T.S. Eliot famously said that April, with its expectation of rebirth and renewal, is the cruelest month. There’s something oddly analogous that occurs as we head into winter: It gives me the hope—usually false—that I can thread the needle and find another car before the snow falls and makes things a lot more difficult.
Last week, I wrote about buttoning things up after the theft of the catalytic converter from my 2008 Chevy 3500HD Duramax diesel. With that done, I had time to do something I haven’t done in a while: shake the tree on Facebook Marketplace, hoping to get the next car to fall out. After all, I now had an operational tow vehicle again; why not use it to drag home some needy, well-priced, must-sell-before-winter-no-space-for-it-in-the-seller’s-driveway present to myself?
This kind of what-could-I-buy search immediately bifurcates into two paths: vintage rust-prone cars that must occupy garage space lest they dissolve in front of my eyes, and relatively modern cars that can sit outside without my feeling guilty of an act of automotive negligence.
On the vintage side, of course I’m always looking for well-priced 2002s, and of course these days such things are rare as hen’s teeth. Matt McGinn of Sportscar Restoration in Connecticut had a nearly-rust-free red ’72 in running survivor condition listed on Facebook Marketplace for ten grand, a price which seems to be the new four grand for solid whimable 1970s sports cars. I should’ve just driven down to Connecticut in the E39 to have a look at it, but I kept hoping to do it in one trip in the truck: drive down there with a rented U-Haul trailer, look at the car, make a decision, and drag it home if it seemed worthy.
But to no one’s surprise, I waited too long, and someone else snagged it.
Of course, it’s fiction that I have space in the garage anyway. As I’ve written many times, my garage is a 31-by-17-foot shoebox attached to the back of my house, with a single-width roll-up door for entry. Four cars can fit in two rows of two, but to get the fourth one in, you need to put the third on wheel dollies and slide it sideways, packing that car and the one in front of it away for the duration of the season. I’ve done this multiple times since the garage was completed in 2006.
The problem is that clutter swirls around me and my activities like wasps around meat, and the floor space of the unused fourth spot is where junk naturally comes to rest. Right now it’s filled with boxes of parts that were given to me by one of the women whose deceased husbands’ 2002s I helped sell over the summer, detritus from the catalytic converter episode, and an electric scooter that my oldest son, Ethan, bought to get back and forth to work.
Still, it’s possible to buy something and squeeze it into the garage before winter effectively slams the door on any shuffling, right? Yes, just as it’s possible that some folk-music agent might hear my three CDs, say, “Where have you been for the last 25 years?!” and book me to open for Rhiannon Giddens. It’s that unrealistic whiff of possibility that’s behind the feeling that it’s all a cruel joke being played on me by the Automotive Powers That Be.
Due to the thousands of eyeballs on any car that shows up online, anything that’s truly a steal is gone in a New York minute unless you’re the first person who responds, and you can either be on the way with a truck, trailer, and a wad of cash, or be able to talk yourself and the seller into a sight-unseen purchase via a wire transfer. Perennially risk-averse, I can’t do the latter, and despite being self-employed and thus able to spend a lot of time looking at my laptop, the former is maddeningly elusive.
But still I search, with the realpolitik that any must-garage car I buy at this time of year had better be worth the trouble.
What this means is that it would need to be something that I’m excited to see every time I open up the garage. What is that? The dream is always an affordable E-Type Jaguar, but they don’t exist. Or another air-cooled 911 to make up for the mistake of selling mine in 2011, right before the big run-up in prices. That’s not going to happen, either. So another needy 2002, another project Lotus, something else British and sadistic like a GT6 or even a TR6, a Fiat 124 Sport Coupé, an early-’60s American car with a gorgeous chrome-dripping dashboard, or something swoopy like a pre-’74 C3 Corvette: I’ll know it when I see it.
And I ain’t seen it yet.
The closest I came was a $3,500 solid, intact, running 1987 Fiat X1/9. It made sense on paper; I mean why not have a second mid-engine car to park next to the Lotus Europa? But the “I can’t believe that I own this” factor was missing.
The cars that are in the garage right now—the Lotus, the ’73 3.0CSi, and Hampton, the 49,000-mile survivor ’73 2002—are certainly here until spring. The Lotus is finally getting its cracked windshield replaced, the E9 is awaiting a set of Carl Nelson lowering springs that haven’t been in stock for months, and Hampton may get a little more cosmetic attention to its engine compartment.
The five cars in my rented spaces in the giant warehouse in Monson, Massachusetts—the two other 2002s, the Bavaria, the Euro 635CSi, and the M coupe—are blocked in for the season by the boats, RVs, and trailers that constitute most of the warehouse clients. So even if I wanted to trailer something out to Monson, there’s not going to be any mid-winter swapping of cars, as I used to be able to do in Fitchburg.
The only possibility is that if I found some purchase that I couldn’t pass up, I could either pay for another space in Monson and run it out there and leave it there until spring (which would abrogate the idea of having it at the house as a winter project) or run one of the other three cars currently in the garage out to Monson to make space here—
Which is possible.
The Lotus has no windshield, so that’s not going to be towed anywhere. The idea of the E9 sitting in a big warehouse where giant vehicles get shuttled around makes me nervous. So if I buy something and I can’t make the room to slide a car sideways and squeeze it into the garage, the only reasonable play would be to move Hampton to Monson. (You can tell that I’ve been thinking about all this, can’t you?)
The other branch of the tree involves cars that can sit outside, and on that limb, there’s my perennial low-priority search for another BMW wagon. The E39 530i stick sport sedan that’s been my daily for almost six years came after ownership of two wagons: the ’99 E39 528iT stick sport that broke in every way possible, and the 2001 E46 325XiT stick that was much better reliability-wise but whose AWD I never really liked, and whose axles and CV joints were such a pain to replace that I vowed that I’d never own another AWD BMW because the maintenance work wasn’t worth the snow performance to me. (This feeling was augmented when my friend Paul Wegweiser reported that he’d just spent ten hours replacing the axles and the oil-pan gasket on their E46 wagon).
I’ve driven rear-wheel-drive BMWs through New England winters for most of the last 40 years, and have always felt that they do fine as long as they have good snow tires on all four corners, but the drop-off in performance as the tires lose tread can be dramatic. Age affects them as well. As we crept into December, I rolled the winter wheels and tires—a set of Toyo 215/60-16s I bought used a few years ago—out from under the back porch. They still have 8/32″ of tread on them, but the date codes are 2014.
I sighed, looked to see if there were any steals to be had on FBM or Craigslist, found none, and put the tires on the E39.
My driveway slopes downhill, which makes the E39 a little iffy as a winter vehicle if we get a lot of snow or the driveway ices up, but since I work from home, it’s usually not a big problem. Besides, the truck has four-wheel drive, so if necessary, I can always drive it instead, although its massive size and horrible gas mileage make it a poor suburban assault vehicle. I think that it was this realization that started me thinking tha, although I’d prefer another rear-wheel-drive BMW wagon to an all-wheel-drive one, having an AWD wagon around over the winter would be handy.
I hadn’t searched intensively for another BMW wagon in a while. All E39 wagons are rear-wheel drive, but sticks are rare and a little underpowered (they never made a 530i wagon with the 232-horsepower M54B30 engine that’s in my 530i). E46 wagons were available in both RWD and AWD, but nearly all those in New England are AWD, and most of them are rusty.
The RWD E46 stick wagons have been enthusiast cars for a number of years, and if they’re in good shape, folks want real money for them. A few years back, I had a pretty serious jones for an E91 RWD stick wagon. Like the E46 RWD stick wagons, these are difficult to find, but I found that the number of inexpensive AWD E91 (328xi) wagons has increased dramatically over the past few years.
There’s a pretty blue/gray 2009 328xi wagon on Facebook Marketplace with 225,000 miles, Bank One misfire issues, a gouge on the right side, and an asking price of just $1,500. If it wasn’t four hours north, in Burlingtonm Vermont, I’d go have a look. (The fact that that’s about $300 in diesel fuel round trip in the truck, and about another $70 to rent the U-Haul auto transporter gives me pause; with that kind of ante on the table, it’s difficult to walk away if when you get there, you see something you don’t like, like rust or visible engine smoke.)
Another well-priced E91 wagon is in nearby western Massachusetts. For a shade under $3,000, you get no reported dashboard lights, a very nice-looking Coral Red interior, and, unfortunately, 292,000 miles.
A needy but appealing red/black 2007 328xi AWD six-speed sport-package car is a few hours north in Newport, New Hampshire. It’s got peeling clear coat, 190,000 miles, and a somewhat ominous description (“Runs but needs work $3,500 O.B.O. Good parts car.”). If it was RWD, I’d be all over it, winter be damned.
And for closer to five grand, there’s a nice-looking rear-wheel drive E91 automatic out near Springfield, just an hour west on the Mass Pike. With only 139,000 on the clock, one could be buying into potentially fewer problems. However, the choice between RWD/AWD versus auto/stick is an interesting one. If the hypothetical goal is to replace my E39 RWD sedan for the winter, it’s difficult to see what advantage this wagon would have.
One of the things that spooks me about the E91 is the N52 engine, since I have zero experience with it or its electric water pump. In contrast, first-generation E83 X3s (through 2006) and E53 3.0 X5s retained the familiar M54 engine and mechanical water pump.
Readers may recall that just before the pandemic, I went over to the dark side and bought a 2004 E53 X5 triple unicorn (six-speed, sport package, dealer-installed tow package) with 270,000 miles for $3,300. My thinking was that it would be the automotive Swiss Army knife in the driveway, doing triple duty as fun-to-drive daily, stuff hauler, and occasional tow vehicle. Although I loved the six-speed and the sport seats, I never really warmed to the X5; it was simply bigger than what I wanted to be driving around. When I sold it in the spring of 2020 and went back to driving the E39, I breathed a sigh of relief.
But the X5 did at least have the advantage that it was unapologetic about its mission. In contrast, low-ground-clearance wagons that are available with all-wheel drive strike me as conflicted vehicles, not really sure what they’re supposed to be or do.
Like the price of high-mileage and needy E91 wagons, E83 X3 and E53 X5 prices have dropped substantially since I last looked, with many needs-work examples available in the $1,500 to $3,000 range. As always, sticks are rare, and stick sport-package cars are unicorn-rare.
Thinking that maybe an X3 would be more my speed than the big, bulky X5, I’m currently trying to close the loop with the seller of a needy 2006 X3 3.0i six-speed with 164,000 miles for $1,400. For that, I’d bet that the dashboard of blazing indicator lights and the reportedly noisy transfer case are due to the transfer-case actuator, a relatively inexpensive and easy to replace part. If I buy it, I’d probably park the E39 for a few months and drive the X3 instead.
It won’t be the Christmas present I want, but maybe it’ll be the Christmas present I need. We shall see what happens.
Of course, its high ground clearance will have me worried about the catalytic converter getting stolen.—Rob Siegel