BMW E34 M5

How and why do you buy your cars? Are you a new-car person or a CPO buyer? Do you turn over leases every three years? Has Craigslist been your friend—or your nemesis?

Or do you and a friend get one-way plane tickets to acquire a nearly 30-year-old car sight-unseen and drive it back almost 900 miles through the dark of night in 30-degree weather?

The sight-unseen M5 acquisition is now seen.

If you are twenty-year-old Dawson Graf and 21-year-old Sam Keys, that last one moves the accelerator pedal for your automotive adrenaline, especially when it’s the pedal of a 1993 E34 M5. In less than 24 hours, BMW CCA members Graf and Keys flew from Southern California to Portland International Airport, met the seller, transacted the sale, and drove fourteen hours straight—

To a car meet.

And that’s where I found them sleeping in the M5 at the monthly Flight Legacy Cars & Coffee meet in Tustin, California. At 6:00 a.m. I arrived early to help support the month’s BMW-themed get-together and saw one lone car already there—but no people. Upon further inspection, I discovered that were people—two people. Sleeping inside.

Who doesn’t enjoy a pre-Cars & Coffee nap?

“We arrived in Tustin at about 4:30 and then slept in the car for a couple of hours, Keys laughs. “That has to be the earliest we’ve ever arrived at a car meet! Our flight landed in Portland at noon Saturday, and the seller picked us up at around 12:30 in the M5. We did paperwork in a lot just outside of the airport, and I owned the car by 12:40. We were on the road just after that.”

Leaving Oregon meant that the guys had twelve hours of driving still to go.

I’m generally worried that my maintained (okay, somewhat maintained) cars will have a problem on the way to work. Keys and Graf made a half-day-plus drive through the night in a car only marginally blessed by a pre-purchase inspection that Keys had performed on the car. “I found it using AutoTempest; it was listed on Craigslist,” Keys says. “It’s a 1993 Jet Black with Sebring Gray two-tone. It has a black interior, heated seats, and remote locks—and a lot of clear-coat loss!”

The pair make an early pit stop on the journey home with the M5.

When you buy a car locally, you can often retreat for the night to mull over what you just saw. When you fly to another state on one-way tickets, you’re pretty well vested in the acquisition. “This M5 was represented really well, and the seller was honest, Keys explains. “He drove down from Washington in it, so we knew that it could be driven. The point of no return was buying one-way plane tickets; there wasn’t anything that was going to keep us from taking the car home.”

Just sign the papers in the parking lot and hit the road.

“On the surface, no, this decision was not necessarily a good idea, but we were well-prepared,” adds co-pilot (and perhaps lead enabler) Graf. “We checked a bag of tools and each had a change of clothes and a blanket and pillow. We didn’t plan on stopping, but were ready if we needed to.”

The two also might have been more inclined to make this journey having survived similar past experiences. “We drove out to Phoenix once to buy a 2001 540i also sight-unseen and drove that back as well,” Keys recalls. “We’ve driven out to places to tow them back, too, like with Dawson’s 1995 540i.”

No stranger to long drives in old cars, Dawson Graf rolls into Legends of the Autobahn after a seven-hour shakedown run with a Reyn Speedshop creation. (That S52-powered car’s paint is three-dimensional!)

It wasn’t just history on their side; it helps that they know how to turn a wrench or two. Graf works full-time at Reyn Speedshop, and Keys has restored his own and customers’ cars. “Fortunately, the car was mechanically sound, even if it might have photographed better than it appeared when we saw it,” Graf said.

Sacramento meant only six more hours, but more expensive gas.

Keys was equally pleased—or perhaps relieved—since it was his $14,000 that was exchanged outside the airport in Portland. “It definitely exceeded expectations, but I always assume the worst with these situations,” he explains. “We just checked all the fluids and made sure that the heater worked and everything checked out. The car performed flawlessly the entire way, even getting twenty miles per gallon. We stopped a few times, including sitting down for dinner because I have a policy that we don’t eat in my cars. We ended up using the S38 to its full potential, completing the drive in fourteen hours.”

The early arrivals at the Flight Legacy meet served as an alarm clock for Graf and Keys, parked second from the bottom behind the tree.

Once they finished their cozy two-hour post-drive nap in the pre-dawn hours ahead of the car meet, they were greeted by a barrage of enthusiastic fans surprised that the car in front of them had been in Oregon (and actually Washington, from where the seller drove) less than a full day earlier. “The event was really cool, and there was a lot of interest in the car,” says Keys. “People were really into it, which surprised me, given how it looks. Most people couldn’t believe that we just drove it straight through to the show! There was a black-on-black E39 M5 to one side of my car, and on the other was a beautiful 2003 540i M Sport six-speed in Titanium Silver over black with only 50,000 miles on it.”

Soon flanked by two other 5 Series, and close to Robert Tran’s E36 Alpina B8 Touring and Ben Miller’s Alpina E30, the new M5 was in good company.

“I constantly am looking for M5s and M3s that need help; I have a problem and can’t leave cars alone,” Keys confesses. “This car is going to be a longer-term project for me. I want to get all the necessary maintenance done first, like fluids, belts, valve adjustment, and so on. Then I’ll turn to the interior; the leather feels like cardboard, and I can’t stand that.

“This was a great experience,” he continues. “I have always wanted to fly one-way and buy a car sight-unseen and drive it back. Glad I did.”

A week after Keys and Graf drove the M5 to California, they were off to Arizona, returning with an 850i for Graf—this time on a trailer.

The journey must have gone well, because the two friends have already hit the road again. “We left again this past weekend to get a car that Dawson found in Arizona, but this time at least we’re trailering it back,” Keys added. “It’s a 1991 850i that has been sitting in a mechanic’s lot for six years. It doesn’t run—and yes, we have a problem.”

The peripatetic friends show happy expressions after surviving an epic M5 retrieval.

I’m not sure about it being a problem—isn’t admitting it half the battle?—but what Keys and Graf do have is a great memory of a bold drive to acquire a car that will certainly extend the entire experience for many more months. And regardless, Keys now has an E34 M5, and Graf now has an E31 850i to add to their respective (and very respectable) stables.—Kyle van Hoften

[Photos courtesy Kyle van Hoften, Dawson Graf, Sam Keys.]

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