I’m going to need your help on this one, so get your keyboard ninja fingers ready for comments at the end here: Are you an old-school or new-school BMW fan? I’m going to spoil my own punch line and say that I think more of us are both than even we might know—just as you can like both Whataburger and In-N-Out, Red Bull and Monster, skiing and snowboarding, or dogs and cats.
I’ve felt this way for a while now (not about Whataburger—let’s not get carried away), but at a recent SoCal BMW meet hosted by Vorsteiner, I saw it really resonate. Vorsteiner might be known for its wheels and modifications intended for more modern cars—in fact, one E9 owner joked that before arriving, he’d have to put 22s on his car. Rather than only inviting newer cars or segmenting cars by era and presumed fanbase, however, the meet brought everyone together. You could see attendees both young and old amazed by cars that they might not usually see: older car fans enjoying seeing a G82 M4 up close more than they might have initially imagined, or F30 owners taking in an 02 or an E9, or everyone loving the spontaneous E30 roll-in.
Event producer Verone Pangilinan and Vorsteiner Founder and CEO Peter Nam anticipated this dynamic as it unfolded. “Peter and I wanted to come up with an event that celebrates the brand, bringing classic and new models and their owners and fans together,” Pangilinan says. “We knew Vorsteiner as the host would attract a lot of great energy, especially from new-car owners and builds. But it was amazing to see the classics and BMWs of every era, too. The intrigue and respect new-car owners had for these older cars, and the interest older car owners had for the newer cars, was refreshing to see.”
Nam not only saw the same, but he brought the same; his E30 M3 was parked just outside the entrance while his G80 M3 had a spot inside. “I’ve always been a BMW fan, so when the opportunity came up to get the E30 M3, I had to take it,” Nam explains. “With its racing history and design that still withstands the test of time, it’s the most iconic BMW M car. The G80 is more an everyday-capable car with its modern technology and size. I see the E30 M3 as more of a special-occasion car, as it lacks the modern creature comforts of the G80—but it sure is more engaging and exciting to drive! It’s pure analog.”
Not surprisingly, Vorsteiner parts could be spotted on both of his cars. The wheels on the E30 M3 are custom forged Vorsteiner items, but the GT3-style carbon-fiber front-end treatments on the G80 will probably be showing up on a lot of G8X models in the near future.
He didn’t do it for this column, but when I saw Kenneth Sutton’s M4 GTS parked next to his E30 M3 farther down the line, I knew I had to get his input. Sutton has been a BMW technician for twenty years, first for a BMW dealership and then at Funfzehn Auto, the shop he opened in Orange, California. He knows how to repair them and he definitely knows how to drive them, too.
“To me, there’s probably a time and a place for each—or any—car. I’ve been a BMW fan for decades so as soon as I could, I bought the E30 M3,” Sutton explains. “I see that sort of as the godfather of BMWs and almost all sports cars. Then a few years later, I got the M4 GTS, too. So now we have a car that produces more than double the horsepower of the E30 M3. It sort of becomes today’s E30 M3, which might be more visceral to drive but the GTS is an entirely different experience—and both are fantastic.”
A perfect testament to the benefits of keeping an open mind about current models is that the E30 M3 was actually not a commercial success. They piled up on dealer lots to such a degree that the E36 M3 almost didn’t make it to these shores. One man who knows that story and much more is Erik Wensberg, long-time BMW NA Motorsport manger, and the first BMW NA brand manager for BMW M.
“BMWs are still very much BMWs,” Wensberg begins. “People have to remember that the market is constantly changing, especially so in the past ten years where it has been changing rather dramatically. It’s not just the world we live in, but the competitive market in which BMW does business that determines what technology and engineering finesse are brought to bear on each new product design, attempting to compete at a given price, against a now hyper dynamic and capable competitive landscape, within more than 100 markets round the world!”
“This is not easy—it never was—but now it is ever so much more challenging. So when you start comparing past and present, we have to keep in mind the issues—both limitations and opportunities—of the times, including the available technology, the regulatory climate, and the competitive landscape that led to these products in the first place. With that as the backdrop, the achievements of this brand, time and time again mind you, become all the more noteworthy. Maybe not always achieving perfection (which is really not possible anyway), but creating products at a price that are very competent, very focused on their mission, and pretty damn engaging to live with. What more can you really ask?”
I suppose I could ask for the man passively responsible for my owning my Estoril Blue example to expound a bit further. “Technology is a wonderful thing, and has brought a lot to the automotive industry,” Wensberg continues. “Electric cars have amazed people with their ability to out-accelerate combustion engine cars very quickly now, and this will continue to change the landscape going forward. Bottom line is all these cars—old and new—were conceived at a given point in time with the bag of tools that technology has allowed them to work with, and most of them were home runs that we are proud to own for a very long time.”
There were plenty of E36s at the Vorsteiner meet, but one example in particular stood out. It was Jon Sibal’s E36, which hadn’t been out to a meet or seen in public since approximately 2007. Considered by Motor Trend to be, “one of the best E36 builds in history,” I was intrigued to get Sibal’s input not just because he is one of the foremost automotive artists in the industry, and not just because he’s extremely cool (also undisputed), but because this BMW CCA member’s daily driver is a 2020 330i.
“Whatever they did to the G series, it feels like a huge improvement. It’s like night and day difference,” Sibal says. And while his extremely modified E36 and his widebody Porsche 964 continue to draw attention even when not seen or heard, his daily drivers have long remained the current BMW models.
“One of main reasons I’m a part of BMW CCA is the incentive rebate to lease [or purchase] a new car,” Sibal continues. “Every time the lease comes up, we just get the rebate and get the newer series. Whatever they did internally in this model feels like a big leap forward, but as a designer, my eye is always on the styling. I appreciate the natural progression of what the designers do to consider the older design cues and bring them into the modern examples. The connection makes it clear it wasn’t a random design. There is purpose and reason behind each line, each curve. The more evident the connections with their past models to the new models are creates a stronger connection and appreciation with the consumer and driver. Yet people generally don’t like change, which can take big adjustments, but we will get used to the new models.”
While people were admiring those new models, they were definitely intrigued (or perhaps simply amazed) by the oldest BMW in the U.S., the 1930 3/15 DA2 Cabriolet (which I wrote about in greater detail here). This exact car had spent time at The Ultimate Driving Museum’s “Genesis” exhibit, so I decided to check in with the BMW CCA Foundation’s Curator of Collections Michael Mitchell and get his take on old school and new school cars. Mitchell has presided over five exhibits of some of the most amazing cars, covering almost all BMW has created, and is currently prepping an exhibit sure to up the game even more—The Power of M: Celebrating 50 years—an exhibit you’re going to want to see.“In my job at The Ultimate Driving Museum, I have had the pleasure to drive many wonderful BMWs. My oldest was probably the 315/1 Roadster or the 328 Roadster and the newest was probably the new M8 Coupe. Granted, most of these cars might just be driven on the museum property, but I’ve been able to drive some on the road or at the Performance Center. They all have something to offer and it’s clear to see why they were built.” Fortunately for Mitchell, turning out the lights each night at The Ultimate Driving Museum isn’t always the end of his daily dose of BMW. He’s owned a beautiful 325iS since 2007. “I love the E30. It’s no wonder I fell in love with this one more than fifteen years ago when I went to see it. It’s always fun to drive. The new cars have their strengths, too, and I bet we’ll be appreciating those for many years, too.”
That recognition is not unique to veteran BMW fans. While Samantha Tan races the latest in BMW technology, she has always had a place in her heart for older cars, too. “I’ve been a BMW fan all my life!” Tan exclaims. “Some of my earliest and fondest memories were of my dad taking me to school in his E36 M3, which ultimately led to me owning the 1M I have today. I wholeheartedly attribute my obsession with BMWs to the experiences I had in those two cars. My “older school” and middle-school era BMWs are complemented each weekend when I race the latest from BMW—currently the M4 GT3.”
Tan, a professional racing car driver and team owner of Samantha Tan Racing, became the first Asian woman to win a major endurance championship in 2021. She and her co-drivers got plenty of seat time—often 24 hours at a time. “Each time I get behind the wheel of any BMW, it never fails to bring back that child-like excitement and thrill,” Tan continues. “I don’t know if when I rode in the E36 that I or anyone knew the kind of passion it would still stir today. I anticipate we’ll see something similar with today’s modern cars years from now, too.”
Like Tan, many of us can attribute our automotive enthusiasm to our parents. “My dad always had a wide variety of sports cars and was definitely the inspiration for my enthusiasm,” BMW CCA M Chapter President Esteban Valentin recalls. Now, Valentin’s collection spans from 1974 to 2019. “My cars definitely cover a wide range of BMW technology, including horsepower ranges from 130 to 530-plus.”His collection includes a 1974 2002tii, a 1987 325iS, a 2004 E46 M3, a 2011 135i, and a modified 2019 M2 Competition. “I love the simplicity of the older cars,” he continues. “No nannies, no gimmicks, just raw, unfiltered fun. The 2002 and E30 are super fun to drive and not much electronics intervention. These cars are fun to drive on their edge. Step into a newer car like the M2C and it’s raw brute power but with enough nannies to not let you get in trouble. Being able to experience both feelings of a fun, simple car and also a complex, high tech machine provides an amazing contrast and shows how far BMW M has come in the last 50 years. There isn’t really a wrong answer.”
Even as polarizing as newer models tend to be, when we dive into it, enthusiasm tends to reign supreme. Fortunately in the BMW realm, that enthusiasm is deep and broad, and will certainly continue for some time.—Kyle van Hoften
[Photos courtesy Kyle van Hoften unless otherwise noted.]