1993 BMW 320i. Click image to enlarge
Review and photos by Simon Hill
Sitting in my garage this week – well actually, every week for the past four-and-a-half years – is a car that’s beaten some impressive odds. This is no immaculately preserved, garage-queen 1993 Mazda RX-7, rather it’s my family car, a budget-minded 1993 E36-bodied BMW 320i we call the Black Pearl. Although calling it Keith Richards might have been equally fitting – this particular 320i has lived hard and taken a licking, but it keeps on ticking.
Now showing 237,430 km on the odometer, it has a collision history that reads like an epic novel, with a near write-off in 1995 and a litany of slightly less major incidents since that have resulted in every conceivable panel being bashed in and replaced, sometimes more than once.
Equipped with a five-speed manual transmission and BMW’s sweet 2.0L inline six, the car was used to instruct the original owner’s two sons how to drive stick, and is now doing the same for my son.
By the time it fell into my ownership its original cloth seats had completely come apart at the seams, and it was sporting some fresh body damage following a close encounter with a concrete parkade pillar.
I wasn’t even supposed to buy it – I took a brief look and told the seller that, really, even with the Canadian Tire seat covers he’d draped over the ruined buckets, the car wasn’t worth half what he was asking. I thought that was the end of it, until he phoned a few days later. He was moving to the U.S. He didn’t want the hassle of importing the car. How much would I offer?
I named a ridiculous figure. He accepted. The ICBC agent completing the registration transfer made me fill out various additional forms to explain why the price was so low (the BC government takes a cut when you buy a used car privately, and they like to make sure they get their full pound of flesh). “Interior destroyed,” I wrote, “and bodywork damage.” I might have noted some other issues, had I known – the thing is, you see, I may have overpaid for the car.
BMW’s E36 3 Series isn’t the car that made the 3 Series famous – the previous-generation e30 had already accomplished that quite handily, thank you very much. But the E36 was the car that ushered the 3 Series into the modern age. It replaced the boxy style of the previous cars with smooth, flowing “dolphin shape” lines that still look surprisingly contemporary today. It stretched things out to provide actual comfort for back seat passengers. And it ditched the skittish semi-trailing-arm rear suspension of earlier 3 Series for a modern multilink “Z-axle” suspension.
The six-cylinder 320i was a bit special – a European-spec model imported to Canada but not the USA, filling the uniquely Canadian gap between the base four-cylinder 318i and the more expensive and powerful six-cylinder 325i. Go big or go home? Ha, that’s for the USA – here in Canada you could go big and get a 325i, or take a half-step and get a 320i.
1993 BMW 320i. Click image to enlarge
The equipment list is a time capsule of early ’90s aspirations: there’s no traction control, stability control, or airbags, but it has ABS brakes, power locks and windows of course, and also dual-zone climate control, speed-sensitive wipers, power mirrors, heated front seats, fog lights, outside temperature display, and a cassette stereo with four rather puny speakers. Embarrassingly, my car still has the original deck – not because I don’t like music (I do), but rather because we mostly use the radio. That, and really old mix tapes.
My car also has the optional power sunroof (metal-panelled, not glass), a trailer hitch that looks like it was installed by someone with a grudge against the car, and a dealer-installed cupholder insert that will hold only the very smallest sized coffee cups, and crookedly at that because the delicate little cup grips have long since broken and fallen out.