A Blast from the Not-So-Distant Past: The BMW E36


The 328 sport car was the first vehicle ever manufactured under the label of Bavarian Motor Works (BMW). Though not their sportiest model anymore, the 328 still has quite a kick to it. This, an E36 328, is what I stumbled upon in late July after months upon months of searching for a solid BMW in the area. As you might notice, it’s fairly uncommon to see one of these roaming around the streets of Rhode Island; a lot of them rotted out, I’ll be honest.

But this one didn’t – mainly because the original owner lived in Utah. The vehicle was then shipped to Massachusetts, and then found its way into my hands. It has zero rust, zero rot. It runs like a dream. It’s truly a rare sight to begin with. And that’s all you could ask for in a car that you want to restore. You want it IMG_3943to be fun, you want it to be rare, and you want it to be clean. Take away any of those three things, and you’d simply be wasting your time and money on the project.

There were a few things to be mended, as with any car that’s been around for almost two decades. This particular car, a 1997 328is (i for injection, s for sport) had a few minor dents, some bodywork that needed to be redone, and some worn weather-stripping. But my goal wasn’t to stop there. My goal was to make it into something truly aesthetic, and personalized, without tarnishing the class and history that comes with owning a BMW. So here’s the deal on what we did to this car.



The front bumper and the mirrors are straight from the BMW M3. Those were upgraded to IMG_3942increase airflow to the brake ducts and make the car a little bit more aerodynamic. The exterior has been completely reworked and repainted to the original BMW Arctic Silver, with a deep clear coat to create depth in the paint (as you can see in the time-lapse GIF). All the weather stripping has been replaced to freshen up the look of the car the nose panel was replaced, since the old one was dented, and the classic kidney grills were also replaced with matte black grilles.

The wheels are ASA AR1 17×8, on Michelin Super Sport Tires. They are an offset 225 in the front and 245 in the back, similar to the styling on the M3. They’re manufactured by BBS, who does a lot of the manufacturing and styling for BMW, and many racing wheels as well. These particular wheels are styled to look like BMW Style 42. These are hooked up to a modest lowered suspension of 1” in the back and 1.5” in the front.

All of the lights have been replaced or upgraded. The blinkers, side-markers, fog lights and tail IMG_3835lamps were replaced with clear/smoked housings to reflect the European styling of the BMWs while keeping a dark, low profile look. The headlights are projectors, with angel eyes wired into them (BMW later adopted this double angel eye look for most of their headlight styling choices once LEDs became more common).

The headliner and all of the trim hasn’t been replaced, but has been expertly reupholstered instead. The center console has also been reupholstered with leather M Stripes sewn into the fabric, to match the BMW M3 Vader seats that are in the car.

To make the car special, and since the engine was already coming apart to do some IMG_3778maintenance work on it, we painted the engine covers, valve cover and the intake manifold. They’ve been painted Arctic Silver, to match the car, with accents of deep glossy black for contrast. All reassembled and looking fresh, it now feeds air in from a Dinan long tube cold air intake, which scoops the air in from the bottom of the bumper to avoid the heat of the engine and keep it running cool.


The controls on the dashboard are on the borderline of ridiculous. Whereas a modern vehicle IMG_3506will display information in a sleek and minimalist manner, this bastard has an individual button for every onboard data calculation. If I want to know the weather, I hit the exterior temperature button. I can also hit the average fuel consumption button, the clock button, or the date button, head back to the trunk and load up my six CD changer with Hootie and the Blowfish and be on my way to the skate park. But I love all of these friendly reminders of what my childhood was like. Every technological advancement was the coolest thing ever, and we always showed it off with buttons — anyone else remember how many buttons they had on their boombox? Cause mine had about 50.

It even smells like the nineties. I have very few words to describe what it’s like, but maybe this is close: old leather, electrical motors and worn plastic. That’s what it smells like. And it’s amazing. When I get in, I feel like I’m playing with my old toys again. The dash lights up like a Gameboy Color and I feel like a power ranger in my driver’s seat.

And I know what they’ll say; if you wanted to feel like you’re playing a Gameboy again, why not get a Gameboy? Because Gameboys don’t max out at 140mph, that’s why. Enjoy your Pokemon, I’ll be dumping my clutch in the parking lot.

This car resembles everything we thought was really going to hit it off in the 1990’s. It also resembles how unbelievably wrong we were. It’s got a portable flashlight in the glove box. We thought that was a cool idea back then. Who would’ve thought that we’d all have Led flashlights on our phones now? Who thought we’d be able to communicate so quickly, install GPS systems in our cars, or have cars that periodically run entirely on electric power? No one. No one thought we’d be here. But here we are, amidst the unfathomably complicated world we’ve created for ourselves.

I won’t complain. I like my GPS. I like texting. I like my flashlight in my IPhone. But I also like going back to that simpler time. I like stepping into a car that has features, as opposed to computers and systems. It’s a blissful ignorance. Sailing down the road I laugh; because it’s almost embarrassing, knowing how dumb and obsolete all this technology must seem now. But dialing over to HIFI on my Harman Kardon Speaker System makes it pretty easy to drown out the harsh insecurities of the digital world.


One thought on “A Blast from the Not-So-Distant Past: The BMW E36

  1. John Genereux says:

    Your E36 is a beauty. I smiled all through the descriptions, I can relate 100%. I like its cockpit feeling with the dash and console…. it’s driver focused. Preventative Maintenance will serve you well given some of the critical ‘plastic’ parts. And those Rhode Island road are not 328is friendly.
    Good luck,…do enjoy.
    John G.


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