Forgotten Hero

Overshadowed by both its predecessor and successor, the 1990 E36 generation BMW 3 Series celebrates its thirtieth birthday this year, but will anyone turn up for the party?

BMW E36 Saloon. (c) autoevolution

By the late 1980’s, the E30 generation 3-Series, although still popular and well liked, was beginning to look (and feel) distinctly old fashioned. The E30 had been in production since 1982 and was, stylistically, a careful update of the 1975 E21 original. The 1986 E32 7 Series and 1988 E34 5 Series had introduced a new and more dynamic style for BMW. It was time for the 3 Series to follow suit.

The E36 was launched in October 1990 in four-door saloon form, followed shortly by a two-door coupé version. The design was credited to Pinky Lai and Boyke Boyer. The coupé represented a break with 3 Series tradition for BMW: the E30 two-door was a saloon that shared its profile and most body panels with its four-door sibling, while the E21 was produced in two-door saloon* form only.

With the E36, the saloon and coupé shared no external body panels. The saloon’s doors were one-piece pressings incorporating window frames that covered the A-pillars and concealed the roof drip-rails. The coupé instead employed frameless door glasses. Even items one might expect to be readily shared, for example the bonnet, front wings and tail lights, were unique to each version.

Drivetrains were mainly familiar BMW fare. The 1.6 and 1.9 litre SOHC four-cylinder engines were carried over from the outgoing E30, while new 2.0 and 2.5 litre DOHC straight-six units were introduced. One innovation was the new Z Axle multi-link rear suspension. This was taken from the Z1 and was intended to tame the E30’s sometimes wayward semi-trailing arm rear end when driven hard on twisting roads.

One controversial feature of the saloon at launch was the unpainted grey plastic bumpers. BMW argued that this was done to facilitate easier recycling, but customers regarded them as cheap-looking and unworthy of a ‘premium’ car. When the coupé was launched, it was fitted with body-coloured bumpers as standard and the saloon quickly followed suit.

3-Series Cabriolet. (c) autoevolution

It was three years before a convertible, based on the coupé bodyshell, joined the range, so the E30 convertible remained in production until 1993. A five-door Touring estate and truncated three-door Compact hatchback were launched a year later. The Compact became the entry-level model to the 3 Series range and reverted to the E30’s more compact rear suspension to save space (and cost).

Once some early quality issues had been resolved, the E36 became the default choice in the compact premium segment, easily outselling its Audi 80/A4 and Mercedes-Benz 190/C-Class rivals. Class-leading handling and a wide range of engines, including a 2.5 litre straight-six diesel for high mileage and company car drivers meant there was a 3-series for most budgets. That said, the four-cylinder models, including a 1.8 litre diesel from 1994, were more show than go. It is little wonder that the no-cost ‘de-badge’ option was so popular on the smaller engined versions.

1995 BMW 3-Series Touring (c) auto-forever.com

A range topping M3 variant of the coupé was launched in November 1992, followed by convertible and saloon versions in 1994. Unlike its E30 predecessor, the new M3 used the standard car’s bodywork. The engine was a 3.0 litre 286bhp DOHC straight-six, enlarged to 3.2 litres and 316bhp when the car was facelifted in late 1995. At this time, the option of automatic transmission was offered for the first time on an M3. BMW even built a one-off prototype M3 Compact in 1996 but did not put it into production, possibly concerned about its potentially wayward handling with all that power and the light rear end.

The E36 received engine upgrades and a modest facelift in 1995. Facelifted cars are recognisable by their clear rather than orange indicator lenses front and rear. Over its ten-year lifespan, a total of around 2.76** million E36 models were produced, of which 1.55 million were saloons. 1.5 million E36 models were sold in Europe and a further 0.5 million in the US.

The E36 platform also formed the basis of the Z3 Roadster, launched in 1995. Like the Compact, this employed the semi-trailing arm rear suspension from the E30. The smaller 1.8 and 1.9 litre four-cylinder versions were underpowered and underwhelming, with a 0 to 100km/h (62mph) time of around 10 seconds, while the 2.8 and 3.0 litre six-cylinder versions were fast but a bit of a handful, thanks to the relatively primitive rear suspension and inadequate body stiffness. The Z3 was the first BMW to be built solely in the US and early models suffered some quality issues.

1996 BMW Z3 (c) rac.co.uk

A team of BMW engineers working in their own time developed a coupé version of the Z3 with an unusual ‘shooting brake’ profile, which was launched in 1998. This had much greater torsional stiffness, about 2.7 times that of the roadster, so its handling was considerably improved. The coupé was only offered with the six-cylinder engines and formed the basis for the Z3M. A total of around 280,000 Z3 models were sold between 1995 and 2002.

So, thirty years after its launch, how is the E36 now remembered and regarded? Sadly, I think it currently occupies the dusty wasteland that lies between classic and contemporary cars. Most surviving E30s are likely to have been either meticulously cared for or fully restored and the shape is recognisably ‘classic’, whereas the E46 successor to the E36 still looks attractive and modern, at least to those uninterested in cars.

The sheer ubiquity and reliability of the E36 means that there is still a fair number of well used examples on the road. A brief trawl on Autotrader reveals a price range of £500 to £10k, the latter being for exceptionally low mileage examples in pristine condition. By way of comparison, E30 models range in price from £4k to £20k, but the better examples typically cost from £10k. Maybe the E36’s day will come, but I wouldn’t bet the farm on it.

* German coachbuilder Baur modified the saloon bodywork to produce slightly ungainly two-door cabriolet versions of both the E21 and E30, and a four-door cabriolet version of the E36.

** All production data from http://www.e38.org/BMWProductionData.pdf

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

38 thoughts on “Forgotten Hero”

  1. The E36 was BMW’s first full assault on the company car market with full service fleet lease contracts.
    Therefore the 318i which was the main money spinner in that business plan had to be attractive enough that its drivers didn’t feel cheated and at the same time it had to be kept at distance from the 320i to make its customers want the bigger and more expensive version.
    The top speed of the 318 was artificially restricted to 201 kph so its drivers could boast that their car was faster than 200 kph but to keep lease rates low there was the need to reduce tyre costs. A standard German TÜV requirement is that the speed rating of the tyres has to be at least 10 kph above the top speed of the car. This would have meant that the 318 needed V rated tyres but BMW bent TÜV’s arm and got H tyres signed off under the condition that top speed was electronically limited. This speed limiter only worked in fifth gear and if the driver was determined enough to really rev the engine in fourth and changed gear quickly enough the car could considerably exceed its 201 kph limit.

    The first production run not only had quality problems unheard of at BMW before but it also came with very lively steering. German journalists complained about ‘nervousness’ in the steering and BMW reacted accordingly. When the reworked version was introduced with many quality issues solved they fitted steering racks (made by TRW) with artificially increased friction that eliminated the supposed nervousness. The price was that it became impossible to place the car with any precision on narrow roads or through autobahn roadworks. You could turn the steering wheel for about twenty-five or thirty degrees from the straight ahead position without any reaction from the car and then all of a sudden the car would jump to the side by about twenty centimetres which felt absolutely nasty.

    1. Good morning Dave. Interesting stuff about tyres and steering. Thanks for sharing.

    2. Mercedes and Audi pulled off the same trick for their W202/A4 B5 with BMW busting top speed of 202 kph still on H rated tyres. From today’s point of view this looks ridiculous because V or Y rated tyres have come down in price considerably and because even compact cars sit on high speed tyres.

  2. The E36 was born in interesting times, with the eyes of the world on Germany. The fall of the Berlin wall, imminent reunification, and the rise of green issues on the political agenda all made Germany look like the future. It was the end of history, as Francis Fukuyama put it.

    Of course, it wasn’t the end of history at all. History is defined by decisions and, high on the promise of global peace and a benign world order, we all became complacent. Once Germany became one again, globalisation took a different path, entranced by cheap consumer goods rather than recyclable grey bumpers. In retrospect, this was a tragic missed opportunity to set us all on a more sustainable path.

    The E46 was classically good-looking but a very conservative update of the 3 series template (also Kris Bangle’s first BMW, which is often forgotten because it played it so safe). The E36 had promised something more.

    1. Hi Jacomo. You make an interesting point about the E46 being a disappointingly conservative update of the E36. One could argue that it was the E36 perfected. It also fitted in with BMW’s (pre-Bangle) apparent policy of getting two generations out of each basic design. The E30 was a safe update of the E21, then a radical shift to the E36, followed by a safe update to the E46.

      BMW did the same with the 5 Series: the E28 was a safe update of the E12, then a radical shift to the E34, followed by a safe update to the E36.

      The 7 Series started later and was ‘Bangleised’ sooner, so the pattern is less obvious. However, the E32 was a radical change over the E23, but the E38 was then a conservative update of the E32

      All this went in the bin when Bangle got going with his ‘flame surfacing’, of course.

    1. Hi Murat. Interesting comment, thank you, but you might need to enlighten some of us further?

  3. The E36 was the first BMW putting serious attention on aerodynamics. It also introduced some new design features like the front lights sitting under a common glass cover (a feature BMW felt really insecure about market reaction) and it also did away with the conventional grille and used XXL kidneys instead. After its facelift it was also the first BMW to use distorted kidneys.

    The E36’s quality problems (combined with the E31’s lack of success in the market) considerably delayed Wolfgang Reitzle’s career at BMW. BMW spent three digit million deutschmarks on buying corroded E36s off the road…

  4. An interesting article Daniel and thanks for posting. My first BMW was an E36 318is coupe in metallic dark blue which I really enjoyed.
    According to Wikipedia the E36 was named in Car and Driver magazine’s 10Best list for every year it was on sale which must mean something I assume?

    1. Hi Mike, and thanks for your kind words. The E36 was a good car once BMW ironed out the early bugs, but it was immediately eclipsed by the E46, which looked a much more expensive and ‘premium’ design.

      One detail in particular cheapened the E36’s appearance somewhat and wasn’t used again: I’m referring to the one-piece door skin pressings with their wide integral window frames. Here are a couple of comparative photos:

      I actually like the E36 but the E46, even in base spec above, looks like ‘more’ car.

    2. I take your point Daniel. My next and last BMW was an E39 5 series which I used for my 100 mile round trip to Heathrow each day. Probably my favourite car to date.

    3. The headlights on the original E46 with the little cutouts in the body colour panel at the bottom were designed to look like pistons in cylinders.

  5. what was the Daimler counterpart for this model? the W201? superior in my opinion.
    The next model E46 was fantastic and we still see a lot of them here in Germany.

    1. Hello Marco, it’d be W202. I think this period marked the start of the rise of Audi.

    2. Hi Marco. The W201 generation Mercedes-Benz 190 actually predated the E36 by eight years and was replaced by the first C-Class in 1993. I agree that the 190 was a better engineered car, albeit without the sporting pretentions of the BMW. The situation was reversed with the E46 versus the dowdy W202 C-Class, the BMW being the much nicer car, IMHO.

    3. The W201 belonged to the last generation of Benzes that were built up to a standard rather than down to a price.
      Mercedes was in the comfortable position of having the later E class as the best selling model (and by far the largest part of them going to private buyers paying full list price), generating lots of money BMW didn’t have because the 3er was their volume seller and two out of three 3er were four cylinder models.
      This changed only when the E35 318i became the default choice for sales reps, IT consultants and similar drivers with company cars.

  6. I remember the day E36 launched – I was super-excited to see it because I had fallen in love with both the E32 and E34 models and thought this would finish the new line-up perfectly. I was a little disappointed that BMW had moved the game on with a more slippery look, fared-in headlights, and those stacked eggbox grey bumpers – it didn’t look quite as svelte and assured and as brimming with panache as its bigger siblings.

    The dashboard approach with a dominant black sweeping arch containing the instrument binnacle and air vents was a big departure from the previously more spacious lower-slung affairs, and didn’t last long because E46 was back to classic BMW dashboard style. It was also a lot more plasticky inside than E30, with a noticeable downgrade in material quality.

    I got to drive a bright red convertible 325i a fair bit in the mid-90s, and it was a fun drive – just powerful enough without being a true sports car, and to be fair by then the quality issues had been sorted and in light grey leather it was a lovely cabin to spend time in. I remember it fondly.

    1. Hi Martin. Yes, the E36 coupé and convertible, with their frameless door windows, body coloured bumpers and sleeker silhouette, were a very different proposition to the slightly frumpy early saloons. Unfortunately, it still had the slabby plastic dashboard of the saloon, which looked more like a GM effort.

    2. E36 and E46 are related closely enough that you find people fitting E46 dashboards into their E36.

    1. The E32 and E34 also had the mirror image rear seat belts. BMW’s reasoning was that this would prevent the rear seat occupants from banging their heads together in the case of a side impact.
      Many people loved this belt arrangement when they had to fit child seats.

    2. Hello John, some Westfields have their inertia reel belts mounted inboard (4-point harnesses seem to be a popular option, though).

  7. Interesting to hear the more sanguine continental perspective as here in the US the E36 held an almost god-like status. Those Car & Driver 10 Best awards were enthusiastically awarded, whereas the E46 was considered a softer edged departure from sports sedan to luxury car.

    It’s interesting to read the comments about the steering above as that was one of the E36s most lauded qualities here yet didn’t square with Performance Car’s criticism of the M3’s numb tiller.

    Certainly there must have been tuning differences for the different markets but it’s fascinating to read of such a variance in perception.

  8. Confession time: I was driving a 1990 E30 BMW 320i convertible company car when the E36 was launched. My partner and I were underwhelmed with the appearance of the latter so, in early 1993, I arranged for one of the last E30 325i convertibles to be held in storage for six months so it could replace the 320i when its lease period ended.

    I believe that our 325i convertible was the last E30 registered in the UK, and the only one on an ‘L’ prefix number plate. Needless to remark, the leasing company took me to the cleaners for the privilege! It was a lovely car and I should have bought it after the lease period ended, but I had nowhere to store it.

  9. I can´t be objective, the E36 is one of my all-time favourite cars, since it was launched in early 1991. Few cars look so right to my eyes, and they are very fun to drive but not “too fun” as the E30.
    Five years ago my dream came true and I bought a 328i Touring “project car”. Unfortunately I bought a cheap BMW, and you know what happens next. I spent a lot of money in a car that although looked gorgeous, never worked properly. At least it never broke down. After three years of frustration I sold it, and bought a E39 530i, a car I find almost perfect.
    Nowadays buying a E36 in Spain is a very risky mission because most of them are in poor condition and they are very expensive, it´s hard to find a 325i/328i for under €4000 that can move under its own power. At least here they are not too rusty.

    1. Hi b234r. Yes, there’s nothing more expensive than a cheap project car! Still, an E39 is possibly the very best expression of BMW qualities and a good 530i sounds fantastic, so a great choice.

  10. Compared to the E30 the E36 was a bit too rough and heavy for my liking, the E46 was a return to form thanks to the attractive if conservative styling (apart from the E46 Compact’s weird front-end) and together with the E38 and E39 represent BMW’s peak IMHO from the mid-1990s onwards (notwithstanding the flawed Z3).

  11. If I remember correctly, the first US market E36 M3s were fitted with substantially different engines than their European counterparts. The American 3.0 liters were down nearly 50bhp. I think the excuse was that the 286 horsepower Euro market mill was overly expensive, resulting in too large gulf in price between a 325i and an M3. Oddly, we got the full fat versions of the later 3.2 liter M3, price be damned.

    1. BMW originally had no intentions to export the M3 to the US.

      The US version got an engine that more or less was a bored out version of the existing M50 six cylinder used in the other E36s. The later 3.2 again was an enlarged standard engine and not the S50 version of the European M3s. Both US versoins had 240 hp instead of the Euro 286/321 PS.

    2. Thanks for the correction Dave. Did the 321bhp version of that engine never make it stateside in any vehicle?

      What would be BMW’s reason for originally planning to keep the M3 out of the the US market, though? It is a safe bet that North America is the largest export market for all M division cars, if not the largest market overall. Blaming the cost factor doesn’t really hold water. Maybe the full power version of the S50 wasn’t emissions compliant, particularly with California’s more stringent rules?

    3. As far as I see it there was no 321 hp engine in any car officially exported to the US.
      US cars always got an enlarged version of the standard engine with one-piece cylinder head, hydraulic tappets, one single throttle valve and VANOS on the inlet cam only instead of a two layer cylinder head with much narrower valve angle, solid tappets, individual throttle valves and double VANOS.
      The only thing I know is that the 3.0 version of the S50 engine was quite fragile. In Europe about every second engine was replaced under warranty and this was cured only with the bigger version.
      Maybe BMW didn’t want to risk product liability hassles with US customers.

    4. A failure rate of 50 percent?! BMW’s warranty costs must have been astronomical.

      However, they couldn’t have known ahead of the launch how fragile the 3 liter S50 was and if the 3.2 was fixed there’d be no reason to keep it out of the US. So I’m sticking with my conjectured emissions reason.

  12. I read somewhere that the reason BMW didn´t sell the “true” M3 E36 in US was that they were dissapointed with the sales of the M3 E30 and especially the M5 E34. The M3 E36 was going to be a lot more expensive that the 325is (as was called the 325i coupé there); in 1993 a 325is cost about $32,000 and the projected price of the 286 bhp M3, about $45,000. BMW feared the M3 E36 was going to be another sales failure, so they developed a kind of “super 330is” for the US market, that sold in 1994 for $36,000.
    Although Internet wisdom despises the US M3, for a bit more than the cost of a regular 325is, with 48 bhp more, sports suspension, sport seats, M body package, 17″ alloys and so on, the US M3 was a bargain…and a sales success.

  13. I´ve been away from my desk – sorry for the delay. In short, no, I won´t be raising a glass to the E36. This was the Three where BMW tried to build a car to a standard Ford and Opel were moving away from. My up-close encounters with old E36s show grim interiors and fit and finish a league away from the car it replaced. The one good thing about it is the fact that the rear seat belts are clipped on the outboard side, making life easier for people ferrying offspring.

    1. Hi Richard. Yes, the E36 dashboard was certainly not one of BMW’s better efforts. If you remove the BMW roundel from the steering wheel, it could have been from any mainstream model:

      What on earth were they thinking of with that lonely bit of wood on the passenger side? It looks just ridiculous without any other wood elsewhere.

      BMW tried to go back to something more appropriate with the E46, with partial success:

    2. The follow-up car had a better interior – it was at least solid. I know this car somewhat as my brother had one for several years. I can´t find much to say about it – it was serviceable and reliable and devoid of charm. By the time we reach this point in BMW´s history the allure of their 3 was virtually hard-wired into the market´s mind. Congratulations BMW for this achievement – I expect while BMW was single-mindedly pursuing their preferred image and market position five rounds of executives had been and gone at Ford and Opel, all of them managing to muddy the waters a bit and undermine the hard work of their engineers who were guiding the Mondeo and Vectra towards being thoroughly well-resolved products at decent prices.

  14. I agree the E36 dash wasn’t BMWs best – quality, or lack of was more of a problem than ergonomics. On mine the glove-box lid looked as if it was designed to fit a different car, and the problem hadn’t been remedied even on end of line cars.

    However it was one of its time’s Most Influential Dashboards:

    Citroën Xsara

    Mondeo Mk.1

    Daewoo Lanos

    Daewoo Nubira

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