A BMW If You Can Keep It

1988 535i junk

Cars are complex machines. When you think about a house, things like plumbing, electrical, HVAC, windows, flooring, and more are all typically handled by tradespeople who specialize in what they do. With a car, everything is rolled into one compact package, with the constraints of mobility, weight, efficiency, and more all present to complicate things even further. Spend enough time obsessing over this stuff, as many of us have, and it becomes something of a way of thinking, from A/C compressors to bushings, but to the rest of the world, it’s all largely a mystery.

A friend of mine just bought a new car. It’s not a BMW, but it is brand new, with absolutely nothing wrong with it. There’s no laundry list, no nagging repairs, nothing that will need attention, as I like to say. I can tell my friend appreciates his new car, not only because he’s on the hook for a payment every month, but because for the longest time, he was making do with cars that were clearly ready to be put out to pasture. Now he’s driving something with a clock that started at zero in his possession, from the tires to the foam in the driver’s seat.

I’ve never owned a new car. On average, everything I’ve personally used for transportation has been roughly a decade old, and this has only gotten worse with time. Although I like to have at least one fairly modern car that’s young enough to have a warranty, the average age of the three cars in my fleet is 21.67 years—old enough to buy beer. Two of these cars are BMWs, and while they couldn’t be further from one another on the spectrum in terms of condition, usability, and how far I’m comfortable with driving them, they represent the perfect vehicular dichotomy.

Although I live and grew up in Southern California, where most of my friends have since traded in their turbocharged M cars for a Tesla Model 3, a drive to run errands or a jaunt out to a good backroad is always an opportunity to see just how far things can go. We don’t have to contend with rust here, but this doesn’t mean that people don’t drive their cars into the ground, fixing only what absolutely demands attention. My mind isn’t always blown anymore, but I still see plenty of cars hurtling down the freeway going 80 that are clearly ready for the junkyard.

1985 BMW E30 325e

Over my lifetime of automotive and greater mechanical fascination, and a desire to know how things work, the level to which some people will let their cars sink, while still regularly using and depending on them, has always astounded me. Maybe it’s our lax inspection requirements here in the U.S., particularly California—we literally have no inspection other than smog, which new cars are exempt from for something like six years—or maybe it’s because many (like me) have never owned a new car. I am an exception to this last rule, because I grew up in a household in which new cars were regularly being purchased, and I know what a new car feels like, but my confounding at the state of society remains.

I’ve known plenty of people with what regular, non-car people would refer to as well-kept vehicles. Except, after just moments sitting in the passenger seat and driving one block, I can usually feel things like motor mounts, blown shocks, tired bushings, or some other form of deferred maintenance. I used to bring it up, but that never worked particularly well on dates, and these days I just make a mental note and keep a poll going that is driven by a simply question—how many people actually properly maintain their vehicle?

BMW 3.0 CS Project Bring a Trailer

The answer I’ve arrived at, and yes, I could have told you this from the start, is very, very few. Although I and most reading this are of the ilk that will obsess over brands and choices when it comes to things like oil, tires, brake pads, bushings, and plenty more, the vast majority of society quite literally cannot be bothered with the thought of it. Drop it off at the local mechanic, and hope it doesn’t cost too much—that’s how most operate.

Aside from the obvious safety concerns, and the fact that more people should take a vested interest in the things they own and depend on, there isn’t much more to be said about it. Except that when it comes to maintaining a BMW and preserving the driving experience that make it great, I simply cannot compromise.

Although nearly every single one of the car’s I’ve owned has been old with high mileage, as long as they weren’t too far gone, like in the case of my E30 and a few others, I’ve always maintained them to a high standard. Although I love to find a great deal on parts and am more than happy to indulge the aftermarket if I know it’s not going to translate to compromised quality, I try not to settle. Over the years, I’ve tried my damnedest to disprove the notion of you get what you pay for, but time and time again it’s come back to bite me.

That’s why I recently placed a $550 order for just five parts, all of which are fundamentally simple things like engine and drivetrain mounts, and two non-essential suspension arms. They’re not even for a BMW, and to make matters worse, the car they’re going to be bolted onto has well over 100,000 miles. Why exactly did I do it? Because there’s simply no other way to recapture the smooth, cloud-like feeling that this specific car is famous for, and what I am sure a large portion of the over $1,000,000,000 development cost its manufacturer incurred during 1980s was allotted to.

BMW Hot Dog Cupholder Bangle

Bangle-era cupholders are good for more than just driinks.

After owning nearly a dozen BMWs over roughly the same number of years, it’s just how I’ve come to approach and execute vehicle maintenance. Although I paid nicely depreciated prices for all of my BMWs, it is not lost on me that they were once quite expensive, and will always demand commensurate running costs—if I am dedicated to preserving the reasons why I bought them to begin with.

I’ll never forget a moment standing near a tired E46 3 Series on a lift in my preferred independent BMW repair facility with another BMW owner friend beside me. We were admiring just how worn out this particular car was, when my mechanic summed things up with a simple statement, “This is reality.”

“Showroom” condition with a missing front clip. Reality indeed.

For many people and it seems the vast majority of cars older than a few years, it is reality, and it makes sense. Vehicle maintenance is expensive, and when it’s still getting you to and from where you need to go, why bother with the periphery on something that’s not worth it? I didn’t always have the resources to maintain my cars to the standard I now insist on, but even then, I planned things out, budgeted, and made it happen before I was left stranded and facing a tow bill. I have endured worn engine mounts, and continue to in my E30.

Whats the moral of the story? I guess if I had to pick one, it’s that everyone has different standards, but when it comes to BMWs and other material objects of obsession in my life, I tend not to sacrifice, and neither should you, less you want to compromise on why you bought such a great piece of engineering to begin with.—Alex Tock

[Photos courtesy Alex Tock, BMW AG, Bring a Trailer Media LLC, and whoever stuck a (rather delicious looking) hot dog in their BMW E9X 3 Series cupholder.]

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