Thanks, everyone, for your concern over my recent head wound. I’m fine. The sutures were removed last Monday. The scar is no worse than the bumper scrapes on any of my cars.
Last week, Facebook did its “memories” thing and reminded me that it’s been four years since I sold my Zinneberrot 1987 E30 325iS. To be clear, I don’t have many automotive regrets. The rhythm of automotive ebb and flow in my life is usually a pretty natural one—the daily drivers come and go when they need to, and I hold on to the fun cars until they’ve run their course or I need the money, the space, or both. It’s really only been the ’82 Porsche 911SC that pokes up through the noise as a major regret, a combination of loving the car and selling it at exactly the wrong time, right before the big run-up in air-cooled 911 values. Yet, over the years, I’ll admit that I look at the E30 325iS through increasingly misty eyes.
I bought it the summer of 2014. I was still working at my engineering job so I had, you know—what’s it called? Oh, yeah: income. The previous year I’d bought the Z3, the Lotus Europa Twin Cam Special, and the Bavaria, outgrowing my garage space in Newton and requiring my renting space out in Fitchburg (central Massachusetts). The following spring, reveling in this newly-found solution to my space problems, I added the ’79 Euro 635CSi.
Although I’ve never considered myself a collector—I buy what I love, not what I think will appreciate—it was obvious that E30s were rising in value, and that clean original ones were becoming harder to find. With the Fitchburg spaces locked in, I began thinking about buying an E30 as a literal investment vehicle and sitting on it for a while.
Now, I should candidly admit that I’ve never really been an E30 guy. Most people crave the cars they lusted after in junior high school but couldn’t have, and for me, that was the 2002. I owned E30s as daily drivers back in the ’90s—an ’89 325iX, an ’87 325i convertible, and an ’86 325e which served as a winter beater—but they were never really my jam. My experience was that even as 100,000-mile eight-year-old cars, from a frequency-of-repair standpoint, neither E30s nor E28s ever stood up to their mythology; their lines never set me aquiver, and the whole “God’s chariot” thing never really resonated with me.
Hey, we’re all entitled to our opinions. But to me, the lack of passion actually seemed like it might be an advantage: Since I didn’t crave an E30 like some fanboy, I could be objective.
I saw the ad for the car on Craigslist. It simply said “5-speed, 140,000 miles, very nice, asking $4,595.” The photos appeared to show a pretty, shiny car. Unfortunately, it wasn’t exactly around the corner, or even close enough to take a quick drive for a quick look; instead, it was up in Ryegate, Vermont, about three hours north of me in Newton, which was far enough that I wanted some assurance that it wouldn’t be one of those trips where 30 seconds after getting out of my car, I’d get back in and mutter to myself, “Well that was a complete waste of time.”
When I spoke with the seller, though, he said that he was a professional mechanic, it was his wife’s car, they’d owned and garaged it for seventeen years, and it was about as rust-free and original as you were likely to find an E30 in New England. Further, he said he’d be glad to put the car on a lift for me so I could have a thorough look under it.
For something like this, you want to go prepared to sign paperwork, hand over cash, and load the car on a trailer—at least I do. I still had my Suburban, so I stopped at the bank, withdrew money, went to U-Haul, plunked down my $59.95 to rent an auto transporter, and headed north.
When I arrived and saw the E30, my reaction was anything but “That was a complete waste of time.” It was more like, “Holy crap, I’m surprised someone else didn’t beat me to it.” The car a lovely intact big-bumpered 325iS, the paint shiny except on the mirrors. It boasted a well-cared-for interior—no dashboard cracks or foam hanging out of the seats, just a bit of seat patina. And from the amount of ankle it was showing above the tires, it was likely still sitting on its original suspension.
True to the seller’s word, he put it on the lift, and the only rust I found was a little bit around the sunroof drains at the bottom of the driver’s-side front fender, and one bubble forming on the passenger-side rocker panel. I drove the car, and other than the a/c not working, I found very little wrong with it. I offered him four grand, and we shook on it.
The funny part of the story is what happened after the handshake. I asked him why he was selling the car. He said that his main passion was early 1960s American cars (he was working on the interior of a beautiful ’63 T-Bird when I arrived), he was out of garage space, and his wife wasn’t really using the E30 much anymore. But then he said something absolutely perfect in the zero-sum game of vintage cars: “Plus, I don’t really see it appreciating.”
Hyper-honest me had to bite his tongue and not blurt out, “Funny, because I do—and that’s exactly why I’m here.” I loaded it up, scarcely believing my good luck, and headed home.
Initially, the whole “investment vehicle” thing made perfect sense. There are five main reasons we work on enthusiast vehicles:
- To rejuvenate them if they’ve been sitting for years;
- To fix them when they break;
- To prepare them for a long road trip;
- To modify them for speed, handling, or personal taste; and
- To prepare them for sale.
With the car needing little, and with my aim really being nothing more than to sit on it for a few years and then sell it, I could jump straight to #5; all the car needed was some light maintenance and some odds and ends. The seller was not sure when the timing belt had last been changed, so I replaced that, as well as the water pump while I was in the neighborhood. The only iS-specific bit that was missing was the über-rare plastic brake duct on the driver’s side. I found one on Craigslist in Chicago, but the seller was firm on no shipping. I simply kept upping my offer until he was convinced that putting it in a box and going to the post office was in his net personal and financial interest, the only time I’ve ever done such a thing.
I found that the dead a/c was due to a bad compressor. I found a free one from a local guy who’d turned his E30 into a track car.
And then, true to my plan, I mainly let the car sit out in Fitchburg. The only driving it got was keep-it-exercised runs and annual inspections. I never really cycled it regularly to Newton so that I could have it as a fun weekend errand car, the way I do the other vintage cars on the Hagerty policy. After all, regular use means wear, which means repair—and those were the antithesis of my plans.
However, each time I drove the car, I warmed to it. The 167-horsepower M20 engine didn’t have the oomph that the M30 in both my 3.0CSi and my 635CSi have, but it certainly had a lot more grunt and kick than the engine in the 2002, and the M20’s wind-up, with that quiet timing-belt-driven head, is pretty silky. I began to think that I needed to sell the thing before I got too attached to it and decided to keep it.
Then, over the next two years, there were some big changes. I left the engineering job that I’d had for 32 years and began working full-time at Bentley Publishers. That gig ended abruptly in the fall of 2016. I briefly went back to geophysics, then that fell through. I entered 2017 unemployed for the first time since 1984. I resolved to give it a go as a self-employed writer, but for a few months, I was in free fall.
And then the whole “Louie” thing happened: While I was offering friendly no-dog-in-the-fight advice to a guy on Facebook who had a non-running survivor ’72 2002tii with no title, he offered me the car for a price I couldn’t refuse. I accepted, and the whole Ran When Parked adventure with the car unfolded.
Still, freshly unemployed, and owning eleven cars, it was clear that something—maybe multiple somethings—had to go, and it was pretty obvious which “something” was at the head of the queue: the E30. I mean, really, why would I even consider selling any of the others first? This was the one I’d bought to sit on and sell. I’d sat on it; now it was time to get on with the selling part.
I did some research, then floated the E30 on my Facebook page with an asking price of eight grand. The responses ranged from, “Dude, crack-pipe price” to “You might get that in a few months, but not today” to one very specific comment that I could probably get it if the interior popped like the exterior—specifically, if the seats didn’t wear their 140,000 miles on their bolsters.
I replaced the foam and the bolster leather and re-dyed the seats, writing about it in a series of Roundel Weekly pieces. This process was highly effective: When I put the car on eBay, I got my asking price.
At the time, the $8,000 sale raised a lot of eyebrows a là “You mean you now have to pay that to get a pretty shiny E30?” However, just six months later, the guy who bought it found an E9 he craved, and put the E30 on BaT in order to make the finances work. He got $13,000 for it (but I believe that with the money he’d spent bringing the car up to the next level, it was hardly a windfall profit for him).
In reality, I didn’t think much about it. With my unemployment, scrambling for additional writing assignments, and buying and resurrecting Louie the tii, the E30 had to go. It wasn’t anything resembling an agonizing decision. I’d bought the car for investment. I made money on it. I wasn’t an E30 guy anyway.
One funny little reminder is the fact that Louie still wears the plate that was originally on the E30, a little twelve-by-six-inch allegory of my having committed my allegiance and my resources to it. It’s still a car that I truly love.
I’ve written a lot over the years about the nature of automotive regrets. There are two kinds where I at least try to let the person experiencing the regret off the hook. The first is, “I never should’ve sold my old X.” This one’s easy to assuage: You had your old X as a daily driver. You sold it because you had to. It became too unreliable, too rusty, too small, whatever. You didn’t have an extra garage space where it could be stashed indefinitely, you didn’t have the money to “restore” the car (whatever that meant then, and whatever that means now), you didn’t have a crystal ball on the car’s future value, and even if you did, you couldn’t afford to pay for 30 years of commercial storage (do the math, you’ll feel better). So it went. You couldn’t reach adulthood and still live with all of your ex-girlfriends or boyfriends, either. Get over it. Move along.
The second is woulda-coulda-shoulda. You know, “I could’ve bought an E30 M3 for $5,800.” Yeah, well, you didn’t, and even if you did, it wouldn’t matter, because as with the logic of #1, you wouldn’t still own it now anyway.
But I’ll admit that there is a special regret that comes with selling something that’s not a daily driver but instead is already a vintage car that you pamper. If it’s already garaged, it feels like should be safe—but it’s not. For years after selling the 911SC, I did the forensics and told myself that when you sell something because you need the money, it doesn’t matter if it appreciates after the sale; if you needed the money, you needed the money. It’s not as if the Ghost Of E30s Future appearing at three in the morning, warbling at you, “I am from the fuuuuuuuture… doooooooon’t sell the E30… it will zoooooooooom up in value” will change the fact that you need the money.
However, in spite of my having bought the E30 as an investment vehicle, it had worked its way under my skin.
I still don’t get weak in the knees whenever I see an E30, but I now realize that they are a right-sized vintage BMW with styling that is very tidy and unfussy, not the details-overwhelming-the-whole that has plagued BMW since the mid-2000s. I wouldn’t say by any stretch of the imagination that I’ve been a broken, empty E30-less husk of a man ever since, wandering at dusk next to riverbanks, kicking cans and singing Jackson Browne songs.
But there is a smidgeon of… something. Don’t call it regret; call it enlightened rearward-looking sadness that comes from realizing that you had a particularly nice example of something, and you let it go. To me, the “I could’ve made X-thousands more” plaint is almost a non-issue; the enlightened rearward-looking sadness comes from the fact that I was in, I’m now out, and buying back in now, at the current price, would be difficult, and will only get more difficult as time marches on.
This week, on Facebook Marketplace, a very interesting E30 popped up: a 1987 325iS, Bronzit with a black interior, very pretty, body reportedly excellent, but with the engine pulled and dismantled for a performance rebuild that never happened. The asking price was five grand. It was just two hours south in Connecticut. It was the kind of ad for which I normally would’ve dropped everything—except for, you know, the recent head wound, the two snowstorms, the driveway full of snow, the lack of any available space either inside or outside, and the fact that I no longer own a tow vehicle. A day later, the status had changed to “Sale Pending,” as I knew it would.
I’ve got a bunch of very cool cars. Nothing to feel sorry for me about. But I wonder if I can put a filter on Facebook’s “memories” so that it doesn’t remind me when I’ve sold something. Because, really, it’s just mean.—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.