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Existential Moments with the BMW

May 17, 2016 by Matt

2002 BMW 330i Orient Blue E46 Sedan

Do you have to drive your car, or do you get to drive your car?

Relegated to daily-driver duty, even the most special car can seem mundane to drive. What used to thrill us about its engine note, interior design or chassis balance recedes into the background of our commute. Its ergonomics are familiar and we focus more on the car’s little annoyances (every car has some) than on its essentially good qualities. We have to drive it, and the enjoyment of the experience is muted.

I’ve lived the emotional trajectory of enthusiast car ownership many times over the course of my 20+ year driving “career.” Like any good relationship, it takes intentionality to overcome the fade of initial spark of attraction. My truck is currently up for sale, so my 2002 BMW 330i will assume daily-driver responsibilities soon, and I worry that living with it every day will sap some of its emotional pull.

2002 BMW 330i Orient Blue E46 Sedan

From an automotive perspective, the cliche “absence makes the heart grow fonder” could be rewritten “lack of wheel time makes the heart grow fonder,” and it’s true that when the 330 has been down for repairs for a few days and I’ve had to drive the truck to work, I really itch to drive it again in a way I don’t when the BMW’s been my commuter all week. Also, I’m somewhat comforted by the fact that the daily wear and tear my “fun car” experiences is lessened, so I feel less guilty about exacerbating the car’s natural level of entropy by driving it.

I’ve had to make peace with the situation in a couple of ways; both of them, as mentioned above, require an intentional mental effort, but they’re worth it.

2002 BMW 330i Orient Blue E46 Sedan

The first is simply to remind myself, however long or short my tenure of ownership lasts, that I have the privilege of owning and driving a truly exceptional car. The 330i won every single comparison test that Car and Driver (and others) could throw at it during its model run. I remember leafing through those magazines, admiring the car’s abilities but considering it completely, utterly out of reach. And now one parks in my driveway at night. I get to drive it. The needles of its gauges swing through their arcs for my benefit. If it has an issue, it’s my responsibility to diagnose and fix it and hopefully improve the car in the process. I don’t write any of this in a bragging tone; but more simply a recognition and remind of what a great car BMW designed and screwed together, and how fortunate I am to be able to own one.

The second mental method I use to assuage my guilt over consigning the car to commuter duty is simply to accept that the car will deteriorate. It may sound obvious, but the reminder of that fact helps alleviate my low-level nervousness about small dings and scratches, or that some subsystem will suddenly go belly-up on the highway. It’s gonna happen, and when it does I will fix it. Parts can be replaced. Bodywork can be straightened and repainted, all in good time. The car is not old; there’s a huge supply of replacement parts out there, and whole industries with very talented people devoted to the cosmetic aspects of the car. Reminding myself of these givens helps me keep my priorities in line vis-a-vis life in general; it really is just a car, and I have a little while to enjoy it, so why ruin it with low-grade anxiety every time I’m behind the wheel? Doesn’t do anyone any good.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a few twisty roads to hunt down.

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A Treasure Trove of Japanese Imports

May 9, 2016 by Matt

Japanese Classics Richmond VA Website

This has become of one of my favorite internet hangouts lately.

Japanese Classics, a car importer based in Richmond, VA, has built what appears to be a thriving enterprise catering to the pent-up demand for JDM (Japanese Domestic Market) vehicles recently unleashed by the 25-year import rule. The essence of the law is that for most states, any vehicle over 25 years old (as of this posting, that would be MY 1991) is exempt from crash and emissions testing and can be freely imported and registered. For the enthusiast market, it means that a whole crop of heretofore unavailable Japanese machines can now be bought and driven in the US. Vehicles we lusted after from afar are here. And Japanese Classics’ website, more than simply showing the outfit’s current inventory, really pulls out all the stops in creating very nicely photographed and detailed listings:

Japanese Classics Richmond VA Website

For car nerds like me who’ve had trouble finding pictures of, say, a Mazda JC Cosmo’s interior, or the engine bay of a Nissan Silvia K’s, the site is a veritable encyclopedia of obscure JDM cars. For anyone who’s ever played (especially the early editions of) the Gran Turismo video game series and wondered how all those cars we’d never heard of actually look in the flesh, it’s a revelation. I’ll be revisiting the site regularly. And while I’m quite content with my E46 for the time being, who knows; I may actually spring for one of the featured cars one day. Maybe in a few years when the R33 Skyline hits our shores?

Editor’s note: I have no affiliation with the Japanese Classics.

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Datsun 240Z Restoration:
The Teardown Begins

April 18, 2016 by Matt

240Z_noseoff1

Finally, some progress.

So I obviously haven’t made a lot of headway here in the past couple of years. Our previous installment took place in the spring of 2014, and since then, the Z has just been up on jackstands, languishing in the garage.

With the acquisition of the BMW back in January, I’ve been motivated to move the Z project forward so that, eventually, I can move it out of the garage to make room for the Bimmer to take up permanent residence. First, though, I had to put in place the element missing from the project for years, and one of the main things holding me back: Storage space.

Zstorage1

That’s the utility room off the back of our garage. On the opposite wall (not pictured) are a whole other swath of shelves holding household items, and the shelves shown in the picture are exclusively for Z parts. Disassembly essentially doubles the amount of room needed for a car, so without space for bumpers, fenders, seats, mechanical bits and the like, progress was stifled. What’s more, without a concrete organizational system, I just wouldn’t have been ready to dig into the project in a methodical fashion, an absolute must for a restoration effort.

240Z_noseoff2

By today’s standards, the Z really isn’t that complicated. But it’s complex enough—there are a number of overlapping subsystems, fasteners and other components. The storage space has really taken a load off my mind re:moving forward.

The actual disassembly so far, undertaken this past Saturday and Sunday, was quite straightforward and incident-free. I will sing the praises of the world’s best penetrant, PB Blaster, until my dying day. Most of the rubber weatherstripping and other pieces like hood bumpers and brake and fuel line grommets disintegrated, but that’s to be expected after 44 years. I broke a couple of bolt heads, but nothing terminal and the whole process felt a bit like an archaeology dig as I peeled away layers of peripheral parts like the brake booster and wiring harness. I was disheartened to see more rust than I had anticipated (there’s always more than you think there is), but encouraged by the fact that, upon inspection, both fenders may be usable in their entirety. We’ll have to see what the body guy says when he takes a look.

Editor’s note: This post is Part 22 of an ongoing series chronicling my efforts toward the restoration of my 1972 Datsun 240Z, originally my father’s. Read the other installments here:

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Forever Car: 2002 BMW 330i 5-Speed

January 16, 2016 by Matt

2002 BMW E46 330i 5-Speed Manual Orient Blue

This might be it.

I’d been wanting something interesting for a while, and I bided my time over the holidays, scanning Craigslist and Autotrader. I was looking for something German (BMW or Audi), made from the mid-’90s to the mid-2000s, with a manual transmission. Most of the cars in decent condition that fit that set of criteria were a couple of hours away, and I even roadtripped with my son to go see a B6 Audi A4. It was nice, but had a number of cosmetic defects that would have been expensive to fix, and the seller (a dealer) wanted too much for it already.

2002 BMW E46 330i 5-Speed Manual Orient Blue

Then, last Saturday, the car featured in this post popped up not 15 miles down the road. A 2002 BMW 330i, 5-speed, Orient Blue over gray interior, with only 135K on the odometer. I jumped on it. The seller was a local auto mechanic specializing in BMWs and other German cars. He’d just bought it off a trade-in at another dealership and hadn’t even had a chance to drive it yet before he put it up on Craigslist. It drove very well, had good power and was in great shape cosmetically outside a baseball-sized dent in the lower passenger side of the urethane bumper. The windshield was cracked all the way across, and there was a clunk coming from the right front wheel area at low speed. The car pulled slightly under braking and the shifter bushings were completely shot. Furthermore, the interior had that faint whiff of having been a smoker car. Still—none of the issues were terminal, the car’s mileage was low and the price was right. I bought it.

2002 BMW E46 330i 5-Speed Manual Gray Grey Interior Inside Console Cockpit

A week later, I’m still in love. The car has been debadged (removed the “330i” emblem), the windshield has been replaced and the front control arm bushings are new. The car is tight as a drum and—with the exception of the shifter bushings—drives perfectly. It’s a hair faster than my old 540i 6-speed and feels much more compact and nimble. I installed Koni yellow dampers in the 540i, and while they certainly benefited the larger car’s agility, the ride they provided could only be described as harsh. In contrast, the 330i, on its OEM sport suspension, strikes the perfect note, with a supple ride over the choppy stuff and a good set in the turns. Oddly, it doesn’t feel quite as balanced as my old 525i, but much more controlled and maneuverable. I’m starting to think the 525i’s handling feel was more a case of a big car with a smaller engine up front, with all the weight distribution advantages that offered, but that’s a post for another time.

BMW Engine Motor M54 M54B30 E46 330 330i

The E46 (1999-2005) 3-series was, at the time, BMW’s most popular model ever, and was offered in myriad different flavors, from convertibles to wagons to sedans to coupes, with a plethora of option packages and a number of styling variations and refreshes. I told my wife that if I could have ordered any non-M BMW new in 2002 and optioned it exactly the way I wanted it, it would have been this car. The air dam and rear apron: Perfect. The Style 68 wheels: Right on. The color combination: Love it. Even details like the sunroof delete (extremely rare for a US-bound E46), the heated seats and the premium Harman/Kardon stereo are precisely what I would have chosen. The original owner, who clearly special-ordered the car, had exquisite taste. I can’t believe I’m fortunate enough to be able to own it, drive it and work on it. I’m notoriously fickle when it comes to my affection for various cars, but if any car was a keeper, this is it. There’s not a thing I would change.

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Mazda’s New Ad Campaign Shines

September 15, 2015 by Matt

Mazda MX-5 Miata Ad Advert Advertisement Desert Track 2016 ND

Via Autoblog, I have next to no hope that this will gain them any traction with the buying public (of whom a vast majority are simply interested in basic transportation appliances instead of a vehicle they would actually enjoy to drive), but Mazda’s new marketing campaign resonates with enthusiasts. Supplementing their long-running “Zoom-Zoom” tagline, the automaker recently rolled out a new slogan: “Driving Matters.” Greeted by a collective “YES!” from car buffs everywhere, the new campaign explicitly reminds us how closely Mazda’s car-building philosophy aligns with our priorities in choosing and enjoying our vehicles.

And yet, as much as I want to preach Mazda’s slogan from the rooftops and shout it to the unenlightened masses, I realize that it takes more than just a fun-to-drive car to derive pleasure from the act of driving. The right road is an equally essential ingredient, and therein might lie another obstacle in the Japanese automaker’s attempts to convert their enthusiast-first philosophy into sales success. Put another way, it would do me no good to insist that a friend is selling himself short from a driving perspective by buying a boring car when his daily commute consists solely of 45 minutes of bumper-to-bumper traffic. He may heed my advice and buy something dynamically enjoyable, but have nowhere to use it aside from forays onto winding back roads. And those excursions take a level of intentionality even harder to expect from someone whom I’ve already had to convince to buy something he wouldn’t have normally chosen.

The antidote to all this, of course, is to build compromise-free cars; in other words, cars that function equally well whether being used as commuting appliances or back-road burners. And as Mazda’s recent string of comparison-test wins indicates, they’re the current undisputed masters of that formula (6 straight outright victories in Car and Driver alone). Here’s hoping their new ad push can bring more buyers around to that fact.

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Too Much Is Not Enough:
A Car Interior Fantasy

May 11, 2015 by Matt

Millennium Falcon Bridge Cockpit

I alluded to this in my “3 Interior Likes” post, but I think it bears fleshing out. The above picture, a shot of the Millennium Falcon‘s bridge from the film The Empire Strikes Back, represents my holy grail when it comes to car cockpit layouts. In a nutshell: The more instrumentation, gauges, readouts, lights and switches, the better. And it should have a certain ad hoc quality, cobbled together in such a way that only the owner can understand its intricacies.

The desire for such a look and feel is rooted in a few factors:

  • The need to personalize. Other car buffs express themselves through gaudy body kits and coffee-can mufflers; I’d rather my car distinguish itself (and its owner!) via a kind of über-tech interior layout—but one tied, naturally, to a high level of customization under the skin. If I had to give it a label, maybe it’s an expression of the nerd chic aesthetic philosophy.
  • It’s also related to the broader appeal of sleepers, Q-ships, cars that look humdrum but have “got it where it counts,” to borrow Han Solo’s phrase. There’s an appealing drama to a vehicle that has all the outward markings of a loser but sucks its rivals’ doors off when the light turns green. Call it the Susan Boyle effect; it speaks to the underdog in all of us.
  • I might be unique in this, but I derive a degree of comfort from being surrounded by lights, readouts and switches. Maybe they provide a feeling of control? Or perhaps I’m reassured by the fact that they’re passively providing me all the information I need to make a positive decision behind the wheel? On a quasi-primal level, I almost feel like the lights are “watching over me,” that they’re illuminated and vigilant even when my attention lapses, and that thought gives me a sense of security—warranted or no.

Boeing 747 Cockpit Bridge Controls

It’s understood that when they leave the factory, car dashboards don’t resemble the Boeing 747-400 cockpit shown above. The ideal path to achieving the goal, then would be to at least start with a car blessed with ample instrumentation out of the box and add from there. When I look through the steering wheel, I like to see at least 3 secondary gauges (fuel, coolant temp, oil pressure, etc) in addition to the requisite speedometer and tach. I’ve been fortunate to have owned several cars with a total of 6 gauges staring back at me—a great starting point.

The closest I’ve come so far to my ideal layout occurred when I owned my 1988 Supra Turbo. Toyota gifted the car with 6 factory gauges, and to start with I added an air/fuel ratio and boost gauge on the A-pillar:

Mark Mk 3 MkIII Mk3 Toyota Supra Turbo JZA70 MA70 MA71 Maroon Brown 1JZ 1JZ-GTE 1JZGTE Interior Inside Cockpit Cluster Dash Dashboard Momo Wheel Steering

In addition on that fairly standard instrumentation, I decided to go a step further and install some overhead switches and lights. As with many ’80s Japanese performance cars, the Supra was fitted with dampers (shock absorbers) with 3 settings—soft, medium and firm—controlled by servos placed atop the shock towers. The driver was able to toggle between soft and medium using buttons on the center console, but the car itself would automatically set the dampers to firm when a sensor detected sufficient acceleration in any direction. I wanted to be able to activate the firm setting manually, so I wired a pair of Radio Shack rocker switches and LEDs lights inline with a couple of override pins on the diagnostic connector under the hood, and placed them up in the plastic trim panel between the sun visors. It wasn’t very sophisticated, but it was satisfying to be able to reach up, flick an overhead switch, see a green LED illuminate and hear all 4 servos click in unison as the dampers firmed themselves up. Further instrumentation would have probably required at least the installation of a piggyback fuel computer, and a complete standalone system at the most, which is a tuning goal I’ve pursued for a long time. Who knows; one day I may be able to geek out in my very own Millennium Falcon cockpit.

Image credit: telegraph.co.uk, berghem.tweakdsl.nl

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Obscure ’80s Wedge: The Bitter SC

May 4, 2015 by Matt

Bitter SC

I hadn’t heard of the Bitter SC until recently, and as I checked out the car’s attributes, I wondered why I hadn’t sooner.

After all, it seems tailor-made for me:

  • European? Check.
  • Incrediblly rare and obscure? Check.
  • Wedgy, boxy ’80s styling? Check.
  • Straight-6 power? Check.
  • GT body style and ethos? Check.

It even has an Opel tie-in: Its construction uses the contemporary Opel Senator’s floorpan as a starting point. I’m in love.

Bitter SC

So what in the world is a Bitter? The brainchild of a German racing driver, Erich Bitter, the automaker released a couple of cars—the SC featured in this post and its predecessor the CD—which were essentially rebodied versions of the largest Opel on the market at the time. Produced in extremely limited numbers (there were only 488 SCs made in total) they were sold in Europe and in Buick dealerships here in the States, much the same way Opels had been back in the early ’70s.

Bitter SC

The SC’s styling hews very closely to that of the Ferrari 400/412, with which it roughly shared a model run from 1979 to 1989. To my eye, the Ferrari is a fantastic car to copy, but the proportions are so similar it could communicate a bit of laziness on the part of the Bitter design crew. I won’t complain, though—there are far uglier cars they could have chosen to emulate.

Bitter SC

Available with either a 5-speed manual or 3-speed automatic transmission, the SC used a standard 177hp, 3.0l version of Opel’s CIH straight-6 engine, bumped up to 3.9l and 207hp by the end of the car’s model run. Motivating around 3,400 lbs, a 0-60 time in the mid 7s was very respectable by the standards of the day.

Values today are about what you’d expect for such a rare but not particularly exotic piece of the ’80s automotive scene; good examples can be found for around $20K, but be prepared to wait for the right example to pop up. Fortunately, the Bitter Owner’s Club is an understandably fanatical, tight-knit group, clustered as they are around so few examples of their obsession, so insight into the cars’ quirks is easy to come by for those seriously interested.

Bitter SC

The SC doesn’t threaten to displace any residents of my top five automotive objects of lust, but it’s certainly earned itself a spot on my ever-growing wish list.

To read more about the SC, check out excellent articles over at Autoweek and Jalopnik.

Image credits: auta5p.eu, bittercars.de, autobild.de, motortrend.com

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Missing the Minivan

April 27, 2015 by Matt

2005 Mazda MPV Gray Grey Side View

I miss our little MPV.

After 5 years of ownership, during which time we actually managed to pay it off, last spring we unloaded our ’05 Mazda MPV for an ’06 Volvo XC90, reasoning that our minivan days were over. I still daily-drive my truck, mind you, so the Volvo is my wife’s car, and she enjoys it. The XC90 is smooth and fleet, and with the 2.5-liter turbocharged 5-cylinder engine (not the optional 4.4l V8) and 2WD, fairly frugal, even if it does need to drink premium at the pump. The steering is sharp—well, most anything would feel sharp compared to my truck’s vague sense of straight ahead—and the leather-trimmed interior smells of plane trips and IKEA™. The kids like the DVD screens built into the backs of the headrests, and of course we’ve been freed of the “minivan stigma.”

Thing is, part of me misses, if not the stigma, then at least the practical, sensible aspects of minivan ownership. We bought our MPV for a song, in near-perfect condition, when it was only 4 years old. A quick scan of Craigslist confirms that minivan resale prices are ridiculously low compared with SUVs of equivalent size, age and mileage, and the cost of acquisition is even lower if your search terms don’t include the words “Odyssey” or “Sienna.” The MPV could be classified as a “mid-size” minivan, unable to carry a 4ft by 8ft sheet of plywood flat in the cargo area with the rear seats lowered, another fact that contributed to the car’s low profile in the eyes of a typical minivan shopper, interested only in “full size” models such as the aforementioned Japanese wonder twins and Yanks like the Town & Country. So we reaped the financial benefits of the minivan stigma and the Mazda’s lack of name recognition in the marketplace.

2005 Mazda MPV Gray Grey Cloth Interior Inside Cockpit Dashboard Console

Still—it was plenty big enough for us. During our annual beach trip last year, I had to exercise a previously unrequired level of packaging creativity when loading the XC90; with the MPV I simply tossed everything in the back and had no concerns over leaving myself a slit with which to use the rear view mirror while driving. The engine—a 3.0-liter V6 member of Ford’s Duratec family—was easy to work on as well, even if the intake manifold was a bit tucked up under the cowl, and parts were cheap and plentiful. The plumbing associated with the XC90’s engine is more daunting, and parts prices for our European ride are typically half again more expensive than those for the MPV.

I wouldn’t ask my wife to return to a minivan—she’s signed off on that stage of her car life—but I have pondered from time to time the pros and cons of trading the truck for one. The truck’s mileage is high (over 250K) but it’s in great shape, and chances are a straight trade would yield a minivan in good condition. And I can say with a fair amount of confidence that after a year and a half of driving a vehicle I bought with the expressed purpose of owning something I don’t care about, my car ego, at least when it comes to my daily driver, has been tempered to the point where practical considerations are well and truly king of the decision-making process. In other words, I’d be secure in my manhood even behind the wheel of a minivan, knowing that whatever reasons justified its purchase, they were good and rational ones. My sense of internal satisfaction would trump any superficial concerns over my “image” as a man.

2005 Mazda MPV Gray Grey Side View

I haven’t reached a tipping point yet, though. The truck has a ruggedness few minivans can match, parts are ubiquitous (it’s an F150) and the ability to just throw whatever I’m carrying in the bed, without having to consider height or dirtiness, is very appealing. Best of all, the truck is paid off, and at the end of the day, I think that—besides our 5-year family history with it—is what I miss most about the old MPV. Actually having the car’s title in my own filing cabinet (and not at the bank) gave me a transcendent sense of ownership over the vehicle, and felt fantastic from a financial standpoint as well, knowing that if anything went wrong with it, we had that many more options since the Mazda wasn’t tied to the bank. All that said, I’m sticking with the truck for now. It’s been a great vehicle so far; no complaints.

In the meantime, here’s hoping that minivans will experience something of a sales renaissance. Who knows; maybe all the Millennials who grew up in them will spearhead a nostalgia-driven resurgence of the body style sometime in the near future. Stranger things have happened, and goodness knows the unloved, workhorse minivan deserves its due.

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Audi Concepts: The RSQ

December 28, 2014 by Matt

Audi RSQ

Audi RSQ

More than any other automaker, Audi’s styling gives us a sense of “you can get there from here.”

What do I mean? Examine the various generations of Audi cars and there’s a clear aesthetic progression from one to the next. There’s no jumping off the deep end design-wise, a la Bangle-helmed BMW in the 2000s; instead, Audi’s corporate styling themes seem to move forward in even, incremental steps. And while this approach sometimes raises the question of whether their aesthetic evolution is too gradual, the easily-traceable progression makes it easier to extrapolate Audi’s future styling direction. In other words, it’s easier to fill in the gaps between Audi’s present lineup and the look of its concept cars, which in turn makes the concepts seem nearer, less fanciful and more real. While that might be a downside for those who enjoy concept cars as pure flights of fancy, aesthetic puff pieces with no connection to an automaker’s current offerings, most car buffs at some point imagine themselves behind the wheel of a car rotating slowly on the dais. Cultivating that connection means that a less extreme suspension of disbelief is needed to fantasize about driving a concept car, and renders it more attainable, so to speak, and thus more desirable.

Audi RSQ

Audi RSQ Interior Inside Cockpit Console

Take the car featured in this post, the RSQ. Created in 2004 especially for the Will Smith sci-fi action flick I, Robot (itself nothing to write home about, but that’s another matter), the idea behind the car was to create a realistic vehicle for the year 2035, when the film is set. Naturally, it has futuristic overtones, especially the spherical wheels. But because of Audi’s progressive design philosophy, there’s still a connection with their present-day cars; when you see it there’s a sense that, “Yeah, I could drive that.” That attainable quality stands the RSQ in contrast to other sci-fi movie cars like Lexus’s vehicle in the Tom Cruise flick Minority Report. Compared to Audi’s concept, Lexus’s offering looks downright alien. Now, does that mean I consider the RSQ objectively desirable, in that I would choose it over other, present-day Audis? No, but I still appreciate its visual kinship with those models.

Image credits: netcarshow.com, audiworld.com

Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series discussing Audi’s rich history of noteworthy concept cars. Read the other installments here:

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