BMW E36 M3

The turning of the aspen leaves in September and early October makes those some of the best months of the year in Colorado. The window of shimmering yellow and orange leaves is short, usually moving from the north to south and from the higher to lower terrain as the season progresses. It’s a great excuse to take a fun car out for a rip, and peep some aspens along the way.

There was, however, one small problem: Somehow, I didn’t have a BMW to drive.

Since I reluctantly sold my 2002 E46 325xi sport wagon last month, the M coupe would be the next obvious choice, but it’s undergoing a transition from track duty back to street use (the new M coupe race car will take up the track role). The 1982 Porsche 911SC would be the next-best option, but it wears its engine at the wrong end, and heralds from the incorrect region of the Fatherland.

That left only the bush plane—but perhaps all was not lost….

My resident photographer Peter Thompson’s 1997 M3/4/5 would make a great leaf-hunting tool.

As I wandered around the hangar pondering my options, I stopped at a 1997 BMW M3 sedan. The M3/4/5 (M3, four-door, five-speed gearbox) belongs to my photographer, Peter Thompson, and that sparked an idea. For years, I had owned a similar Alpine White M3; perhaps a mission was in order. Thompson and I would each take a half day and head into the mountains for some aspen pictures; I would fly the bush plane, and Thompson would hunt yellow leaves in his M3. We’d go early in the morning and have a range of roughly two hours out and two hours back. Whoever got the best aspen shot with their vehicle would win.

“Win what?” asked Thompson.

“I’m not sure,” I said, “let’s just get to it!”  And off we went.

The open tundra of South Park shows aspen groves at the base of Mount Silverheels.

We continue the hunt, climbing out of South Park.

It being late in the season, Thompson headed south to find aspens still in peak color. His route took him south of the I-70 corridor—a traffic slugfest on a weekday morning—to Highway 285 into South Park, a vast expanse of high-altitude tundra east of the upper Arkansas River basin. The gateway to South Park is Kenosha Pass, a small saddle riddled with aspens (and crowded with aspen-peepers); but having no accessible roads for a lowered E36 M3 to nab a shot on, Thompson pressed on. He dropped into South Park, then headed northwest, climbing Hoosier Pass toward Breckenridge.

The 1995 Aviat Husky A-1 is an evolution of a basic steel-tube-and-fabric airplane design that dates to the early twentieth century.

A carbon-fiber prop and Alaska bush wheels add significant capability.

Meanwhile, I took off from the newly named Runway 34 at Erie Airport. Runway names are based on magnetic heading, and as our planet’s lines of magnetic flux shift, sometimes they need to be renamed accordingly.

I settled into a cruise climb to 12,500 feet, a safe altitude to cross the Continental Divide on the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, just south of the Indian Peaks area. The 1995 Aviat A-1 Husky is made of steel tubing and fabric based on the Piper Super Cub, technology that hasn’t changed much in nearly a century. Mine is updated with a carbon-fiber constant-speed propeller and 29-inch Alaska bush wheels for off-airport operations.

Small plane, big mountains.

Flying a small bush plane in the tall Colorado mountains is akin to paddling a kayak in the open ocean; a healthy respect for the environment is essential to stay alive. Nearing the divide, I found a nice thermal, which I dipped a wing into for a few turns of “free lift” before punching over the pass. Even at 12,500 feet, I was well below the taller peaks, and only a few hundred feet over the saddle below me.

An E36 M3, fresh asphalt, yellow aspens, and no people is bliss!

As Thompson climbed Hoosier pass, he caught a glimpse of yellow out of the passenger window and flipped a quick U-turn. After a gateway of pine trees sheltering the aspen grove from the road (and from leaf-peepers), there it was: a yellow-brick road of freshly paved asphalt lined with golden aspen trees. The road led to a trailhead at the base of Mount Silverheels, which towered like the Emerald City in the distance. Thompson pointed the M3 north and put his foot in it.

The E36 M3 is a proper driver’s car, and this M3 has four doors.

Thompson’s E36 M3 sedan is nearly 25 years old, but is still one of the best BMWs ever made. The E36 was a dramatic departure from the three-box design language of the generations that preceded it, and one of first BMWs designed by computer-aided tools and software. Viewed through the lens of the present, the E36’s timing was impeccable, arriving at a sweet spot of BMW evolution in which power, weight, complexity, and driving dynamics all intersected. There are few greater joys than tossing a sorted E36 through an empty winding road, dancing on the throttle, and sawing at the wheel while using the exhaust note to gauge your inputs.

As the aspens flew by, my voice echoed in Thompson’s head: “Remember the mission: photos of the aspens.” I’m sure his mental reply was less than obligatory, as this road was too good to not enjoy.

There will be time for pictures later!

Even from 12,500 feet, I could taste the rainbow!

A few mountain ranges to the north, and safely over the divide, I was headed west and making good time. The colors of the aspens below were so vivid that I could almost taste the rainbow, but adhering to our self-imposed two-hour leash, I had a trick up my sleeve: Nestled in a narrow moraine valley in a dead-end canyon on the western slope of the Colorado Rockies is a small town called Marble, named for a large vein of marble in the aptly named Treasure Mountain just east of town. Colossal Stonehenge-size squares of marble litter the aspen groves around town, making for an enchanted experience of white stone and yellow leaves.

The Crystal River airstrip is one of the highest (in terms of elevation) and most consequential back-country strips in the Lower 48 states, but if the local conditions in the valley are respected, it can be very accommodating. I flew two race-track patterns over the airstrip at peak level, several thousand feet above, to feel how heavy the valley was “breathing” before descending to land. If I did hit sinking air that I couldn’t climb out of, the best escape would be to speed up and fly down-valley toward lower terrain.

The air was dynamic, but nothing that the Husky couldn’t handle, so I pulled the power and down I went. There was actually quite a bit of lift close to the valley floor, so instead of flying a straight-in final, I followed the bends of the Crystal River and forward-slipped (flying crossways) the last hundred feet to make it down on the strip. A cloud of dust swirled in my wingtip vortices behind me as the big wheels rolled onto the grass and I stuck the tail wheel down—there is always something magical about landing an airplane on grass.

Loveland Pass on Thompson’s return trip.

Meanwhile, after a few glorious miles, Thompson’s virgin asphalt gave way to dirt as the road climbed out of the aspens and eventually above the tree line onto the shoulder of the mountain. He pulled off at a trailhead to nab a few shots and complete his mission. The quiet was only broken by the sound of paper-crisp dying aspen leaves flapping in the breeze, and a freshly exercised S52 engine ticking itself cool.

Fortunately, there was more joy to be had on the rip back down the mountain and over Loveland Pass on his circuitous route home. Loveland Pass was surprisingly devoid of traffic and offered sets of flowing turns that rolled in under the E36’s screeching tires like waves on Hawaii’s north shore.

The aspens at the airstrip were just starting to turn, but the Crystal River water lived up to its name.

I shut the Husky down under a massive pine tree and framed my shot against a small grove of aspens on the other side of the airstrip. Being a little bit farther south than Peter, the aspens at the strip were just starting to turn, with only a hint of yellow in their leaves. I suspected that Thompson had won our contest, but my consolation prize was a massive brown trout sunning itself in the clear water of the pond. I was tempted to go for a quick hike, but I could sense that the air above the valley was changing; a cold front was coming in from the northwest, and my sixth sense told me that I shouldn’t be greedy—it was time to get back in the air. I took off down-valley, hitting a few “tank-slapper” bumps on the way out, but I had made my exit in due time.

As I turned by base leg at Erie Airport, I saw the white M3 parked at the hangar. The kid is fast, I thought. Thompson had also won the shot of the day in his hidden aspen grove, but I got to go for a fly in the mountains, and seeing that big ol’ brownie was well worth the trip.

We didn’t know it yet, but the first snow in the high country was just around the corner, and with it most of the aspen leaves would fall. Next year I’ll have the M coupe ready for action. It was the car with which I began my BMW journey, and it deserves to go for a rip.—Alex McCulloch.

[Photos courtesy Peter Thompson.]

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