Have You Ever Owned a BMW E36 M3, the 'Worst M3' that Everyone Loves to Hate?

The BMW M3 GT. The good-looking one. Photo Credit; BMW
The BMW M3 GT. The good-looking one. Photo Credit; BMW

It’s too big, it’s too soft, it’s not special enough. The E36 M3 is everyone’s go-to for the worst of the right-sized M cars, practical and powerful in equal measure. But the reality of the thing is different.

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In spite of everything, the E36 M3 has made a total comeback in recent years, partially because they’re affordable and partially because the nostalgia generation for it has some money now.

People aren’t seeing it as a disappointing follow-up to the legendary E30 M3; they’re seeing it as a light, strong usable, straight-six powered performance car, good for 240 horsepower and 225 lb-ft of torque. Do you really need to care now that the Europeans got more oomph from their spec engines? Not really. That time has passed.

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But even on this wave of good will, I just know in my heart that the E36 M3 has utterly defeated some of the most optimistic budget car enthusiasts and aspirational car buyers of its day. Shit BMW E36 Drivers Say didn’t come out of now where.

But that’s a lot of here and there. Have you owned one of these cars? Was it real, or was it a base model that someone glued a bunch of ///M badges to? Did it rattle apart and crush your soul? Was it the performance car of your dreams? Let me know, and don’t forget to include a picture along with it.

Raphael Orlove is features editor for Jalopnik.

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DISCUSSION

I do admit I’ve told this story more than once, but I don’t think it would hurt to tell it one more time.

...

Why do I love my car?

Part of it probably has to do with how much I hated the one before it.

Being what it is, it certainly has enough merit of its own to warrant being loved.

But most of it has to do with the story....

The first car we bought as a married couple (to replace my expensive, gas-hungry Silverado) was a 1989 Mazda MX-6 Turbo (yeah, with the oscillating fans - priceless!). It lost its timing belt at 80mph after 144k miles. I learned to never assume a previous owner has done scheduled maintenance - even if that maintenance would have been LONG overdue when you bought the car.

I went without for a while, my wife and I taking turns riding our bikes and driving her car while I waited to buy a pickup, when our Camry died at 4:00 am one morning on the way to the airport for my first business trip. It was also a timing belt (though the Camry has clearance, so it was fixable - just a new timing belt). I called a cab, got to the airport, and by the time I hit my first layover in Denver, my wife’s dad had coincidentally called and told her about a cheap, low-mileage car he’d stumbled across. I don’t think she even knew what it was - it was just a car and it was available, and she said yes.

I drove that Nissan Stanza for 8 years, and I hated it every day. It needed new CV joints (thank you, salty winter Detroit!), but that’s the only thing I ever did besides oil changes. It was crazy reliable. So I didn’t have even a hint of an excuse to get rid of it. We were poor and in school, and it was impossible to justify selling it. My father-in-law would remark years later that he never expected me to keep that car half as long as I did.

I graduated with my MBA and got a killer job - working at GM in 2007. The work and inside scoop on everything was great, but the uncertainty of the company’s future was enough to keep us from buying a house - or blowing money on a new car (I could afford it finally, but it would have been stupid given the uncertainty). My uncle had an almost ten-year-old M3 I thought he’d sell me, and I had to do it BEFORE I started at GM or risk some major repercussions.

After talking it over with my wife I couldn’t justify it - even though I thought about it every day. That wisdom paid off, too - I was let go just before GM filed bankruptcy and never even made my 2-year anniversary there.

Six months later I was somewhat employed again, and the Nissan was seriously showing its age. Knowing what I know now, it probably needed new shocks, suspension bushings, ball joints, control arms, etc. - but I was more ignorant back then and it just felt like it was slowly dissolving. Almost dangerous to drive. But I really wasn’t all the way back on solid financial footing, so something new (to me) was not really in the cards.

Around the same time, I went to visit my parents in Idaho and happened to mention to my uncle how much I still liked the M3. He’d originally bought it for my cousin, but it was so bad in the snow he’d traded him for an X3 and was now only driving the M3 in the summer, keeping it in his hangar for the winter. Of course I made the “if you ever want to sell it...” comment, but unfortunately he immediately told me he’d already been trying to sell it.

I was crushed. There was no way I could talk my wife into it. I couldn’t even try. But my uncle was still talking. He’d had it up for sale for a while now, and had only had a few joyriders try to take it out. Well, there was this one guy who had offered to pay what he was asking, but he was a jerk, and he didn’t want that guy to have it.

So no takers. And then he dropped the bombshell (and I’ll preface this by noting some things I’ve already described about him - he bought my cousin a second BMW to replace the M3 without trading or selling the M3 first, and the hangar, which wasn’t just a big garage, but a real hangar used for what hangars are used for).

He said he knew I wasn’t working full-time again yet, but said he would give it to me for about half of book value. So I had something I could at least pitch to my wife. I WAS working - just not full time, and we did have savings, so paying for it wasn’t really the problem either. But if things didn’t work out with my current job, I’d need to agree to sell it before things got tight.

It sounded like a decent pitch to me, too. But I also knew it was somewhat risky - my wife is fairly risk averse, and was even more so at the time. And from a financial perspective, this was flat-out stupid. Well, maybe not stupid, but certainly not conservative. At best an unsecured investment, at worst, a complete loss.

I knew what she’d say before I even asked. I knew the arguments she’d use, and I didn’t blame her - I knew it too, but I had to ask. She should have been more put out about it (you know, the never ending obsession). But she was great (well, is great). She knew the Nissan was falling apart, and was sympathetic, but it just wasn’t in the cards right then.

So I called my uncle and told him I couldn’t under my current circumstances. He said he might just sit on it for a while and try again in the spring, which was at least some consolation.

Three weeks later I walked out of a restaurant for my birthday dinner, and our Camry had been stolen. I’d parked in the front row, and there was no question- it was gone.

I looked again at the spot where our car had been, and realized I’d missed something very important.

There couldn’t be more than a couple black M3 sedans within 500 miles, and I’m not a complete moron - it WAS my birthday. But still, I couldn’t start to think this was a birthday surprise - too painful if it was some kind of cruel coincidence. So I stood there in a state of confusion addled disbelief.

It must have been funny to watch me stand there, looking around the parking lot and then back at the M3. Around the parking lot, and then back at the M3.

Something made me finally look back at everyone else.

Cameras out. Smiling. Laughing, even. Not a cruel coincidence.

Birthday surprise. Best birthday surprise. Best birthday ever.

Best wife ever.

I mean, it’s one thing to buy a car. But it was a huge gamble, a giant act of faith that I’d find something, that work things would work out, that WE would work out.

Especially after the strain of losing my job and some of the challenges we went through because of it, THIS was - impossibly - more than just the car I’d been dreaming about for years.

It was a heartfelt token of commitment at a time when we didn’t have much left.

How long am I going to keep this car?

Barring a tragedy of some kind, as long as I keep my wife around.

Forever?

Sounds good to me.