If you’re a fan of Munich’s finest and are looking for a car to squirrel away, here are nine of the best collectable BMWs you can still find (just) and buy
SUVs may make up 60 per cent of its Australian sales these days, but BMW has a sporting sedan and coupe heritage that few marques can match.
And in among the ‘normal’ Beemers there are some gems that many think could become desirable and even collectable in the coming years.
So here is a selection of the cars that you might think of spiriting away to a better place (your garage). Some are already hard to find — some less so — but all are true to BMW’s rich heritage.
The price ranges suggested here were supplied by Shannons National Auctions Manager, Christophe Boribon.
The rankings are my own preferences based on a combination of how much I love the car, its current value for money and its investment potential.
But first a little history lesson…
BMW struggled to recover from World War II and management must have been embarrassed to see British Bristols with twin-nostril grilles and BMW’s 1971cc six-cylinder engine!
The company’s product range was confused. The large, underpowered 501 sedan, with pre-war styling and bearing the nickname of ‘Baroque Angel’ sedan (later to get a V8 and become the 502), never sold in numbers.
Though sublime, the 1955 503 and 507 sporting models were stratospherically priced. And the three-wheeler (also 1955) BMW Isetta bubble car reflected German austerity – one step up from the motor scooter or motorcycle which accounted for the bulk of powered vehicles until into the 1960s.
While the 1959 rear-engined 700 offered promise, the reality was that BMW seemed set to follow Carl Borgward’s eponymous company (officially dissolved on July 28, 1961) into bankruptcy.
Facing the brink and under new management with the Quandt family in control, BMW gambled on its ‘Neue Klasse’ 1500 sedan. This ultra-modern mid-sizer set the template for BMW’s future.
The undisputed star of the 1961 Frankfurt Salon turned around BMW’s fortunes and in 1963 BMW paid its first dividend to shareholders since WWII.
The 1500 effectively redefined the compact sports sedan with a low kerb weight (900kg), four-wheel disc brakes, four-on-the floor and an SOHC engine (designed by racer Alex von Falkenhausen) developing 80 brake horsepower.
In 1962, 90-plus miles per hour was outstanding from 1.5 litres. (Some cars had one or more of these features but the BMW was unique in combining them all. For example, it was classier than the 1961 Fiat 1500, a little quicker and dispensed with the column gearchange and leaf rear springs.)
Interesting context is that BMW employed as many ex-Borgward employees as it could and technically the 1500 could have been a slimmed-down successor to the Borgward Isabella TS. The joke at the time was that ‘BMW’ stood for ‘Borgward macht weiter’ (Borgward lives on).
Nevertheless there are a host of collectable BMWs well worth investing in today. The rankings below are my own preferences based on a combination of how much I love the car, its current value for money and its investment potential.
Price ranges are suggested by Shannons National Auctions Manager, Christophe Boribon.
“I drove my non-Australian-delivered 1981 635 in the 1993 Targa Tasmania” – John Wright
Even though the E24 633CSI had been sold in Australia from 1977 to 1980, the 635CSI was not imported until early 1986. Priced at $86,000, it was only ever going to sell in low numbers.
Three transmissions were available – conventional H-pattern five-speed overdrive manual, a Getrag five-speed with dogleg first and second and third in the same plane, and (most popular) a four-speed automatic.
I drove my non-Australian-delivered 1981 635 in the 1993 Targa Tasmania. The Getrag gearbox was probably my favourite feature.
It’s the success of this car in racing that made me select it for the final position among my top nine BMWs.
Curiously, even the Getrag-equipped 635 with its closer ratios and lower overall gearing was no quicker over 400 metres than the 3.0Si of 1972!
Avoid privately imported cars because (like mine) they are likely to have rust issues: when I jacked mine up after Targa, the jack went through the door sill!
Price range: $25,000 to $40,000 (Australian-delivered)
The E46 sits now about where the E36 was five years ago
The E46 is best understood as a further evolution of the E36 Evolution. Its new S54 3.2-litre six was only 40cc larger but was much thirstier for serious rpm.
And the E46 shape marked the last of the evolutionary styling developments of the original 1975 E21; the E46 3 Series sedan and coupe were the work of Chris Bangle who, at the international launch of the sedan in 1998, pronounced it to be the end of that line – his next car was the radical 2002 E65 7 Series.
It still managed to weigh 35kg more than an E36 but goes a little harder and displays even more dynamic finesse.
The E46 sits now about where the E36 was five years ago, which is to say essentially just a used car. But it has obvious potential as a collector car.
Arguably, it is less aesthetically appealing than its striking predecessor but is generally a better car, although the electronics can give trouble.
The convertible version feels more rigid than the E36 drop-top but purists will prefer the coupe. Always choose a manual over the SMG option.
Price range: $20,000 to $40,000
The BMW 2002 proved to be a huge success in racing and ranked seven in this list
In 1968 BMW found that its twin-carb 1600 TI would not meet US emission standards. Some genius came up with the idea of dropping the single-carb 2.0-litre engine from the uprated Neue Klasse sedan into the two-door model.
The 2002 was the result where the ‘20’ refers to engine size and the ‘02’ to the number of doors; there was also a 1602.
While the 2002 was not as quick as a Porsche 911, it was nevertheless a unique performance machine with effortless torque, superb gearshift, all-independent suspension and a lovely solid feel on the road.
The US market in particular loved this BMW: the proverbial Q-Car that left Mustangs and Camaros in its wake. In that context, the 2002 was to 1968 what the MG TC had been to 1948: the European sports machine to tempt numerous keen American drivers out of their Yank Tanks.
BMW sold 385,257 2002s in less than eight years, compared with annual total sales of less than 5000 units (mainly Baroque Angels and laughable bubble cars) through the 1950s!
The 2002 proved to be a huge success in racing. BMW’s four-cylinder SOHC engine was later developed into a Formula 1 unit!
Perhaps the 2002’s closest rival in Australia was the Alfa Romeo 105-Series GTV. But the BMW had went harder than a GTV 1750 (and equalled the GTV 2000), rode and handled better and was more robust. Austere it certainly was, but the quality of its fittings was high.
In 1971 the BMW cost $4800, compared with $5750 for the GTV 1750 and $4895 for a Ford Falcon XW GTHO Phase II (and $12,727 for a Porsche 911S).
But you really needed something like the Ford or the Porsche to beat the little BMW in a drag race, because it covered the standing 400 metres in 16.3 seconds and would reach 160km/h in 27. (For context, a 1966 390 ‘Thunderbird’ Galaxie and a 1979 Jaguar XJ6 Series 3 both took 28 seconds.)
The BMW 2002 made a virtue of austerity with buyers gladly accepting its plain but functional interior because of the overall integrity and Bauhaus design-feel: less in its case being mostly more.
The 2002 arrived in Australia during 1969 and in 1973 a facelifted version with rectangular (instead of round) tail-lights was introduced. The fuel-injected 2002 Tii was sold here in very small numbers from 1973, but Europe’s first turbocharged production car, the 2002 Turbo never was.
Values are rising steadily and the lovely car for which I paid $7000 in 1982 would now be $25K.
Price range: $15,000 to $30,000 (Tii $40,000 to $50,000)
BMW E36 has undeniable charms of its own and prices are now trending upward
Where the original (E30) M3 was essentially a racing homologation special and built only in left-hand drive, its 1992 E36 successor did not have racing at the top of its agenda.
While the E30, which is arguably the world’s greatest ever touring car, has gathered increasing praise, the E36 was overlooked for many years.
Although widely lambasted for being much heavier and less focused, the E36 has undeniable charms of its own and prices are now trending upward.
Early E36s were powered by the S50 210kW 3.0-litre engine with VANOS variable valve-timing and had a five-speed manual gearbox. Zero to 100km/h took six seconds flat and top speed was limited to 250km/h.
At 1460kg, notwithstanding its aluminium bonnet, the E36 served to showcase how light its predecessor had been at 1200 neat!
The Evolution arrived in 1996 with 236kW, six-speed gearbox and multi-spoke alloys of similar design to the earlier car’s five-spokers.
I own a very nice 1995 Daytona Violett [sic] example. (Daytona Violett has recently been reintroduced as a bespoke option on the new M5.)
British research showed that most M3 owners have just one car, so mileages tend to be higher than on many other classic cars.
Convertible variants suffer from scuttle shake and the coupe is to be preferred. Always choose a manual over the SMG option.
Price range: $20,000 to $30,000
The E34 was another bespoke machine and all succeeding M5s went down the normal BMW assembly line
The original E28 M5 of 1984, which was never sold in Australia, astonished the motoring world.
Virtually hand-built in two weeks by employees of BMW’s Motorsport Division, it had no rival among four-door sedans and few among ultimate sports cars.
(By way of example, the Alfa 90, touted as a high performance sedan and making its debut at the 1984 Turin Salon, which I attended, made 117kW, while the M5 had 213 – top speeds 202 versus 246).
But its 1988 E34 successor (1990 in Australia) was even more desirable. The E39 was another bespoke machine and all succeeding M5s went down the normal BMW assembly line like any 318i.
It was BMW Australia’s misfortune that a solitary M5 had to face up to a trio of works twin-turbo Mazda RX-7s in the 1992 James Hardie 12-Hour production car race at Bathurst.
The weight of this sublime sports sedan counted against it but Neville Crichton/Alan Jones/Tony Longhurst still finished second, three laps behind the winning RX-7.
(In the rear-view mirrors of the Citroën BX 16-Valve I was driving, even the Saab 9000 Turbo grew more rapidly on the climb than the M5!)
The E34 M5 – its musculature subtly cloaked – was Mr Universe in a tuxedo. Those superb alloy wheels were so understated they looked like hubcaps but contributed to the low coefficient of drag of 0.32. Only the cognoscenti could pick an M5 from a half-powered 525i.
Its 3.5-litre inline six-cylinder engine made what was then a barely imaginable 232kW at 6900rpm. Sandwiched between E28 and E34 is the E30 M3.
It was never sold in Australia but examples that appear on the internet almost invariably carry a pricetag well into six-digit country.
But the E34 M5 remains underrated. Only 12,254 examples were produced and the car’s rarity and near-handbuilt status surely augurs well for future values.
It took 17 years, but here was the first BMW sedan I drove that appealed to me more than the 3.0Si…
Price range: $30,000 to $60,000
E36/8 Z3 M Coupe
The M Coupe came into being almost by accident
I can’t admit to loving the look of this Z3 with a roof but many do.
Effectively a breadvan version of the (3.2-litre, 236kW) E36 M3 Evolution but with a five-speed gearbox (instead of the six-speed), the Z3 M Coupe was 2.7 times more torsionally rigid than its M Roadster sibling, while being shorter and 100kg lighter than an M3.
So, at launch in 1998, it was the quickest production car BMW had ever produced and also the most rigid. It outsold the Roadster three to one.
The old-fashioned semi-trailing arm independent rear suspension in combination with a very short wheelbase meant it was quite willing to step the tail out but that was all part of its immense driver appeal. And the M Coupe was quicker than the contemporaneous Porsche 996 911.
Fascinatingly, the M Coupe came into being almost by accident, having started life as an engineering exercise to remove the chassis flex of the Z3 roadster. It also boasts perfect 50:50 weight distribution.
Prices have been on the increase for some years and will only continue their climb.
Price range: $70,000 to $100,000
The E39 was the first M5 with electronic driver assistance. Image: Shannons.com.au
The E39 got an uprated version of the 4.4-litre quad-camshaft 32-valve V8 engine as seen in the 540i and 740i. Capacity was taken out to five full litres. There was variable valve timing and individually controlled throttle butterflies.
The E39 was the first M5 to get a six-speed manual and no automatic transmission was on offer. So, a very pure sports sedan. It only had recirculating ball steering because a rack would not fit with the V8.
The E39 was the first M5 with electronic driver assistance (with a Sport button on the steering wheel). The driver could adjust the throttle and steering feel. There was also traction control and an electronic stability program.
Unlike its somewhat understated predecessors, the E39 with its magnificent V8 soundtrack and hotrod alloys is very much the extroverted European performance sedan; by contrast, the contemporaneous Mercedes-Benz E55 looks mild.
Price range: $25,000 to $50,000
3.0 Si laughed off the 400 metres in 15.8 seconds. Image: CS Model – Shannons.com.au
In 1968, BMW built on the success of its Neue Klasse by creating a large saloon on the same principles. Known as the New Sixes, these E3 models had been cleverly conceived to tempt more sporting-drivers away from the three-pointed star.
The 2500 and 2800 sedans duly arrived in Australia and Wheels conducted its ‘Best Car in the World’ comparison in 1971. The 2800 faced up to the Jaguar XJ6 with each of the two test drivers favouring one car over the other.
With hindsight, both Peter Robinson and Steve Cropley hedged their bets but I won’t. Having owned numerous XJ Jags and just the one E3 (a 1973 3.0S auto), given the choice of an early ’70s Jag or my Bee-Emm. I’d have the latter in an atrial flutter.
Amazingly, this poised and agile BMW rode as well as the Jaguar. The autobahnen breeding made this perhaps the best interstate cruiser Australians could buy at the start of the 1970s.
The lean and mean 2800 four-speed weighed just 1350kg and did the 400 in 16.4 seconds. For years I imagined myself owning a red manual!
Sadly, sales were slow and the BMW austerity had less appeal in this price sector. Home market customers complained about the interior style and quality in such an expensive car.
The 2800 morphed into the 3.0S with more chrome and rear headrests. Then, in 1972 (1973 in Australia), came the phenomenal 3.0Si with fuel-injection.
Available only with a four-speed manual and riding on drop-dead gorgeous Cromodora alloys, the 3.0Si laughed off the 400 metres in 15.8 seconds and ran up to 132mph. To think I could have bought a beauty in the mid-1980s for $12K!
Price range: $10,000 to $25,000
The top-ranked E93 M3’s unit was all but a race engine for the street
All nine cars featured here will delight any enthusiast but the standout among them is the E92 M3, mainly because it represents astonishing value for money.
In November 2007 it commanded $160K without options but good examples can now be found for less than a quarter of this sum! Even at $160K the value was extraordinary and BMW Australia sold out its first year’s allocation in advance.
The E92 M3 came standard with a six-speed manual gearbox and carbon-fibre roof, electronic damper control, premium leather, advanced sat-nav, even television.
The brakes were seriously uprated. Forged alloy was used for some suspension components. Unlike its predecessors, this M3 was essentially track-ready from the showroom.
But the big news lay beneath the bonnet.
A fascinating element in BMW’s history is the favoured engine configuration. The company’s new Munich headquarters built in time for the 1972 Olympics is known as the BMW-Vierzylinder Hochhaus.
The spectacular main tower comprises four vertical cylinders suspended on a central supporting base. Essentially, this amounted to a celebration of the Alex von Falkenberg engine at the heart of the Neue Klasse which saved BMW’s bacon, and which later powered F1 winners.
The M3 has used naturally aspirated fours, (inline) sixes and V8s and a twin-turbocharged six, while M5s have had six, eight and 10 cylinders. And for many years its flagship 7 Series used a V12, starting with the E32 in 1987.
Having rebuilt its name with fours, the company changed its focus to six packs heading into the 1980s, with V8s joining the scene in the 1990s.
So the news that the fourth generation E92 M3 was to be powered by a 309kW direct-injection 4.0-litre V8 with an 8500rpm redline was a shock.
BMW was no stranger to the V8, having used one in the (Baroque Angel) 502 from 1952 and then introduced two new free-revving V8s for the E38 7 Series (alongside the already famous V12).
But the M3’s unit was all but a race engine for the street, being 15kg lighter than the E46’s six and featuring an individual throttle butterfly for each cylinder.
Just as the SOHC four contributed mightily to the character of the Neue Klasse sedan and the consequent -02 cars, so too did the E92’s jewel of a V8 defines that car.
And for those who prefer their performance via natural aspiration, the E92 might be the last non-turboed M3.
E90 M3 sedans are significantly rarer than the coupes (and more expensive) but did not necessarily echo the two-door’s equipment levels.
A proper dual-clutch seven-speed gearbox was optional from May 2008, when the convertible was launched.
While the E92 M3 Convertible enjoys the distinction of being the first in its line with a retractable metal hard-top, it pays the penalty of a 230kg weight impost – unacceptable, in my view.
Price range: $20,000 to $40,000