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1999 BMW M3: This Is Not A Buyer’s Guide

On Dec 6, 2019, at 1:09 PM, Vivek Markesh wrote:
What do you think of the price of this M3?….it’s a lot of miles…

https://www.autotrader.com/cars-for-sale/Id=531067211

“Very clean and well cared for 1999 BMW M3 Coupe. The paint is in great shape and body is just as nice with no rust. The interior shows some wear with some stitching coming loose on the seats and the material shrinking on the door panels, common to the E36. The headliner has been redone and is nice. We have known and serviced this car for quite some time. We just had it through our shop and installed new Continental tires. This has HK sound, heated seats, fold down rear seats, cruise control, 18 button OBC, and very rare staggered light weight wheels. If you are looking for a nice driver E36 M3 than this is the car for you. $8,995.”

Editor’s Note #1 – Vivek is technically my client. In my day job, our company works extremely closely with his company. Together, we sell cars, but not BMWs. Vivek is apparently looking for a fun car, something to drive maybe on weekends. Maybe he wants to learn to wrench. Maybe he’s branching out. We don’t know these things. Finally, Vivek is not his actual name, because #client.

Editor’s Note #2 – A couple of years ago, the 1995 BMW M3 I purchased and featured on these digital pages was involved in a multi-car accident, rendering it a total loss in the eyes of the perpetrator’s insurance company. The remains later became a race car. It was replaced by a very nice 2001 BMW 330i ZSP 5-speed. That’s a story for a different time. Meanwhile, last week:

Ah, the siren song of the E36 M3. So much potential, so many potential letdowns.

First, however, a bit of personal history.

I had a 1995 M3 for a little over a year. Mine was a rare-for-the-year 5-speed Luxury package, one of about 189 with the manual transmission in Boston Green over Champagne leather. The odometer showed long miles – over 201,000 of them when I bought it – but being a southern car it had no rust. It was enthusiast-owned, but not necessarily enthusiast-maintained. It had subtle but effective modifications, but it also had an unending list of maintenance and repair items. It was the best worst car I’ve ever had. It was also the worst best car.

“But,” I thought. “I used to be a BMW mechanic. Long miles are okay. It’s not rusty. How hard could it be?”

“Harder than you think,” is the answer.

I have never owned a car that handled like that M3. The steering on my 2001 330i is better, but the TC Kline Stage 2 Koni suspension in the M3 was sublime. The 1995-only 3.0-liter US S50 engine – 1996-99 had the 3.2-liter US S52 – was enhanced with a Dinan chip, and 4-7,000 RPM was vicious. With a fresh set of Continental ExtremeContact Sports, I could chase down or run away from literally anything on a fast backroad, or an entrance ramp.

The comfort seats – basically regular E36 sport seats, as opposed to the standard M3 “Vaders” – were all-day comfy. I drove the M3 home from Virginia to Minneapolis, covering over 750 miles the first day, and only stopped for the night because I fear Wisconsin’s nocturnal woodland creatures. The AC would freeze you out, the heat worked when it felt like it, and the seat heaters were better than decent but less effective than those in my 1995 Mercedes-Benz E320.

The M3 had needs, though. The headliner wasn’t falling down, but it wasn’t installed particularly well. Many plastic things were marginal and both inside door panels were rubbish. The differential bushings were weak, and it would clunk around more than I liked. The aforementioned heat issue was vexing, especially in winter.

I thought I was a pretty darn good BMW wrench, maybe a little out of practice, but it seems like everything I repaired on the M3 either didn’t stick or led to yet more repairs.

The unending list of frustration was cut short by a lady with a cat on her lap driving a Pontiac Grand Am causing a five-car accident, with me conveniently in the middle. Sad, but my M3 is now a race car, which is probably the best thing that could have happened to it.

Now.

The E36 3 series chassis was one of the first BMW designed not only primarily by computer – as opposed to old German dudes with slide rules and pencils – but also one of the first BMW platforms to be designed for recyclability. That means plastics were flimsier, cardboard components like door cards were junk, the glue holding it all together was useless after a few years, the leather upholstery unraveled like a rotten onion, and the thinner sheet metal had a higher propensity for corrosion. This doesn’t make them bad cars. It just makes them less sturdy than any BMW than came before it, and many that came after.

Ironically, mechanically they were actually pretty stout, as long as you follow one absolute. That is, the entire cooling is a consumable. Plan on replacement every 60k miles, to include the radiator, coolant reservoir, front hoses, water pump, thermostat and plastic housing, and any sensors. The cars overheat in one of three ways:

  • The water pump’s plastic impeller breaks, coolant stops flowing, and the engine overheats, popping the head and the head gasket.
  • The upper hose breaks off the radiator, coolant dumps out, and the engine overheats, popping the head and head gasket.
  • The coolant reservoir splits, coolant dumps out…

The rest of the mechanical bits is just old car stuff – worn out bushings, sloppy shifter bits, clunky ball joints, oil leaks, etc. Nothing is unknown on these cars, though, and they’re actually pretty pleasant to work on. Indeed, for a DIY’er, these cars can be a lot of fun.

Ultimately, and like most German cars, the E36 series got better over the production run. Since the bones of the car weren’t terrible, the materials they slathered on could be improved over time. Any E36 will never be put together as well as even a drunk-Friday-afternoon Lexus, but I’d argue the 96-99 cars are better than the 92-95 cars in terms of not completely falling apart in your driveway. And because of all that, I wouldn’t be super-concerned about miles on a facelift E36 chassis. If you have a straight, rust-free platform, the rest is replaceable.

So.

This particular M3 you’ve presented is… odd. I don’t hate the idea of it. It’s a black-on-black final-year example with three pedals and the right options. Based on the cars in the background, it’s being offered by a shop I would very much like to visit and speak with. I haven’t researched this shop, but I’ll bet they’re known in the BMW community. I like that they’ve serviced the car, and ostensibly know its history.

I have concerns about some of the details I see, which could be put to rest by viewing the car in person and/or having a conversation with them. In no particular order:

  • The finish on the vertical slats of each kidney grille seem to have a different patina. The grilles are plastic, and the clips break, allowing the pieces to fall out. May not be a big deal. (I would have replaced both at the same time so they match.)
  • I could maybe make the argument the M3 badge on the trunk is misaligned, indicating it may have been removed for paintwork.
  • The driver’s door jamb is freaking me out. It looks filthy compared to not only the rest of the car but also the passenger side jamb. And is that dirt or overspray or residue from a detail near the edge? Is that corrosion where the edge of the quarter panel trim ends? Glue holding the trim on? Ugh.
  • Speaking of the passenger door jamb, it looks much better. And it looks like it has grommets covering holes where rust inhibitor may have been sprayed in (at the dealer level, not the factory). Those holes/grommets are NOT present on the driver side, which is part of the aforementioned freaking out.
  • The interior wear that we can see is about par. The driver side lower b-pillar cover is coming apart, but both door panels look okay, minus some wear to the leather. Looks like some of the trim around the door openings – rubbers, felts – is unravelling, too. The seats have pretty low wear for the year and mileage, and the center armrest isn’t bad at all. Much of this would clean up with some elbow grease and chemicals.

The miles themselves don’t bother me. I’d be more concerned if it’s up on its maintenance and has had any crash reconstruction. I’d ask about the cooling system (should at least be on its second by now, probably third), clutch, every suspension and steering component, and oil leaks (oozing is okay, marking its territory like a wolf is not). Make sure all of the accessories work, including the sunroof.

Most importantly, go drive it. These are great cars, and some serious fun for less than five figures.

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