As we head into the new year, there appear to be three dynamics at work at Chez Hack, functioning like bumpers on a pinball machine, bouncing me around while I search for my next inexpensive fun car.
The first dynamic is one I frequently experience, both personally and in advice to other people. I think of it as “car substitution.” You want an E9 3.0CS, but lie awake at night in existential pain because you missed the boat long ago and can’t afford the $100,000 it takes these days to get a rust-free example that’s already gone through a body restoration? Look at a Bavaria instead. As The Who said, substitute me for him. The E9 and Bavaria are basically the same cars mechanically, and you get a similar early 1970s BMW-big-six driving experience for probably 1/8th the price, all factors being equal.
“But it doesn’t have that sexy coupe look.”
Yeah, I know. Okay, so look at an E24 6 Series car instead. You’ll get that imposing two-door BMW coupe presence.
“But again, it’s not the same.”
Again, I know. A substitute isn’t the same thing as the original. That’s why you could get away with murder when you had a substitute teacher in school. I thought everybody knew that.
The same thing has happened to 2002s. Lots of folks want to get into a round tail light tii, get sticker shock, look at a square tail light tii, still get sticker shock, look at a round tail light carbureted 2002, still need to reach for the smelling salts, and maybe settle on a square tail light carbureted car.
My answer to this used to be “Look at an E30. You get a similar vintage BMW driving experience in a similar-sized car but with a ton more torque, way less wind noise, and a much better climate control system.” Of course, E30s have gone nuts, with their values approaching that of decent 2002s. I had a particularly nice bone-stock nearly rust-free ’87 325iS that I sold in 2017 when I lost my job and needed to fund the Ran When Parked adventure and buy Louie the ’72 tii. I’ve been trying to get myself back into another E30 ever since, but the ones here in New England tend to either be pricey enthusiast cars or rust buckets, and there’s something in my New England frugal nature that prevents me from paying market value.
Car substitution, by the way, doesn’t apply only to BMWs. I crave an E-Type Jaguar. Due to the price, I’ll never own one. But late 90s / early 2000s XK8s fire some of the same neurons for a fraction of the cost. Yeah, I know—they’re dressed-up Fords. Shut up. I could be happy with a red one with a black interior in my driveway for a week until I sobered up.
Note that “car substitution” can slide into “model substitution.” That is, the E30 M3 that everyone wants has become addition-on-the-house-money expensive. The step-down would be a decent 325iS. Yeah, it’s just a dressed up “i,” but it’s a nice dress. If that’s too pricey (and these days, it certainly is for me), it would be any two-door “i.” Then a four-door. Then the cars with the low-revving “e” engine.
The second dynamic that creeps in is “Whoa, I can get this for that?” This shows up particularly with bottom-of-the-depreciation-curve European cars. It was that way for many years with E31 850i coupes. You couldn’t give away needy automatics, and even the rare six-speeds traded in the $5,000 range if they were project cars. Of course, this is the big pendulum swing of collectability. Prices drop until many of the cars are in junkyards, then panache gets recognized, values skyrocket, and we all say, “Why didn’t we buy in? It was so obvious.” Fourth-generation R129 Mercedes SL500 roadsters seem this way to me. Facebook Marketplace is littered with examples in the $3,000 to $5,000 range. The main reason I don’t buy one is that I already have one ragtop roadster— my ’99 Z3 2.3—that sits outside under a cover during the winter because I have nowhere to put it, and doing that to two roadsters borders on serial abuse.
The third dynamic is what I think of as the water’s edge of BMW technology and styling. As is common with many of my raised-on-round-taillights ilk, my personal opinion is that, design-wise, at some point in the 2000s, BMW lost their way. It’s not the Bangle Butt. It’s not even necessarily the giant nostrils intended to achieve brand identification at the distance of a football field. It’s too many details absent a larger integrated design whole. Concurrent with that are the technological advances that make the cars more difficult to work on. The electric water pumps that came into play with the E90 3 Series may improve fuel economy slightly, but they’re expensive and reportedly much more work to replace. And don’t get me started on the ubiquity of dashboard screens that crept into many cars in the mid-2000s. Yuck. Really, is there anything less useful than a fifteen-year-old in-dash navigation system?
So, my line in the sand has been the E46 3 Series and the E39 5 Series cars. This far, and no farther. I don’t care that E90 3 Series cars have become dirt cheap. I’m not interested. (Though I do keep half an eye open for E91 wagons, as a well-priced six-speed rear-wheel drive car would get me off my pulpit. Okay, maybe both eyes 3/4 open.)
Surprisingly, I’ve owned only one E46—the 2001 325XiT wagon I bought in 2011. It was stick sport package car, and made for a decent daily driver, but when the front CV joints began making noise and I needed to replace them, I found the repair so onerous that I never wanted to own an all-wheel drive BMW again. My friend Alex was interested in it, so I let it go. I daily-drove the Z3 and the Suburban for a few months until I found the 2003 E39 530i stick sport I still daily.
E46s came back on my radar in a funny way. A few months ago I read a piece in Sports Car Market that touted the virtues of the BMW Z3. While I loved to see our little bulbous-nosed roadster getting the ink it deserves, the title of the piece was “The Last Affordable Manual BMW.” Its opening sentence was “If you’ve recently been looking for a cheap modern BMW with a manual transmission, you may have noticed that they are no longer so easy to find. Just a few years ago, if you had $5,000–$10,000 to spend, you could have your pick of numerous models.”
Wait, what? I realize that my bottom-feeder tendencies may warp my perspective but… really?
So, for fun, I started looking on Facebook Marketplace at stick rear-wheel drive E46s. I’m generally aware of the E46 model substitution hierarchy: If you can’t afford an E46 M3, you buy a 330i (sedan) or 330ci (two-door coupe) with the “ZHP” performance package. The step-down from it is avoiding the hefty ZHP tax and getting an M54B30 sport package (ZSP) car. You can decide if the next step down is a non-sport-package car (the 225-horsepower M54B30 engine is a thing of beauty, even without the sport package’s bolstered seats and the three-spoke steering wheel), or whether you’d prefer the dress-up components with either the 325i’s 184-horsepower M54B25 or the older 328i’s 190-horsepower M52TUB28, or even drop back to the 323i’s smaller 169-horsepower M52TUB25. The engine choices are spread across sedan and coupe models. Some but not all of it applies to pre- and post-facelift cars.
Okay, a little more complicated than I thought.
The larger question is how an E46 would fit into my not-a-collection of cars. For years, I asked myself this same question about E36 M3s when they were plentiful and affordable. I daily-drive a four-door E39 530i stick sport with its wonderful M54B30 engine, and also own my S52 M Coupe, so a four-door E36 M3/4/5 performance sedan always seemed too close to the E39, and a two-door M3 coupe seemed to have too much overlap with the clown shoe, so I never bought either and now all the cheap ones are gone. I decided to sidestep that question with an E46 for now. Just lookin’, as we say on used car lots and in guitar stores.
Facebook Marketplace is, of course, famous for its horrible search engine and its mislabeled listings, so it takes work to weed out the all-wheel drive and automatic transmission cars and zero in on something I’d be interested in. Eventually I searched my way to a few interesting cars. A few ZHP cars showed up that looked so promising that I thought “What ZHP tax?” The one in Utica with the $4,225 asking price sounded swell until I read the part about the car needing an engine, and saw the borescope pic of the destroyed piston crown. Then two other ZHPs showed up, one a running project car for $4,500, another a suspiciously stanced-out $6,500 car that I felt even odds was a scam. I messaged both sellers and never heard back.
I got a bit confused by the black shadowline trim on E46s. Right or wrong, I’ve always associated it with sport package cars, but I’ve seen ads for E46s with black trim, flat seats, and four-spoke steering wheels, as well as cars that look like they have the sport package yet have chrome window trim. I’ve since read that the black shadowline trim is on all the ZHP cars, but is simply an option otherwise. I’m sure someone will correct me if this is wrong.
I saw ads for two appealing silver sport package coupes with black interiors—one a post-facelift 330ci, the other a 325ci. The 325ci looked like it was in great condition, but had over 200k on it and a seemingly steep $5200 asking price. However, the seller’s straightforward ad itemized a ton of recent work, and the car had what appeared to be a very nice-looking brushed aluminum interior trim package that, together with the silver paint and black interior, illuminated the “that’s a nice-looking living room to drive in” pleasure center of my brain. The other car had fewer miles and a lower asking price, but wasn’t nearly in as good shape. Both were snatched up quickly, a likely indication of what buyers are looking for.
There was some “I know what I’ve got” bravado in the was-$8,000-but-now-$6,000-and-it’s-firm asking price of this 2003 330i with 160,000 and what looks to be the sport package.
I just found a 2003 330i in central CT with 200,000 miles for a $2,500 asking price. The photos are poor but appear to show a five-speed sport package car.
However, my wife and I are still in the middle of holiday stuff, friends are in from out of town, and I’m still without a truck to easily do the tag-bag-and-drag thing, so nothing is likely to happen until the new year. And maybe nothing E46-ish will happen at all. But a) I think I’ve established that the “manual transmission BMWs are getting hard to find” report in Sports Car Market is unnecessarily dire, and b) if I or someone else wanted to spend short $2,500-to-$4,000 money and buy a small fun-to-drive standard-transmission rear-wheel drive BMW, I think that E46s have some “wow, I can get this for that” factor, whereas in even twice this price range, 2002s and E30s are closer to “wow, I have to pay that to get this piece of junk?”
Or I could look for another Z3. I hear there are a lot of good ones with sticks in the $5,000 to $10,000 range :^)