Regular readers will be familiar with the continued angst endured by Anders, our International Editor, with regard to his choice of daily driver. Actually, his angst is something we all endure here at ViaRETRO, as he fruitlessly searches for a mythical daily that is simultaneously analogue, interesting, rare and faultlessly reliable.
If you have thus far been lucky enough to steer clear of his moaning, may I suggest you keep it that way. Should you however have an uncontrollable urge to inflict misery upon yourself, then you can catch up on all his confused considerations in his first article on the subject here: Bring ‘Fun’ Back into the Commute and his second and still ongoing thought process here: The Passionate Sunday Drive – on a Daily Basis.
The turmoil he experiences is entirely of his own making of course, and I recently pointed out againthat his current E46 BMW 330ci potentially ticks enough boxes, and although the ticks are presently in pencil the passage of time will surely ink them in. As the years go by everything gets rarer and by extension more interesting, and reliability is primarily down to maintenance. As a serial BMW licker, you might expect me to fly the flag for Munich but even I pause a little when extolling the virtues of the E46. The problem is that although in some respects it’s from the age of analogue cars, it’s just on the turn of when they started to become unnecessarily complicated whilst being consciously built down to a cost, and that’s potentially dangerous territory. Considering his 330ci is straight and paid for, he should probably stick with it, but if he was starting from a clean sheet I would direct him one generation back. The answer to his automotive problems is the third generation in the BMW 3-series family, the E36.
Now, I’m not going to give Anders full chapter and verse on the history of the E36, I’ll save that for another day. This won’t be a buyer’s guide in any conventional sense either, but this is my quick six-point reference guide to why the question of “what daily” only has one sensible answer.
- This being ViaRETRO, what are the E36’s credentials? Part of getting older is becoming constantly incredulous about the passage of time. You may think you have socks older than the E36 but it made its debut in 1990; that was 28 years ago so you need to change your socks more often. It was the first in a line of more aerodynamic BMWs and marked a move away from the upright cues of the preceding E30. The kidney grille and four headlamps are still present of course, but those lamps are housed in one unit behind a single piece of glass. BMW were quite late adopters of the fared-in look and it’s the sudden shift from the old to new that plays tricks with your perception. Clearly the E36 wouldn’t pass for a current showroom model, but it doesn’t look nearly three decades old either. This gives me a problem claiming retro credentials but I’ll go with it being “stealth retro”. However, it’s starting to look quite distinctive in the context of modern traffic, because all moderns are so bloated and enormous that even a Fiesta towers over it. Perception is shifting.
- Can you take it to a classic car show? No, don’t be daft, next question. Well, maybe soon. People do in fact roll up in newer cars, but we could never be friends with those people. To be honest, the right E36 is on the cusp of acceptability at the right show in the right context, but just don’t go pretending it’s something it’s not.
- Is it any good at being a car? Yes, being a car is what is excels at because it’s unpretentious and just gets on with it. This is the nub of what makes it a perfect daily driver. More so, there is a variant to suit every requirement. You can choose from a four-door saloon, five-door estate, three-door hatchback (Compact), two-door coupé, or a full convertible. Most of these variants offer a full choice of 4-cylinder or 6-cylinder petrol engines, and there are turbo diesels too if you are so inclined. You can climb numerically from 316i to 328i and onwards to M3 if your budget allows. All variants can fit tall Danish people and normal sized Northern English people. If you can’t find something in that lot that’ll do the job of being a car, there’s no hope for you.
- Ok, but what does it drive like? Well with such a broad range, there’s more than one answer. The 4-cylinder models are the most wieldy as the nose feels lighter than the 6-pots, but they obviously lack the outright waft of the larger engines. However, all have nicely weighted power steering and positive controls. Gear shifters can go a little slack as with any old car, but the floor mounted throttle pedal is progressive and relies on a good old cable. You can brake hard before the ABS takes over and it dates from a time before fun was taboo and everything got dumbed down to serve the lowest common denominator. Traction control did become available from 1996, but it can be switched off and isn’t really necessary as long you haven’t skimped on shock absorbers and tyres. A good E36 handles faithfully, is well planted and won’t hang you out to dry unless you’re being really daft. With a limited slip differential fitted, you can push on with confidence or (given a private test track of course) drive sideways to your heart’s content. The Compact can be a little lively as it retained the semi trailing arm rear suspension from the E30 rather than adopting the more advanced Z-Axle multilink suspension, but unless you’re planning to drive some seriously rough roads the multilink rear is preferable. Most importantly for a daily driver, for 99% of the time, you can bimble around without drama enjoying naturally aspirated engines with decent torque and well matched gearing.
- Can I tinker with it? Of course, it’s one of the last home serviceable cars. There’s nothing hugely complicated about them and you can sort most problems with a standard tool kit and a roll of tape. Original BMW fixings were of good quality so won’t immediately round off and there’s a level of intelligence as to how they were put together. The biggest enemy is probably poor quality pattern parts fitted by a previous owner. Once you’ve got your head around what is transferable from other variants it’s easy to find used parts, but new components are generally cheap and widely available. From my own experience of getting through a fair number, they work well on Bilstein sport shocks and M3 or Eibach springs sharpen them up nicely. Compacts use the rear axle from an E30 so compatible limited slip diffs are no longer particularly cheap or plentiful, but they are out there if you search. Swopping to a 4.4 final drive from an automatic gives you a nice close ratio manual gearbox at the expense of being a bit buzzy above 70 mph. Some cars equipped with traction control which can malfunction thus end up restricting the revs to around 5,000 rpm, but that’s just a good excuse to remap the ECU and liberate further horses, additional useful torque and the ability to rev well past the marked red line. The 4-cylinder M42/M44 is a tough engine and will put up with this abuse surprisingly well, even when north of 150,000 miles. Keep an eye on the plastic bodied radiator (a rare example of the cost cutting that was to come) and the coolant level and you should be fine. Early M52 6-cylinder engines suffered from premature bore wear due to Nikasil and sulphur not being compatible, but anything still running now will either have been cured or won’t have been affected. The 286bhp S50 straight-6 from the M3 is an absolute stormer and having had custody of one a few years ago, the noise will never leave me. Body wise, E36s don’t rust unusually badly but the usual checks around the arches and sills are a good precaution. Shells are strong and having used 318Ti Compacts for many years as budget rally cars I’d be aware of any critical failings. On the same theme, I have inadvertently conducted my own extensive crash test programme and can confirm the results to be acceptable.
- Is it worth swopping a fully functional 330ci E46 for one? Maybe, but I wouldn’t have started from there in the first place. From my perspective, the E46 is basically a cheapened E36 so I would always choose the original. Perhaps it will gain some recognition as a fully-fledged youngtimer in a couple of years when the 30th anniversary rolls around, but I hope they long remain affordable and plentiful for a while to come. The best insurance against being priced out are the two currently on our household’s fleet, which guarantees they’ll be worth sod all until exactly one minute after we sell up.
Whether you happen to be Anders or a normal person, perhaps my scattergun wisdom may prompt you to look twice next time you see an E36 and consider that they are representative of that endangered breed, the last of the proper analogue cars from the period that represented the very peak of daily motoring technology. I’m not saying they’re necessarily the best at any one thing, but they are greater than the sum of their parts and better than what came after. I’m sure we’ll return to look at these cars properly here on ViaRETRO, but for the meantime if I have only helped one person make his mind up, my work here is temporarily done.