Classics World’s Andrew Everett considers progress or the lack of it in BMW design…
The other day, I bought another old BMW E36 from Ebay. Strictly a breaker, she is (was) a 1994 325i Coupe in Arctic Silver with dark blue leather and when new, was a BMW GB press car, driven and ‘enjoyed’ by a number of motoring writers. Now, 23 years later, it’s on the chopping block ready to donate the engine, gearbox, limited slip diff (a rare option) and other morsels to other BMWs. What a shame. Even in its rust-streaked condition with the visible tide marks on the transmission tunnel carpet that betray a massive screen leak after sitting for six years, it’s not hard to visualise what a lovely and desirable car this once was.
These were the days when BMW sold about 30% as many cars in the UK as it does now. A discount, Sir? Kindly leave the showroom before I release the hounds.
The E36 saloon became street furniture but upon its release in 1991 it was considered avant garde and the Coupe (1992) would pretty much stop traffic upon launch – Bright red or Mauritius Blue metallic were the colours you lusted after. Make no mistake, these were very desirable cars and priced at that sweet spot where they were just about attainable.
Back in 1992 a colleague I worked with in Darlington had one of the first 325i Coupes in the UK, a red one on a J-plate. He’d cancelled his order of a lightly used E30 325i Sport and ordered this Coupe with zero options – the standard alloys, black cloth and nothing else. But what a machine! On the way back from a night out in Newcastle he had the thing up to over 150 – we knew it was that fast because it hit the rev limiter in fifth on the A1, all from 192 bhp. Parked, it would gather small crowds and you can’t imagine that from many cars now.
In 1995, I was invited to a Michelin launch event, the debut of the first Pilot tyre. Flying down to Madrid and there on to Almeria we ended up at Michelin’s mountainous test track where we drove various cars – a Clio 16v (wonderful), a Mk3 Golf GTI 2.0 three door (not bad) but the stars of the show were a bunch of new E36 3-Series. BMW was somehow involved and was doing some sort of parallel launch because here were the latest offerings, the 1.9-litre twin cam 318iS Coupe and 318Ti Compact, and the new 323i and 328i that both replaced the 325i.
This was the first time I’d really driven an E36 properly – until then, my experiences of BMW had been the old E30 3-Series (pleasant, but only really exceptional as a 325i) and various old crates including an original 528 and an R registered 320 automatic. But the E36 was, to me, the perfect car. That driving position, the gearchange, the pedal layout, the instruments and the way the whole car felt. The 328i was of course a very brisk thing and ‘my’ Coupe in Montreal Blue metallic with the pale grey leather and very effective air conditioning was probably the best all round car I’d ever driven.
Of course, the E36 model got old, was replaced by the (inferior in my eyes) E46 and when you started seeing them with rusting back arches and some very ill advised mods, you knew the game was up. They’re still in that phase now – certain models such as the 328i Sport Coupe are firming up in value but that’s all relative; six grand for the best one in the world looks suspiciously good value compared to at least twice that for an MGC GT that a 328i would eat for breakfast as well as drawing more attention.
This draws us neatly onto the ‘what is a classic’ argument. As cars get older, excuses are made for many of them, that MGC being a prime example. It’s often claimed that the road test results were poor due to the test cars being ‘set up wrong’ with incorrect tyre pressures but is that just kidding yourself?
The E36 though really was a very good car indeed. The four-cylinder stuff was a bit prosaic although the 16 valve iS and Ti cars were pretty sprightly. The 2-litre six was a lovely unit, butter smooth with 150 bhp to shove it along quite well but it was the 2.5 and 2.8 cars that really were the gems. These were cars that deserved all the praise the road testers gave them, and an ex editor of CAR once opined that in the real world, the E36 range was about the best all round car you could buy. Of course, they suffer from being an old BMW of which there are millions but if you’ve even considering an MG, a Stag or whatever, a low mileage 328i Convertible is worthy of your consideration.