The Neighborhood Lurker

After years of painstaking and extensive study, I’ve come to the realization that BMWs attract one another. Think about it: Before you own your first BMW, you might spend years thinking that one model or platform is all you need in life—for me it was the E30, of course—and that might even be true for a while… before the affliction really starts to take hold. After that, it seems almost inevitable that some of us will end up with far more than our fair share of BMWs.

I stand as a perfect example.

Although my BMW fascination took hold when the vast majority of club members were already well established in this game, in the years since, I’ve had enough pass through my hands that I struggle to remember them all when counting, and I actually maintain a spreadsheet these days. I’ve also been lucky enough to own two of a few different models, like the E28 535i, E46 330i, and E82 135i.

But while cars came and went, I have always tried to be a one BMW guy, at least until last year. There were periods when I briefly had more than one in my possession, but I consider this overlap more than anything else, as one was usually intended to replace the other. But—and many of our readers share this compulsion—ownership never precluded me from browsing the market, or even prowling the neighborhood.

During the mid-2000s, before the Great Recession and the Cash For Clunkers program, the neighborhood where I grew up contained more than a few old, tired, sun-beaten BMWs and other upmarket competitors that had been relegated to spending the rest of their days baking in the driveway. In a neighborhood situated not far from University of California at San Diego and built during the 1960s, by the time I reached driving age, it seemed as though almost every street had something neat that was permanently parked, collecting dust, spiderwebs, and oxidation. There were so many at one point that I remember printing out flyers to leave on some of them, in the hope that I’d get lucky with one generous owner who wanted to let a car go on the cheap (it never happened, and the flyers probably did more to harm my cause than further it). Really, for a long time, it seems no one could be bothered with these cars.

Things have changed, of course, and the dusty Mercedes, Jaguars, BMWs, and even the occasional Porsche 928 have all but vanished. The aforementioned Cash For Clunkers program had its way with a good number of V8- and V12-powered examples, and today you can still find grainy, decade-old videos on YouTube in which these once cutting-edge machines meet their end via what seems like an incredibly cruel method that involved pouring sodium silicate—liquid glass—into the the oil sump and redlining the engine until things locked up. The market has changed, too, and at least a handful of these cars which were traded in for up to $3,500 during the program have since appreciated significantly.

I still keep a sharp eye when I’m taking one of my cars through the neighborhood on a post-service test drive or a cool-down run, but the prowling with intent to purchase has long since ended, at least on my part.

Interestingly enough, however, it seems that someone out there is still doing it.

Just a week or so before I was planning to writing this column, I was sitting at my desk, most likely working on one of the weekly news articles I write for this website. It was about 5:30 in the evening when I heard a distinct engine sound on the street below. I hear my neighbors come and go most of the day, and can usually tell who’s who by how their vehicle sounds as it traverses a drainage gutter that crosses the asphalt; at least a few individuals have this awful habit of choosing to not reduce their speed over the concrete, which universally results in the underside of the front bumper audibly nailing the pavement on the other side.

This sound was different, though; it was almost as if someone was driving my tired old E30 (the one with the mismatched Granite Silver metallic hood from a 1991 325i ‘vert). I’d have had the same reaction of it were a certain-year Honda starter motor being engaged, so naturally I stood up to see what was going on.

To my surprise, I observed a clean early-model Alpine White E30 sedan—I used to lust after a clean, white diving-board four-door—now parked just down the street from my own worn-out work-in-progress coupe. Not only that, but when my eyes ventured back to my car, I saw that there was a folded note beneath the driver’s-side windshield wiper.

I threw on some shoes and grabbed my phone while essentially sprinting outside in hopes of catching this mysterious person, who had vanished by the time I reached the street.

Undeterred, I retrieved what turned out to be a piece of folded notebook paper from the windshield of my 1985 325e. The note was brief and hastily written, but described my E30 as cool, and was signed “the other 325.” Strolling down the street, I snapped a few pictures of the white sedan; it wasn’t perfect—the paint had a few inconsistencies and the body a few blemishes—but it had clearly lived a much easier life than my example, which is estimated to be in the 300,000-mile neighborhood on its original engine.

Looking inside, I saw that the interior was also decently clean, but some of what I speculate to be Pearl Beige leather or leatherette upholstery contained a few split seams on the driver’s seat, while the dash wore a few cracks as well. Unfortunately, sprouting from the center console was an automatic gearshift, which might help to explain the nice condition, as it seems that most manual examples have been run into the ground—like the one I drive.

Not wanting to let the moment slip away, I bolted back inside to type out a quick note of my own. In summary, I said that their car was cool, too, and added that they need to join the BMW CCA if they’re interested in this stuff and want to meet like-minded people. I also included a few short links like my own join-referral URL and the web address of BimmerLife, where you’re reading this.

I returned to the street and slipped the note under the driver’s-side wiper. My timing was impeccable; the next time I looked up from my desk after returning to my previous task, the car had vanished. just as it had appeared. I didn’t even hear it fire up and drive away!

Note what is likely to be the original California sunset-theme license plate. My car also retains the same type of original plates, something I’m quite fond of.

It doesn’t look like the clean, white, automatic sedan is up for sale, which is probably a good thing, as I’d be forced into considering it due to the serendipitous circumstances, regardless of the automatic transmission. The number of auto-to-manual swaps continues to grow every year, but it’s not a project I’m interested in taking on at this time, and I also enjoy a high degree of originality in my cars. Nevertheless, it felt good to spread the word about the club, and also to observe an E30 that was very easy on the eyes—I’ve got a strong appreciation for U.S.-spec early models.

But even more intriguing to me was the fact that there is still someone out there with an ear to the streets. Just as I was doing years ago when trolling for what I hoped could be my first BMW project, another seeker is keen on the same trail, and in my own neighborhood—with a white 1987 325 sedan, no less!

As I said at the outset, BMWs seem to attract each other. This is true in a number of ways, whether it means eventually owning a garage full of them or having one very similar to your own randomly show on your street, with an owner cool enough to leave a note about the other old Bimmer… which is likely marking its territory via an oil leak.—Alex Tock

[Photos courtesy Alex Tock.]

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