Name all of BMW’s E36 variants. Wait—don’t cheat and look at the pictures here. Actually, this isn’t even all of them, although the photo below with five different models includes most of those available in the U.S.
But that’s still quite a variety, right? And unlike the modern chassis codes, when someone asks, “Did you see that E36?” the number alone doesn’t dictate the number of doors or type of roof.
We didn’t have to look far at all one fine August morning at a Shore Shifters meet last year in Long Beach, California, when we heard someone ask, “That’s a lot of different E36s. Is that… all of them?” He didn’t mean the Dakar Yellow, Estoril Blue, or Boston Green colors; he meant that almost every E36 body style was right there, staring at us with their obvious and subtle differences, all lined up about eleven feet from the Pacific Ocean. The group soon moved down the street to Commodity for coffee (and more), where the conversation continued to uncover why each owner possessed that particular E36.
“It’s so versatile,” Matt Schwartz said of his 318ti Compact, or ti. “It hauls all your stuff, gets 30 miles per gallon, and still hangs in the canyons great, too.”
Schwartz, also the proud owner of a 1600, considers himself a vintage fan, but sees his 318ti as a great compromise. “It’s a little modern twist on my vintage passions,” he says. “I was going to school in Arizona, so I definitely needed good air conditioning. The California top on this model is a fantastic bonus. And like vintage cars, the ti community is incredibly passionate.”
While the ti chassis code of E36/5 was sort of a prelude to the multiple codes that future models would bear, we can’t forget another similar derivation, also using an E30 rear end: the Z3 and M coupe and roadster, E36/7 and E36/8 respectively. Similar to the ti, the E36/8, often known as the clown shoe, might not have sold incredibly well initially, but its passionate following is strong.
One member of that M-coupe following is Jeff Siojo, ironically a frequent visitor at the Shore Shifters meet, but absent for the lead photo. “I’ve always been intrigued by the shape of the clown shoe, but the dream didn’t intensify until I found myself drooling in front of one,” he says. “It was so awkward—and yet so rad. It had its own unique personality and flair. It absolutely ignited a curious mind, and I was fascinated by the story attached to the car: A group of guys from the M division actually secretly put together this concept by adding a roof to the Z3 roadster on their own time.”
Siojo probably got his M coupe at the right time; while it might not have sold well at first, they sure do now—and at a premium. “My M coupe is definitely not an investment purchase,” Siojo says. “This was to fulfill a dream. I want to drive the wheels off of this car. It has been a weekend-only car, a canyon-carving car, a track car, and now a daily driver. It can do a lot if you just put time in it. For me, this is a ‘never sell’ car.”
Most would recognize the E36 coupe, especially in M guise, as checking many of those boxes, too: track car, canyon-carver, and for some, even a daily driver. Ben Lau recently sold the nicely modified E36 M3 you see in these pictures, but he enjoyed it for a number of reasons during the three years he owned it. “What I really liked about my E36 was the size of the car,” Lau says. “I found it oddly fulfilling to be able to reach over to the passenger side to unlock the door and open it for someone. It has a good size overall to it, too. I also liked the power and how it was balanced.”“These cars from the ’90s always hold a special place in my heart,” Lau adds. “The sentimental part of what I cherished is when these came out. I was working at a video-game company in San Francisco, and one of the execs pulled up in a brand-new Estoril Blue M3. At the time, I had a bus pass in my stable—a bus pass! So thinking about those special moments, especially with this chassis, means the world to me.”
Sam Deshler understands that sentimental aspect to his E36 328i sedan. “My 1997 328i sedan was my first car, purchased in 2009,” Deshler says. “I first saw the car when it arrived at our family’s body shop, having been hit in the back. Right away I knew it was exactly the opportunity I had been waiting for: my dream car, an Alpine White E36 sedan! As I hoped, in an evil way, the insurance company totaled the car for its minor damage and paid out the customer. I bought it from the insurance company for $1,300. The rear quarter panel was crunched, it had faded paint, cracked leather, and worst of all to me, an automatic transmission. But it was mine—and I immediately fell in love.”
“I drove the car in its sub-par state through high school and college, slowly fixing and modifying it along the way. Now it has a five-speed ZF transmission, a 3.38 limited-slip differential, OZ Racing Futura wheels, and a fresh coat of Alpine White III. I mostly consider the car done, and enjoy it on the weekends nowadays. I’ve owned other E36s over the years, but the sentimental value of my sedan is too high to ever imagine selling it.”
There definitely seems to be something for everyone with the E36 chassis, and unlike the E30 M3, the U.S. market also received an M3 convertible. Ross Buicki recently got one himself, and even boldly drove it 300-plus miles home, sight-unseen. “I had just sold my Miata and needed something different to fill the void. I had actually never owner a Bimmer, or had much experience working on them,” explains Buicki, shop-owner of The Tire Squad in Westminster, California. “I wanted to find a fixer-upper E36 M3 to get acquainted with, and found a convertible in Northern California for a good price and decided it would be a fun trip to fly up with my girlfriend from SoCal and drive it back down, being completely unaware of the maintenance history.
“By some miracle, we made it back home and got to work. Wrenching on it has been very rewarding, but not without its fair share of yelling and cursing at the car.”For many E36 owners, that part might sound all too familiar, even with the rewards of owning a chassis now more than 25 years old. But Buicki also found many familiar positives. “The S52 motor is a sweetheart,” he says. “With 208,000 miles on the clock, it runs beautifully with a few hiccups, and still feels very quick for its age. I was not expecting a convertible to handle as well as the coupe or sedan, due to its weight and lack of rigidity, but it has surprised me. It’s honestly great for what it is—little to no body roll around the corners, and tight and responsive steering feel. That, paired with the linear power band of the S52 and manual transmission, has been nothing but joy and excitement in the canyons.”
After his Miata, we can see why his M3 was a convertible. “I wanted a convertible because I really love the look and feel of the E36 with no roof,” he says. “It looks slick and brings out the lines of the car. I love feeling the wind and fresh air around me while driving, and I get to hear all of the addicting exhaust sounds!”
While the U.S. got the E36 M3 in convertible form, we did not get an E36 Touring in the U.S. But the math says that as of last year we could start importing them, so import I did. The Daytona Violet 328i BMW Individual M Sport model you see here came into the U.S. in 2020 and has been fantastic. I won’t go into the details included in the November 2020 Roundel feature on it, but it has been exceptional. Modified only with the pictured wheels (which it came with when I bought it) and a set of XTA coil-overs from ST Suspension, it performed great during my “acquisition drive” from Philadelphia to California, including an aggressive session on the Tail of the Dragon with my co-pilot, Alan Dummett.
We knew that the floodgates would soon open with the Touring models, and even received messages following the drive story last August asking how to import them. You might have seen a column just months after that by Alex McCulloch about his E36 Touring, and I know two friends and BMW CCA members—Sean Myers in Florida with a very similar model arriving soon and Robert Tran in SoCal with an Alpina model that just arrived—who appreciate the Touring model, too. And more than a handful of others are already here or are on their way!
We lined up the 318ti with the 328i Touring for comparison purposes… and because we needed coffee.The sharp-eyed among us might be thinking, “Wait, he didn’t talk about the M3 GT or the Australian-market M3 R!” Those were essentially derivatives of the coupes. But if you’re thinking, “Wait, he didn’t mention the Baur E36 TC4!” you’re right. And yes, I want one.
If you have a favorite E36 chassis, which one is it—and why is it your fave? —Kyle van Hoften
[Photos courtesy Kyle van Hoften unless otherwise noted.]