All of my vehicles seem to be red, with only two exceptions, my dad’s British Racing Green 1972 MG Midget and my wife’s Alpine White E61 535xi wagon. This palette-cleansing came about in November when I sold the single best car I’ve ever owned, a 2002 S54-swapped BMW 325i sport wagon. It was Topaz Blue—a rare color for an E46 wagon—with all of the E46 M3 bits, Ohlins coil-overs, and a Stronmung exhaust. The only thing it was missing were the M3 body modifications, which made it a proper sleeper.
I loved the S54 wagon, but our aging house (definitely not the one in photographs) needed some imminent repairs that coincided with a good friend urging me to sell him the car. To make it work, I just needed to find a less-expensive replacement that could fulfill the wagon role in my automobile quiver.
I found it in Omaha, Nebraska—and it just happened to be Japan Red (Japanrot).
When the new-to-me 325xi wagon arrived, I looked outside in the driveway and realized that all of the cars were red. Then I went downstairs, and damned if my side-by-side and the airplane weren’t red, too. I swear that I don’t intentionally seek out red cars, but I have clearly established a pattern. It’s not just my vehicles, either; my skateboard is red, my hang-glider is red, my lawn mower is red, my toolbox, air compressor, and on and on.
Moving counter-clockwise, here is the lineup and the names of the colors:
I wouldn’t necessarily call this fleet a collection, but they do all sort of match, and each serves a purpose. Believe it or not, the Toyota Corolla FX16 is one of the most fun to drive, and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to terrorizing the world by holding it on its 7,500-rpm rev limiter at every available occasion. (You can read the story of the barn-find Enkei wheels it’s wearing in January’s “Safety Third” column in Roundel.)
The Toyota Tacoma has nearly 300,000 miles on the odometer, which based on the scars that it wears, have not been easy miles—but it makes a great work truck, and I am confident it will never die.
The Honda Pioneer 1000 is mainly used for airport operations and snowplow duty.
The 325xi sport wagon will assume daily-driver duty.
The Aviat Husky has taken us places this year that no airplane should ever go (KAVU link).
The Porsche 911SC has largely replaced the role of the past E30s that I’ve owned because it is like an E30, but just a little bit better—and a little bit worse.
And finally, there is the M coupe, the car that began my BMW obsession. Lately, it’s served mainly as my track car, but there are some changes in the works that I’ll save for a future column.
Before the majority of these cars soiled my neighbor’s freshly concreted taxiway, I dragged them all back across the closed runway and set to work on bringing the new sport wagon up to par. I had found the car in the Roundel classifieds section—the third E46 wagon I’ve purchased from our club’s listings. The owner had purchased it as a Certified Pre-Owned BMW in 2005, and had maintained it the old-school way. When we talked on the phone he was friendly and straightforward, disclosing that the wagon certainly wasn’t perfect—which made it perfectly suited for my mission. Finished in Japanrot over black leather with 127,000 miles on the odometer, it featured the sport package with manual seats, the cold-weather package, aluminum trim, and halogen headlights. The owner had even fitted it with red Coco floor mats—I love Coco mats!
As one CCA member to another, I took him athis word, we negotiated a price in the low-$5,000 range, and I brought the wagon to Colorado. It arrived exactly as described.
Once it was home, the red wagon had large shoes to fill. Compared with the S54-powered wagon, it was vastly underwhelming, having just over half the horsepower and none of the exclusivity. I had strong seller’s remorse—but in due time I accepted the new wagon and eventually fell in love with it. Sure, it was slow; sure, it didn’t have the stance or the aggressiveness of the lowered S54 wagon wearing Apex wheels; but it did the job of just being a car wonderfully.
This is the beauty of the E46 3 Series: It does the job of just being a car without compromise—because it is a BMW!
The E46 came from an era in BMW’s timeline when less was more, when the focus on the driver was paramount, and when, by modern standards, there was an elegant simplicity to design.
Once I got the car on the lift, I found that it was rustier than a typical Colorado car, but nothing close to the East Coast corrosion I grew up with—and there were no surprises based on my conversations with the seller. This one was a keeper, so a little rust didn’t put me off. I, did, however, stock up on penetrating oil and make sure that my MAP torch bottle was topped off; I could see that there were going to be a few bolts I would have arguments with.
Jobs have a tendency to mission-creep, and there are some items that make sense to address while you’re doing something else. For example, you might as well wait until the clutch is nearing replacement to service the transmission shift-pin bushings and detents. I’ve never seen the infamous ZF S5-31 gearbox fifth-gear lean that is prevalent in E36s and Z3s in an E46, but my new wagon had it. There were lots of things I could just live with, but I enjoy bringing a car back up to 100%. I broke things down into cosmetic and mechanical lists:
- Right Front CV Axle
- Power Steering Hoses and Rack
- Oil Pan Gasket
- Clutch / Resurface Flywheel
- Shift Pin Bushings
- Flex Disc
- Preventative Fuel Pump Replacement (at least throw a spare in the hatch)
- Blower Motor (the old one chirped annoyingly)
- Continental ExtremeContact DWS Tires
- A-Pillar Covers/Airbag Strips
- Center Blower Vent (the old one was cracked in the corner—they all do that!)
- Sunroof Shade Clips
- External Rearview Mirror Glass
- Driver’s Seat Backrest Seat Heater
- Rennline Magnetic Phone Mount
- BavSound Speakers
- Rear Hatch Dog Protection
- Window Tint Replacement w/UV-Resistant Film
- Clear Bra Protection
- Roof Rack/Roof Box/Light Bar
Some things are easier than others, but with the right tools, the right instructions, and a little confidence, these jobs are not beyond the skills of average garage mechanic. I don’t always work fast or elegantly, but there are few satisfactions as great as taking a nice car and making it better—especially when it is your car.
In a bit of a time crunch for a New Year’s road trip, I enlisted the help of my head mechanic to do the CV axle, steering rack, and oil pan, while I set to work on the cosmetic issues. I can live with the fifth-gear lean for the time being, but that’ll be next on the list. I went with Euro blind-spot mirror glass in lieu of the conventional flat glass. The genuine mirrors from BMW are expensive, but it’s one of the best upgrades you can make to any BMW. After a fresh alignment, the first round of maintenance was done and the car was ready to go.
Nothing is as good as an E30 325iX in the snow, but on the high-performance all-season Continental tires, the 325xi is fantastic. My wife and I have hauled the dogs up to the high mountains several times over the holidays, and the drive there is damn near as much fun as the final destination.
With all said and done, I’m into the new E46 wagon at just under ten grand. That’s more than I’ll ever be able to sell it for, but that isn’t the point with this one: It’s my car and I intend to keep it for spell. It splits the balance between sport and utility perfectly because it is not only a BMW, but a BMW wagon. It makes me smile.—Alex McCulloch
[Photos courtesy Peter Thompson and Alex McCulloch.]