Much maligned by the press when new, the E36 M3 was actually a great machine, unfairly criticised because it wasn't exactly the same as the car it replaced. It seemed to matter little to owners though – they absolutely loved the new car and it simply flew out of the showrooms. Here, at last, was an M3 that was more practical for UK buyers as it was available as a right-hand drive machine and its superb straight-six was a whole lot more tractable than its E30 forebear. It was blisteringly quick, too, and as befitted the age in which it was born it was considerably more discreet than the E30 unless you opted for the dayglow Dakar yellow model.
There's no getting away from the fact that E30 M3 prices have risen in recent times and the majority of enthusiasts who want to use their classic investments have now been priced out of the market. Indeed, give an M3 a limited edition status and it seems that it's almost certain to become collectible. You only have to look at the E46 CSL and the E92 GTS to see that this is the case. But what about the E36? Will it ever become an icon to be coveted like the E30?
If you'd asked us a few years ago we'd probably have said no, but over the last few years prices have started to firm up and now seem to be rising rapidly, especially for low mileage unmolested examples. The Saloons, which were produced in significantly lower numbers, seem to be coveted but of all the E36 M3s produced we reckon it's likely to be the limited run left-hand drive M3 GT and its UK counterpart, the GT Individual, that will be the most collectible.
Where the E30 M3 had been designed from the outset as a machine with which BMW could go Touring Car racing, the E36 was very much a road car and due to its 3.0-litre capacity it wasn't eligible for any of the world's major Touring Car categories which were mainly limited to a 2.0-litre capacity at that time. BMW obviously wanted to capitalise on the M3's sales success by taking it racing in its home market – BMW no longer had factory involvement in DTM by this time so it decided to enter the M3 in the FIA European GT series (hence the name) and in the American IMSA category, and to do this it required a homologation special for the racer's aerodynamic addenda and the GT was born. Just 350 examples were produced (along with six prototypes) – all lefthand drive and all in British Racing Green nonmetallic paint – in the early part of 1995.
While the standard E36 M3 was subtle in the extreme (too subtle for many, especially with the plethora of kitted four-pot lookalikes that were soon to be found on every street corner) the GT packed some serious wings and flares. To this end it featured a bi-plane rear spoiler and a jutting, adjustable front chin spoiler. Carbon fibre bumper mouldings and the use of aluminium doors shaved a few pounds but in truth, the GT was no stripped-out circuit refugee. Weighing in at the best part of 1500 kilos ensured that the E36 was still pretty portly when compared to the E30's 1200 kilo kerb weight.
While it might have been weighty, and a fully kitted interior with electric everything, air-con and some sculpted leather armchairs (trimmed uniquely in Mexico green hide and Amaretta Anthracite), ensured it was no lightweight, there was more to the GT than a set of spoilers and a unique paint job.
The 3.0-litre straight-six got revised inlet trumpets, a set of 264-degree camshafts, a BMW Motorsport twin pick-up oil pan, a dual-inlet oil pump and revised Vanos software that raised the rev limit slightly, liberating 295hp at 7100rpm (up from 286hp for the standard car) and 238lb ft of torque at 3900rpm. Not huge gains, admittedly, but like the aerodynamic revisions, they give the GT an edge.
There were more changes under the skin, too. Springs were uprated and there was an M strut brace at the front to give more rigidity to the structure while the final drive was shortened to 3.23:1. There were Evo-style clear front indicator lenses and BMW Motorsport International emblems on exterior door mouldings and the sill kick plates. The final piece in the GT jigsaw was a set of forged M double spoke 17-inch alloys, with the rears being an inch wider than the fronts.
While the UK didn't get the full-fat M3 GT we did get a visually similar machine known as the GT Individual which was limited to a special run of 50 examples that were produced in 1995. These were based on standard 3.0-litre M3 running gear and like the pukka GTs they were also available exclusively in British Racing green paintwork. They also had Mexico green Nappa leather interiors with Amaretta Anthracite, but instead of the carbon interior trim they featured Graphite Birds Eye maple wood trim. They did however have the GT's spoilers, Evo-style clear front indicators and some had aluminium doors too. With a total production run of just 400 examples (if you combine the two models' totals) the BRG M3 GT/Individual is the rarest of the 3.0-litre M3s and is quirky yet practical enough to be a sure-fire bet for the future, your only problem might be finding one…
Before rushing out and buying an E36 M3 it would probably be best to get behind the wheel of a couple of examples to find out how they drive and whether or not it's a car you could live with. If you find that the answer to that question is no then we suggest you hand your membership cards in at the exit as the E36 M3 is still a cracking piece of kit today.
With a 0-62mph time of just 5.9 seconds coupled with the ubiquitous 155mph top whack there's no doubting the 3.0-litre M3 is still a very rapid piece of kit. We've always felt that the 3.0-litre E36s were a bit sweeter than the later Evos with the power and torque a little more accessible, the power band a little less stratospheric. Straight-line urge and outright grip from wide 17-inch alloys, teamed to superb brakes put the GT on the fringes of the supercar league. It makes swift progress ridiculously easy and, with that well-equipped and cosseting cabin, plus a reasonably compliant suspension setup, surprisingly relaxing.
In fact, the GT really does live up to its name. It makes for a discreet, affordable and rapid grand tourer. It is genuinely practical, capacious and luxurious. Everyday use is no problem for this car although if you do manage to find a pukka GT you'll probably be more inclined to squirrel it away for high days and holiday use. With a grand total of 400 examples having been produced and no doubt some of those already having met their maker these M3s aren't exactly common but they do crop up for sale every now and then. If it's a right-hand drive UK car you're after it'll be the GT Individual you're looking for and these machines crop up every now and then and seem to typically command prices in the region of £15-20,000 – less for a rough one, slightly more for a low mileage minter.
Sourcing a genuine GT will find you casting your net a little wider and you'll usually find a few for sale in Germany with prices currently at around €35-40,000 (£25-28,000) for what appear to be genuine and pampered examples.
All GT models had the Mexico green half leather interior trim with Amaretto 'suede' outer sections, but they weren't stripped-out lightweights. Many GTs had air-con, cruise control and so on and being 1995 cars have the rotary knob type air-con controls that look like a '70s Japanese music centre. These cars had the three-spoke airbag steering wheel fitted since 1994 as well as the EWS chipped ignition key and carbon fibre dash and centre console trims – or dark Maple wood on the UK RHD cars. The GTs should all have the early version of the SRS airbag with a plastic Interior centre BMW badge and not the metal type introduced in 1995. Retrimming a worn-out seat could be expensive if the trim is hard to replicate. The air-con needs to work – if the car is a late UK one with the digital type control panel, these can be fixed or replaced with a good used panel for about £30; a non-working fan can be a failed heater fan resistor, again easily and cheaply fixed for about £25. E36 door trims weren't robust and many need removing, the fixings tightened and the three fibreboard reinforcing inner sections gluing back on with Araldite.
The E36 is an old car now, and whilst it was an improvement over the E30 for rust resistance… it's still an old car. Rust strikes in various places but none are too drastic unless the car is a real shed. Starting at the front, check the front arch lips and the base of the wing for rust – it's worth removing the sill covers and cleaning out mud and treating any rust. Also remove the front arch liners and marvel at how much mud is trapped in there before washing it out and Waxoyling the area and arch lips – a new wing from BMW is £226 plus VAT. Under the bonnet, look for rust behind the headlights. This starts around one of the plastic captive nuts that secures the arch liner and can fail an MoT. Also check the vertical stiffeners from the strut tops down to the chassis leg – rust is rare but possible.
Rear arch rust is a fact of life with an E36. If it's not too bad it can be ground back to bright steel including the entire arch lip area that folds back and you may find rust has spread into the area above the rear bumper. However, the green paint on GTs is easy to match and blend in and it shouldn't cost more than £400 to de-rust and repaint the lower back wings and £1000 to have a really professional replacement of the inner and outer arches.
Sills can also rust, and they're worse at the back. Check around the circular rubber lifting eye bungs and check the back where the sill is welded to the rear inner sill area, E36's can really rot in there. Make sure the alloy doors are there and straight and check the other E36 hot spots; the rear panel between bumper and bootlid (especially where the boot seal fits on) and a general underbody check. Apart from the paint colour (BMW code 312 or Special Paint 490 on many RHD cars), the GT had a special adjustable front splitter fitted to the base of the front bumper and a double rear wing plus the alloy doors of course. GTs also had clear front indicators and not amber ones, although some cars had amber rear indicators as well. The alloy doors are still available new at £629 plus VAT each.
Under the bonnet, check the VIN plate (and the logbook) to ensure the VIN on LHD cars is in the low EN40000 range – EA40000 is the 1994 built prototype in the Munich BMW museum and the last number is EA40355 built 12th June 1995. All cars were built at Regensburg on the same production lines as other E36 Coupés. The 50 RHD UK cars were much the same as the LHD ones but the VIN numbers are different. EA68737 was the first RHD car and plaque number 1/50 but the second car jumped to VIN EA85023 and ended around EA85131 on 17 July 1995. Unlike the LHD cars they aren't sequential and were built sporadically amongst regular RHD M3 Coupés so you'll need to check the VIN with BMW VIN Decoder online and find out the correct spec and colour.
The 3.0 M3 engine was always regarded both as a stronger engine than the later 3.2 Evo, and more likely to develop its full 286hp although the LHD GT was quoted as having 295hp. The S50 was developed from the M50 iron block but with a special cylinder head and cams, single Vanos on the inlet cam only and the individual throttle bodies. The 50 RHD GT cars (referred to by BMW and GT Optik of GT Appearance) has the standard 3.0 M3 engine without modification. The LHD GT engine was basically the same, but it used different camshafts and a revised ECU as well as a different sump, oil pump and the twin oil pick-ups, all designed to eliminate oil surge under hard cornering, and the idea was transferred over to the 3.2 Evo engine.
The 3.0 S50 will take a lot of punishment if it's serviced correctly and not abused. Little goes wrong – the crank, con rods, pistons and so on are all strong and rarely have any head or gasket issues. Given care, an S50 will do 150,000 miles or more. The oil and filter should be changed on the dot using a fully synthetic oil and a genuine BMW filter, whilst the shimmed valve clearances must be checked every 12,000 miles and adjusted if need be – this is quite a long-winded operation if they all need doing but like using 99 octane fuel; it's essential if the full power is to be realised.
The M3 has a rev limiter, and it is there to protect the engine from an accidental over rev, not a challenge and something to be bounced off on a regular basis. On no account have a remap to raise this limit as you'll break the engine. It's a common misconception that another 500rpm won't load the engine much more and that 7500rpm won't break anything that 7000rpm won't. This is false: bearing loads increase in proportion to the square of the rpm – for example, the load on the big end bearings at 4000rpm is four times that at 2000rpm… you do the maths, but at 7000rpm the connecting rod bolts are under immense loading and another 500rpm will probably break something eventually. ARP rod bolts are one plan, but treating the engine with the respect a 20-year-old performance unit deserves is a much better one. The exhaust is the same as any other 3.0 M3, and a new rear box from BMW is £695 plus VAT… but have been on back order for a while.
Steering and suspension
The steering rack is the same as the other 3.0 M3 cars and so is the suspension. The rack is unique to the M3 and is a steep £1074 plus VAT – to be honest you'd just fit a good used purple tag E46 one for £70 at this stage. There is talk of the GT having different springs but according to the BMW parts system they are the same. This is again confused by different spec cars having different colour-coded springs – a car with air-con and other extras will have different front springs to a base spec car with no extras. At this age, a set of Eibach Pro Kit springs on OE dampers is going to be just fine if you can't match up a new spring from the colour codes from the originals – springs tend to be rusty after 20 years. Front struts are £220 plus VAT each new from BMW – not too horrific. Apart from that it's regular E36 stuff. The outer ball joints can be replaced if you can find the ball joints themselves and you have the usual worn rear trailing arm bushes and front control arm bushes. If both ball joints are tired, a complete new wishbone from BMW is £174 plus VAT. Resist the temptation to fit polybushes – the standard stuff was fine when the car was new and fresh. The GT does of course have a front strut brace as standard.
The E36 was the last BMW to have ordinary pre- CANBUS type electrics so it's all pretty simple stuff. Instrument clusters are very reliable and pixels rarely fail whilst windows and sunroof motors are fine. Occasionally a central locking unit can fail and replacing it can be a real cow as it's fitted to the side of the door-locking mechanism. The body control unit as well as control units for the wipers and ABS are all up behind the glovebox. The 18 button OBC is well worth having but false bulb failure warnings can be due to bad earths or the wrong type tail-lights. Wiper motors rarely fail – just as well because they're a swine to replace.
Transmission and drivetrain
The 3.0 M3 used a five-speed ZF gearbox that is both strong and shared with many other, more prosaic BMWs – the ZF 310/320Z. This box is a five-speed unit and it was fitted to E34 525i cars as well as the E36 328i, 323i Tourings and very early 325i cars. It went on to be used in the E39 528i and as such it's a very common gearbox. If yours should require replacement, you can get one just about anywhere for £100 – there is no real demand for them as they're so hard to break. Clutches last well, and a new clutch kit from BMW is £299 plus VAT whilst ECP supply a three-piece LuK clutch kit for £243.
The propshaft is a sturdy thing requiring only the occasional front rubber coupling and the centre joint, and the differential is a 325i/328i type 'medium case' (Type 188) LSD with a 25 per cent lock up. The ratio is 3.15 (sometimes wrongly quoted as 3.23 – the ratio used on the six speed Evo) and the only difference between the 3.0 M3 and 325i differentials is that the 325i uses a flange to take the UJ (universal joint) on the end of the prop, and the M3 has a different flange to accept the M3's CV (constant velocity) joint on the end of its propshaft. Driveshafts are very strong and are 325i/328i types again. Overall, the transmission holds no points for concern.
Wheels, tyres and brakes
The wheels used on the GT are the original M double-spoke 17s, 7.5-inch wide fronts and 8.5-inch wide rears. They have polished rims and BMW Motorsport cast into the centre hubs. They also have a different part number to similar looking double-spokes used on the later Evos – the part numbers are 36 11 2 227 759 front and 36 11 2 227 760 rear but don't expect to see these numbers cast into the wheels. Tyres should of course be a premium make – the original Michelin Pilot tyre was launched in the summer of 1995 so are a decent choice – not Nankangs in other words! The brakes are standard 3.0 M3 – basically bigger versions of the 325i setup. Discs are available from Euro Car Parts under the Pagid brand – £105 the pair for this quality brand, and just £33 for Pagid pads.
BMW doesn't list the E36 cars in its fixed price scheme, so for the dealer costs we phoned around some northern dealers and took an average. Be aware that the Inspection II cost does not include valve clearance adjustment – reckon on an extra £150 for this procedure.
BMW DEALER SPECIALIST OIL SERVICE £169 £129
OIL SERVICE PLUS MICRO FILTER £218 £265
INSPECTION I £469 £239
INSPECTION II £599 £395
BRAKE FLUID £62 £42
VEHICLE CHECK £99 £80
Specialist service prices are from Parkside Garage (01909 506999) and include VAT.
The E36 M3 is slowly gaining classic status, although it's still far from being valuable – it'll be a while before they're worth serious money. The GT, though, is different and if any E36 M3 is going to be valuable it's this one. Given that the LHD cars had a modified engine we'd say these are the ones to go for although the UK versions are rarer. Any E36 M3 in nice condition is a great car, but the LHD 3.0 GT is the Sport Evo of the E36 range – if you're thinking about buying one, do it now as they will be past £50,000 before you know it, having missed the boat.
TECHNICAL DATA BMW E36 M3 GT/Individual
ENGINE: In-line six-cylinder
MAX POWER: 295hp at 7000rpm (286)
MAX TORQUE: 238lb ft at 3900rpm (236)
0-62MPH: 5.9 seconds (6.0)
0-100MPH: 25.4 seconds (25.6)
TOP SPEED: 155mph limited
WEIGHT (DIN): 1460kg
NUMBER MADE: 350 (50)
Figures in brackets refer to UK Individual model