Engine

The initial 240-hp U.S.-spec M3 was 42 horsepower weaker than its Euro counterpart with its more exotic engine. They enlarged the bore and stroke was and modified the intake to include individual throttle bodies. Also there was adapted to the engine a new variable valve timing system on the intake camshaft, called VANOS. The engine, called the S50, was capable of producing over 280 horsepower, but with strict import restrictions, the U.S. version only produced 240 horsepower.

Mods: All I can say is try to get a car that is as stock as possible. This is getting increasingly difficult. Remember, if a Ferrari or Lambo does not need a spoiler, yours probably does not need one either.

Interior - Exterior

Firstly, BMW for some odd reason decided to make it extremely difficult to discern what is an E36 3 series and an E36 M3. Pretty much everything is identical expect for a few M3 badges. Visually the M3s were similar to the regular E36 3-Series with only a few distinctions. M3 had a prominent front air dam, aerodynamic side mirrors, and deeper side valance panels. Lightweight alloy wheels were equipping high speed rated tires. An M-Technic rear wing could be purchased as a dealer option, giving the vehicle a very sporty look.

The exterior colors offered for the M3 were: Alpine White III, Bright Red, Imola Red, Dakar Yellow II, Arctic Silver metallic, Titanium Silver Metallic, Estoril Blue metallic, Boston Green metallic, Fern Green metallic, Techno Violet metallic, Cosmos Black metallic and Byzanz metallic.

Transmission

In 1995 BMW offered, a ZF 5HP18 5-speed automatic transmission on the M3 as optional equipment.

In 1997 BMW released their SMG (Sequential Manual Gearbox) option as changing gears like a motorbike seemed appealing to many. Unfortunately the SMG was considered very aggressive in response and hard to use in every day driving and although more than 50% of totally new E36 M3’s were fitted with the device it is surprisingly unpopular today.

Maintenance

Maintenance can either be the death of your wallet or jackpot, it all depends on how detailed your inspection is on the E36 M3. Many are higher miles now and most have been semi neglected. Be smart and have a per- purchase inspection done on the M3 you are interested in. If you hit the jackpot and buy a well maintained E36 M3, your wallet and wife will thank you…Expect normal wear on parts and regularly scheduled oil changes. If driven hard change the oil anywhere from 4000 miles to 7000 miles depending on your driving style. 

Water pump--this is CRUCIAL. Make sure this has been replaced regardless of model year (although I have been told that 1998+ models have improved impellers that do not break and melt). This is a known flaw.

Maintenance lights--there is a series of green-yellow bars that appear underneath the spedo when you turn on the car. These are supposed to indicate when you should take the car in to get raped by the dealer.  If maintenance has been "performed" as specified in the ebay auction, all the bars should be illuminated. These lights are reset either by the dealer or the aforementioned Peake tool (a really good investment for DIYer's).

We have detailed a few items that should be looked at to see if they were replaced and that will need maintenance in the future,

  • Rear Shock Mount
  • Rear Trailing Arm Bushings 
  • Water pump (they seem to last about 40k miles)
  • Transmission mounts (to avoid mis-shifts)
  • Shocks (oem seem to last about 40k miles)
  • Radiator (hose fittings crack - about 60k miles)
  • Thermostat housing
  • Vanos failures seem to be fairly common
  • The undercariage panel seems to routinely fall off
  • Front control arm bushings
  • Camshaft timing sensor

Market Value

As the newer generations arrive and are acquired by CPAs and dentists the E36 M3 has slipped into the world of track enthusiasts. Many M3s have been drive hard and if lucky you can find one that has been maintained meticulously. Since the E36 M3 is already 3 generations old it has finally hit bottom for value, which means you can pick one up for fairly cheap. The E36 M3 has not found relevance as a classic just yet, like the E30 M3, so if you are mechanically inclined please buy one and restore it to its former glory! 

Here is an average price guide for an E36 M3: 

  • Unicorn: Low miles, meticulously maintained, pervious owner extremely detailed - $25,000 - $20,000
  • Enthusiast owned: High miles and actually driven but maintained and repaired - $20,000 - $15,000
  • Town Bicycle: Higher miles, semi neglected but still has that M spirit - $15,000 - $10,000
  • Rust Bucket: If you find one, please for the Love of God restore it to its former glory! - $10,000 - $5,000

Problems

The number one problem of the E36 is the water pump. 6 cylinder models up to 1997 were equipped with plastic impellers which would break apart and fail prematurely, stopping the coolant flow. Typical replacement interval is 60,000 km, but they've been known to fail at as low as 20-30,000, and often randomly. 

The number two most common problem is the clutch fan shattering and doing quite some damage to the radiator, belts and other parts in the vicinity. One way to avoid this is to remove it completely but if you're careful and inspect it regularly, you should be ok.

The stock E36 radiator has plastic necks which can crack or break over time. Even if it looks fine, you may want to replace it, especially near the 100k mark, which is about the typical time when radiators fail.        

On manual transmissions, 2nd gear can completely blow out, or it may refuse to go into 5th gear when cold. Though very rare, this problem is expensive and requires a rebuild or replacement altogether. You should check for this issue when inspecting the car.

Power steering hose can leak. In worst cases, the condition eventually leads to hose failure, resulting in a loss of steering assist.

Rear shock mount failure is a very common problem and can occur at as low as 20,000 miles. The symptoms begin with a dull clunking noise in the rear over bumps or rough roads, indicating that the shock piston rod has separated from the bushing mount. This can progress into metallic noises as the mount bolts shear off if not replaced in a timely fashion.

Listen to it... for ticking that does not come from the injectors or a clunk/rumble down low (bearings).

These are fairly noisy motors so don't freak out about mechanical whirring and banging from up top, just listen for not0rightness. If you hear a bearing noise in the oil pan - WALK AWAY!