14 Hours By Train & 10 Hours Back: Introducing Project 345
Good Sense

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 3.2L 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 Homestretch

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
Instagram: trevornotryan

Additional Photos by Sara Ryan
Instagram: pockowokosara

The Long Haul


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Buddy... These photos are amazing of such a basic car too! Enjoy it.


Thanks! 90's honesty at its finest...


Straight out of a petrolhead fairy tale. Perfect find car, perfect tragedy, picturesque roads, sweet companion. U sir are gonna be my patron saint.


Yes! It was an awesome trip and I can't wait for the next one. Luckily all of the issues have continued to be surface items. Probably wouldn't have taken the plunge if the car didn't come with a fat stack of records.


"All it needs is to be driven"
quite true. old cars tend to get worse when they're not being used.


Right you are, and I saved this car from a life of sitting so that feels nice. It won't always be, but for now it's my daily and I've been loving it.


Love these, and totally agree on it being the better looking of the E30/36/36 trio! We never got an E36 M3 sedan here in Australia (only the coupe). However we did get the Euro engine, so win some/ lose some I guess. Looking forward to seeing your updates.


Interesting, I didn't know that. I read that BMW didn't think the E36 M-car would do that well here so they gave us the lame spec, but they learned their lesson by the time the E46 came around so our S54 wasn't as choked as the S52 I have. I would love to find a Euro motor one of these days; trade you some rear doors!


Man You are Awesome
Your New Project Car is Awesome
The Scenery and Pictures are Incredible.
Driving those roads are just epic.


Thank you Allan! Nothing like a good road trip, I can't wait for the next one.


Sounds like a great road trip, and car. Smart choice.

Love the story and photos as well.


Thanks Chad, I appreciate that. Yes, a fairly reasonable decision on all fronts I think. Time will tell, ha!


After reading this, seriously I went on Craigslist looking...lol! Thanks Trevor! Nice daily and project in one. Looking forward to updates on this beauty.


Haha get one! People started asking insane prices for them so I wanted to get a sedan in case the market exploded. They were even cheaper a few years ago, though.

Jay Soh Tsu Chung

Picture #7, the missus seems to be contemplating life. Or maybe just figuring out an excuse to yell at you for getting a new project car? Hahaha! XD

Anyway, congratulations on the new ride. I personally love the E36 as well, although would prefer one with a S54 under the hood. I've noticed straight lines and boxy styling are rather timeless.


I think we were trying to figure out our train at that moment, that's the station up here. She has her own German four-door that she picked up not long after I got this, so she can't be upset at me!

Left lane is for passing

Isn’t the ‘97 model engine a S52B32, meaning it’s a 3.2l unit? ‘95 model year was the only US M3 with the 3.0l and OBDI


That's correct, they're all neutered compared to the Euro versions but the 3.0L is the more desirable of the two US engines. The Style 22s are also a touch better than the redesigned 39s I have, but to me these discrepancies weren't worth the extra cost for a '95.

EDIT: Ah, I see why you said that. I initially accidentally called this a 3.0L engine in the article but it is indeed the later 3.2L that all '97s have. I fixed that in the text.


Wow, interesting info, thanks, Ryan!
Why the 3 liter is considered as better choice?


Who is Ryan?! Ha, so the 3.0 has a bit less torque being smaller but it also has a higher redline. Mostly, it's simpler with less emissions equipment as well as OBD-I vs OBD-II and therefore easier to modify. I think the higher value for the 3.0L versions is more due to it being rare than that actually being better, but don't quote me on that. I would personally prefer more low-end torque than peak horsepower in a street car.


Ooops, Trevor, I am soooo sorry! :)
Thank you very much for these details, they are not easy to find here, at the other side of Atlantic. :)


I loved my E36. Preferred it to the 46 that followed. When you have a chance, get her in the air and check out the rear subframes mounting points. Mine ended up oval. Great write up.


Thanks man! Yeah, doesn't surprise me. I haven't had it up on stands yet but once we have a garage it'll be game on with this car. For now just covering some basic items and learning what needs to be fixed. Mostly the door locks, which don't like to go up or down...


great choice! clean classic styling and throw in some handling, hp and RWD.

there is lots of good value out there in 90/00's german cars, esp sedans. i think the lack of integrated modern interior electronics (nav, bluetooth etc) is part of what makes these unappealing for some. but ripe for us!


Exactly how I felt, just enough power, great chassis, and the right layout. And as you said, the lack of moderns amenities keeps the prices in check. I will say that I have been trying to figure out a halfway decent and hidden Bluetooth solution, though.


i'm surprised you don't like the halo lights on the 36. Personally i think they add a modern touch and an iconic design feature of most BMWs but i mean to each his own. Congrats on the purchase and hoping to see some dinan goodies on it in the future hehe


Thanks! Yes, some Dinan bits on it already and I'll probably find some more along the way. As for the halos, I think if you could adapt a more OEM looking set like the M5 had then that would be okay but these are far from that. Not quite my style.


Dang! Nice seeing some pictures of my home town in the middle of your write up. Your road trip was a trip was a bit of nostalgia for me. Did you eat at Anthony's? Guessing from your pictures of Riverfront park and the USDA building. And another picture across the street from the cathedral where my sister got married! Good stuff man, thanks for posting this.


Nice! That's a really neat area although we didn't stop for anything besides to stretch our legs. Next time!


It's a FFFing 4 door. LAME!!!

So Viele Türen!

I lost count at two...


Hi Trevor, that a lovely M3 :) well if you are looking into upgrades and are on a budget id go with this .... BC Coilovers, E30 front arms ( Better Feedback ) or E46 front arms ( More Stance and lows ), you could use E46 330 front brake setup which give a much bigger caliper and disc size. Also the engine you have is the S50 5 speed manual, which has the much stronger and more desirable gearbox and diff combination. The only difference between US and Eurp spec engines were the manifold ( The one on your car came from the M50 model ) thus restricting the car. If you wanna spend a bit of Dosh go with RHD throttle bodies or get a set of Euro ( Cost pretty much the same ) ohhh and the Alpha N map is a must

Great looking car bud


Thanks Adam! Nice to hear about those family swaps. I'll likely just do some OEM-level refresh stuff for now and save up to put the right parts on when the time comes rather than going for budget parts. And I'll keep the factory parts so I can always return it to stock, too.

As for the powertrain this is the later 3.2L, although I accidentally called it a 3.0L in the writeup. By '97 they all came with the larger S52. I'll definitely be looking for some more power in the future, but likely nothing extreme. The Euro S50 had a drastically different parts list compared to the US version, though, not just the intake.


Great stuff! You’ll like the car, but maybe I’m biased as I had two E36 M3s for over 8 years as daily drivers. That was back when they were much newer, but they were very reliable for me by BMW standards. Just make sure to keep the cooling system in good shape and secure the oil pump nut at some point if you drive it hard.

I had both a coupe and sedan, and like aspects of both. I will also add the euro motor hype is somewhat founded, and mostly overblown. The euro engine is definitely stronger, but it’s pretty subtle when both have mild bolt ons. M50 intake manifold and bolt ons can easily get you to 230-240 rwhp on the S52 (which is definitely the better US motor, S50 had some issues due to being an earlier engine, and that extra 200cc helps when only revving to 7-7.2k).

Enjoy the car, looking forward to following this


Thanks! I've actually already started shopping for a second one haha, but I need garage space before I can pull the trigger on one.

The Euro motor is definitely sweet, but it would be an outrageously-overpriced upgrade if I were to try and source one. Bolt-ons it is, and probably fairly mild ones. I'd prefer to improve the brakes and suspension a bit, maybe make the car a bit lighter, and just keep the powertrain as reliable as possible.


I was excited to see this roll bye in the hood but was sworn to secrecy! The local shots are money, especially our classic train station -- warms the heart on these cold winter days lol...keep em coming you two! I'm hoping a side-by-side article on the two teutonic sedans is coming in the future


Haha yes! Hard to take photos when we're BOTH driving, though...

So Viele Türen!

That's a lot of doors for one car. The perfect colour though...


I very specifically held out to find a sedan for a number of reasons, mainly the practicality but also the scarcity. It could be worse, though...


That cow was like "ahhh man I was gunna buy that m3"

Brennan McKissick

So jealous! The E36 M3 Sedan is such a classic look. It's got the perfect blend of nostalgia and drivability that make it a perfect daily for an enthusiast. Fix all the little things like the lights, head liner and hood latch and then do some maintenance stuff plus wheels/tires/suspension/brakes and you'd have my ideal daily. Congrats!


Thanks! Yes, that the plan! And the nice part is, it's pretty much all stuff I can do myself.


I have a friend that endurance races an E36 coupe. I crewed for him at Thunderhill. We had to replace a rear wheel bearing between races, apparently it's common for them to go out because they are undersized.


Nice! I have a number of friends who race NASA there and around California, and a few of them ditched their S2000s to move to the E36 platform. I will have to get the car up in the air soon to inspect... everything. Cheers!


me too hahaha, as much as I love day dreaming about Pcars and such, its this kind of bmw that most of us enthusiast can relate and buy in reality. my current sr20 project was offered direct swap with the same kind of bmw you have. please share your updates and roadtrips.


Shouldn't be too long 'til the next one, I've been wanting to make it out to the Oregon coast for a drive. First I need to find the good back roads leading there and back, though!

That was also a factor in buying this car with the Speedhunters Garage in mind; a handful of the projects here are far beyond the means of the average enthusiast and, as awesome as those cars are, I hope everyone can relate to this one if nothing else.


Nice find! I love the e36. Great story, after reading where you picked the car up, I started wondering what way you'd take home and then started seeing familiar roads and pictures of my hometown, Spokane. Anyway, great article.


Thanks Tim! I looked for the better part of a year for this one; I really wanted a sedan with not too many miles, and either red or blue. Spokane was really nice by the way, I had never been through there before.


This article makes me so happy. You are such a good photographer and what a great car find story in a part of the country I know nothing about, but now I think I need to go there! Thanks for sharing this with us


Thanks Brady I appreciate that! Montana definitely took us by surprise and I would totally recommend taking a trip there sometime to kick back or drive through.


I love trips like this! I picked up a Z33 (which I actually also sold my NA MX5 to buy!) from another drifter from North Carolina two years ago. After exchanging emails then texts and phone calls for a couple weeks he agreed to hold the car for me until I could fly down from Michigan after a work trip. Took a red eye from Colorado to North Carolina, picked it up, and started the 12 hour road trip back to Michigan. I don't think there's any better feeling with a new to you car than taking a big trip like that, it was an immediate full immersion into a new machine. Great read and photos! I'm excited to see the progress of the project.


That's awesome Trey! The Miata does seem to be the gateway drug to more expensive driver's cars. You're exactly right though, no better way to shake down a new car than to spend a full day (or two) on the road with it. A bit nerve-wracking, but I wouldn't expect any reliability issues with a well-kept Z33.


"Well kept" would be generous for the Z, but it ran and drove fine. That is after The positive battery terminal popped loose only 45 minutes into the drive. It was still connected to the post, but was juuuuuust off enough to now supply any power. Took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that's what the issue was.


Haha fair enough. Honestly, it's a bit anxiety-inducing to drive any older car across the country, especially one you've owned for less than a day!