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The BMW E36 and 5 Common Problems

BMW repair shop

Why Your E36 Might Need to Visit a BMW Repair Shop

If you have recently gotten your hands on a BMW E36 3 Series which you plan to restore, it’s a good idea to get acquainted with the maladies affecting these ‘dolphin shape’ Bimmers so that you’re prepared when next walking into your BMW repair shop.

First, a bit of history. With a revolutionary, far more aerodynamic design, a more advanced “Z-axle” multilink suspension system and, in the case of the 325i, sports car performance in what was a mainstream compact executive, the E36 took several important leaps forward for BMW, both technically and aesthetically. However, the bump up in technology also meant that, although fairly solid in isolation, this model lacked the robustness of its E30 predecessor.

Still, virtually every E36 remains a thrilling drive, despite most being of high mileage. Here are a few common issues to look out for to keep your 3 Series going.

Water Pump
An alarmingly common problem of the E36 was a failing water pump. Especially on 6-cylinder models, many of these have been known to go as soon as 20 000 to 30 000 miles, far lower than the specified replacement interval of 60k. The problem is, quite simply, plastic – the water pumps were equipped with plastic impellers that simply broke apart. A replacement item with metal impellers do the job far more effectively.

Rickety Radiator
The standard E36 has plastic necks for the radiator which, over time, will perish. Again, the materials – rather than the design of the component – are to blame. As with the water pump, replacement parts using aluminum/metal are preferable. You’ll save yourself a lot of trouble by checking what your car is fitted with if you’ve just purchased and, if plastic is still used, regular inspection is key. Keep an eye on the plastic thermostat housing as well.

Rough Idle
The engines in the E36 range were revered for their smoothness, even as they pack on the miles. So, it figures that a rough idle is particularly annoying. The first likely issue is a dirty idle control valve. Thankfully, cleaning the part can alleviate the rough idle and will not require replacement. On models made prior to 1994, another possible cause is the DME (Digital Motor Electronics system) being affected by water entering it, especially following heavy rain. If your car is hard to start, this can be another sign of a flooded DME.

O2 Sensor
BMW North America initiated a recall of manual transmission E36’s fitted with the M42 engine. The problem? Faulty routing of the oxygen sensor wiring harness. The wire itself was prone to come apart, separating it from the DME and triggering the engine warning light.

Rear Shock Mounts
Another prominent weakness in the E36 range are the rear shock mounts. Rattling noises from the trunk could indicate broken shock mounts which, if not replaced, will eventually compromise the rear shock towers. Fortunately, a number of aftermarket items – as well as stronger replacement parts from the E46 – are available.

The E36 remains a gem of a car and a pure ‘driver’s BMW’, but it does need a fair bit of TLC owing to its age as well as a number of technologies that were introduced to the range for the first time – many of the issues highlighted here were not as pronounced on the E46 version. At the same time, many enthusiasts will argue that the E46 lacked some of the ‘soul’ which seems so embedded in the E36’s DNA.

So, rest assured that your E36 is a BMW classic worthy of your time and energy in the maintenance department!

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