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BMW E36 Three Series - Problems and Common Faults

Body and Fittings

Early cars were the test bed for BMW's water based paint. Took them a few years to perfect it. Pre 1994 cars seem to rust a bit more around the wheel arches and panel edges as a result.

Mud flaps make an excellent rust trap if fitted, avoid.

Front electric windows have been a problem on some early cars. The plastic clips break and the window slips out of the holder.

On the coupes the windows can jerk up one inch at a time if they fail, this is because the magnet on the motor shaft moves out of position or falls off.

Late model saloon door noises have been a problem due to the type of rubber used in the seals. Mainly a problem on the rear doors in 1996 cars. Gummi Pfledge rubber lubricant helps.

If doors stick shut in freezing weather put petroleum jelly on the rubber seals lightly.

On early cars the front under bumper area is poorly made. Brake ducts fall off (taking the OBC temp sensor along), the under tray falls off, etc. Later cars seem better. It got so bad that it was possible to but aftermarket aluminium undertrays.

If the windows and sunroof fail it's time for a new comfort relay, it lives behind the glovebox. Not that common a fault.

If headlight glass becomes pitted if can sometimes be sanded back with special cleaning kits. I believe US lights were made from a softer plastic.

Don't suffer with scuffed bumper strips, new ones are cheap and easy to fit The same goes for wheel centre badges and the car's hood and trunk badges.


BMW E36 rusty arch

The rear of the rear wheel arch is always the first bit to rust.

If the windows start rising slowly try some silicone spray in the runners.

Check the drain holes in doors and other panels don't get blocked.

Look for the jacking holes on the sills. At the same point under the car are four plastic pads for jacking with floor jacks. These pads fall out over time and should be replaced to avoid water ingress to their mounting holes.

Plastic sill covers can conceal rust.

The bonnet release cables are becoming an issue with age as they gum up. There are two, one from the lever to the first bonnet catch and a second from between the two catches. The long one is a nightmare to replace. If fitting a new one use the old one to pull it through into the cabin, on no account the remove the old one first (like I did).

If the cable dies and the bonnet / hood won't open it is possible to fix things. Lever one of the kidney grilles out, without terminally breaking it if possible. Use pliers or large snips to break off the plastic below the bonnet catches and work them from beneath. You might undo one side by tugging on the cable that joins the two catches once you get to it. It is possible, I've done it.

If the headlights seem poor it could just be oxidisation on the base of the bulb or connectors. Osram Nightbreaker bulbs will amaze you and are worth the price, same wattage and perfectly legal.


BMW m40 engine

M40 M43

Four cylinder 8 valve

1.6, 1.8 and 1.9

1988 - 2001

BMW m42 engine

M42 M44

Four cylinder 16 valve

1.8 and 1.9

1989 - 1998

BMW m52 engine

M50 M52 M54

Six cylinder 24 valve

2.0, 2.2, 2.5, 2.8 and 3.0

1989 - 2004

BMW m51 diesel engine

M41 M51

Four and six cylinder turbo diesels

1.7 and 2.5

1991 - 1999

BMW s50 engine

S50 S50B32 S52 S54

Six cylinder 24 valve

1992 - 2007


1995 318iS had a problem with cracking on the exhaust manifolds.

A loud ticking sound, especially on a cold start, on a 16 valve engine is often a failing chain tensioner. Cheap and easy fix. Often mistaken for tappet problems. M50s can can get this too but it's less common.

The timing case profile gasket on M42 engines made before about September 1993 are eaten away by coolant and will fail at 30-70K. This results in total coolant loss and is a very serious problem. Any car you buy today will have had this fixed.

The dual VANOS gear on the Euro/UK M3 Evo 3.2 is a known problem and seems to fail a lot, not cheap to replace but often you just need to replace the seals. There are companies who specialise in the job and will refurbish the part by return of post.

VANOS gear can fail on other engines but it's far less common and is often a sign of poor maintenance.



M3 Evo VANOS gear can fail.

M52s 320/323/328 with an alloy block made before 3/98 were prone to sulphur in fuel causing premature bore wear which shows as a bad idle and lack of power. Only solution is a new block. After the problems with the M60 V8 BMW NA were vary of the alloy block M52 and all US cars had a steel block instead. Any car that's still OK today will stay that way as we've had low sulphur fuel for years.

M50 engines and possibly early M52s use a water pump with a plastic impeller. After 80k this can fail and leave little bits all around the cooling system. Replace it with the later metal style pump before it fails, not dear. Many will have been fixed by now.

BMW engines don't like the cooling system being neglected, you need a fluid change every 2 years at least.

If you buy an E36 change the spark plugs and run some Redex / Techron through the fuel system for best results. Also inspect the serpentine belt for wear.

Overheating in traffic is often due to a failing viscous fan coupling. Beware as it's reverse thread.

Transmission and Drivetrain

Hot clutch shudder is common on many BMWs of this period, my 318iS did it once or twice a year and my old E30 318iS had it once. When the clutch gets VERY hot it will judder when first or second gear is engaged. This happens in town driving after the car has been driven for a very long time. It is more common in hot countries and only happens to me in the summer. It can happen regardless of clutch age and may be due to a non-asbestos lining on the clutch plate. It is claimed that BMW dealers have a replacement part to cure the problem but if this is the case why do new cars still do it?

An odd knocking under acceleration or cornering could be the driveshaft centre bearing.

A handful of five speed manual gearboxes had a fault with jumping out of gear. All were fixed under warranty.

If you buy an auto gearbox and don't know when the fluid was changed last get it done along with the filter. This should be done every 60k miles, despite BMW's official line it's not lifetime fluid. If you have any issues with an auto gearbox a fluid change is the first line of attack. Same goes for the differential and power steering.

Brakes, Suspension and Steering

The biggest issue with brakes by now is sticking calipers just through age. I do one or two a year on my cars as the rubber boots perish and let dirt into the piston, it's worse for me due to the winters where I live. Refurbished calipers aren't expensive or hard to fit.

An ABS fault can be water in the connector for the sensor that lives about 18" from each sensor down the cable.

Good brake pads are worth the money, look for Pagid Fast Road or EBC Red Stuff.

Change the brake fluid when you buy the car then every two years. It's hydroscopic and gathers water, not a good thing.

There was a recall on the lower steering column joint due to rust.


BMW E36 Lower control arm

Lower control arm in front suspension.

Vibration when braking from speed is often due to worn lower control arm bushings. Replace with a poly bushing for best effect. Failing that check the tie rods.

If the car doesn't seem to handle in a stable way get a four wheel alignment. My car was hit from behind at about 15mph and suffered almost no damage. But it put the rear axle out of alignment and it drove horribly.

If laying the car up be sure to leave the handbrake off or it'll stick on.

If your steering is stiff or the pump groans when cold you need to change the power steering fluid. Sadly the reservoirs no longer have a removable filter.

Rear shock mounts often go at 40-60K. This shows up as a rattle when going over pot holes, not expensive to fix.

The 17" three piece (bolted) cross spoke wheels fitted to the 328i sport have a problem with the lacquer finish. Water gets underneath and they look awful in no time.


Interiors and many other parts are much better made on post 1994 cars. My 1995 was much better put together than my 93.

Seat fabric on pre-95 cars can wear prematurely. Later fabrics are better.


BMW E36 pollen filter

New and old pollen filters.

If the fan seems to blow little air it might be due to a blocked microfilter. They tend to be on later cars especially if aircon is fitted.

Glove box rattles are common on pre-95 models, this is a design fault. In fact the build quality on early cars isn't fantastic. My 89 E30 is MUCH better than my 93 318iS. The seat fabric is better than the early E30s but at 100k it's not unusual to see fraying seat covers.

If you have an airbag warning light get a code reader / reset tool, they're cheap. It's often the passenger seat occupancy sensor, you can buy a dongle to bypass it and then clear the fault code. In an accident all the airbags will deploy even if there's no passenger. An airbag warning light is an MoT failure.

Both interior and exterior door handles could have been of slightly higher quality. If they fail to open the door it's generally possible to fix things with a bit of fettling and bending of link rods.

In hot countries the dash can bulge above the centre air vent on early cars, there is an upgrade bracket kit to fix this.