BMW E36s are phenomenal cars. My first two cars were BMW E36s, I initially developed my interest in cars through maintaining my E36, I have a YouTube channel dedicated to BMW E36 repair, and I used to operate a business parting out cars with E36s as my bread and butter.
That being said, over the years I have developed a lot of knowledge concerning 3 Series BMWs and E36s in particular. This article focuses on the most common BMW E36 problems, how difficult they are to repair, and how to best address them.
Cooling System Problems
I could separate the various coolant system issues that the BMW E36 has, but honestly it’s the entire coolant system that tends to have issues. The biggest problem by far that I have seen is the radiator mounted plastic reservoir. If I had a nickel for how many times I have seen these reservoirs spring a leak. The most annoying problem about it is that I have replaced a reservoir only to have the new one spring a leak within 10,000 miles. I eventually gave up and switched to aluminum reservoirs, they are FAR BETTER.
The water pump is also a serious problem. The originals come with plastic propellers, which tend to break apart prematurely leaving you with seconds to cut the engine off before it severely overheats and causes a head gasket failure.
The radiator is also prone to cracking on the plastic connectors where the upper and lower radiator hoses fit onto the radiator.
Other parts of the E36 coolant system that get honorable mentions for problems include the plastic coolant connector underneath the intake manifold, the coolant connector on the back of the head, and the thermostat.
What should you do? BMW E36 coolant system maintenance is all about preventive maintenance!! DO NOT wait until you have a serious leak on your hands to start replacing components. The water pump, reservoir, radiator hoses and thermostat should be replaced every 60,000 miles!
The infamous “vanos rattle” or “marbles in a can” symptom is a near certainty on E36s with more than 100,000 miles. It is so common because BMW manufactured an inadequate Vanos piston bearing ring and it stretches overtime. The vanos rattle can be a symptom of a bigger issue within your vanos. Problems with the vanos will cause a decrease in power in the lower rpm range.
I have replaced the vanos on several E36s. It’s not a job I would recommend to an owner who does minimal DIY maintenance such as spark plugs or oil changes. It is a job, however, that is well within the reach of moderately experienced DIYers, and it will require special tools for the replacement.
Here is a great write up procedure that I have used to replace an E36 Vanos.
Climate Control Module
I can’t remember the last time I saw an E36 with a working climate control module that had not been replaced. Then again its 2020, these cars are old, maybe I should not be so hard on them. The E36s climate control modules are known for having a specific capacitor failure. You can spend a couple hundred bucks and buy another module or you can replace the capacitor for a couple bucks and an hour of your time!
I can count the number of times I have been frustrated with my BMW E36s on one hand. One of those times is when my driver’s side door handle broke, and within two days my passenger side window motor failed.
Window and door handle problems are by far the most annoying issue on this list, and they will happen to every E36 with more than 100,000 miles on it. Window motors will usually give you a warning before they fill completely because the window will move considerably slower than normal. It is important that you replace the motor while it still has some functionality left or the repair will be considerably more frustrating.
My recommendation is that if you have to replace either the window motor or the window regulator replace them both at the same time. If one failed, the other is on its way out. When doing the repair you should grease up all of the rails that the regulator slides on.
Inside door handles are a walk in the park to replace, exterior door handles, however, are a huge pain in the ASS. After having replaced several exterior door handles I would almost rather pay a mechanic.
Valve Cover Gasket
The valve cover gasket is known to crack overtime and leak oil down the side of the head. If the leak is serious enough it will drip onto the exhaust manifold and cause a burning oil smell and perhaps even visible smoke.
If you smell burning oil and see visible smoking coming up from the E36 exhaust it is important to stop driving the vehicle and replace the valve cover gasket as soon as possible. The oil burning on the manifold is a severe fire hazard!
Luckily the valve cover gasket is extremely easy to replace. A novice DIYer can replace an E36 valve cover gasket inside an hour.
That’s it for the most common BMW E36 problems! This list of issues may sound severe at first glance, but every car requires more extensive maintenance after a certain number of years and mileage and BMW E36s are no different.
For this issues that can be resolved by preventive maintenance I recommend that you stick to the maintenance schedule so your BMW will remain in excellent mechanical condition, and you can remain a happy BMW E36 driver.