“Well, that’s the end of the year.”
It’s 7:30 a.m. Sunday morning. We’re standing under the already-bright North Carolina sun, listening to the thrum of straight-sixes, Ansa mufflers, and the tin-and-rubber click of trunk lids. The cars are warming up ahead of drives that will be between six and ten hours, or longer as some of the New England caravans return to Massachusetts, Maine, and Pennsylvania over the course of two days. Some are expected to make the journey with no issues; others will have one hand on the wheel and the other on the heat toggle.
The mood here in Asheville, North Carolina is quiet. It feels like the day after a championship game, or perhaps a 24-hour race; more than a few of this caravan had been working on their cars well past 1:00 in the morning. It is, as National Capital Chapter member Chuck Pompei said, the end of the year. Today the clock starts over at 365 days of “Vintage prep” as the event’s faithful call it—the process of building, modifying, restoring, or straight-up hacking together your car to make the cross-country drive to the jaw-dropping 650-car gathering and three-day BMW party that is The Vintage.
Plenty of enthusiast-run events have their own hype and adamant followings, but The Vintage stands above them all. This event—part party, part car show, part gathering—is unlike any other car show, perhaps because it’s simply not a show at all. As event creator Scott Sturdy puts it, The Vintage is “a gathering, not a car show.”
For the uninitiated, the agenda unrolls thusly: while the main event is technically in Hot Springs, North Carolina on Saturday, cars typically arrive from around the country on Wednesday or Thursday. Semi-organized drives around the gorgeous roads and hidden waterfalls in the Appalachian hills happen throughout the day Thursday, while the events proper begin Friday with an open house at the BMW Car Club of America Foundation.
The Foundation’s event, the opening of the “Passion” exhibit, celebrating 50 years of the BMW CCA and BMW enthusiasm in the United States, was an incredible kick-off to the weekend and the event season. It’s almost too much to dissect here, between the incredible range of member-owned cars (from an M1 to an i8, to custom-built vehicles like Rusty Slammington, Michael Burroughs’ jaw-dropping E28-based rat rod), the Foundation’s collection of vintage posters, marketing materials, and memorabilia, and the opportunity to catch up with BMW CCA legends like founding members Joseph Chamberlain, Michael Izor, historian Jackie Jouret, and hundreds more members with Club stories all their own. [We’ll have more information on the Passion exhibit on BimmerLife thanks to Rob Siegel, but in the meantime, we recommend you check out the ongoing exhibit whenever you’re passing through South Carolina.]
It’s on Friday evening, however, that the magic of the event begins to flow. The primary event hotel, the parking lot of the Clarion Inn in Asheville, is filled—literally, filled—with BMWs. This is not a cordoned-off section of parking lot with a couple rows of cars surrounded by family Suburbans; this is every single spot—and plenty more spaces on the grass—occupied by BMW vehicles and owners, complete with tents, food, and reconnection late into the night.
If, like me, you skipped out on this during previous years, you need to heed this advice: if you have gone to the Vintage and haven’t visited the Clarion parking lot on Friday night, you’re missing a crucial part of the event.
It’s the first taste of the variety of cars that you’ll see at the show on Saturday, parked in no particular order. I guarantee it’s the only hotel parking lot where you’ll an E23 Touring flanked by E30 M3s and parked down the row from a stock E34 and a few cars away from a Jagermeister E24.
It’s another part of The Vintage that is crucial to the mood of the event: whether you have a weather-worn E30, a concours Glas 1600 GT, or a homemade wide body E34, you are welcome here. There are no egos at The Vintage, little to no prizes (with a few exceptions for people who broke down on the way to the event), no awards. Many owners don’t bother cleaning the bugs off the front of their cars after parking. It’s about enjoying the breadth of the BMW experience, reconnecting with old friends, putting a face to various online forum names, and perhaps acquiring some rare parts you’ve been longing for for a long time.
Saturday’s gathering, held by the French Broad River in historic Hot Springs, North Carolina, is the main event. Cars wander in after an hour’s drive through gorgeous mountain roads, arriving between 7:30 a.m. and 11:00 a.m. The event is sold out and the field spacious; if you want to enjoy your car a little longer prior to arriving, that’s perfectly fine.
The car variety goes without saying, and every vehicle present has a story. Every year a car at The Vintage “breaks the Internet”, but this year there were a few contenders. That aforementioned E23 was one such vehicle, a one-off coachbuilt, factory-turbocharged, 745i Touring. While a couple station wagon conversions were made by various coach builders throughout the 1980s (eagle-eyed readers will remember the more popular Shultz E28 Touring of the same era), E23s were incredibly rare—and all a little different.
This wagon, built in part using a Mercedes S123 roof and hatch, is believed to be the only 745i converted by ABC Exclusive, was parked after a transmission incident involving a telephone pole with under 100,000 miles, before sitting another 20 years. Bizarrely, while many 7 Series fans will search years for these conversions, this one was purchased by accident.
According to the current owner, another Vintage attendee named Todd Howarton (who brought the E24 Alpina B9 you see in the photos) would buy 745i parts cars at auction site unseen to use their turbocharged drivetrains for other projects. Upon winning an otherwise-unremarkable white 745i sight-unseen, he was scouring the auction lot for the car before finding that, yes, the 745i in question was the strange white station wagon you see here. My personal takeaway? Todd is the only person on earth to accidentally acquire an E23 Touring.
While the touring was certainly bizarre, other fan favorites included another 745i, a limo believed to be from Lebanon. There was also a 2002 with Turbo flares and chalk paint, which was left unattended with a pack of Crayola for visitors to leave messages, and of course two fan favorites with twenty-four cylinders between them: the V12, six-speed E34 Touring of Jeff Hollen, and the supercharged (!) V12, six-speed E28 of Paul Muskopf, this year featuring awesome Group 4-style flares and some very clever decals.
A special mention goes to the display of stunning array of 700s and Isettas, including two Isetta 600s, two “standard” Isettas, and a trio of 700 coupes. Appropriately, the collection drew a ton of attention from owners across the BMW spectrum, helping to celebrate 60 years of the rear-engined 700 platform.
The M section of the field was stunning as always, and wandering around the field shows plenty of crazy home-built cars, plenty of incredible turbocharged straight-sixes, and all manner of imported E30 Tourings and manual-swapped classics from various eras—not to mention all the subtly-personalized cars that have a story all their own, or even those who didn’t (or couldn’t) bring cars at all.
There were a few losses this year—some accidents (including a stunning E30 M3 and a gorgeous Ceylon 2002, both hit in traffic for no fault of their own), some mechanical failures, and an E28 M5 that lost 4.5 quarts of oil (but was saved by the oil light). This includes myself, as my Arktisblau E24 remained stuck in place at the Clarion parking lot. That’s not to say the blue 6 Series couldn’t run and drive—it just was (and remains) stuck in reverse.
But if anything, it’s proof that having a broken car only brings you further into the family at The Vintage. Spending Friday night under the car, lifted using a borrowed jack and two spare E21 wheels, fiddling with suspension linkage in a last-ditch attempt to knock the car into gear, was honestly not a bad way to spend the evening—and hitching rides in 2002s, E34 M-Sports, and E28s with friends new and old is a perfect way to enjoy the show.
As was remarked to me on Saturday afternoon, the formula is brilliantly simple: Scott Sturdy rents a field and arranges a room block, and vintage BMW owners and drivers do all the rest. It’s an improvisational celebration of old BMWs, vintage vehicle appreciation, driving fun, and friendships new and old. Whether you’re attending for the first time or the eighth, whether you’re a purist or a modifier, whether you daily your 1972 Bavaria or keep an E30 in your garage while you drive a 2018 X5: for one weekend every May, the group at The Vintage is family.
We’ll be back next year. We hope you will be, too.—David Rose