It was five years ago this week that the episode of the Great White Six-Speed Shark occurred. E31 prices had hit the bottom of the depreciation curve, and I’d begun to get interested in acquiring one of the 847 850i’s that were imported with the Getrag G560 six-speed transmission—the only V12 six-speed with a price south of an Aston Martin’s.
I found an 850i stick about fifteen miles from me for the unbelievably low asking price of $4,000. The car looked surprisingly good but was mechanically beat: One of the front strut-tower mounts had broken, and the strut was banging the underside of the hood. The exhaust was cracked at the joint to one of the catalytic converters. Smoke poured out one of the tailpipes when it started, indicating valve-guide issues in one of the V12’s heads (or worse), and there were a variety of electrical maladies, including the driver’s seat being stuck in a position suitable for a basketball player.
I test-drove the car, sort of: just three right turns at walking speed with the seat all the way back, my feet straining to reach the pedals and my head barely poking up over the steering wheel like a twelve-year-old clandestinely driving daddy’s car.
I am very good at moderating my passions with data, and when I got home, I did some estimates of what it would cost to set that immediate list of things right and make the car drivable, and compared it to what other less-needy 850i six-speeds were going for on eBay: It made no sense. I declined to make an offer, and that was that.
That is, until I changed my mind.
My right brain somewhat spectacularly overruled my left brain, like Hugh Grant in the last scene of Notting Hill when he realizes he’s made a terrible mistake by rejecting Julia Roberts and executes all manner of rash moves trying to correct it.
There’s always been a part of me that violently rejects the whole “underwater” thing and instead looks at cars in terms of buy-in. Anyone who has a lifelong-passion car under a cover in the backyard is my hero; they’re hoping they’ll get to it someday, and, over time, put it back together and drive it—and maybe they will. I’m certain that they get a lot of enjoyment out of just knowing that it’s there, the physical embodiment of possibility.
I did this with my Lotus Europa. The fact that in the end I put $20,000 into it, which is more than the car is worth, is to be traded off against the fact that I didn’t have $20,000 in a lump sum to buy a well-sorted car. When you stretch things out like that, you’re funding your passion on the installment plan.
Unfortunately, with the Great White Six-Speed Shark, when I changed my mind and contacted the owner and offered to buy the car, literally sending him a photograph of four grand in cash, he told me that someone was coming for it in the morning with a ramp truck. I wrote about the whole episode in detail here. I was devastated, feeling that I’d let a unique opportunity slip away.
Of course, there are a lot of sharks in the sea, and a few months later, a needy black 850i six-speed showed up in southern New Hampshire. The seller told me a sad story of buying it, his dream car, on eBay. It was in California, so he flew out to pick it up and road-trip it home. He was driving it east, living the dream, and was somewhere in Arizona, looking north across the desert, when he saw something approaching the car at a right angle. What was it? A dog? A buffalo? A 55-gallon drum? He couldn’t quite make it out. Eventually he realized it was only a tumbleweed, and he relaxed.
And then, by sheer bad luck, it rolled directly in front of the car and he hit it dead on. It stuffed itself up under the nose, shredding belts and hoses and crushing plastic. The car ground to a halt, coolant and power-steering fluid bleeding out beneath it.
Thousands of dollars of repair bills later, he made it home, but the car was never quite the same. And worse, he was now forced to sell it due to a perfect storm of misfortune involving a DUI charge, a divorce, a job loss, and his landlord selling his house.
The black shark ran better than the white one—it was actually drivable—but it, too, had multiple issues. My E31 owner friend Brooklyn Taylor warned me that the walk-away criterion for a cheap 850i stick is a needy transmission. The G560 six-speed box, as near as I can tell, was used only in the 850i and the Maserati Shamal, so they’re rare as hens’ teeth. The one in the black shark crunched both the second and third gear synchros pretty badly. Plus, the car felt like it had a cracked front brake rotor and unresolved front-end issues from the, er, tumbleweed connection (apologies to Elton John). At any speed over 30 mph, the car felt like one of the front wheels was going to violently depart from its stub axle.
As with the white car, my short drive was hardly the pedal-mashing-Autobahn-storming experience I wanted from a V12 mated to a six-speed. And if I couldn’t have that, it drained a lot of the blood that was pumping my passion. So, after my soul-searing regret of passing on the white car, I did the same thing on the black one: I passed.
Actually, that’s not quite true. Knowing about both the seller’s misfortune and the car’s pricey need for a transmission, I kind of vultured—you know, sell it for as much as you can, but if you reach the point where you really need it gone, call me.
Someone else grabbed it, and that was fine.
Once I made the same decision on two cars, one white and one black, they kind of swirled together in my mind as a yin-yang symbol of my being at peace with not buying a money-pit E31 stick, partly by choice and partly by the universe not delivering one to me. That was okay; it’s when you force these things that you make bad choices.
Taking a step back for a moment, there’s a taxonomy to automotive attraction that applies to many people. If you love the exterior lines of a car, dig the interior (particularly the dashboard), and love the way the car drives, you’re smitten. If in addition the car fits some personal profile, like your dad always wanted one but could never afford it, or you always saw owning this car as a marker of success, you may be not just be smitten, but marked for life. (The fact that a Hampshire College student who lived with us one summer nearly 50 years ago drove me around in a 2002 is probably responsible not just for my love of 2002s but for my attraction to many small, simple, pre-big-bumper, pre-smog cars with snappy handling and at least some bit of verve when you goose the gas—which is sort of the antithesis of the E31.)
But you might find a car situation in which you’re so smitten by two of the categories—say, looks and performance—that you give a pass to, for example, an interior that doesn’t ring your bells. The E31’s dashboard doesn’t really excite me. How big of a demerit was that? I didn’t really know, because it occurred to me that I’d never really properly experienced an intact E31 driven at speed. I decided that, really, before I did anything else, I needed to have that experience. So a few years back, I contacted a guy listing a decent E31 automatic on Craigslist. I told him, “Candidly, I’m almost certainly not going to buy your car, but I have been interested in buying an E31 stick; the only two I looked at were so beat that I never really got a sense of what the driving experience of the car should be like, so I’ll pay you for your time and gas to let me take yours on a decent test drive.”
t turned out that this wasn’t possible because the car he was advertising wasn’t registered, but as we swapped messages, he said that he, in fact, did have a six-speed that he was working on—a white one.
I raised an eyebrow. “Did it have a broken right front strut tower mount and burn oil out one tailpipe when you bought it?”
“How could you possibly know that?” he asked.
“Well, funny story….” We both had a good laugh over it. He said that the car was now a bit better than it was when I saw it, but it was still off the road and burning oil from one cylinder head.
I remember reading an article nearly 40 years ago in one of the buff books where the author said, “I used to want a pickup truck so bad that I’d lie in a darkened room with the shades drawn, waiting for the pain to pass.” Anyone reading this has probably experienced that fixation. You yearn. You search. You scheme. And, in many cases, you watch helplessly as the values hockey-stick up out of sight.
But sometimes the pain does pass. That was the case with the E31 manual. My craving for the only quasi-affordable V12 six-speed has largely receded (and yes, I read the series of articles on Road & Track online about the gentleman who bought one for $700). In the big automotive arc of my life, it was a brief infatuation, not the Big One That Got Away. The Moby Dick-invoking title of this and the article five years ago are undeserved. There’s no self-destructive obsession here.
Now, like many other cars from the early 1990s, E31s have rebounded from their bottomed-out prices. I used to see beat $2,000 and $3,000 850i’s on Craigslist almost weekly. No more; for needy cars, $8,000 is the new $2,000. That’s fine. I really do prefer small, light, and simple cars anyway.
But who knows? That white one resurfaced. Maybe the black one will, too.
Of course, I should be very careful using the term “resurfaced” around anything that has even a hint of a Moby Dick analogy.—Rob Siegel
Rob’s latest book, The Lotus Chronicles: One man’s sordid tale of passion and madness resurrecting a 40-year-dead Lotus Europa Twin Cam Special, is now available here on Amazon. Signed copies of this and his other books can be ordered directly from Rob here.