As many people (and by many, I mean fifty) who’ve seen my Twitter profile know, I’ve been on the lookout for the perfect P38 Range Rover (the SUV that managed to reliably keep up with a BMW motorcycle in Tomorrow Never Dies) for a while. Over time, I’ve come to realize this is next to impossible because no P38 Range Rover was perfect when it left the factory, something proven by numerous Google searches on the subject.
Due to such a development, I decided to search for backup cars in case a perfect P38 Range Rover didn’t materialize. There was the Hummer H1, which I quickly learned tends to cost more than a used G-Wagen to buy and even maintain. The Aston Martin V8 Vantage, which has depreciated beautifully, but unfortunately isn’t sold at Carmax.
Then came the E46 BMW M3. Specifically a manual M3 coupe. It couldn’t be a convertible because I can’t put up with the cowl shake. It couldn’t have the SMG because I wanted a third pedal, or else I’d be shamed by the 10 people who read Clunkerture. By this point, since it is BMW that I’m discussing, I’d also work in an “it couldn’t have iDrive” but BMW mercifully didn’t install it on that particular M3.
But for the last couple of months, it has been next to impossible to find a decent M3 with a manual transmission. Yes, you’ll probably go on Autotrader or your local Craigslist right now and point out that all the E46 M3 listings said “manual.” Take a closer look at the listing. There’ll be “6-speed manual w/ SMG” written to elaborate on the ad.
There won’t be a third pedal. There won’t be numbers written on the gear knob. There won’t be a steering wheel without paddles. And you’ve just saved yourself a half-hour to hour drive to look at something you immediately know you won’t buy.
After going through such an exasperating experience, I’ve come to an assessment. It’s the best car investment opportunity this side of bidding millions of dollars on a 40+ year old Ferrari at those Concours auctions. Because these are cars you can afford. That I, someone who manages to find the wherewithal to keep a Jetta running, can afford. This is about having a weekend car in the garage you can work on yourself, enjoy driving, and sell for a good price down the line, when you have to fund a college tuition or retirement.
And that advice is: Buy any manual BMW from 1980 to 2012.
This is a result of me realizing that manual BMWs of any kind are becoming increasingly difficult finds. Their manual transmissions are incredibly simple to fix compared to the automatic transmissions put in them. Especially those BMWs from the 1980s to the early 2000s that we all loved. For instance, normal, manual E46 coupes command at least a $1K premium over automatic ones. Same goes for the E39 5-Series. Manual 540i’s are found relatively easily (with a V-8 that needs an expensive service), but manual six-cylinder cars (528i, 530i), are extraordinarily hard to find. And don’t get me started on M cars.
I’ve maintained in past pieces and lists that older BMWs are good buys. There was that time where I infamously mentioned that you should buy an E60 M5 (known as the ugly one with the glorious V-10) and most readers said I was flatly wrong. (Carmax has them, by the way, so you can get a wonderful warranty on them, and avoid everything that can go wrong on them for the following seven years.)
There was also that time I suggested getting last year’s 135is and 335is before they went out of production. This was for reasons other than investment, because they’d have been cheaper than the M235i and 435i and the steering feel would be so much better. Having driven the M235i around Laguna Seca, my fears have been confirmed with regard to steering feel.
Of course, you could say that I am late to the party because this BMW craziness started with the hullabaloo over the E30 M3. Once they became difficult to find for a good price, the price of all mechanically sound E30s went up. A manual E30 325i that is over 25 years old in good condition can easily go for over $5,000, when only less than 5 years ago, a good E30 could be had around $3,000.
First off, I can safely say no Alfa owner (with the exception of a few notable Milano owners) has ever bought a properly sorted car. In fact, many Alfa owners have probably restored their cars to better condition than when they left the factory, which speaks very highly of the technical knowledge of Alfa Romeo owners, and significantly less of Italian factory workers.
Go to AlfaBB or Bring a Trailer and start looking at Alfas yourself. For example, take a normal Giulia, basically a classic sports sedan. You might think one in decent condition would go for around $10K to $55K at the maximum. But once you look, you’ll find that ones that are simply running with not much else going for them are going for $15,000 and above.
Your normal four-door Giulias were going for over $20,000. Some very well-restored Alfas were going for $50,000+. These were all your normal run-of-the-mill cars. All of them had manuals. All of them will probably need plenty of work and expensive replacement parts down the line. Yet enthusiasts are paying those prices because they love driving them. Just five years ago, these Alfas would have worth much less.
Meanwhile, manual BMWs from the past can easily be gotten for under $10,000, and sometimes for even under $5,000, provided you don’t mind a few scratches here and there. We know they’re all fun to drive, just like classic Alfas. However, unlike classic Alfas, these BMWs are newer for the price, parts are easier to find, and you probably don’t have to go without air conditioning. Which makes older manual BMWs the next big thing in my book.
And for those of you thinking “What about the automatic?” My thoughts are to avoid the automatic (unless it’s Steptronic, which isn’t that bad) at all costs, unless you’re considering an E38 7-Series which only came with an automatic (otherwise, Pierce Brosnan wouldn’t have been able to drive one with his cellphone from the back seat).
Now, I don’t really expect anyone to take my investment advice. For instance, I passed up an E39 M5 for $11,000 using the rationale of whether it really was going to be an investment. Mainly because I needed to budget $2,000 a year for ownership and had no garage to keep it in. Which could negate any higher price for it down the line. And possibly because I’m saving up for the Giulia or E60 M5 I really want.
At least I’ve sidestepped a world of hurt that would’ve resulted from maintaining a P38 Range Rover.