Last week, I left you with a cliffhanger: Was I really going to pull the trigger on a thousand-dollar 2005 six-speed X3 for which I had zero lust, whose mismatched front body panels severely capped its value, and whose main value in my dystopian Hack Mechanic world was that its lengthy string of needs would provide me with a winter’s worth of content?
No, I wasn’t. I mean, I’m not. I mean, I haven’t.
There are several reasons why I backed away. Some are pretty domestic. My wife Maire Anne and I had planned to restart our long-standing tradition of a New Year’s Eve dinner party with close friends from college. Obviously that tradition had been suspended in COVID-saturated 2020, and was planned but torpedoed during the holiday COVID surge of 2021, so we were excited about reviving it. But that meant a fair amount of preparation, which in turn meant that my vanishing for a day to tow home yet another car would’ve tested the kind of limits one doesn’t want to exceed with an exceptionally tolerant spouse. Which was fine, since, as I said, I was lukewarm about the car anyway. Then Maire Anne got sick—she lost her sense of smell, so we assumed it was COVID, even though four tests reported negative results. And it may still well have been. Regardless, my staying at home to help prepare for a soiree morphed into staying at home to care for her, and I was hardly going to walk away from that for a car, and certainly not for this particular car.
But spousal responsibilities notwithstanding, if you want a car, you make it happen, and it was very telling that no matter how many times I looked at my pros / cons list, my decision fell right on the line between yes and no. Unless you nudge yourself off that line, it means “no.” The seller said he was firm on his thousand-dollar price. When I drove down to New Bedford and saw the car, I even told him that the price was reasonable, and that someone who specifically wanted a six-speed X3 would pay it, so I felt it would be hypocritical of me to offer him less. Thus, my vague and highly-conflicted plan of action was that I sent him a couple of texts—one before Christmas, the other after—saying that the car was much needier than I expected it to be, but that after the holidays, I’d try to get down there with a trailer to see if we could make something happen. He didn’t respond to either. And that’s fine.
Hovering behind this wishy-washy approach, though, was quite a bit of thought on my part. Having gone through about 70 BMWs over the last 40 years, I’ve got a pretty good bead on the reasonable expectations for both vintage garage-kept cars and sit-outside daily drivers, and from that past experience, the likely future of the needy X3 came into focus.
It’s been about six years since I came home with the 2003 E39 530i stick sport, the car I routinely describe as the best daily driver I’ve ever owned. It came on the heels of two wagons—the endlessly-needy E39 528iT stick sport, and the more-reliable E46 325XiT. I never really warmed to the E46’s all-wheel drive, and when its front axles needed replacement, it was such a pain in the butt that I swore I’d never buy another all-wheel-drive BMW, as the maintenance wasn’t worth the snow performance to me (the snowfall in suburban Boston isn’t what it is in northern New England, they plow the streets in Newton pretty quickly, and I have a short driveway). The rear-wheel-drive E39 530i continues to be a delight to own and to drive. Its rear fold-down seats that open into the trunk give it enough of the utility of a wagon / SAV to make it useful, and if I need to move something bigger, I have the giant recently-catalytic-converter-challenged truck anyway.
Reliability-wise, the 200,000-mile 530i has been excellent. It had the hot-weather-low-level fuel pump episode from which I limped it home two summers ago, and the alternator episode for which I elected to call for a tow this past year, but those fall wholly within the envelope of the expected—so expected, in fact, that I probably should’ve dealt with them preventatively, as I eventually did with the car’s cooling system. The more I thought about the thousand-dollar X3, the more I realized that if I bought it and reattached its hanging exhaust, combed through and addressed the tangle of DTC codes and got the check engine light to go out, and replaced its oddly-missing handbrake lever—all of which would need to be done for the car to pass Massachusetts state inspection and be a legal daily driver—I’d still need to get to the bottom of whatever caused its incredibly hard starting when I saw it in New Bedford, and whatever was lighting up the ABS and traction control lights and causing the seller to say that the car had some problem in the transfer case or differential. And even if I did those things, I’d be at the place I was with the 530i six years ago—owning a high-mileage BMW with zero repair history that needs all the maintenance that comes along with that profile, and with the added complexity and maintenance of the all-wheel drive to boot.
It took a couple of days, but my left brain eventually digested everything and spat it out as the following question: Was I really going to yank my generally reliable, largely sorted E39—a car that I really like—off the road and slap its plates onto the X3—a car I have little desire for—simply because “I paid a thousand dollars for a six-speed X3” would give me bragging rights and the needy car would give me something to write about every week?
And with that, I let the idea of the thousand-dollar six-speed X3 go. And that’s okay. More than okay, really. It’s almost rational.
Besides, with dates for the Vintage 2023 in Asheville just announced (May 18-20th), I can turn my attention to the issue of what highly-questionable vehicle I’ll be driving down. I mean, why buy something newer and stupid when you can buy something older and stupid?—Rob Siegel