BMW E36 M3 | Buyer's Guide

Photograph Courtesy BMW

For years, the E36-chassis BMW M3 lived in the shadows, not nearly as radical as the ones that came before or after. But those days have ended. Since just last summer, Hagerty has shown that top prices for these mid-to-late-’90s M3s are up nearly 50%.

Where the original M3 served as a true homologation special, complete with a bespoke engine and radical bodywork, this follow-up model was a bit more restrained–at least here in the States. Erik Wensberg, who served as BMW North America M brand manager, saw the European version of the second-generation M3 as simply too radical and too expensive for the U.S. market. 

So Wensberg requested a slightly softer M3 for the U.S.–no individual throttle bodies, no mechanical lifters. Wensberg figured the compromises would add only about two-tenths to the M3’s zero-to-60 times while helping to shave some $20,000 from the MSRP

Munich flipped,” he once told Grassroots Motorsports, our sister publication. “They were not happy to hear this.” A letter-writing campaign orchestrated by the BMW Car Club of America helped show strong consumer intertest, however, and Karl-Heinz Kalbfell, head of BMW’s motorsports department in Germany, listened. He decided to give it a shot, with the American-spec M3 arriving for 1995. MSRP started on target at $35,800.

BMW North America listed a still respectable zero-to-60 time of 6.0 seconds for this 240-horsepower M3. Orders flooded in. Where BMW sold about 5100 copies of the original M3 during its entire four-year run in the States, this new one found more than 10,000 buyers in just its first year.

Today, good examples of the 1995-’99 M3 can be found in the teens, with the super-rare Lightweight models pulling in close to six figures–or, if once owned by late actor Paul Walker, a few hundred grand.

–David S. Wallens

Why You Want One

  • BMW North America took the E36 racing, landing class wins at Daytona and Sebring. Amateurs found success nearly everywhere, from local autocrosses to club and semi-pro road races.
  • If the original 3.0-liter inline-six isn’t enough, BMW enlarged displacement to 3.2 liters starting with the 1996 cars.
  • While originally just a coupe was released, the lineup eventually expanded to include a convertible and four-door sedan. An automatic was offered, too, as BMW North America realized that many customers lived in cities.
  • The E36 M3 sold well enough to be a success yet remains rare enough to be something special.
  • Huge support from today’s aftermarket.
  • In 1995, BMW North America imported about 120 to 125 copies of the race-ready M3 Lightweight: aluminum doors, deleted sound deadening, no a/c, wider wheels, stiffer suspension, quicker final drive and no speed limiter. Inside the trunk, customers found a deeper oil pan, lower X-brace, adjustable front splitter and rear wing. Is this a ’90s Shelby GT350R?

BMW M3 Shopping Advice

Our Expert:
Patrick Grace

The 3.0 and 3.2 are very comparable. The 3.2 will have a bit more torque down low and a few more horsepower, but either engine will get the job done. You will also see many more cars with the 3.2 since they were produced for the 1996-’99 model years, where the 3.0 was only available in ’95.  

When it comes to body style, it truly comes down to personal preference. I am a coupe fan, and coupes seem to be generally more desirable and sell for more. However, you will have tons of fun in whatever E36 body style you chose. The sedan is said to be more rigid than the other body styles, and with two more doors, the back seats are much more usable. The convertible is awesome for top-down cruising and listening to that straight-six scream a bit more clearly. 

Regular maintenance on an E36 M3 can be pretty inexpensive so long as it’s been kept up well. My E36 M3 gets an oil change every 5000 miles with Red Line Oil and tires every 20,000 to 30,000 miles or so. 

Unless you know that they have been replaced by the previous owner, I suggest thoroughly inspecting and replacing–or upgrading–most of the suspension bushings in the car, since rubber breaks down over time and at this point the youngest E36 M3 is about 23 years old. Powerflex polyurethane bushings are available for nearly every position on the car and have an incredibly long service life. 

You will also want to look over the braking system since it has rubber seals and lines that can degrade over time. 

Lastly, you will want to look over the engine. The E36 engine is pretty darn reliable, however over time it can develop some leaks and rattles. New gaskets, a rebuilt Vanos unit and a refreshed cooling system will make your E36 M3 experience much more pleasant.

All E36 M3 mechanical components are still widely available, which I would attribute to the mass appeal of these cars and the large racing community surrounding them. You can keep these cars running like a top with little to no concern for replacement parts. 

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View comments on the CMS forums
Charlotte_Bridgestone None
3/18/22 2:03 p.m.

Thank you for a useful article! Finally I have decided to buy my own vehicle but I doubt what exactly do I need. From the childhood my father got acquainted me with the world of automobiles and I always liked German cars. I think I really need something like BMW M3yes

Tomwas1 New Reader
6/7/22 10:49 p.m.

Just got my second e36 m3 about three weeks ago. 99 techno violet vert with auto and 128k on it... California and tx car most of its life so no rust, a rare specimen here in the northeast... Loving it more each day. She gets much love in my travels to cars and coffee events and cruise ins... Goes nicely with my 99 528i msport sedan and 96 328 sedan... Great to be back in a classic M3 again...

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
6/8/22 10:57 a.m.

In reply to Tomwas1 :

Amazing score with that color. Much congratulations. 

wspohn SuperDork
6/8/22 11:44 a.m.

Nice cars but BMW screwed the pooch when they sent a skim milk 60 bhp lower outout version to North America.

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