People drive BMWs for various reasons. I’ve always considered mine to be tools—each one performs best in a specific role. The M coupe has become the track tool, the E30 is the daily driver, and the M5 Touring has taken up road-trip duty, or grand touring.
In Colorado, one of the best places to go for a grand tour is the southwestern corner of the state; it’s an enchanted land where the high mountains meet the high desert. The occasion that I had in mind was the Drive4Corners BMW meet—I’ll report on in print later, but the trip out there and back would prove to be an adventure all of its own.The first order of business was to thoroughly pre-flight the M5 Touring. The 1993 Daytona Violet M5 wagon is relatively new to my fleet, and this would be the first opportunity to take it out of the local traffic pattern. The oil was already fresh, the fluids were topped off, and the tire pressures were good, but a faint gas smell was troubling. Old cars communicate their health in subtle ways; you must use all of your “S” senses—sight, sound, and smell—to get an accurate read on what is going on.
A visual inspection didn’t show any leaks, but I have the nose of a bloodhound. The scent trail lead me to the fuel-level sensor, located on the top of the gas tank on the right side. The plastic fitting was loose and fuel was leaking out. Not a problem, it’s a small leak, let me just snug it up slightly. Crack! It broke! Whoops, I’ll just order a new E34 M5 fuel sender from BMW and be on my way, right? No, not so much….
Surprisingly, the European M5 Touring uses the same sensor that U.S. M5s came with, but at some point the gas tank in my M5 Touring had been converted from the original metal tank to a plastic tank that is only used in European and Japanese-market E34 Tourings. I could get a new fuel-level sender, but it would come from Europe and take several weeks.
Plan B: plastic weld, a fire extinguisher, and a AAA Premium membership that expands my covered tow range by several hundred miles. I reckoned that as long as I didn’t fill up the tank all of the way, the plastic weld might hold—in the short term.
As we loaded our gear into the Touring, my wife asked what the fire extinguisher was for. “Nothing, dear—safety first!” (Or, as Harold Lloyd so famously put it, Safety Last!)Our journey would consist of a 900-mile loop to Durango and the Purgatory ski resort where Drive4Corners was hosted and back. There was a large caravan of BMWs headed from Denver that we met up with for the drive out; the variety of models and generations spanned decades.
We left in a large group winding through the foothills of Colorado’s Front Range into South Park, a vast expanse of flat, high tundra. From there we descended into the upper Arkansas River Valley, and crossed over Poncha Pass to the Sangre de Cristo mountains and the San Louis Valley, another vast expanse of high tundra. The two-lane highway was a lovely mix of high-speed mountain sweepers and desolate arrow-straight tarmac that pointed to the horizon. A caravan of beautiful Bavarians along the way only added to the scenery, where, among other breakdowns, more than one cooling system was tested, but nobody was left behind.
The M5 Touring was in its element out on the open road, and it performed flawlessly thanks to that healthy dose of plastic weld (and not topping off the gas tank). We made the Purgatory resort at dusk after helping a stranded 2002 in the last few miles, and the festivities began—but you’ll have to read about those in Roundel.For the road trip home, we arced north across Colorado’s Western Slope into the Central Rocky Mountains. The first stop was Silverton, Colorado, a small historic mining town surrounded by the massive peaks of the San Juan Mountains. After coffee with a few stragglers from the meet, we headed north to Ouray on US 550—the Million Dollar Highway. The “highway” is nothing more than a sliver of exposed pavement cut into the red-rock cliffs of the Uncompahgre Gorge; there are few guardrails to spoil the view of monolithic mountain peaks and abandoned gold mines on the descent into Ouray.
The M5, combined with a surprising lack of traffic and an even unhealthier lack of fear of heights on my part, delighted us with some fantastic grand touring. Even after a band of monsoonal rain showers soaked the pavement, the big M5 Touring stuck to the tarmac like a cat’s claws on Astroturf, reducing even my most aggressive corning attempts to nothing more than civilized motoring.
After Ouray, the scenery turned to high desert along the base of Colorado’s Western Slope until we turned east at US 133. That road climbed back into the lush green aspens of the Grand Mesa and White River National Forests. Along the way we traversed the appropriately named Sunshine Mesa and the charming quaint hamlets of Hotchkiss and Paonia, Colorado. From there we entered the Raggeds Wilderness, where a stone wall of mountains towered above us until we crested McClure Pass, from which US 133 dropped into the narrow Crystal River valley.I had an ulterior motive for taking this route, and that was to walk a small back-country grass airstrip in the town of Marble, Colorado. Marble is near the top of the Crystal River Valley at the base of the Raggeds Wilderness to the west and the Maroon Bell Mountains to the east. With prior permission (and a healthy dose of bravery), you can fly into the remote mountain strip and camp “under the wing,” an excursion that has been on my bucket list for some time. Walking the airstrip (3,800 feel long at 7,700 feet field elevation) beforehand would be an opportunity to assess the potential threats and digest the environment without the added component of aviating.
When we arrived, there was an absolutely stunning 1955 Cessna 180 with a tent under its wing. Its owner was a retired German Air Force pilot who was intimately familiar with airstrip. After a short conversion, he made me an offer I couldn’t refuse: a flight showing me several takeoffs, approaches, and landings into the field.The Cessna 180 is one of the best back-country airplanes of all time, and it was as much a fish-in-water flight through the peaks as the M5 Touring was on the roads below. The takeoff from the narrow strip was an act of threading the needle between tall trees until the runway widened considerably at mid-field, but as soon as we broke free from the bonds of gravity—and those treetops—we climbed at over one thousand feet per minute despite the thin air. Leveling off at 10,000 feet (mean sea level), we were still thousands of feet below the peaks, but had enough altitude to explore the canyon and its idiosyncrasies.
Back-country mountain flying requires a unique skill set, but it’s extremely rewarding when done with a healthy respect for the weather and terrain. In the skilled hands of my local guide, the approach was straightforward, and the Cessna 180 offered plenty of extra safety margins. After we landed, my wife even got her own sightseeing flight.We expressed equal parts gratitude and elation to our new friend as long shadows from the high peaks above hinted at the impending darkness that would soon overcome the valley; it was time to keep moving. From there we ventured off, the sunset at our backs—or hatchback, in the M5 Touring’s case—for the last leg of the trip, an enjoyable and uneventful jaunt home through Glenwood Springs Canyon and I-70 eastbound to the Front Range. The M5 Touring soaked up the miles with poise and performance in the way that only a BMW M5 can; it was a perfect tool for the job.—Alex McCulloch