Two winters ago, I found myself being coaxed out of my hibernation by my good friend Brandon Mindt, who asked me to be his copilot on a venture down south to San Diego to pick up some car parts. Accustomed to riding in his then brutally-loud, bagged Hellrot 7 Series, I had already adapted to taking such excursions. But while I was busy keeping an ear out for the droning exhaust of the Sieben’s beefy eight-cylinder making its way down my street, I received a text.
Brandon had arrived out front, but I hadn’t heard him. The raspy note of the straight-piped Seven was absent—and when I finally made it outside I quickly discovered why.
The car had been replaced!
There it was, BMW’s ugliest and most lovable hatchback. A 318ti—with its little 1.8-liter four-banger barely making so much as a whisper at idle (an observation that I would later find untrue). The ti’s appearance at my doorstep shouldn’t have come as that much of a shock, however. A few weeks earlier, Brandon had mentioned to me that he had seen an ad on Facebook for a running 1995 E36 318ti selling for a mere $500. Of course, I took it with a grain of salt; first, I didn’t believe that the little compact actually had any life left in it for that price, and second, I didn’t want to believe that he had just struck gold on the classifieds. Clearly, I had severely underestimated his undisputed sixth sense for finding project cars that ran and drove.
I’ll admit that I was hesitant to hop in the passenger seat. For starters, this Bimmer was over two decades old, and with very little knowledge of its origins and its maintenance history, I wasn’t exactly thrilled that it was our excursion vehicle of choice. Sure, San Diego wasn’t a far jaunt from south Orange County, but it wasn’t exactly a light stroll, either. But after some convincing, I got over myself and stopped demanding that Brandon show me some maintenance records, finally making it into the passenger seat.
The first thing I noticed, before we even left my house, was the completely obvious: The exhaust definitely had a hole in it, and the parking brake wasn’t entirely functional. I realized that last item immediately when we made it halfway down the street with the handle all the way up, with almost no creaks, groans, clunks, or any other signs of annoyance from the rear. Great, I remember thinking. As if my first impression of the car couldn’t get any worse.
Not only was there a possibility of the car rolling away at any mention of parking on an incline, but there was also the fact that the bullet-hole-size leak in the exhaust would make it sound absolutely horrendous if you tried to counteract the motion. The overdramatic way I saw it, it was either roll into the car parked behind you or risk a letter from the HOA for having a tin-can exhaust. A lose-lose, really.
Somehow, we made it onto the freeway, and after a few minutes cruising in the slow lane, with semis making a mockery of our measly 138 horsepower, Brandon decided to give me more details on the squished-butt E36. Turns out the car was originally registered in Minnesota, hence the various patches of rust on its rear bumper and the Voyageurs National Park sticker affectionately adorning the driver’s side of the windshield. Although he purchased it running for $500, the 318ti (obviously) needed a little TLC, which came in the form of new Firestone Firehawk 500 tires to replace the cracking rubber, and a not-so-new alternator from the junkyard, purloined from a lower-mileage ti. After hearing the previous condition of the car, I was feeling luckier that the version I was riding in had been at least somewhat inspected—or at least that’s what I told myself.
Phase One of the plan was to drive it through the winding roads that the northern tip of San Diego County has to offer; we would then arrive at our destination in Rancho Santa Fe. Although its blown suspension gave it a hefty dose of body roll, I was still surprised at how well it took each corner, and how nicely it seemed to drive; it was exhibiting the (albeit slower) performance and driveability that I had come to expect from a 3 Series.
Brandon then revealed to me that we were meeting another ti enthusiast at our destination, who was selling a Felony Form overfender widebody kit for the E36 because he no longer needed it for his own. According to Brandon, the $500 ti was going to live its life out as a fun-to-drive budget drift car, and this widebody was going to be a part of its final form—after some much-needed wrenching, that is.
Arriving at the baroque wrought-iron gates separating us from the multi-million-dollar community, I couldn’t help but feel out of place. We were in a triple-digit Bimmer with a rattly kazoo for an exhaust, in a community that was home to mostly luxury sedans and sports cars. Yikes.
After the gate guards determined that we weren’t in fact the two hooligans that our junkyard Bimmer may have conveyed, we trudged on, climbing the sloping hills of the neighborhood in low gear, the little four-banger summoning all of its torque to carry out the task quickly and steadily, finally bringing us to the paved driveway of our new E36 friend. The sheer size of the house was enough to startle the unsuspecting—and the garage was equally monumental. For starters, there was an old Lexus SC300 occupying one of the six garage spaces (a build we would later find out had not only a five-speed manual, but also a turbocharged 2JZ under the hood). On the lift above it sat a Lotus Esprit, and further down the garage sat a half-built single-seater kit car, among other automotive gems. Across the way in the second garage was a dusty Lamborghini Gallardo, and a little farther down was our reason for coming: a BMW 318ti, a twin of our car. (According to the owners, the Lamborghini was dusty because the ti was getting more attention—the seller and his dad were hand-molding a body kit onto the car, and sanding down the edges. Obviously, we were in good company.)
There was something about that scene that resonated with me. One, I wished that Lamborghini had a car cover on it; two, I noted that the family seemed to enjoy the 318ti just as much (if not more) than the supercar parked next to it. Imagine the allegedly unloved “ugly-duckling” of BMW seemingly loved more than a six-figure Italian supercar!
We chatted for an hour or two about the ti’s before taking our leave, widebody kit in hand. Going against southbound traffic, we made good time on the way back, and the little 318ti continued to impress with its hearty performance, despite my rather skeptical initial impression of its reliability.
Fast-forward a few months, and I have not only fallen in love with that car, but now wholly respect it. I clearly hadn’t given it enough credit; it was a $500 Facebook classifieds gem that ran and drove. Yes, it needed a few repairs before it could be considered truly road-going, but it ran nonetheless. It never left Brandon or me stranded, never overheated, and never complained, no matter how hard we abused that small-displacement M42 engine. It was frankly, unkillable—no one we knew could get it to die, despite a constant flogging of the drivetrain and powertrain with launches and clutch dumps.
I went on to learn how to drive a manual in that car, thanks to Brandon risking his clutch to teach me, and loved it even more. You could practically use all five gears, all the time—and that was the best part about it; you could drive it to the max at all times and still be under the speed limit.
I had also always loved its arguably charmless exterior for its E21 Baur-like uniqueness (the Bauer is another “unattractive” BMW that is now one of my favorites; both are owned by friends). Clearly, my friends and I have unconventional taste in Bimmers—that is, at least by today’s design standards.
I will always love that stubborn Bavarian hatchback, quirks and all, even if it is now safely nestled inside the garage of another enthusiast. According to Brandon, the new owner says that it is still running strong to this day, and has now been converted into a lifted, rallycross-inspired hot hatch.
So while some enthusiasts still remain divided over whether or not the 318ti is a bargain buy, I am here to tell you that it is, it certainly is. Sure, you may think it is an unproportionate hunchback of a car, but its exterior is obsolete in this equation. Get behind the wheel of one, or simply take a ride in a $500 junkyard rescue, and you’ll see that the true value it offers was never monetary—it’s all in the experience.—Malia Murphy
[Photos courtesy Brandon Mindt, Malia Murphy.]