Stare at the front of some recent BMWs and the effect is like some kind of Rorschach test. Do you see… a beaver? No, wait, Predator. Actually, maybe it’s some kind of mechanical butterfly?
There is no such misinterpretation when observing the E36 BMW 3-series. It’s simply a BMW; possibly the BMW for anyone who lived through the 1990s, as the model neatly spanned the 1990-1999 period (2000, if you include the Compact), replacing the E30 before it and succeeded by the E46.
If the E21 had defined the 3-series and the E30 refined it, the E36 was the model really hitting its stride, enormously successful and undoubtedly genre-defining. Ubiquity has branded the E36’s handsome shape and studious details into our memories in a way we suspect the more dramatic but ill-defined current model never will.
The E36’s ubiquity has another side-effect beyond defining the three-box BMW profile: there are still plenty around for sale, more than two decades and as much as three decades after it hit the road. And while those numbers are dwindling, as the model remains a popular platform for modification and old age takes care of many others, cars like our latest Tyre Kicker for sale on Car & Classic pop up with surprising regularity.
An M3 will always be more desirable of course, but for a real taste of the decade in which the E36 lived you need to look lower down the market. £4450 seems like a steep price to pay for a basic BMW 318i saloon (it’s worth making the seller an offer), but a single family ownership and comprehensively-stamped service book both count in its favour.
If it’s wrong to get enthusiastic about the original wheel trims and the cloth seats then we don’t want to be right, and the car has escaped many of the other trappings that signal an inevitable slide into disrepair too. The indicators are still amber (would it be too predictable to suggest they’ve led an easy life?), the humble 318i badge is proudly attached to the boot lid, and the impressively tidy engine bay remains unsullied by an aftermarket cone filter.
Titan Silver paintwork undoubtedly shows off the E36’s lines to best effect too, though for ultimate 90s kudos we’d have liked something a little more inherent to the model – Boston Green perhaps, or BMW’s crisp Alpine White (best paired with the unpainted bumpers).
A basic 3-series was never the sportiest thing to drive, even in period, but today it’s a classless modern classic that still looks sharp on the road and is relatively easy to maintain. And, given another 20 or 30 years to mature, it’ll still look better than any current 3-series wherever you park it…