An heirloom is something of value passed down through generations. Typically, it might be an object such as a watch, a book, or a piece of jewelry; a classic car might be considered an heirloom, while a modern automobile, especially the high-performance German kind, doesn’t immediately come to mind as something that’s going to be around in usable shape generations from now.
Unless, that is, you’ve given it the garage-queen treatment: avoiding inclement weather at all costs, keeping the miles low by driving something else to work or to the grocery store, and pampering the paint with only the finest fibers and liquids from the likes of Griot’s Garage. And while a typical German car from the last twenty years or so may not be an obvious choice for an automotive heirloom, there are exceptions to the proverbial rule.
In 2019, we highlighted an E46 323i from the 2000 model year which had been driven to such a high mileage that its digital odometer maxed out. This year we learned of something perhaps even more impressive: a 2001 E46 M3 driven 340,000 miles since new—which is now being passed down from father to son.
Tom Stokes purchased his 2001 M3 with 24,000 miles on it in 2005, and went on to accumulate 316,000 more over the course of sixteen years’ worth of daily commuting. After Stokes’ son Ryan turned seventeen and completed his behind-the-wheel driving exam (in the three-pedal M3) last year, the car was passed on to the next generation, with hope of surpassing the 500,000-mile threshold.
With its 8,000-rpm-capable S54 M inline six and near-perfect dimensions, the E46 M3 epitomizes BMW’s modern golden age. Built and designed at the dawn of the new millennium, the third-generation M3 relies on tight tolerances and computer-control modules to make things happen. In the two decades since they hit the market, they’ve become coveted examples of the Ultimate Driving Machine—but over the same period, owners have also discovered the various weak links of the E46 M3: Rod bearings, rear subframes, VANOS units, and a host of other peripherals are the items which typically make up the laundry list of an E46 M3’s necessary repairs.
In the case of the 340,000-mile Stokes M3, however, the story is all the more interesting—because all of these things are reported to be original on the car. In fact, over the course of twenty years and a few multiples of the mileage most cars achieve, this 2001 M3 has required only normal maintenance and service (with the exception of a differential replacement, which has been performed twice, once at 120,000 miles and again—along with the driveshaft—at 315,000). Although wear items such as wheel bearings have been replaced “more times than I can count,” says Stokes, the body panels, paint, engine, and most of the drivetrain remain original to the car—including the engine’s internals, which have never been serviced or replaced.
“I attribute my lead foot and persistent maintenance as contributing factors to its longevity,” says Tom Stokes. “With the exception of a little play in the gearbox, it rides like a 30,000-mile car, and still pulls like it did when I bought it sixteen years and 315,000 miles ago.”
An E46 M3—even one with 340,000 miles—is a lot of car for a seventeen-year-old with a recently-acquired license, but the Stokes M3 carries a bit more weight than most other hand-me-down daily drivers. Ryan Stokes intends to drive the M3 until the odometer displays at least 500,000 miles, a goal that doesn’t seem particularly out of reach given how far the car has already gone without a major issue.
Tom says that his son Ryan has wanted the M3 since he first started walking. When Ryan took his driving exam last fall, he earned a perfect score. Although he was given the choice of using a family car with an automatic transmission for the test, Ryan accepted the challenge of taking the test in the six-speed M3 because it would earn him extra points—not with the DMV, but among his friends.
Since taking possession of the M3, Ryan has added some light modifications in the form of an exhaust and cold-air intake (to let the S54 breathe), plus a set of bronze-colored wheels to take the place of the original eighteen-inch Style 67s. All of the original parts have been retained, of course, and the car is well on its way to its next milestone.
It’s been said that our modern society is a disposable one. These days, it’s often both cheaper and easier to simply toss old things out than to repair them for another generation’s use. As our cars become increasingly reliant on software updates as opposed to oil changes, it’s going to become more difficult to justify keeping anything beyond the initial warranty period. On this website, however, we’ve asked the question What if mileage were a trophy? In the case of the Stokes family’s M3, we have our answer: This is no high-mileage beater, it’s family heirloom.—Alex Tock
[Photos courtesy Tom Stokes.]