I’ve spent my entire life as a car enthusiast; my earliest memory is seeing an Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme underneath a tree at a car show that my parents took me to on a whim. I suppose you could say that seeing the Cutlass was the awakening of my very consciousness.
Within the past few years, I have had another awakening. You see, I’d never been what you would call a BMW enthusiast. There were glimmers of interest here and there, of course; I’d always loved the E24 6 Series’ aggressively elegant shark-nosed visage. The E34 5 Series, too, had captured my heart with its impeccable proportions; the rear quarter panel’s shape still makes me weak.
When I was in my senior year of high school, I wanted an E63 M6—in Indianapolis Red, naturally—so badly that I could nearly taste it. BMW’s most hedonistic design to date, it was too large to be a coupe, but too small to be a sedan. I promised myself one when I graduated law school.
Too bad I never went to law school.
There were other glimmers, too, but they hardly count. Everyone loves the non-threatening utilitarianism and puppy-dog charm of the E30, and there isn’t a soul alive who’s not moved in some way by the sight of a 3.0CSL race car at speed. For the most part, though, other cars captured my heart—the flat-six siren song of the Porsche 911, the angry dual-exhaust rumble of a Mustang Cobra, even the turbine-esque whine of Mazda’s rotary RX-7. All still have their place in my heart and in my garage.
But now they share that space with a pair of proud kidney-shaped grilles and quad circular headlamps. That’s because I fell in love with BMW.
After one tried to kill me.
Several years back, I was looking for work, and a friend set me up with a former co-worker of his—we’ll call him John. John worked for a company that sold aftermarket parts for German cars, and he wanted help in building the BMW catalog. While I had next to no knowledge of BMWs at the time, I was able to learn quickly, using RealOEM as an invaluable resource that made me look far more clever than I actually was.
Almost instantly, the questions from my new boss and co-workers started: When would I buy a BMW of my own? I’d always say that I had my hands full with my other projects, and that my German-car quota was filled by my ’84 Porsche 911. It wasn’t until I had a particularly bad experience with one that BMW endeared itself to me forever.
A few months after I started work, my boss planned a cruise for BMW owners that would take us through a nearby national park and end at a neighborhood bar-and-grill for libations and fried appetizers. Not having a BMW of my own precluded me from participating, but John took pity on me. He opted to drive his S52-swapped E30, and offered me the use of his E36 328is—a car with a full complement of bolt-on upgrades and prototype parts. All I had to do was pick it up at his house on Friday morning. Aces.
When I picked up the car on my way to work, John warned me of a nagging issue that he hadn’t had a chance to look into: Apparently one of the rear wheels was out of balance, causing a mild vibration. I told him it was no problem, and that I appreciated the use of his car. Promising to take good care of it, I drove it to work.
After work, we all met in the parking lot and formed a procession to tackle the twisting, winding roads that ran through the national park. The E36 was simply sublime; with its laundry list of suspension, brake, and engine upgrades, it took what was already a very good package and transformed it into John’s ideal of a daily-driven performance car.
Simply put, I was insatiable. I wanted more time with the E36. After dinner, I asked if John would mind if I borrowed the car for the weekend, offering to detail the interior for him as a gesture of gratitude. He agreed that this would be fine, and I began my drive home.
At the time, I lived around 70 miles from the office. About halfway home, I entered a construction zone, where the sky opened up, and I faced a barrage of rain that the windshield wipers could barely keep up with. Limited by visibility to around 45 miles per hour, I drove tentatively and vigilantly, terrified of damaging my boss’ beloved Bimmer. The road opened eventually, and I accelerated in the left lane as the rain subsided.
That’s when I noticed the slight vibration that John had warned me about—as it began trying to tear the car apart. I didn’t have much time to react before I felt the vibration increase exponentially. Then it disappeared—but as the whirring and thumping ceased, it was followed by a loud thud, then by a continuous scraping noise as the car pitched violently sideways.
It happened very fast, but it felt like an eternity. I caught a glimpse of the guardrail through the rain-drenched windshield. “Huh, that’s interesting,” I thought.
Like a Cold War missile silo, long-underutilized parts of my brain were pulled frantically into service, overriding any manual control I had over the situation; apparently the left and right sides of my brain turned their keys at the same time. There was no time to think, only time to react.
Instinctively, I cranked the steering wheel as far away from the guardrail as I could. Once the nose was pointed in the right direction, I coaxed the wet, wounded E36 across three lanes to the opposite shoulder. Luckily, it was late, so I had a relatively clear shot.
Defying the BMW-driver stereotype, I was careful to use my turn signal.
Then I flicked the turn signal off, blinked for a moment, and dutifully engaged the hazards. I waited for a break in traffic, opened the driver’s-side door, and confirmed my suspicions: The vibration was not caused by an out-of-balance wheel, but an under-torqued one. Indeed, I was now staring at the left rear disc brake, its badly mangled dust shield resting on the road shoulder under the full weight of the car.
Now, losing a wheel at speed can be a fairly terrifying ordeal, but it’s not nearly as awful as the prospect of calling your boss to tell him that you broke his BMW.
Taking another deep breath, I thumbed his contact icon and waited for him to pick up. John was arguably more shaken than I was about the incident; his anger lay not with me, but in his failure to tighten the wheel bolts after the last time he’d worked on the car. He was glad that I was okay, and he was on his way with another wheel—he would find the errant wheel the following morning, wedged under the same guardrail into which I nearly smashed his E36.
After we jacked the car up, we bent the dust shield into something resembling its former shape before installing the replacement wheel. We hopped off the next exit for gas and a breather, and to check out the car in better light. Sitting in his E30, I asked him to grab cigarettes when he ran in to pay for gas. “I didn’t think you smoked,” he said.
“Me, neither,” I said.
After we had both calmed down a bit and our adrenaline had subsided, we looked the car over again with cooler heads. Short of some damage to the side skirt and rear bumper, the car was no worse for wear.
Following John’s E30 back to his home, I found myself enjoying the E36 even more. Despite its valiant attempt to remove me from the gene pool, I was still drawn to its impeccable road manners and comfortable yet purposeful cockpit, and the intoxicatingly linear power delivery of that M52 inline six.
I vowed to myself that I would one day own a BMW of my own—just so long as I was sure to torque the lug bolts.