Since scratching that itch that began in adolescence and buying my first 2002 in Austin in 1982, by last count I’ve owned over 70 BMWs. About 40 of those were 2002s, several of which were even used as four-season daily drivers back in the day before that was a sin. As time marched on and Maire Anne and I started a family, there was the natural progression to larger four-door cars, as well as to newer models as the siren song of better performance and safety features began to be heard in the affordable price range of depreciated value.

But in all this churn, there were three purchases that stood out from the yeah-okay-I-guess-I-can’t-pass-up-this-2002 and the yeah-okay-I-guess-it’s-time-for-an-incrementally-newer-better-daily-driver where I got into a car I was considering buying, drove it, and felt WOW!

1983 533i

My then-two-year-old son Ethan proves the 533i’s cred as a family car.

In 1990, I’d been daily-driving a 1979 E12 528i when someone turned left in front of it, smacked it, and pushed up the left front corner. I replaced it with a 1983 E28 533i with 93,000 miles on it. It was gray with tan leather, five speed, sunroof, and of course a/c and power everything. The 528i had those amenities too, but the 533i felt completely different. Even though it had the same M30 engine as the 528i before it and the Bavaria before that, the 533i’s slightly-larger 3.2-liter displacement, the torque that came with it, and the Motronic ignition and injection felt like an absolute step change in performance. From the very first wind-up on the test drive, WOW! It checked out mechanically, having only a loud exhaust, bald TRX tires, one bent rim, and the obligatory bad fan clutch. I picked it up for $5,600 and was an insanely happy camper. I drove it for five years, the longest stretch for a daily driver until my current 2003 E39 530i stick sport. I absolutely relished taking road trips in the car.

E28s, like E30s, have the reputation as the last BMW designed for 300,000-mile service lifetimes. Despite the fact that I loved the 533i, my experience with the car repair-wise wasn’t great. One weak point of this generation of Motronic M30 cars was the “brake bomb” and the unit that it screwed to (together which replaced the traditional vacuum-assist brake booster). It was a known problem that this system tended to fail in cold climates, and replacing both pieces was so arduous that when I asked CCA Founder Michel Potheau if there was some trick to it, he deadpanned “I’d rather replace a clutch.” The fact that I had do this repair a second time, as well as replace the exhaust twice, as well as the car developing a habit of popping out of 4th gear, seemed very much at odds with its relatively low mileage. Still, the 533i holds a special place in my memory as kind of my first grown-up BMW, and it’s one of the cars that I dream I still own and have stashed in a garage somewhere along with a particularly lively ’72 tii I had and Maire Anne’s ’69 VW Westfalia camper. I didn’t own another E28 until my short relationship with The Lama, the 1987 535i I bought sight-unseen without knowing it had a broken rocker arm.

1993 E36 325i four door

The E36 and its worsening trunk lid rust shortly before I sold it.

In 1992, former Roundel Editor Yale Rachlin spun the “who gets to go to Europe on a press junket” wheel, it landed on my name, and I flew to France for the international introduction of the new E36 3 Series. This was BMW’s first production six-cylinder twin-cam car, as well as its first car with a multi-link rear end (though they called it a “central link” instead). Multi-link rear ends have the characteristic that, if you go into a curve too hot, the rear end tends to self-correct and snap back into line instead of fishing back and forth. The combination of the sound, feel, and performance of the new M50 engine, the tightness of the shifter, and the handling was intoxicating. But there was zero chance of my owning one. I mean, they were new, and I didn’t (and still don’t) even consider buying new cars.

After selling the E28 533i in 1995, I drove a series of E30s (which, like the E28, despite the whole God’s-chariot-300k-service-lifetime thing, I found to be as needy as any other old BMW when daily-driven), and concentrated on getting my expanding family into a five-speed Toyota Previa minivan. I treated myself to an E30 convertible on the deal with myself that it had to be my daily driver. After one winter, I realized what a stupid idea it was, and that I needed to get into something else. By 2000, E36s had recently gone out of production, but they were still almost-new cars to me, and I didn’t seriously consider them as within striking distance.

But then I saw an ad that said “1992 BMW 325i. 4 door. 5 speed. High miles. Cheap! $8,800 obo.” The seller and I connected after days of phone tag. The car had 183,000 miles on it, black with a Zender trunk spoiler and a black leather interior. He’d had a spate of recent work done on it, including clutch, water pump, brakes, belts, and coils, at a local dealer during the past year. But there was unrepaired damage from when an SUV backed into the nose, overridden the front bumper, and cracked it in the teeth. He stressed that he had very little time to sell the car, and that the price was extremely negotiable. When I saw the car, there was rust on the lip of the trunk lid, and a couple of quarter-sized patches bubbling on the hood and tail, but it drove great. Even the a/c worked. Other than the fact that it stank of cigarettes, nothing was obviously wrong. After a bit of back and forth, the E36 was mine for $5,800.

Like the 533i, the first few drives in the E36 were holy crap I can’t believe I own this experiences, every bit as rewarding as driving the car on the press intro through the south of France. And, despite the car’s 183,000miles and the reputation that E36s had about their quality being a step down from the E30s, it was generally a low-trouble car for the four years I owned it.

When I sold the high-mileage car four years later, I replaced it with a 42,000-mile 318ti, the lowest-mileage BMW I’ve ever owned, which thanked me by cracking the plastic coolant neck of the back of its head and dumping all its most of its coolant.

I’ve owned other E36 derivatives including another 318ti, the Z3, and clown shoe (below), but not another E36 sedan. The step from the E30 to the E36 felt sharp and dramatic, but the one from the E36 to the E46 felt evolutionary and thus didn’t stand out for me.

1999 Z3 M Coupe

Yeah baby.

It was Roundel Tech Editor Mike Miller who put the Z3 M Coupe (a.k.a. the clown shoe) on my radar. In a 1999 Roundel staff meeting held at Gateway Tech in St. Louis, the magazine staff were doing what car folks do—tossing back a few cold ones and talking about cars. Someone brought up the just-released M Coupe whose styling was controversial. Butt-ugly, crowed one. Looks like it was built from two different cars, intoned another. “I think it’s really cool,” said Mike. Others turned and stared at Mike in disbelief. Hey, you gotta admire those strongly-held out-there beliefs. In the nearly 25 years that have elapsed, the bulk of opinion has settled with Mike on the “really cool” side of the fence, as the M Coupe’s fat planted rear end looks like nothing else on the road. Still, I didn’t really pay any attention to it, since like other new BMWs, it simply wasn’t attainable.

But eight years later in early 2007, a silver/black M Coupe showed up on Boston Craigslist with a $14,500 asking price. I was curious enough that I pulsed the seller. He replied that he’d accepted an offer, but would let me know if it fell through. A week later, he contacted me saying that the buyer had commitment issues and the car was still available.

On a frigid winter Saturday, I headed down to the RI-MA border and checked the clown shoe out. A short drive revealed loud rattling and thumping from worn-out rear shock tower mounts, a bad steering wheel shimmy, a rightward pull, some odd clutch sounds, a balky passenger side window and door, and a little leaking power steering fluid. It certainly wasn’t a tight car, but it seemed like a clean car—zero rust, shiny silver paint, and a black interior against which those chrome-ringed gauges looked great. I’m careful with other people’s cars, but when I reached a straight entrance ramp leading onto empty highway and I wound it out, it hit 90 before I knew what had happened. I was immediately, deeply, completely, in love. I still owned my 1982 Porsche 911SC, so buying another two-seater slot car was utterly frivolous, and I didn’t have the bank balance to buy it with cash, but I didn’t care. I negotiated the price down a bit and took out a bank loan. It’s still the most I ever paid for a car.

I’ve owned the M Coupe for almost seventeen years, longer than any car other than my jewel-in-the-crown 3.0CSi. I don’t drive it much, as the way-too-stiff seats anger up my back (though the installation of the front-tilt-up kit has helped way more than I expected). I flirt annually with selling it, but it’s like nothing I own, and I know that once it’s gone, I won’t be able to buy back into another one. Plus, even though the S52 engine’s 240 horsepower and the car’s 5.3-second 0-to-60 time are both milquetoast by modern standards, I still get that OH MY GOD feeling every time I goose it.

Every car you buy can’t be a step-change. And it’s even rarer when they continue to feel that way after you own them. But boy it’s awfully satisfying when they do.

Rob Siegel


Rob’s newest book, The Best of The Hack Mechanic, is available here on Amazon, as are his seven other books. Signed copies can be ordered directly from Rob here.




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