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An Update on E46 Life

May 2, 2017 by Matt

BMW E46 330i 2002 Orient Blue

Well into my 16th month of BMW 330i ownership, and things are as rosy as ever.

Over the past year and a bit and 17K miles, the car’s thrown a bunch of issues at me, but nothing too difficult to diagnose or solve. And it drives as well as ever—better in fact, since a number of parts such as cracked intake boots were replaced, and they were likely in the process of failing when I purchased the car.

The two biggest game-changers when respect to diagnosis and repair are the OBD2 app I purchased for my iPod, along with a transmitter interface that connects to the car’s OBD2 port; and the smoke tester I used to locate the vacuum leaks that were the source of a number of issues a month ago. The E46’s M54 engine is very sensitive to vacuum leaks, and if one is present, it can throw a variety of lean and misfire codes that make no sense as the DME (ECU) tries to adjust various parameters to compensate for the unmetered air. Hence the first course of action once the “check engine” light illuminates is usually to hook up the smoke tester and try to suss out a leak. I bought the $90 model from this site and couldn’t be happier. The only alternatives are the cheap YouTube method using a cigar and a hand pump, or shelling out many hundreds of dollars for a shop-quality smoke tester. The Stinger unit is very easy to use and does exactly what I need it to do. Highly recommended for anyone who drives a car with a mass airflow sensor or air flow meter and depends on a leak-free intake.

There are still a number of outstanding issues to tackle in the coming months, as time and finances allow:

  • I put a nice little crease in the driver’s rocker panel when the car slipped off the jack cradle when I was replacing the shift bushings last year. So that’ll need to be replaced.
  • The cowl piece surrounding the base of windshield wipers is crumbling. No leaks; just an eyesore.
  • The whole car could use a good detail. Finding time to do it properly is probably my biggest challenge.
  • Another E46 owner very generously gifted me an adapter to connect an AUX input to the factory wiring for a CD changer. Need to install.
  • The AM (and FM) radio reception is marginal. Need to diagnose and fix.
  • The passenger-side front inner fender liner is still missing. It’s tough to find a replacement compatible with the rare-ish MTech1 bodykit.
  • Long-term, I’d like to replace the shift pin detents inside the transmission in order to cure a persistent notchy shifting issue, but that will require dropping the trans. Maybe when the clutch goes…
  • Would like to install an M3 steering wheel. This is a direct replacement, is more attractive than the Sport wheel, and it has molded-in hand grips, which I like.
  • There’s a small A/C leak somewhere. I recharged the system last summer, and when the weather turned warm again this spring, I discovered the A/C was warm again. A couple of cans of R134a later and it’s ice-cold, but it still means I have a leak somewhere.

I still love driving it, even if it’s my daily driver. It still turns my head when I’m walking away; the proportions are dead-nuts perfect. My automotive promiscuity still rears its ugly head from time to time, but a quick reminder of what I’m driving and the desire to acquire something else subsides. On that last point, one mental technique that works especially well is to remind myself of how much I miss various car’s I’ve owned and sold, and then to extrapolate that to imagine how much I would miss the E46 if I sold it. It’s a safe bet that the feeling of regret associated with unloading the 330i would trump that of any other car I’ve sold. She’s still a keeper.

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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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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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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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Doctor 540i or:
How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the V8

July 7, 2013 by Matt

I used to look down my nose at this engine configuration.

Sure, my opinion of them was colored by my thoughts concerning the perennial American attachment to big whacking pushrod lumps (which are certainly effective, done correctly), but I was wrong to let my views on the evergreen Small Block Chevy engine taint my perception of V8s in general. There’s a reason many more automakers besides the Big Three cleave to or have gravitated toward the configuration.

BMW V8 M60B40 E34 540i Engine Bay Motor

Click the image to enlarge.

I’ve always been an inline-six and rotary engine buff. I’ve been fortunate enough to have owned a few Mazda rotaries and a number of inline sixes from a variety of manufacturers (Nissan L24, Toyota 7M and 1JZ, BMW M30 and M50), so my predilection for those configurations’ inherent smoothness and refinement has been cemented for ages. I sneered at the V8’s less-than-optimal internal geometry that meant it could never be as naturally smooth as a fully-counterweighted inline-six. I adopted a kind of snobbish engineering puritanism.

But I’m happy to report that my month-and-a-half of life with my 1995 540i’s 4.0l M60 V8 (shown above) has helped me see the light. It’s a cross-plane design and very nearly as smooth as my old 525’s M50 in the upper rev range. The additional two power-pulses per cycle contribute to the feeling of refinement and give it a lovely noise. And it pulls like a freight train. I may not have completely “come to the dark side” and become an avid fan of the pushrod variation—they’re still too ubiquitous, and I like my cams up top, please—but as of this writing, send me my long-delayed V8 Fan Club membership card.

12 Comments on Doctor 540i or:
How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the V8

The New Daily: 1995 BMW 540i 6-Speed

May 26, 2013 by Matt

1995 BMW 540i 6-Speed Arktisgrau Arctic Gray

1995 BMW 540i 6-Speed Arktisgrau Arctic Gray

Here it is. Just arrived Friday morning. And the important stuff:

1995 BMW 540i 6-Speed Arktisgrau Arctic Gray Shift Knob

BMW M60B40 Engine Motor E34 540i

Yes folks, I have obtained one of the 1,524 6-speed BMW 540i E34s to be imported during the single model year they were available here: 1995. Arctic Gray (Arktisgrau) over Dove leather interior; I love the color combination. The engine is a 4.0l DOHC V8 with a rated output of 282 hp and 295 ft-lbs of torque. The car weighs just north of 3,500 lbs, which makes for a 0-60 time very close to 6 seconds. Needless to say, it offers a healthy bump over the 189 hp of my ’95 525i. The added displacement provides a very meaty torque curve as well, which translates to neck-snapping acceleration from most anywhere on the tach, and the DOHC head keeps the engine breathing well and pulling hard right up to its 6500 rpm redline. 2nd and 3rd gear acceleration is relentless, and the engine makes a lovely noise.

1995 BMW 540i 6-Speed Arktisgrau Arctic Gray Dove Interior Inside Cockpit Console Dash Dashboard

One of the main selling points of the car is displayed above: Its immaculate interior. Aside from some repairable door weatherstripping shrinkage, the interior looks new. The sport seats are firm but comfortable, the color scheme is very pleasing and it even features the optional 6-disc CD changer my 525 is hard-wired for but didn’t come with.

I found the car on Autotrader in Denver a couple of Fridays ago. I messaged a BMW forum member in the area asking if he’d be willing to check it out for me. Not only did he graciously agree to do so, he actually offered to deliver the car to me the following week if I would pay his expenses and the flight home. How could I refuse?

After leaving the dealership Wednesday afternoon, he rolled into central NC last Friday morning and met me at my office. He hung out for the morning and I drove him to the airport over lunch, after reimbursing him for gas and his expenses, which turned out to be amazingly inexpensive. Needless to say, I’m incredibly grateful, and the forum member has earned himself a gold star from me now and forever.

It does have a few issues, including dampers in need of replacement, cracked/missing foglights and a touch of rust along the bottoms of the doors (most frequent E34 rust area). New dampers are on order, I’m in negotiations with BMW friends over foglights from parts cars, and taking care of the rust for good is simply a matter of locating replacement doors and swapping everything over. It’s easier than it sounds.

The idea in replacing the 525 with a 540 from the same year was to retain as many of the qualities that I love about the E34 525 and shore up those areas in which I’m less than satisfied. So far, mission accomplished. Here’s what I wrote on the forums:

Alright, driving impressions compared to my 525. Overall, very similar. The 540 definitely feels more hunkered-down. Where the 525 would dance through the corners the 540 seems to take a set and bite down. If the 525 is a ballet dancer, the 540 is more of a Barry Sanders-type running back. I’ll have to post another review once I get the new dampers installed because I’m sure that’s coloring my impression of the 540. The new car does feel a bit heavier in the nose, but the car still feels like it pivots around the driver’s seat bottom—my all-time favorite quality of the E34. Overall the 540 doesn’t feel quite as “flickable” as the 525, but it’s not as floaty either, if that makes sense. Again, I’m sure new dampers will make a huge difference.

The 6-speed has taken some getting used to. I know the 5-speed in the 525 so well, the ratios and gearchanges are completely second-nature. Now I’m wondering if I’m on the highway, loping along in 6th and need to gun it to pass, do I drop 1 gear? 2 gears? Gotta get used that, and the stiff throttle cable isn’t helping with learning the car’s rev-matching/heel-and-toeing behavior.

And the power…oh the power. I’ll just come out and say it (some of you will laugh): This is the fastest car I’ve ever owned. The surge in 2nd and especially 3rd reminds me of my old 1JZ-swapped Supra for the 24 hours or so it was running correctly (long story), and that makes sense: Similar power (282 for the E34 vs. 280 for the Supra) and weight (3500 for the E34 vs. 3450 for the Supra). I remember distinctly pulling onto a country road in the Supra, opening it up and muttering “Holy crap” at the wave of power; I had exactly the same reaction in the 540 not 20 minutes ago when I laid 20 feet of rubber at the 1-2 upshift and kept it buried… It is addictive like nothing else.

So far, so good. Working through the laundry list of little things that need to be taken care of upon acquiring a new-to-me car is always kind of fun, and satisfying. Onward…

19 Comments on The New Daily: 1995 BMW 540i 6-Speed

An Original Owner Story

April 29, 2013 by Matt

1995 BMW E34 525i Oxford Green Rear Back Taillights

A couple of New Years ago, I drove the kids in my 1995 BMW 525i back to my parents’ house for our annual holiday visit. My car’s original owner is a lady who lives on their cul-de-sac. She replaced the E34 with a new-ish E90 325i, but still misses her old car quite a bit.

I parked by the curb on a Friday afternoon, and she saw her old car for the first time since selling it to me that past spring. She had to run to an appointment, but the incident reminded me to ask her something I’d been wondering about for a while. So I sent her an e-mail later that weekend asking for her story of the car’s purchase.

Here’s her reply. It made me really happy. Enjoy:

I would love to tell you the story:

In about 1994 or sometime around there, I was in Germany on business and rented a car for business purposes, as I was traveling to another city for a second meeting. The car they offered me was a BMW 328i, and I drove it from Frankfurt far into the countryside (I can’t remember the town), on the Autobahn. OMG, that just took me right out re: BMW’s. It was a manual shift.

I had driven a manual shift earlier in my life (school bus in high school, old Volkswagens, Mazda 626, which I had at the time), so a manual shift was very much at home to me, and frankly, what I consider…shall we say…driving.

Back in the US, I started thinking about how nice it would be to have a BMW, but what a dream that would be. I went to the first dealership, and thought they were snotty and arrogant, but I did connect with a sales person there who took me for a test drive in a white 525 with black interior. It was pouring rain and we’d stopped on a dime in the rain on a back road, so that was impressive to me.

But black interior? High price? Arrogant dealership? Automatic? That was 4 votes for NO.

Sometime later I was having dinner with my then insurance agent, Peggy, and her husband Ed. Over the course of dinner I learned that Ed loves BMWs and is always on the lookout for good deals. In fact, Ed loved hanging out at a second dealership in Raleigh and knew the guys there. He’d be on the lookout, but you know how people say those things, so I didn’t think much of it.

And then, about 4 or 5 months later, out of the blue, it was December, and Ed called and said that the second dealership had a 525i with manual shift in house, at the price of $34,000. It had 4,000 miles on it because it had been driven by an Executive at the recently opened BMW plant in South Carolina, so it had been really packaged nicely for the Executive (hence the burl dash, which was new at the time). He talked to the sales person and they would hold it for me if I was interested.

I went to the dealership, drove the car, and (remember this was December, 1995, and car salesmen were not as egalitarian or enlightened in the awareness of Women as Legitimate Customers). The sales men (I emphasize the men word here) were commenting with some shock that I could drive a manual shift. (Huh?) They couldn’t imagine that I would want a manual shift.

OK, but I did and yes, I bought the car. I had incorporated my business, so bought it with profits from my business. I paid cash for the car. That same unenlightened salesman said (brace yourself for what’s coming), “So, little lady, who’s going to be paying for your car?” I replied, “I am.” “Well, I know that you will be making the transaction today, but who holds the loan, or who is giving you the money?”

I looked him square in the eye and said, “I own a business. I earned money in my business to buy this car. There is no loan. There is no one else. I am paying cash for this car. TODAY. If you have a problem with that, I can speak with someone else.”

He sputtered and said something about little ladies today, blah blah blah, and we proceeded with the transaction.

I only mention that as laughter as to how times have changed. I noticed that salesman was not there very long afterwards.

For the entire time I owned that car, I had all service done at the dealership, as you can see from the records. I never had one lick of trouble with it (except for a water pump that went out 3 years ago in 100 degree heat, and a local tire shop replaced that in an emergency).

All service was performed by the same mechanic, Conrad, their top mechanic, until he moved to Virginia. Then I interviewed Conrad’s recommended replacement, who I think was William.

The service manager at the dealership in Raleigh, Kelly, knows me and this car like his own child. They were always good to me.

And that car represented my business ownership, my success beyond my dreams as a small business owner, and a real sense of pride for me. It also drove like a dream. I “fit” in the bucket seat (no small feat for a 5′ 1″ tall woman with short legs)

I had grown up in a large family where we were always limping along with second hand cars and Dad doing the repair, and we crossed our fingers on big trips, so it was important to me to be religious about preventative maintenance.

Mostly that car represented to me Dreams Realized, and I’m not just talking owning a BMW (I was always a little embarrassed about that, I don’t like the Ego stories that people make up. It was always less to me about having a BMW as having a nice car that I had didn’t have to worry about, that I could be proud to drive up in, that I paid for from my business and that I loved loved loved to drive…It was so much about the way that car drives).

Thank you for taking such good care of this car, and for understanding that sometimes a car is more than a car.

And thank you for asking…

Happy New Year,


3 Comments on An Original Owner Story

Winter Romance: The White Shark

March 29, 2013 by Matt

1986 BMW E24 6-Series 635 635CSi Alpine White

Selling this one was the right thing to do. At least that’s what I tell myself.

Ending a self-imposed 3-year “exile” from interesting cars, during which time I commuted to work in a beat-up late-’90s Saturn wagon (which served me admirably, I should add), the acquisition of my 1986 BMW 635CSi was at the same time a very deliberate purchase and an impulse buy.

I’ve always had an affinity for big GTs. I had just sold our (very faithful) 1993 Volvo 940 Turbo, and was still somewhat involved with the Volvo Brick community. But I also wanted something more engaging to drive, and I’d never owned a BMW before. Taking all that into consideration, I gravitated toward either a Volvo 780 Bertone—Volvo’s quirky, academic coupe of the late ’80s—or the E30-generation BMW 3-series. I knew an E30 would surely satisfy me from a driver’s standpoint, but there was (and is) something about the Volvo 780’s uniqueness—not to mention the familiarity of its platform—that I found very appealing.

1986 BMW E24 6-Series 635 635CSi Interior Inside Cockpit Console Dash Dashboard Manual Stickshift

So combine some of the driver’s car qualities of the E30 with the big, unique GT angle of the 780, and during the course of my deliberations, I arrived at the BMW E24 6-series. The E24 had presence, adequate pace, perfect proportions and was available with a 5-speed. I found the example shown here on Craigslist. I e-mailed the seller; he was the third owner and lived just down the road. I arranged to meet him one late summer evening in local grocery store parking lot; with my first in-the-flesh glimpse of the car, I knew it was something special.

It had 253K on the odometer, an amazingly stiff clutch pedal and the dash was cracked in multiple places (typical E24 interior problem), but the paint was in fantastic shape, it ran perfectly and most importantly, there wasn’t a hint of rust on the car, being as it was of west-coast origin. The big M30 straight six made a lovely sound as it hustled its way up to redline and the engine’s midrange punch was very impressive. So with little research, only a day or two after the very idea of acquiring an E24 had popped into my head, I bought one.

I owned the 635 for 9 months, from late August through the following April. It never let me down; never missed a beat, even with as many miles as it had. Autumn cruises through the piedmont with the windows rolled down were heaven. I got admiring glances from folks at gas stations and thumbs up from other BMW drivers. I was introduced to the wonderful E24 community, chock-full of helpful, unpretentious owners with encyclopedic reservoirs of knowledge about the car. With all that, though, I still began to be, if not exactly eager to sell, at least resigned to the fact that I had to get something else, for a number of reasons.

1986 BMW E24 6-Series 635 635CSi Alpine White

The first problem is illustrated above: The E24 was my daily driver all throughout a particularly snowy winter. The car was rust free, and ’80s BMWs not exactly being known for their comprehensive and durable rustproofing, I was on pins and needles every time I drove it through the slush, or even in the rain. I took it to the coin-op car wash at least twice a week during that period, but that didn’t assuage the feeling that I was accelerating whatever seeds of deterioration were planted in the fenderwells and rocker panels. It was awful owning such a classic and knowing I had to drive it in those conditions.

Next, the car didn’t fit our family’s car project paradigm. My 240Z project had yet to commence, but I knew it would, and if I’d kept the E24, my car affections would have been split between it and the Z. In the end, our family budget wouldn’t support more than the Family Hauler + Daily Driver + Project Car equation, and the 635 ventured too far into the Project Car category.

1986 BMW E24 6-Series 635 635CSi Engine Motor M30 M30B34

And finally, I simply hadn’t done enough research before buying the car. If I had waited a week or two and gathered additional information, I might have learned that a gray-market Euro import E24 can be had in similar condition to the one I bought for a very small premium over the price I paid—if not the same price. Euro E24s are blessed with a higher-compression engine, oftentimes can be had with a close-ratio dogleg gearbox and most importantly, sport the lovely thin-profile Euro bumpers that absolutely make the lines of the car. I liked my 635 very much, but I never got over the hideous US-spec “diving board” bumpers and the way they contrasted with the beautiful Alpine White paint.

I was sad to see it drive away. Its present owner lives in the sunny, snow-free Florida panhandle and is an ’80s BMW enthusiast, hopefully putting many happy miles on the car.

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The RX-7 Story, Part II: Red

September 28, 2012 by Matt

Mazda RX-7 RX7 FB Red

I pine for this car. Yes, I do.

This is the car on which I cut my teeth mechanically. Before the red RX-7 came along I congratulated myself on being able to change a starter unassisted; afterward I would tackle almost anything with little hesitation (and in many cases, preparation).

It was another eBay purchase, February 2000. This was still before eBay Motors came along and the listing for this car was beyond terrible. Two lines of text and no picture, but the kicker was that it was located just down the road in Greensboro. Having a little extra saved up, Aaron and I made the two-hour round trip to check it out.

Mazda RX-7 RX7 FB Red

When we arrived we couldn’t believe our eyes. Except for a blown engine, the car was pristine, perfect, cherry—literally. The seller worked in an automotive paint shop and had painted the car himself with loving attention to detail. However, aside from his artistic talents with a paint gun, he was a stereotypical American auto enthusiast who, “didn’t know nothing ’bout no rotary engine.” Thus, when the engine blew, he was baffled. Aaron and I, being rotorheads, saw opportunity. We thanked him for his time and returned to Raleigh, intent on scooping it up.

And I did. No one else must have driven out to see the car since my bid was less than $300. The owner delivered the car the following week on a flatbed trailer, visibly bothered that his eBay sale hadn’t gone as well as he had hoped, but a man of his word.

Mazda RX-7 RX7 FB Engine Motor 12A Wankel Rotary

So the plan was hatched. Between the black RX-7 with its strong engine but rusted-out northern chassis and the red RX-7 with its blown engine but sound body, I would make one complete and perfect little sports car. My dad was less than optimistic about my chances of success, having never attempted something as involved as an engine swap, but his skepticism just spurred me on. To shorten the story, I learned a lot, made a couple of time-consuming but non-terminal blunders along the way (keep grease away from the clutch disc!), and by early August, after about a month and a half of work, I fired up the good engine in the red car for the first time. That was an experience unto itself since the car had no exhaust but the manifold at the time and rotary engines create noise all out of proportion to their small displacement. Not only that, but I had squirted some automatic transmission fluid into the combustion chambers to lube the seals pre-startup, and the ensuing cloud from the burning ATF completely blanketed the cul-de-sac. But it ran, and ran well. I was ecstatic.

So where is it now? Why didn’t I keep it? The reasons sounded much more plausible at the time, but today I wish, oh how I wish I had reconsidered. After having the car for a few months and enjoying it thoroughly, for easily-preventable reasons the good engine ate an apex seal. Being in college at the time and in a bit of a temporary financial pinch, I somehow decided the car had to go. So in a fit of misdirection I put it up on eBay and sold it, with a blown engine, for $1500. I probably made money on the whole ordeal, but I still regret it.

The buyer arrived to haul it away the same way it had arrived in my parents’ driveway: On a flatbed trailer. From what I gathered, he was a Wankel enthusiast from somewhere around Goldsboro and planned to do a blow-through Weber turbo install. I never heard from him again after the car disappeared around the corner. Funny thing that’s never happened before or since: My mom witnessed the transaction and actually teared up as the red RX-7 was being trailered away. I didn’t quite know what to make of it then, and still don’t, really. I never knew she’d been so attached to it. If I had only known then how much I would long for it now, perhaps I would have been more sympathetic.

Editor’s note: This post is adapted from a “car history” post I wrote on an older blog of mine some years ago. Read the first installment of the two-part series here.

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