I’m a weird guy. Well, you already know that, but this time the context of that simple declarative statement specifically regards my car-buying habits. I may own twelve cars, but as I repeatedly and resolutely state, I’m not a collector, and my assembly of cars is not a collection. Collectors seek out and buy cars in the best possible condition, since those are the most likely to appreciate in value. Instead, while there are certainly many cars that I crave, I rarely look at, much less bid on, the pretty shiny objects on Bring a Trailer and other car-porn sites. If I did, I could probably afford to own one car, maybe two—but certainly not twelve. Instead, my modus operandi is a combination of bottom-feeding and crimes of opportunity: seeing what’s available within striking distance, both physically and financially, and pouncing on it. Hey, it’s worked well for me for nearly 40 years.
However, last week, I had two desirable cars slip through my fingers, both in very odd ways.
The first was a unique E46 3 Series wagon, or Touring, as BMW (and BMW fanatics) call it. I owned one of these about five years ago, a 325iX, an all-wheel-drive car. Even though mine was a five-speed sport-package car, I never really loved it. I don’t like all-wheel-drive BMWs, at least not any of the ones I’ve driven. I think that it makes the steering feel heavy and takes away a lot of the snap and rear-wheel-drive pleasure that has been BMW’s hallmark for decades. And the output of the car’s 184-horsepower M54B25 engine was no more than adequate; it was certainly not a car you looked forward to putting your foot into.
I’ve thought over the years about finding an E46 stick wagon with rear-wheel drive as a daily driver, but not surprisingly, I’m far from the only one wanting this combination. These are rare cars. All of the 1998–2000 323i wagons were rear-wheel drive, and 15% of them (541) had sticks, but you have to accept that the 323iT has the less-powerful 167-horsepower M52TU engine. When the 325i wagons were sold in the United States from 2001 to 2005, most of those delivered to dealer showrooms, particularly in the BMW hubs of Boston and Chicago, had all-wheel drive. The RWD-stick combo is fairly rare. Most production estimates seem to trace back to this page on the e46fanatics forum. Counting the 323iT and the pre- and post-facelifted 325iT, I’ve seen it summarized as 2,172 stick RWD E46 wagons—certainly not a large number. And the sport-package version of the 325iT is unicorn-rare; the estimate is that less than 288 of them were produced. And even if you find one, you’re still left with an engine that isn’t exactly a barn-burner.
E46 wagon fanatics address the power issue in several ways. Either the 240-horsepower S52 engine from the E36 M3 or the 330-horsepower S54 mill from the E46 M3 can be dropped in to create a tribute E46 Touring, something that BMW built one prototype of but didn’t put into production. The budget approach is to find a 225-horsepower M54B30 engine from a wrecked E46 330i or E39 530i. Finding a motor from an E46 with the ZHP package buys you another ten horsepower.
For several years I regularly searched for an E46 RWD stick wagon on SearchTempest (the nationwide Craigslist search tool), but the cars have become acknowledged collectibles, drifting up and out of my $4,000-to-$6,000 “whimable” window. Besides, my E39 530i already has rear-wheel drive, a stick, and the 230-horsepower M54B30 engine, and its split fold-down rear seats let it swallow much of the cargo that I’d theoretically stuff in the let’s-just-all-admit-it’s-a-small-E46-wagon. I suppose I could wreck my E39 as motivation to transplant its drivetrain if I find a 325iT rear-wheel-drive automatic, but that seems like an unnecessarily complicated strategy.
So it was with interest that I saw that my Virginia friend Luther Brefo had placed a detailed ad on Facebook for his 2002 RWD sport package 325iT with an M54B30 ZHP engine and the automatic swapped for a six-speed. The installation included headers, a custom tune, a refreshed suspension, roof racks, and a trailer hitch. The car came with a boatload of parts. His asking price was a reasonable $7,500.However, as I pored over the description and the photos, I found that there were downsides. Although the ZHP engine reportedly had only about 60,000 miles on it, the car had nearly 200,000 miles; the Stahlgrau (Steel Grey) paint isn’t exactly a color that enthusiasts drool over; the gray interior looked a bit shabby, with the headliner sagging in the middle and peeling off the A, B, and C-pillars; and a conversion to use the no-crankcase-ventilation-valve configuration from an M56 SULEV engine was photographed without its valve cover, with additional ground wires shown hanging out, leaving the coil packs and some sketchy wiring from the engine swap exposed. And body-wise, in addition to the dings of life, there was an area on one of the door sills where an embryonic rust blister needed to be ground off before it erupted into actual sheet-metal work. In addition, when I spoke with Brefo, I learned that as part of the header installation, the wagon’s catalytic converters had been removed. In Massachusetts, a car is supposed to have whatever emission controls were fitted when it was new. It’s not California, where inspection stations have access to a database containing details of what that equipment actually is, but if a late-model car that clearly should have cats on it rolls in at inspection time with a rumbling, throaty exhaust, and the inspector jacks it up and sees that the cats have been removed, he or she can certainly fail it.
I hesitated—as, apparently, did others.
An odd dynamic can settle in on needy newer cars. Rather than swoop in and snag what’s obviously a deal on a car that needs a little work, as one might do with a 2002 or an E9, potential buyers nitpick, measuring the car against a yardstick of perfection, adding what they think it would take to make the car meet their expectations and reducing the offer price until the sum of the two numbers is still a steal. It’s really kind of ridiculous. I watched the ad on Facebook over a couple of weeks as Brefo dropped the asking price, but he still could not seem to sell the car.
I knew that Brefo was selling the car due to life changes. We had a long phone conversation, at the end of which I said that when he reached the point that he needed to get rid of the car and no one would close the deal, I could probably make something happen for the right price. A few weeks later, he contacted me, saying that that point had come. I asked if the car was still as described in the ad, and he said that it likely needed rear wheel bearings.
I posed the question I often ask when buying a car: “What do you need to get for it?”
There are upsides and downsides to this question. The upside is that it’s a fundamentally more respectful query than the crass, “What’s the lowest you’ll take for it?” and as such, people will sometimes respond with surprisingly low numbers. But the downside is this: Baked into the respectful nature of the question is the fact that you need to live with the answer—at least I do. That is, if someone names a number I like, I accept it: boom, done, I buy the car. But if the number is too high, boom, done, I don’t.
Brefo’s number was $5,000. It was eminently reasonable, but it wasn’t quite low enough to overcome the cat issue, which stuck in my mind as the leading risk factor. I thought about it overnight, realized that if I bought the car, it was going to be treated like an enthusiast car and not a daily driver, and I reluctantly declined, feeling terrible about having led a friend on without the closure that I’d more than implied I could provide.
The next day, Brefo posted that the wagon had been involved in a deer strike. Fortunately, the damage was relatively minor: just a torn-off driver’s-side mirror, a bent transverse roof-rack spar, and a scuff on the side.We swapped messages; Brefo seemed to be resigned to just holding on to the wagon and driving the wheels off it, but later that afternoon I saw another Facebook post in which he offered the lightly-deer-damaged vehicle for a price lower than the “what do you need to get for it?” number. With that threshold broken, we re-engaged, and after a few messages, we settled on $4,250. The ZHP-powered six-speed rear-wheel drive E46 wagon was mine, at least on electronic paper, with three caveats: The first was that he’d try to find a set of cats for it and throw those and a Z3 front-bumper cover he had kicking around into the back of the wagon (yes, Zelda, my Z3 still needs one). The second was that he still needed to use the car for a few weeks, including a run from Virginia to Ohio in order to pick up stuff for his new domicile. The third was “as long as nothing else breaks.” No money or paperwork needed to change hands, as we both completely trusted each other. I began looking at airfare to Charlottesville.
As it happened, this all occurred while I was readying our little Winnebago Rialta RV for a few days on the Cape over my 63rd birthday. I spilled the beans to Maire Anne that I just had bought Brefo’s E46 wagon as my present to myself. She joked, “Well, I was going to take you out to dinner.”
Unfortunately, the next day Brefo’s streak of bad luck continued, as the wagon’s differential began making lock-release noises on the way out to Ohio. While I was at a campground in Provincetown, he messaged me: “Sorry to bring this up while you’re on vacation, but it just doesn’t make sense, Rob. With this diff event, I can’t in good conscience sell a vehicle to a friend when it literally is a paperweight in one’s driveway until a critical part is replaced. So I’m going to save you $4,250 in purchase price plus the flight or the long tow back and all the fuel, etc.” Like Elle Driver in Kill Bill, I weighed relief and regret. Boy, it was close.
But then again, to a certain extent, that means you’ve achieved bottom-feeding balance. Ideally, if passion is removed from the equation, you should be happy with either outcome. But why the hell would you ever want to remove passion from the equation when buying an enthusiast car? Isn’t it all about passion?
Before writing this, I asked Brefo what the fate of the wagon was. He answered, “It’s on an equipment trailer on a friend’s grandfather’s vacant land in Keyser, West Virginia. Final disposition is to the great beyond in the form of a part-out or repairs by a guy in Pennsylvania (I suspect part-out). He’s coming on Saturday, allegedly. I did the calculus (simple math, really; I’m not that smart), and it didn’t make sense for either of us to trek it fourteen hours to New England and then further encumber either of our existences.”
Alas, poor E46 RWD six-speed-stick wagon. I tried. Perhaps I didn’t give you my all, but I did try. Sadly, it was not to be.
I had been home from the mini-vacation for a few days when Facebook Marketplace pitched me a softball. I wasn’t even searching; it was lobbed right in my strike zone in the “Today’s Picks” section: “1999 BMW Z3 M roadster. 142,000 miles. Body in great shape. Collector car. Needs brakes, rotors, and clutch. Reduced price reflects work needed.” The photos showed an intact Imola Red M roadster that, aside from some cheesy non-stock graphics, looked pretty nice. The ad had been up for only 40 minutes. This clearly was a drop-everything-and-do-whatever’s-necessary-to-look-at-it-right-NOW car.
My reaction, however, was not to drop everything and look at it right now. I was tired. I’d just cracked a beer and was about to sit down for dinner with Maire Anne. I own an M coupe and Zelda the vanilla 1999 Z3 2.3i; I don’t need an M roadster. I’m not even sure that I want an M roadster. I don’t have anywhere to put it. What would I do, sell Zelda? I like Zelda. And to top it off, I don’t even like the zingy two-tone interiors that other folks go gaga over.
So I saved the listing but didn’t message the seller.
The next morning I woke up thinking, “You’re an idiot.” For years, I’ve written that when the Automotive Powers That Be drop things like this in front of you, it’s a test, and if you don’t respond appropriately, they say, “Well, we were going to dangle that $6,500 rust-free Series 1 E-Type five miles away in front of him, but we dropped that $5,000 M roadster right on his head and he didn’t bite, so screw him.”
I’d failed the test. My entire crime-of-opportunity-bottom-feeding future was in jeopardy. What the hell was I thinking? I called up the saved Facebook Marketplace listing, and of course, found the car listed as sold.
Then, incredibly, while I was still at the computer, it popped back up—with a $4,500 price. Saints be praised: a second chance! I shall not falter again! And what’s more, I’ve saved five hundred bucks! This time I didn’t falter. As Wile E. Coyote used to say, I am super genius!
Fingers flew as I messaged the seller. He responded almost instantly. The price drop was a mistake in the re-listing, but yes, the car was still available for $5,000. It was up in Salem, only about 45 minutes from me. I poured coffee into a travel mug, grabbed a granola bar, threw an aluminum floor jack, the travel tool box, a Tyvek suit, and a pair of gloves in the back of the M coupe, and burned north.
About five minutes before I arrived, the seller texted me, saying, “We just accepted a sight-unseen deposit on it, but you can still come look at it in case the sale falls through.” Oh, well. Might as well see what I missed, right? So I know how hard to kick myself?
I arrived and found the car parked on a crushed-stone driveway, blocked from behind by a boat. The seller explained that he and his wife were moving to South Carolina in the next few weeks. He apologized for the sell-out-from-under-me, but said that it was really difficult to be fair to the huge number of people who had responded. I completely understood, commiserating that the better a deal like this is for the buyer, the worse it can be for the seller. He rolled his eyes, signaling, “Tell me about it.”
Okay, so two-minute woulda coulda shoulda checkout. The Imola Red exterior was remarkably pretty and shiny for a $5,000 M roadster. I could see the rotors through the five-pointed-star wheels on which the clear coat was flaking; they looked like corkboard. I asked the seller how long it had been sitting. Six months. He opened up the trunk to connect the just-purchased battery. I immediately saw two big power amps, a subwoofer, and a solenoid the size of a pineapple can. He said, “Yeah, it was all there when I bought it six years ago. It’s really kind of ridiculous.”
I opened the hood and checked the coolant: no oil in it. I opened up the driver’s door and hopped in. The two-tone interior was more worn than it looked in the photo, but intact. I started the car. It fired up immediately, but displayed the Check Engine light. I asked the seller about the clutch. He said that it slipped pretty badly in third, but that the car could still be moved and driven. There was very little room between the house and the boat, but he got in, put it in gear, and rocked it back and forth. I could see where the left rear tire was digging itself into the crushed stone.
Yeah, I’d totally pay five grand for this; any red-blooded BMW fan would be an idiot not to. You can’t even buy a solid running 2002 for that these days. If it falls through, here’s my number.
It didn’t fall through. Sigh. Someone else is bragging about the $5,000 M roadster that just needs a clutch, rotors, pads, and the excision of some ridiculous graphics and sound equipment. And excised they well they should be.
So: zero for two. Were my efforts too half-hearted? Did I not show sufficient urgency? Is the flame of my passion flickering? Am I losing my touch? Or am I just getting old?
You know, surprisingly, I’m actually at peace with my responses. The real question is this: In the end, did I rescue myself and react appropriately in the eyes of the Automotive Powers That Be? Because I’d still totally drop everything for that $6,500 rust-free Series I E-Type.—Rob Siegel