Reader Submissions: I Drove An E36 M3 To Monterey In Celebration of 100 Years of BMW Cars

I Drove An E36 M3 To Monterey In Celebration of 100 Years of BMW Cars

By Alex Sobran
August 29, 2016

Photos by Alex Sobran

What do you do with a few free weeks preceding the annual car party in Monterey? Do you spend more money than you’re comfortable with to take your ’90s sports car from Madison, CT to Seattle, WA, to Monterey, CA? After completing this two week, 6,000-mile marathon, I can officially laud it as a “good time,” to put it demurely.

If you’ll allow a little hyperbole that actually might not be so far from reality, it was an expansive and monumental journey through country, car, and comradery. As spending serious unbroken time with another person often yields, my friend alongside me only became more of one by journey’s end. Certainly having someone to share in the fourteen-hour hauls across the Pennsylvanias and Nebraskas aids in your thankfulness for their company, but of course, it was more than that.

A tableau that will remain with me until Alzheimer’s was of a severely pissed-off storm during the first night, the kind where you are in a deep black and every so often a quick staccato of lightning would pop open the sky, showing just how far and at what you’d been staring, unaware in the dark. Just having someone to exchange “woahs” with can go a long way for your sanity.

While we were in a hurry to put time behind us until our first major stop in Yellowstone (hence the mentioned fourteen hour daily chunks at the start), I will not say that the Midwest has nothing to see from its highways and Interstates.

Every night, looking up out of a windshield smeared with little pocks of bug blood, we were the humble witnesses to sunsets blazing beyond your garden variety oranges and reds and pinks, and even as they faded gave the feeling that life was both a wonder and a speck.

After a long, hot day, looking at a ruler horizon, it was a surreal thing to see the famous suffused skies of a heartland sunset. As the time slid by, eventually we began noticing clumps of wind turbines as we passed out of the quilt work flatness where the land starts to rise and fall with greater frequency and pitch. Heading to Yellowstone was the first true moment of landscape amazement as we cut through the long swaths of roadway that looped around and through the staggeringly immense Teton Mountains. Multiple stops were made for bison. Yee-haw. From there, I could go on about the fogged and foreboding Pacific coastline, but as that has been covered in a recent article, I’ll skip it but to say that driving on winding cliff roads in second gear alongside hawks in full glide was downright mystical. So, on to the car, my 1995 Daytona Violet M3.

It’s a fact that any article even tangentially covering this car will include a certain set of statements peppered through the paragraphs, so let’s just gather them up and get it over with: the U.S. version of the E36 M3 is not the quickest nor most exotic of BMW’s Motorsport creations. There. German manufacturing mandates put in place in the ’90s dictated that a percentage of production cars be assembled using bio-friendly materials, so while the Black Forest may have enjoyed this consideration, it meant that M3 interiors would take it upon themselves to literally become unglued.

It’s the first fully recyclable BMW, and it’s slow. So say the ones who have never driven it.

What you find out in ownership/drivership, is that not only are these criticisms unwarranted, they don’t even deserve attention because all of your mental processes are too wrapped up grappling with the paradox that is a hyper-affordable car with a close ratio gearbox, perfectly split weight distribution, out-of-the-box handling that bested the best of its day, and a responsive and competent engine which also manages to avoid the so-called “M Tax” that some seem to esteem as a weird badge of honor.

To say nothing of the styling, which manages with its knife-sliced body and acid-trip seats to at once represent the outgoing boxiness of the ’80s and the vogue contours of the ’90s in a cohesive way that should not have blended so well.

The truth is it would cause significant hand-wringing and consequent doubt for me to choose another car to drive 6,000 miles across, up, down, through the United States. Of course, a new M3 would be more comfortable sucking through the mileage and would outperform in every statistical sense, but there is a category for the E36 to sit on top: the wishy-washy but also somehow very definite, Experience. As anyone reading this will attest to, there is a specific type of happiness released when driving an anachronism.

For me, for this car, it is tearing through the mundane milieu of the Midwest and looking out the side glass at the zealously contoured sport mirrors in stark contrast to the flat farmland, dipping off the main road in Malibu for some “filmed in Mexico” canyon runs in a car that qualifies for historic plates, even just returning from a healthy gas station lunch of Doritos and Red Bull, to see a small purple wedge amongst a lot full of engorged crossovers, or whatever they call them these days.  The weird pleasure in having to manually lock the doors too. These things.

There is also the indulgent sort of joy inherent in brand loyalty that made this trip so enjoyable. Though there are many cars from many countries that populate the garage in my head, BMW has comfortably commanded the top spot for a considerable time and the foreseeable future. So what could be more sanguine than driving an M car to the biggest gathering of BMWs in the country for the 100th anniversary?

The sensation for me was of a somewhat childlike aura of belonging. That’s not right though, it wasn’t immature, but there is that kind of youthful wonderment, like a long-gone rocket rejoining the world to which it belongs. Melodramatic sure, but not any less true, either.

I remember purchasing this car, after an exhaustive search for a first-year-only Daytona Violet, and thinking on that initial drive how mutually positive the relationship could be; taking it out of the Northeast for the first time in its 160,000 miles, winding it through the roads it dreamed of, bringing it to the mecca in Monterey.

I hope I have given it a good life in old age, a pledge I will continue forth after all it has given to me.

Join the Conversation

Leave a Reply

7 Comment threads
3 Thread replies
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
8 Comment authors
6slingrJim LevittPeter LukáčAlex SobranNicolas Moss Recent comment authors
newest oldest most voted

I loved my E36 M3 coupe. Early 1997 purchased new during the fall of 1996. Put 96K miles on it and traded it in on a 997. The damned thing was near perfect on the day I let it go. Completely unmolested.

The 997 flat out outperforms the E36 but … there are times when I kick myself for selling the M3.

Jim Levitt
Jim Levitt

I LOVED my E36 sedan.
Only 3 things made me sell it. A bit too narrow for me and no 6th gear with an overdrive. With the Dinan exhaust it had, it made a fair amount of noise and too many revs at 70 mph (over 3100 RPM).
The third was it could have used the Euro motor but if the first two issues weren’t there I would have kept it for many more years than I did.

Peter Lukáč
Peter Lukáč

Love your photos. Very inspirational!


Fantastic article and photography Alex, really enjoyed it thank you.

Nicolas Moss
Nicolas Moss

Were you at the races on Saturday? There was a DViolet M3 parked a few rows from my DYellow. It was a great weekend.

Nicolas Moss
Nicolas Moss

Yeah, regular lots. I didn’t see the plates, but how many DViolets could their be, especially with their orginal wheels? And it was looking sharp… had to be yours.

Rod S
Rod S

Wonderful. I feel the same about my 986 S and AW11. Both weirdly looked down upon by the classic car hobby. But what an experience both offer. The sounds, the art between input nad output, the way in which each car NEEDs you to tell it what to do. Joyful.


Thanks for your story regarding getting to Monterey for the Fest this year.
The journey is always a part of the event, so why not make it a bigger part of such an event as this.
Two of my brothers and I returned to Carmel this month for the street event, and were not disappointed with the selection on display. Having not attended in several years, it was great to be surrounded by fans of so many unique offerings.
Well worth the effort to be there.

Just drive…..more!