In the vibrant and colourful world of Bavarian propellors, you’ve got a raft of exciting models at various price points to choose from. So what are the best BMW project cars to buy in 2024? Don’t worry – whether it’s retro project car, new-wave, M-flavoured, practical or posh, we’ve got you covered.
BMW E39 530i
Unveiled in 1995, the E39 was a confident piece of design backed up by impeccable engineering; fit-and-finish was unimpeachable and equipment levels were positively decadent. Its appeal, unsurprisingly, endures to this day; in the eyes of a great many enthusiasts, the E39 was a high water mark of BMW’s long-running 5 Series.
Beloved of collectors and drivers alike, it’s a model that BMW got really, really right: a smooth and comfortable ride, strong levels of standard kit (with plenty of options available), crisp design, solid and durable construction, feelsome steering, decent seats… the list of accolades goes on and on. And it’s not just the sporting halo models and the heavy-hitters that have won so many fans; sure, the M5 is a ballistic missile and the V8-engined 540i is a bit of a weapon too, but the frissons of magic within those models ripple down throughout the range.
We reckon the 530i is the sweet spot as a project base in 2024. Values of E39s have climbed sharply in recent years, and it’s no surprise that the big-power examples are being snapped up and wrapped in cotton wool – but the 530i? The prices haven’t got too silly yet, and that cruiser/bruiser platform makes for a great starting point: the M54 3.0-litre straight-six is an absolute peach, and we’re seeing more and more E39s on the show scene with the VIP treatment. We’re talking air-ride, subtly flared fenders, high-end wheels, luxurious interior retrim. It’s reliable and solidly-built that’s a little bit retro, will make you feel like royalty and makes one of the best BMW project cars to buy.
– Superb OEM specs
– Harder to find
– Potential rust
BMW F20 M135i
The F20-generation M135i has become a regular sight on the Euro show scene in recent years, and it’s pretty obvious why. This is a sure-footed and rapid hatchback with thoroughly entertaining performance and oodles of potential, both in terms of power tuning and aesthetics.
The F20 generation launched in 2011, and it stood out among its peers in the hatchback market by virtue of being rear-wheel-drive, rather than pulled from the front as was the norm in the sector. In addition, it added a premium sense of quality over and above what you’d find in its rivals… and then, of course, there’s the influence of the M Division to consider.
There are fully-fledged M-cars of course, the ones that get one number and one letter – the M3, M5, M6 and so on. But the M135i was a genuine performance proposition too, despite its everyday concessions to comfort. Under the hood of the M135i (which was in production from 2012-16) was the venerable N55 engine, the turbocharged 3.0-litre straight-six, which served up a robust 315bhp – upped to 322bhp for the 2015 model year. That’s a lot of beans, and it only takes a remap and upgrades to the intercooler and exhaust system to get you into horsepower figures starting with a four. Tasteful aesthetic improvements abound from the likes of Maxton Design and Carbon Factory, and a set of Bilstein or KW coilovers will get it sitting just right.
And in North America?
Readers in the USA will naturally be aware that the F20 hatch wasn’t sold in that market – in which case we’d suggest the E87 135i cabrio or E82 Coupe as the logical alternative: N54 or N55 engine, effortless poise and open-top style. A true modern classic and one of the best BMW project cars to buy!
– Very tuneable
– Lots of them about
– Not the cheapest to insure
– Boy racer image
BMW E46 M3 Convertible
The E46 M3 sits in a real M-car sweet spot in 2024, being recent enough to be solid and dependable, yet old enough to provide a classic and (relatively) analogue driving experience. It’s the archetypal M formula – brawny straight-six up front, drive to the rear, sublime handling and plenty of readily exploitable power. It make sense why it’s here in our list of the best BMW project cars to buy.
The M3 as an entity represents different things in its various generations. The E30 was all about purity, focus, race-bred aggression and a refusal to compromise – it also sported a four-cylinder engine, itself a departure from established Bavarian norms. The E36 signalled evolution, reworking the DNA of its predecessor to create a furious and aspirational racer-for-the-road that also spoke of BMW’s overarching ethos of luxury and premium accoutrements, its accessibility ushering in four-door and cabriolet variants.
And the E46? When that arrived, all bets were off. As it roared onto the scene in late-2000, it boasted an engine of such awe-inspiring firepower, it provided the highest specific output of any mainstream BMW engine thus far. A robust 343bhp from its 3.2-litre six meant that it went like stink and had muscle in spades, adding a whole lot of adrenalised, pumped-up aggression to the standard car’s sober lines.
What spec to choose
Available as either two-door coupé or cabriolet, buyers had the option of a six-speed manual or SMG-II transmission to go with their hugely powerful S54; standard kit included 18” M wheels, leather upholstery, xenon headlights, sports seats, sports suspension, Dynamic Throttle Control, cruise control, Cornering Brake Control, ISOFIX points and a trip computer. And values of the soft-tops have always lagged a little behind their tin-top brethren, which is what makes them such an outstanding buy today – if you shop around, it’s still possible to find them for around the ten-grand mark, which is a remarkable deal for a full-fat M-car. What’s more, as the convertible is perceived as the less desirable version, the purists won’t mind if you mod it into an all-out show car.
Looking to buy one? Be sure to check out our BMW M3 E46 Buyer’s Guide.
– Affordable entry into M ownership
– Scintillating dynamics
– Potential rear subframe issues
– Likely to have been abused
BMW F12 640d
The third-generation 6 Series is looking like a proper bargain these days. It’s a nameplate with a whole lot of heritage attached to it too; the first generation came out in 1979, its sharknose styling and sleek coupe profile becoming an instant icon. When the 6er badge was reprised for 2003, it introduced a lot of controversial concepts to market, including the iDrive system, the ‘Bangle butt’ styling, and – in M6 form – the V10 engine. And that car’s replacement, the F12, has done what we all hope high-end luxury performance machines will do, and depreciated like a stone through a wet paper bag.
In production from 2011-18, it’s still modern enough to pass for a new car if you put an ageless plate on it, and yet early examples can be picked up from as little as nine grand making it one of the best BMW project cars to buy.
The one we’re recommending here is the 640d. Now, we wouldn’t usually point you towards a diesel when there are spicier petrol options in abundance, but we have two key reasons for picking out this model specifically as a strong project base: first of all, the 640d represents a far more affordable route into F12 ownership, with the gulf in values meaning you’ll be saving a few grand right from the off. And secondly, for goodness’ sake don’t go thinking that the oil-burner is by any means a compromised option.
This car came with the N57 3.0-litre twin-turbo straight-six diesel, good for 308bhp right out of the box – and, of course, what dervs are really good for is torque, and we’re looking at a mighty 465lb.ft here. That’ll trebuchet you from 0-62mph in 5.4-seconds. If that’s not enough for you, a simple Stage 1 remap can add an extra 50bhp and 70lb.ft to that.
Buying in the USA? Well, you didn’t get the diesels in that market, but fear not – the equivalent bargain is the 640i, packing the N55 3.0-litre turbo straight-six with a similar power figure… and that’s an engine just begging to be tuned.
– Crisp modern styling
– Sumptuously equipped
– High maintenance costs
– Might irritate environmentalists
BMW E30 4-door sedan/Touring
It’s fair to say that the days of the cheap E30 are well and truly over. It used to be possible to pick up a rough and ratty E30 for the price of a night out, but the thing that’s happening to all eighties/nineties cars is happening to the second-gen 3 Series: nostalgia is rampant, and whether the buyer in question used to own these things back in their early days of driving or they remember their parents having one when they were a kid, they’re willing to pay top-dollar to rekindle those memories today.
Thankfully, there’s still a relatively (kinda) affordable route in… most people are chasing after the more objectively desirable two-door models, which means that the four-door sedans and Touring E30s can be picked up for a bit less. Sure, their values are skyrocketing too, just not quite on the same trajectory. And when it comes to building an E30 project, everything that applies to two-doors can work with more-doors and wagons; indeed, it can be even cooler because you’re starting with an offbeat choice. E30s have been stalwarts of motorsport and the show scene for decades, so there’s a wealth of inspiration to draw from and anything goes: racer, stance, OEM+, drift, shakotan, drag, VIP, you name it. A proper slice of the old-school that’s still ripe for the plucking.
– A genuine retro icon
– Huge aftermarket support
– Can rust pretty much anywhere
– A lot of rough examples masquerading as good ones
BMW E63 645Ci
Another 6 Series to consider – here we’re looking at the second-gen (2003-10) era. Specifically it’s the 645Ci, which came equipped with the N62 motor. Now, BMW’s N62 engine is a remarkable thing; a family of nat-asp V8s, it was the world’s first production engine to use a continuously variable-length intake manifold, and BMW’s first V8 to use the celebrated Valvetronic system. It’s all aluminum with forged internals and, while there was no M version, the 4.8-litre variant (N62B48) was an absolute animal.
The version we’re looking at here, however, is the 4.4-litre V8, the N62B44. The car it’s all wrapped up in is the E63-generation 645Ci, which can be a bit of an acquired taste design-wise; we love it, but some people find Chris Bangle’s design a bit, er, challenging. But just look at the facts – you get a lovely interior, proper mile-munching GT chassis, super-premium feel, and of course that whacking great engine doling out 329bhp. What’s not to like, especially given that you can buy these things for as little as three grand? An impressive blank canvas to get as creative as you like with the mods.
– Outstanding V8 engine
– A lot of car for the money
– A cheap example of an expensive car can be risky
– It’s a bit funny-looking
BMW E85 Z4
As a replacement for the Z3, the E85 Z4 was a pretty bold step; the Z3 had the classic roadster profile – long bonnet, rearward cabin, stubby tail – and the Z4 built on these design touchpoints, but added in a whole heap of strangeness. Look at it side-on, for example, and try to work out what the thinking was behind the front wings; there’s quite a wide variety of lines and angles vying for attention there, isn’t there?
The rear bumper appears to be wearing a droopy moustache like a pantomime Mexican villain, while the front end looks remarkably like Marvin the Paranoid Android from the 2005 movie adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. This, of course, is all very good – life’s too short to drive boring cars, after all, and BMW’s decision to infuse a whole bunch of weirdness into a model they knew would be a volume-seller ought to be robustly applauded. The roadster launched in 2002 with either 2.5- or 3.0-litre engines, but the ones we’d steer you toward would be the post-2006 models. The LCI facelift replaced the six-cylinder M54 engine with the newer N52, and there were a few tasty styling tweaks; find yourself a 3.0si and you get 261bhp!
Whichever spec you go for, you’ll find keen aftermarket support and a whole lot of upgrade parts readily available – so will 2024 be the year we see the show scene flooded with Z4s? We hope so. It’s one of the best BMW project cars you can buy.
– Cheap as chips and readily available
– Lots of modding potential
– 2.0 N46 engine is notoriously iffy
– Power hood motors are prone to failure