If I were to choose just one car to be a paragon of excellence in every way, that best exemplified the combination of elegance, performance and "niceness" that captures most European car enthusiasts' hearts, it would be the 3 Series BMW built from 1992 to the present. For many years, probably my whole life, a used BMW has represented a tremendous amount of goodness for the money, a great deal for those willing and able to take care of it properly. Now, good E36s have depreciated into a price territory where virtually any grown-up who wants one can afford one.
Pablo Mazlumian's Project M3 is a great example of the platform taken to its limits, definitely one of the fastest E36s around. However, one can argue that it has gotten out of hand. It's cool, but not something most readers can even think about. For the money it would cost to duplicate it, I'd consider used Porsche turbos. As that project winds toward its conclusion, I decided to take another run at the chassis.
One of my few rules for project car selection is that if you don't like driving a car stock, you won't like it no matter what you do to it. A test drive of a 318 made it obvious that I would hate it until it had forced induction. I had expected the six-cylinder to carry a significant price premium, but it seemed to be only about $1,000. I excluded 1992 325s because there are more engine modifications available for cars with VANOS. An E36 is already pushing the heavy side of acceptable for me (I thought my old car was heavier than it should have been at 2340 lb), so I didn't want the 100 or so pounds of electronics and luxury gizmos that was added in 1995. Two-doors are no lighter than four-doors, but they have a lower roofline and are more aerodynamic, and I prefer the look of their roughly 3-in. longer hoods. Plus, a longer hood means better engine access. A manual transmission was non-negotiable, and I've been pulled over way too many times in red cars.
Those search criteria narrowed the selection considerably, and it took about six weeks to find my deal, a 1993 with about 100,000 miles, which counts as low in southern California. Overall, it's astoundingly clean for a 10-year-old daily driver. It had a parking sticker from a snooty south Orange County zip code and decent Michelin Pilots all around, suggesting the previous owner wasn't too cheap of skate. The car ended up costing about half as much as a new GTI with a few options. It was more than I planned to pay initially, but everybody who has ridden in it has remarked how nice it is for the money and how clean the leather interior is. The paint has minor scratches but nothing more than normal wear and tear. The path is clear to a cosmetically perfect exterior with no filler anywhere.
This 325is project will be a basic reworking of a fundamentally good vehicle. Where Project M3 has taken the high road at every turn, this project will seek out simpler, less expensive solutions wherever possible, without sacrificing quality, reliability or the usefulness and comfort of the car as a daily driver. Enhancements may move into areas not touched on with Project M3 as a result of that focus, but the overall objective is an able "dance partner." It will remain a vehicle that isn't going to be more than a handful for any club-level driver while delivering whatever is asked. A driver who's scared of his or her vehicle isn't going to learn, and I'd rather wring every last tenth from a moderate, fun-to-drive car than leave something on the table because I'm trying to hang onto 500 hp.
Installments will ramp up slowly, but as time goes by progress will accelerate. You can bet I'm more eager to get it going than you are.