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