Last time I chimed in on the project car front, you might remember that I no longer had one. Well, I did and still do have another, a ’66 Ford Mustang, but that car is in such a poor state — not to mention the wrong geographic state — that a lot of work will need to be done to even consider it a project at all.
Nevertheless, with the mildly-modified 10AE Miata happily off to its new owner in California’s Santa Cruz mountains early last year, I’d been itching to get behind the wheel of something fun. But you’ll remember that there were a few criteria that I laid out in my previous article: preferably the car would be south of $10K, rear-wheel drive, manual, a bit spacious, relatively easy to work on, and somewhat practical.
It would also be nice if the value of the car could potentially appreciate over the course my ownership — which is what happened with my Miata, officially the first car I’ve ever ‘made money’ on — if I didn’t modify it like a complete toolbag. It might seem like I’m being picky, but two decades into the 2000s you can get a lot of car for $10K.
The answer was actually so obvious I that was pretending not to see it, although I really enjoyed the plethora of other interesting suggestions that were made in the comments section on my last project car post, as well as on Instagram. As much fun as something more unique could have been, the choice I made was inevitable.
Besides the fact that the E36 M3/4/5 (read: 3 Series M-car, 4 doors, 5 speeds) made the most sense from a quantitative perspective, there was a personally-compelling qualitative side to this model as well. I was born in 1990, and the E36 generation of the 3 Series became one of the defining sports cars of my formidable years.
As a teenager walking to and from school, the only way you can really appreciate cars is from a styling perspective. For example, I remember the brand new C5 Corvette I would pass on the way home quite distinctly, and while still awesome in their own right, no Corvette will cut it on the practicality score. I also distinctly remember admiring the E36 generation, and that’s the one that stuck with me over the years.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I love a proper E30 or E46, but the mid-to-late-1990s M3 was always the one that checked the right boxes for me aesthetically. The earlier car seemed dated by the time I could get a license, while the curvier and more aggressive E46 didn’t look quite right to me (and was way out of my price range). Frankly, pretty much any BMW was too expensive for a high schooler saving for college and working at PF Changs, as I did, running food to tables full of (probably) M3 owners.
I ended up with a 4-speed ’90 Civic hatchback, simultaneously the best and worst car I’ve ever owned, and I would love another someday.
Anyway, over the years, I somehow have managed to command a more impressive income than my teenage self and, all the while, the E36 M3 has been depreciating. With the perfect storm of desirability, practicality, and economics directly upon me, I had the good sense to travel from the West Coast to a lakeside town in Montana to pick up my first M-car and drive it back.
600+ miles in an unknown, decades-old BMW that had been sitting idle for months — what could possibly go wrong?
Go By Train
After expanding my search to include nearby states, I found this Hellrot example on Craigslist in Montana, where it had been listed for a few weeks. The car certainly was not without its shortcomings, but the “PRICE REDUCED” asking amount was not bad at all. The only issue was that the seller wouldn’t answer my emails. Classic Craigslist, right?
Figuring the car was gone, I finally made one last-ditch effort and had literally a dozen of my friends email the guy. He responded to one of them, some calls were made, and I learned that he had suddenly moved to Miami, Florida to start a job and had left the car behind. Hence, his unresponsiveness and the price drop.
So, I had some thinking to do, but ultimately I made the only logical decision available: Sara and I would ride the train from Portland, Oregon to Whitefish, Montana overnight, and then drive the car home. Simple.
The 14-hour train ride was quite truly an awesome experience and, besides short trips through California Bay Area suburbs and industrial areas, this was my first proper trip by rail. Sara’s, too, so we hung out in the viewing car, finished some work, and did a bit of sightseeing though Cascadia until nightfall.
The next morning we were greeted with stunning views near the Idaho-Montana border as we chugged along toward my BMW. Well, maybe it would be mine.
Arriving in Whitefish in the early morning, the seller’s cousin’s girlfriend quite kindly picked us up from the station and drove us over to see the car. Unfortunately, the documents – read: title – hadn’t yet arrived in the mail, so we had some time to kill. It was actually a perfect situation, because this gave me half a day to spend with the car before actually pulling the trigger.
The title had already been signed into my name and was en route to Montana from Florida, but no money had yet been exchanged. It would be a dirtbag move to back out at this point, but likewise it would be a dirtbag move if the car had any hidden shortcomings, so we were both in the same boat.
Right, The Car
Finally, after much anticipation, I was able to lay eyes on the car for the first time. It was blacked out, so to speak, with smoked taillights, headlights, and corner lights as well as an aggressive tint. The aftermarket halo headlights were the straw that broke the Fast & Furious-era camel’s back, but the OEM lights were included so that was just fine.
The clear-coat was well on its way out, the headliner was sagging, the windshield had a crack, and there were a handful of other similar non-fatal issues. But, on the whole, the car was pretty much as-described, and for a Craigslist ad I think the seller did a fine job of explaining the state of things. He was a nice guy, too, which I think matters at least a little bit when you’re buying a car.
The first order of business, though, would be to defeat the broken hood latch to ensure that everything looked right under the hood. I did know this was an issue going into it, but besides being perpetually fearful of Craigslist transactions and assuming that the car had been sneakily fitted with a 1.8-liter four, I would also need to check my oil and that sort of thing on the way home.
Disassembly of a stranger’s car I didn’t yet own ensued…
I stopped by the seller’s recommended workshop but they were unable to get the hood open, so I frustratingly was left to my own devices and pathetic toolset. Finally, Sara and I accessed the cable, applied the right amount of pressure in the right places, and success.
As desired, a 1997-spec 3.0L S52 inline-six was under the hood, although it appeared that the car was used exclusively in excursions across Death Valley prior to my examination. Whatever, a bit of dirt never hurt anyone and the oil level was good, the other fluids looked okay, and the proper sticker indicating Hellrot paintwork was in place.
I cruised around town and found a couple of backroads to make sure everything was in order, and once the paperwork came through that afternoon I handed over the cash and we hit the road.
The First Leg
I’d never been to this part of the country, and I have to say it’s incredibly stunning. If we weren’t so tired, jet-lagged, and over-worked at the time I would have made it a point to make more stops along the way, but I was eager to reach our destination that evening. Also, the mild anxiety of driving the car across the country was sneaking up on me.
As we neared our Airbnb conveniently located in the middle of nowhere, a few realities began to sink in: I owned an M3; the clip for the corner light I pulled earlier finally completely broke; I really do not like halo lights on these; the headliner sure is sagging; and we do still have a solid 500 miles to go tomorrow.
Also, there were cows.
But, finally, we reached our Saint Regis yurt on the southwestern edge of Montana. It was an awesome place to stay, and a quick search shows that it’s still available to rent if you’re ever passing through.
I would never in a million years recommend photographing a car parked on grass, but of course I had to grab a few shots of my new car in the nice light.
While at it, I revelled in the simplicity of this almost-classic design: straight lines; a few soft edges here and there; just enough aggression; a nice profile; and a great factory wheel in those Style 39s.
The E36 comes from an era where design was far less compromised than it is today, but the car is still relatively modern.
As I eyed the BMW while the sun went down, all of my irritations and concerns with the car rolled off the paintwork and into the darkness. I already loved it.
The next morning we were all business, and I finally ditched the broken corner light altogether for fear that it would fly off on the freeway and ruin everyone’s otherwise great day. You’ll also notice the hood-release cable tucked into the grille. Sometimes, sensibility trumps vanity.
Thankfully, I don’t really have much in the way to report about the trip, besides the expected initial impressions. I’ve really only owned poorly-equipped Japanese econoboxes from the ’90s, so the M3 was very nice by those standards. It was comfortable, the sound system was on its way out but much better than any Honda I’d ever had, the air conditioning was ice-cold, the cabin was very quiet, there were no shimmies or squeaks, and I had forgotten what horsepower felt like.
It feels good, by the way.
Oregon residents might notice this final scene as the Columbia Gorge, meaning we were nearly home free.
By this point in the trip we had just about worn out the previous owner’s music collection that consisted almost entirely of early ’00s rap mixtapes, which was, initially, a very welcome discovery in the six-disc CD player. Podcasts helped pass the time, but the skyline of downtown Portland was a very welcome sight after three days full of travel.
The car had performed flawlessly, and despite a somewhat lead foot, you’ll notice here that I managed nearly 28 miles per gallon over the course of the 10-hour road trip. This figure was corroborated by some manual calculations, so it seemed the oh-so-’90s on-board computer was humming along nicely.
Finally, we were home. I parked Project 345 on the street in front of our Portland studio like a common peasant and went and had a nice long sleep. This is where the car will live for now, and the street parking situation is part of the reason that I actually wanted to find a car that wasn’t cosmetically perfect.
Since I have acquired the car all I’ve really done is make a long list of items to fix, but I’ve also enjoyed it to its fullest on Oregon and Washington’s backroads as I discover said shortcomings. So, what’s next for Project 345?
For now, just more of the same; the car deserves some tidying up but nothing is in critical condition. I’ll be back soon with another update, but all it really needs is to be driven.
Trevor Yale Ryan
Additional Photos by Sara Ryan
The Long Haul