As I mentioned last week, after the surprising no-sale of Hampton, my survivor 2002, on Bring a Trailer, I had a bit of a fun surprise twist in my life. Hagerty—one of the other media outlets I write for—connected me with the video team who shoots their YouTube video series The Next Big Thing With Magnus Walker about my loaning them my M coupe and having them use it (and me) for an episode.
If you’re a car person, you’re likely already aware of Walker, but just in case you’re not, the short story is that he’s a Brit who emigrated to this country in 1986, began supporting himself by selling used clothing, turned it into a business, and bought a building in Los Angeles. The building soon doubled as a film and video-shoot location, and with the money earned from both ventures, Walker amassed a first-rate collection of vintage Porsches before air-cooled prices went nuts. He’s an immediately identifiable figure, tall and lanky, with dreadlocks, a big beard, and tats up and down his arms; the combination of his iconic appearance, his hands-on non-concours approach to his cars, his confidence, and his acumen made him the subject of the 2012 short film Urban Outlaw.
That film received a lot of attention and made Walker something of an automotive oracle, appearing on many automotive-related media channels in addition to being involved in ventures ranging from Hot Wheels cars to comic books. (As an aside, I read one of these articles that said your porn-star name is your middle name plus the model of your car, and thought that maybe if I marketed myself as “Marc Europa,” cranked my hair out to Magnus Walker levels, and grew another eight inches in height, perhaps I’d be sufficiently telegenic—but hey, we all work with what we’ve got.)
I swapped a few emails and phone calls with Matt Hardigree, the lead for the video shoot. He was interested in using not only the M coupe (aka “the clown shoe,”) but also one of my other vintage BMWs. The idea was that they’d shoot a 2002 with the voiceover, “This is already an acknowledged classic, but maybe the next big thing is… this!” and reveal the M coupe. I said that this idea was fine, and that I had three 02s of varying levels of patina to choose from—but might they also be interested in a red E9 3.0CSi that looks electric when the sun hits it?
Not surprisingly, Hardigree jumped at the offer.
Hardigree also asked me about potential locations for both an in-Boston shoot and a spirited drive. I advised that the must-video shot in Boston is driving east on Memorial Drive and looking over the Charles River toward Beacon Hill and the Boston skyline.
As far as corner-carving, I said that there might be closer locations, but the one I knew well was my old accelerator-stomping grounds on the way out to Amherst, taking Route 2 to Route 202 and then turning off onto the heavily-switchbacked “Shutesbury Chute.” I mentioned that in addition to 202’s wonderful rhythm of banked corners and straightaways, I didn’t ever recall seeing a speed trap on it.
Pretty soon, plans were in place. Walker would fly out from Los Angeles. An advance crew would come to my house on Sunday, May 2, and get some shots of me in my garage as well as still footage of both the E9 and the M coupe, then Walker and the full crew would descend early on Monday. He would drive the E9 into Boston, followed by a camera van and me in the M coupe; we’d do the in-town shooting, head back to my garage, shoot the obligatory Urban-Outlaw-Meets-Hack-Mechanic video segment, and swap a few stories, then hop in the clown shoe and head for the hills.
It did occur to me that my insurance policy with Hagerty requires me not to be daily-driving my cars, meaning not commuting to work in them—that is, keeping them out of rush-hour traffic, which statistically is when cars are most likely to get whacked. Yet here I was, planning on taking not just one but two of my Hagerty cars (and one of them, the E9, the most valuable car on my policy) into the churning maw of Boston traffic. But since Hagerty’s director of media, Larry Webster himself, was the one who asked me, and since I wasn’t getting paid for it (e.g., it wasn’t being used as part of a commercial venture that might violate the policy), I figured that I had a good justification if either of the cars got rear-ended. (Spoiler alert: There’s no foreshadowing here. Nothing went wrong.)
Now, both the E9 and the M coupe had been sitting in my friend Mike’s Garage Mahal for nearly six months, part of the quid pro quo of my having sold his ’73 tii for him on Bring a Trailer last year in exchange for two over-winter garage spaces. It was an appropriate time for them to leave, so back home they came, which, as I wrote last week, turbocharged the space problem at my house.
I am, however, keenly aware that it is a happy problem to have. And if last week was about to showcase the problem, this one was about to showcase the happy.
I can’t say that I detailed either car, but the M coupe’s headlights were embarrassingly hazed, so I took an hour and broke open a 3M headlight-restoration kit I’d bought six years ago for it. I then replaced the missing BMW emblems on the car’s front wheels. The car has had a cracked right taillight for nearly ten years; I keep meaning to replace it, but they’re unique to the M coupe, used ones are rare, and I’ve never wanted to pony up for a new one, so I let it go. I hand-washed and vacuumed both cars, cleaned the wheels as best I could, and called it good enough.
Sunday afternoon, when the video crew came, I pulled both the E9 and the shoe out of the garage for the crew to do some stationary shooting. Then we headed into my garage for them to shoot some B-roll of me supposedly doing my hack-mechanic thing. They said, “Just act natural and do what you’d normally do in your garage,” but I felt oddly self-conscious. (The night before, I’d replaced the right-side inertia-reel belt in the E9, giving the passenger a fully adjustable seat belt for the first time in the 37 years I’ve owned the car. Clearly I should’ve waited until I was on camera.)
I awkwardly shuffled around, put away some tools, pointed out a few things under the hood of the tii, and then said, “How about if I raise the Lotus up on the mid-rise lift that it’s sitting on?” They were very happy with that, since the car is so low that the visual of it elevating makes it look like a flying saucer taking off, or at least Luke Skywalker’s X-34 Landspeeder.
Per the plan, at about 7:00 a.m. Monday morning, a rented cranberry-colored Chevrolet pulled up at my house in Newton, Massachusetts, and out stepped Magnus Walker his bad self, looking just as badass and iconic as he does in his videos, speaking in that great British baritone voice, offering big handshakes and handing out his Urban Outlaw Hot Wheels cars to me and the video crew. I suppose that I might have thrown together a few leaky tii fuel pumps and destroyed giubos I could’ve distributed as party favors, but hey, I just wasn’t thinking ahead.
The video crew readied the cars, which included instrumenting a rented SUV with a hacked drone suction-cupped to the right headlight, looking something like a Borg implant (they explained that this was the most cost-effective way to get a high-quality camera with the drone’s adjustability and gimbaling), outfitting the E9 with cameras outside and in, and giving Walker a mic pack so he could narrate. I gave him a few pointers on driving the E9—which consisted mainly of showing him that the directional stalk was on the right—and off we headed toward Boston.
The drive into Boston along Memorial Drive overlooking the Charles was flawless. The traffic was light enough to allow the camera-instrumented SUV to do its thing and pull around the E9 as necessary and catch multiple views. We circled back and did a second pass just to be sure, and when we did, we even caught the trademark view of sculling boats in the Charles River.
Then the crew wanted to get footage of both cars in front of some classic Boston real estate, like the brownstones on Beacon Street, so we headed into downtown Boston itself. I was parked in the clown shoe as Magnus did multiple loops around one neighborhood in my E9. The car attracted a lot of attention, and Walker was recognized more than once, with people complimenting him on the car. I would’ve paid real money to hear him say, Austin Powers-like, “Honestly, it’s not mine.”
The reveal shot, which will be central to the video when it airs, was done on a section of Commonwealth Avenue at a stretch of permit-only parking spaces where a tow truck (not affiliated with us!) was hauling away illegally parked cars. In fact, the tow- truck driver was accommodating enough to wait just out of camera range for us to finish our shot before he began dragging off the next car.
While we were waiting for the video crew to set up the reveal shot, I asked Walker how he liked the E9. “Beautiful car, man,” he said. “Runs great, no hesitation. And it’s surprisingly quiet and rattle-free.”
That was obviously extremely satisfying. “It’s nice to know that my 37 years of working on it have had some effect,” I joked.
Then he said, “The steering, though, is a little vague and wander-y.” He was spot-on. It’s a problem I’ve never solved.
When the in-town shoot was done, we headed back to my garage, where, on camera, I pretended to meet Walker for the first time. We had a fun conversation, some of which will hopefully make it into the video. He saw my brown ’74 Lotus Europa Twin Cam Special and said, “I used to have a Europa TCS, and it was exactly the same color.” He pulled out his phone, flipped through the photos, and held up the one of his car, right in front of my car: completely unscripted, and very satisfying. Then we talked Lotus for a bit, with him noting that the roof line of the Europa is only 42 inches off the ground. “Like a GT42,” he said, referring to the early role Lotus played in the styling of what became the Ford GT40, where the “40” is the roof height. Guy knows his stuff.
The part that was scripted was that I’d already told Hardigree, the video manager, the story about my ownership of the M coupe overlapping with that of my beloved ’82 Porsche 911SC. I recounted how the industrial building I worked in closed, I lost the free storage space I had there—and thought I was going to lose my job—had to shed four cars, and had to choose between the Porsche and the M coupe. I described how I loved the 911SC, but in terms of the era of its technology and the overall feel of the car, it wasn’t really that dissimilar from my 1970s-era BMWs, whereas the clown shoe was three generations newer and completely unlike anything else I owned. That resulted in my selling the Porsche at what turned out to be the worst possible moment, right before the run-up in valve of anything air-cooled. I’d already said to Hardigree that if Walker then shouted at me, “Ya daft wanker!” it would make my entire day, but sadly it was not to be. Oh, well. A man can dream.
We then saddled up the shoe, and with the video crew in several support vehicles, headed west. As was the case while we were in Boston, we had walkie-talkies, and took direction from Hardigree, who’d occasionally radio things like, “Okay, we’re going to pass you slowly on your left; slow down, hold that speed… good… now nail it.” We stopped once for lunch, and again to strap cameras on the car once we were on Route 202.
At the beginning of this piece, I poked some fun at Walker’s outsized “outlaw” appearance, but let me just clearly say that he’s a great guy. Once we were alone in the M coupe, or at a picnic table eating lunch, it was just two car guys having conversations about cars—plus a wide range of other subjects, and we occasionally needed to remind each other that we were instrumented with microphones and GoPros and were supposed to be talking about the M coupe and soft-balling questions like, “So, Rob, what do you love about this car?”
Although I’m not an entrepreneur, we appear to have a core commonality: We’re both in it for the passion. I was surprised to learn that he doesn’t build cars or do restomods for people the way that, say, Singer does. “Yeah,” he said, “people think I do that, but I really don’t. I don’t want to be a slave to someone else’s whims or work under someone else’s schedule.” I nodded and told him about the five chapters in my first book with the titles “Why I Don’t Work On Other People’s Cars, Parts I Through V.”
As we headed out Route 2, with the car’s interior GoPros and mics rolling, I spooled out the M coupe’s story. I explained how it’s a Z3—which was purpose-built in the BMW plant in Spartanburg as a roadster, so the stiffening was designed in, rather than it being a sedan or a coupe with the top lopped off that they then tried to stiffen after the fact—and that then, in a skunk-works project by part of the Z3 team, the roadster had a hatchback grafted onto it, which increased the stiffening of an already stiff chassis. I explained how, like the Z3, the M coupe inherited the basic E36 3 Series chassis design, except that instead of having the E36’s multilink rear end, it has the E30 trailing-arm rear suspension, so it doesn’t self-correct the way a multilink rear end does if you smoke into a corner too hot.
I talked about how the M Coupes were made for only four years, but how they come in two flavors: the 1999 and 2000 cars like mine with the 240-horsepower S52 engine from the E36 M3 and the 2001 and 2002 cars with the a 315-horsepower version of the S54 engine from the E46 M3. I explained that there’s a third variant: the Z3 coupe that has the same hatchback and fender flares, but lacks the fat-looking staggered dished rear wheels and has the non-M 3.0-liter M54 engine from the 330i.
Finally, I explained that the styling was polarizing, and the car didn’t sell well, and recounted the U.S.-spec production numbers: 2,180 S52 cars, only 678 S54 cars (for a total of only 2,858 U.S.-spec M coupes), and 2,071 non-M Z3 coupes.
All of this is second nature to me, as it is to many BMW people (although I got the Z3 coupe’s horsepower wrong, and forgot that the coupe actually has its own E36/8 designation), but Walker teased me a bit about the reliance BMW people have on chassis codes. I offered that, yeah, it can sound arcane, but it is the best way to understand the M coupe. When the video airs, you might hear him refer to “Gen 1 and Gen 2” versions of the car (S52 and S54), although I tried to correct him, saying that it was mostly an engine change and wasn’t also accompanied by an external facelift.
I had planned a similar complete response to the question about common problems—the issue of the differential-support bracket cracking, the need to practically disassemble the interior in the back of the car to access the rear shock towers in order to replace the rear shocks, the issue of plastic in the cooling system that plagues every modern BMW—but a canned request to summarize it never came, so instead it came out in dribs and drabs. I mentioned that the doors and windows are unique to the coupe and include a problematic design in which the window seal curls over the top of the frameless window and the window automatically retracts slightly when you lift the handle; that the glovebox and behind-the-seats storage bins are notoriously creaky; and that the S52 cars, although lower-powered, have maintenance-free hydraulic lifters, thus lacking the need for shimmed valve adjustment of their bigger S54-engined brothers. I think I also mentioned the S54 rod-bearing issue.
Once we were on Route 202, the epicenter of my misspent automotive youth, we did what we were supposed to do, which was to wind out the M coupe in the alternating sweeping banked curves and straightaways. I warned Walker that the car had embarrassingly old tires on it, but he didn’t seem too concerned, and drove the car about like I would’ve—maybe a little harder, although he never frightened me, for which I was grateful (my idea of hell is being in a passenger when someone is thrashing a car).
I commented that my need for speed isn’t what it once was, and said that my S52-equipped car was as quick as I needed a car to be—but Walker was a bit disappointed in the car’s overall performance. I reiterated that this was an S52 car, and said that while I thought the zero-to-60 numbers of the S52 and S54 cars were pretty close, the S54 cars certainly have a ferociousness that the S52 cars don’t.
But the thing that Walker picked on the most was what he felt was a surprising amount of body lean, which surprised me. I said that the car has Bilstein HDs all around, with stock springs and sway bars, and it feels very stiff and flat to me. But I added that I mainly tool around in 1970s-era BMWs, and I could understand how, coming from his perspective of stiff Porsches, it could feel different to the two of us.
As we wound the car around more curves, he mentioned the body roll again. Then a third time. Near the end of the drive, he soft-balled, “So, Rob, other than the old tires, is there anything you’d change about this car?”
I couldn’t resist. “Well,” I said, “obviously I’d replace the springs and sway bars so that if you ever need to borrow the car again, you’d stop complaining about body roll.”
Part of a shoot like this is that you can’t check off a scene being complete without being certain that you’ve got the necessary video and audio, so after each scripted shot, the video crew would swarm over the car and check the cameras and the mic packs. After one of the hot runs, it was discovered that Walker’s mic wasn’t recording consistently, so we were told that we needed to do it again. We wound the car back up to speed when we heard a crackle over the walkie talkie, but couldn’t make out what they were saying. We were moving at a pretty good clip when we saw a police cruiser pass us in the opposite direction (which obviously was what the crew was trying to tell us).
I looked behind me and saw the cruiser hit the brakes and turn on his lightbar. “Damn!” I said. “We’re busted. He’s going to ticket us. I’d recommend stopping right here at this pull-off.” We pulled over and waited.
About twenty seconds later, the cruiser pulled up behind us, lights a-blazing. We rolled down the window, he asked for license and registration (Walker’s and mine, respectively), and we complied. “Do you know why I stopped you?” the officer asked.
“No, I’m not sure,” said Walker.
The officer began “Okay, you were going—” then stifled a laugh at Walker’s saying that he didn’t know why we were being stopped. “You were already pulled over when I came to stop you!”
“We saw your flashing lights,” said Magnus (which was absolutely true).
“All right,” said the officer. He then told us the speed that he tracked us at, and let’s just say that it was a lower-than-expected number that made Walker and me do a silent little, “Oh, thank god.”
Still, we didn’t know if we’d get ticketed. After all, we were sitting in a car that, with cameras suction-cupped to the exterior, certainly appeared like both we and it were looking for trouble. The officer asked a vague “So, you’re just seeing what the car will do?” question and Walker gave an equally vague “Yeah, essentially” answer, while explaining that he was only there for the day.
The officer then went back to his cruiser while we awaited our speed-related fate.
Finally the officer walked back and rendered his verdict: verbal warning. No ticket. The Automotive Powers That Be were apparently smiling on us—either that or Gandalf had done his “These are not the droids you’re looking for” thing. Wait. Sorry. Wrong wizard-like movie character. (Actually, while we were booting the car, I kept waiting for Walker to try to head across a double-yellow line so I could shout “NONE! SHALL! PASS!” I’m sorry. I’m a bad person.)
We then rendezvoused with the rest of the crew who were pulled off to the side of a small road off Route 202. While we were taking a break, I experienced my second-favorite part of the trip, which was hearing Walker’s rant on fish and chips, particularly those costing $26 at a certain food truck in LA.
As we were deciding our next move, two police cars cruised slowly past us. When we ventured back onto 202, we saw two more. It appeared that the word was out on the little silver BMW with the cameras, the fat planted rear end, and the two hairy occupants. The high-speed portion of our shoot was officially over.
We headed from there up the hill to the famed Shutesbury Chute, and saw police cars there as well. I advised the crew that whatever they wanted to do on the switchbacks should probably be relatively tame. Hardigree said that they mainly wanted to position a couple of stationary cameras down low on the curves, and that the car’s raw speed wasn’t really a factor in getting the shots. Walker ran the Chute about six times, and came back grinning, saying that he very much enjoyed the fresh pavement.
Since I not only went to school in Amherst but my family also lived there for ten years, I’d driven these roads hundreds of times going back and forth to Boston over the decades, but I’d never seen law-enforcement presence this thick. I mentioned it on Facebook, and some folks I know who live in the area said that it’s not at all uncommon, and that we were incredibly lucky.
But the other nice thing was that despite all my time over the decades on these roads, I’d never actually stopped in tiny Shutesbury Center at the top of the hill before the Chute. The white community church and the little library were lovely places to spend an hour while Walker and the crew did the Shute and then shot a wrap-up.
I fear that my non-fire-breathing S52 car may not have been the best representative clown-shoe example, because Walker said in the wrap-up, if I recall his words accurately, that the car’s “sporting character” didn’t quite measure up for him—but still, he declared it a “modern classic” and deserving of “the next big thing” label.
And that was it—except for one selfie request from yours truly. The car had been moved in front of the library, which for reasons unknown had a “Thank You” sign on the front. I said to Walker, “I’m sorry, but I need to ask you to do this one last silly thing with me.” We stood in front of the M coupe, back to back, and did the James Bond finger-gun pose. I can’t even say why I thought of it. All the members of the video crew had already put away their cameras, so I handed my phone to one of them.
We all agreed that the “Thank You” sign seemed to perfectly sum up the day, with Walker and the crew thanking me for loaning them my cars, myself, and my time, and me thanking them for such a hoot.
So that’s it: my dream date with Magnus Walker. Fun times. Great guy. He actually is as cool as he seems.
Body roll, my ass.—Rob Siegel
[The M coupe episode of Hagerty’s The Next Big Thing With Magnus Walker should air sometime between July and September.]
Rob’s upcoming book, The Best Of The Hack Mechanic: 35 years of hacks, kluges, and assorted automotive mayhem from Roundel magazine, will be out in the spring. His seven other books are all available on Amazon, and signed copies can be ordered directly from Rob here.