BMW vehicles have a pretty cyclical existence regarding pricing. Positioned as a luxury vehicle, their prices start out high before quickly depreciating. Then, typically in ten to twelve years, values bottom out. But, like other desirable antiquities, prices begin to increase again. Sometimes, quite rapidly and to values at or above their original MSRP – like in the curious case of the vaunted 1M. Since the terms “classic” and “affordable” are both quite subjective, we set some goalposts that most will hopefully find agreeable. Collector car insurance extends to vehicles at least 15 years old, so we’ll look at BMW vehicles fifteen years or older. We’ll set a budget of $15,000 – a decent chunk of change, sure, but generally within grasp for those in the market for a fun vintage automobile.
E82 BMW 1 Series
Certainly, the closest one can get to modern BMW ownership while remaining classic, you’ll likely have to make some concessions if you want to slide behind the wheel of one of these awesome little cars. The naturally-aspirated 128i provides old-school BMW joys like a naturally-aspirated inline-six (the N52), good for 228 horsepower, and an available manual transmission. The more powerful 135i uses the N54 (pre-2010, anyway) and is in every way the Junior 1M you hope it is.
Unfortunately, prices have recently risen for coupe versions of these vehicles – even early ones that make the 15-year cutoff. A decent 128i is certainly attainable but lacks the frantic fun that the turbocharged 135i offers. A good-condition convertible is within the price range but offers heavier weight that somewhat dulls the experience. Either way, it’s one of the last – and best – truly classic and still affordable BMWs you can buy.
E39 BMW 5 Series
The fourth generation of the BMW 5 Series is often hailed – usually in the legendary M5 form – as one of the best sedans ever made. While you aren’t going to find an M5 anywhere near our budget (at least not one you’d want to own), you can find a range of 528i, 530i, and 540i sedans, even with a manual transmission. Of course, most enthusiasts will want to opt for the V8-powered 540i, but the six-cylinder versions drive great and offer a little bit better fuel economy and are still fun to drive.
The E39 5 Series also got a touring model, which even got a V8-powered variant. Sadly, no manual was offered in the United States. But that’s okay – the E39 5 Series offers most of the looks of the M5, a considerable amount of the steering feel and responsiveness, and half the repair costs. That makes it a great choice for a vintage BMW that won’t break the bank.
E46 BMW 3 Series
Like the E39, the E46 represents the fourth generation of an iconic nameplate, and to some, it’s the best version. It, too, boasts iconic and classic BMW looks and proportions, communicative handling, and charismatic powertrains. You might even find a 330i equipped with the ZHP equipment group, which included a slight horsepower bump, some unique body trim, and other small adjustments that make it the peak of non-M E46 fun.
BMW produced tons of these for the North American market, so prices will likely remain stagnant for a while. You’ll pay top dollar for a pristine one on a site like Bring a Trailer but won’t have trouble finding even a well-equipped 330i within your budget.
E36 BMW 3 Series
The E36 3 Series is a fan favorite and offers classic 90s styling, excellent steering feel, and a variety of body styles that add to its charm. From the hatchback 318ti to the 328is, the E36 is old enough to be somewhat lightweight while preserving modern amenities like automatic climate control and cruise control. Plus, the E36 is the most analog vehicle on the list so far – making it a good choice for DIYers.
While my choice from the E36 lineup is definitely the sporty 328is, you really can’t go wrong with anything in the lineup. It’s getting harder to find a decent-condition car with the 2.8-liter engine (328i and 328is) at our budget, but they are out there. For optimal cool: import a 328i Touring, which paired the robust 2.8-liter inline-six (M52B28) with a manual transmission.
E36/7 Z3 Roadster
The E36/7 Z3 Roadster picks up where the standard E36 coupe, sedan, and convertible leave off. It’s objectively better at being a driver’s car, with a lighter curb weight and smaller footprint. It boasts similar engine choices as the E36 – ranging from a 1.9-liter four-cylinder to a 2.8-liter six-cylinder. The Z3 also has the interesting distinction of being the first BMW model ever manufactured exclusively outside of Germany – hailing from Greer, South Carolina.
The Z3’s polarizing looks mean it isn’t the first thing anyone thinks about when someone mentions a vintage BMW. However, I see that as a positive and contributing factor to the Z3’s asking price holding reasonably steady. You might even find a Z3 M Roadster in our under-$15,000 budget, although it will be higher mileage and/or need some work. Either way – the Z3 represents some of the best driving dynamics on this side of an M car, and it shouldn’t ever be overlooked as a great choice for an affordable classic BMW.