but a fair amount of them were from known malfunctioning systems. ABS system failure, brake pad level sensor failure, parking sensor failure, adaptive headlight stepper motor failure, some “light out” codes, control module low voltage from water intrusion, etc. But yeah there was a vanos code, cat converter code, steering wheel angle sensor, and a litany of other fun things. It has about 150k miles on it. My brother had previously diagnosed a failed MAF sensor on it.

  • avatar
    Cactuar

    Visually I never liked the E36. It doesn’t have the charm of classic BMW styling (round headlights, narrow grille, etc) and it’s not high-tech enough to look modern, unlike the E39. Stylistically it looks to be stuck between two generations.

  • avatar
    Fred

    Obviously not a driver’s car but just another yuppie showmobile. Insurance probably wrote it off and the owner when on to the next shiny item. Then again, the manual says I don’t know what I’m talking about.

  • avatar
    ToddAtlasF1

    The E36 launched with a bunch of hoopla about how BMW was showing its corporate responsibility by building a fully-recyclable car. No more fully galvanized body, no more materials chosen for durability rather than how little energy was required to reclaim their elements. That’s why a running E36 isn’t worth anything. They were never meant to be on the road in 2016, and advanced entropy isn’t a selling feature on any used car lot.

    • 0 avatar
      Superdessucke

      I’m speechless. I remember buying one near New back in the day and it was so mint, so expensive, so snotty, and so cool I couldn’t believe it. I just thought it would never die and I’d arrived. Now it’s just used up junk. Disposable used up recyclable junk that gets no respect among enthusiasts. How could I have been so wrong?

      • 0 avatar
        ToddAtlasF1

        We bought one new in 1994. One time it was in the shop and a miscommunication led to it being left in the sun for two days. The interior door panels and rear side panels delaminated. The interior door pulls retained the front ones, but at least one of the rear side panels fell off all together. I think it was in the shop to have the headliner reglued. Besides the completely garbage interior that VW might have had second thoughts about putting in a GTI, the use of plastic for mechanical components that obviously was in excess of BMW’s understanding of the material’s limitations was a bit of a dirty trick too. Radiators as 60,000 mile maintenance parts? Broken plastic impellers that once pumped now plugging fluid passages? Ingestible intake manifolds? Frangible rear subframe mounts? Had the E36 been built like the E30, it would have been one of the greatest cars of all time. Instead, it was built like a Trabant.

        • 0 avatar
          Superdessucke

          It was the first BMW designed by a computer. Apparently the computer was HAL 9000 because they were a lot of evil glitches in this and subsequent Bimmers. This said these cars can be pretty reliable and long lasting. As you said, you have to treat the cooling system as a 50k mile replaceable. The good news is it’s pretty easy to do. The rear subframe mounts can be reinforced with a kit, and it’s already reinforced on the M3 versions. And the tnteriors are not made really well, particularly light grey leathers. But they can hold up decently well if you take care of them.

          • 0 avatar
            ToddAtlasF1

            At one point most of my friends had E46s. Most of them were used up at what should have been the end of their lease terms, but one friend’s interior actually held up. His windows were limo-tinted AND he kept it in an underground garage. That was the key.

          • 0 avatar
            Superdessucke

            People pick on the hapless E36 but each subsequent generation of BMW product has similar weak spots related to corporate cheapening. E46s have the same rear subframe, cooling system, and cheap interior issues that the E36s do, plus more. At least the E36s are easy to DYI on. Subsequent cars got more and more complex.

            To be fair, it wasn’t just BMW which suffered from a laser-like focus on the bottom line. The W203 Mercedes C-Class had some serious cheapness going on, including seat control modules which drained your battery and in-dash “stepper motors” which would break and click annoyingly. To fix it, it cost $25 bucks for the part and about $3,000 in labor to install it!

  • avatar
    JimZ

    wonder how long it’s been there. I’m surprised nothing seems to have been grabbed from underhood.

  • avatar
    Corey Lewis

    The Korean ad says NYU-SUH DAE-SU-KUH at the top right, ha.

  • avatar
    threeer

    I owned both an E30 (1985) and an E36 (1993). While the ’93 was the better car all the way around, the 1985 was the one I miss more. Sure, it was slower and less opulent (if that is a word one can use for a 325is back then), but I always got out of the E30 with a stupid grin on my face.

  • avatar
    Pete Kohalmi

    I bought a 96 328i manual in 2000 with 43K miles. Sold it in 2014 with 308K miles for $500. Needed cats, and an alternator. But that wonderful inline 6 still sang a beautiful song. I should have either sold it at 250K miles when I started dumping boatloads of cash into it or kept the damn thing. I miss it so….
    All in all a pretty reliable car. The suspension bits wore out frequently, and brakes too. But the drivetrain was very solid. And with good snow tires a great little winter beater.
    It’s true that BMW and I think Germans in general began to water down their quality in the 1990s. Globalization. That’s why the E30 is legendary. Durability was traded for sophistication with the E36. The E46 saw an uptick in quality though.

    • 0 avatar
      psarhjinian

      They didn’t water down their quality per se, but they were unable to compete with Toyota/Lexus’ ability to build quality in at a much lower cost. Mercedes’ QA processes, at least well into the early 2000s, required a lot of expensive end-of-job corrections; Toyota, by contrast, designed out problems before assembly, and tends to catch what few there are before the vehicle is built.

      The other issue is warranty performance. The European market is different: towns are closer together, people don’t need their cars as much, and many vehicles are bought from companies and leased. As such, their cars are typically built to do well from new, and aren’t expected to live harsh lives for anywhere near as long.

      North Americans customers are much, much more demanding of a) long-term durability and b) decent warranty coverage. The Germans have been very bad at b), traditionally: they don’t pay their dealers, don’t give their dealers much goodwill allowance, and have been rough on parts pricing and availability.

  • avatar
    tjh8402

    I have to imagine that was the fate of my parents’s E36 328i convertible. They traded it in after the power top mechanism failed and it was going to be astronomically expensive fix. The car was beyond brilliant to drive for most of the time we had it although they let it languish for a bit towards the end. It only had 140k miles on it. Sad end for what was a good, albeit flawed, car.

  • avatar
    whitworth

    These were such over rated vehicles. I just never really understood all the love they got. The M3 in this generation were nice, but these cars did not hold up well. Especially the interior.

    • 0 avatar
      Pete Kohalmi

      If you don’t understand why they got such acclaim, you probably never drove one. I held onto mine for so long because every time I drove another car, I missed my Bimmer. It was a hoot to drive–the harder the better. But it also had a level of fluidity and civility you couldn’t find in most other cars. The interior on mine looked very good after 300K miles. The body, that’s another story. I think there was more rust on it than paint. But then the car had been through 18 northern winters.

      • 0 avatar
        s_a_p

        My ex-wife had a ’95 BMW 318is. That car was a loser. 136 hp just didnt do much to motivate 3k pounds. Once up to speed, things got a little better, but I wasnt overly enthused by it. It got a pretty easy life as it had 40k miles on it when the engine threw a rod whilst going 75mph on the freeway about 40 miles from Houston. It wasnt enough that the engine died, it had to also coat the windshield with oil to make exiting more, err exciting… Would not buy again. I had a 2001 GTI VR6 that while porky was WAY more fun to drive and that is a car I miss.

      • 0 avatar
        Gayneu

        I agree with Pete Kohalmi. I had a 2004 325i (E46) with 5-speed manual and Sport package (bought used). That BMW straight-six is a rare jewel in a world of V6s with counter-balance shafts. Beautiful power and loved to rev. I too miss it so. You just have to make peace that these are not Hondas nor Fords – they require more expense to keep up but are worth it (to certain gear-heads). Unfortunately, the E46 suffered from the rear subframe issue mentioned earlier and rust. Mine starting rusting behind the rear wheels – a common ailment here in the Midwest. I traded it in 2011 with only 85K while it still had some value. If I found one from a salt-free area, I would buy another.


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