On German cars and earthly pleasures – BullshitIST
In my day job, I teach at a college. But in my spare time, I’m a car enthusiast. I’m almost ashamed. Academic life tends to encourage a certain kind of attitude — a monkish denial of earthly pleasures. In that context, to love cars seems crass.
I grew up in suburban London and passed my driving test in 2000. Back then, most of my friends drove clapped-out Ford Fiestas and Vauxhall Corsas. They had engines the size of hamster wheels, exhausts with holes in them that made them burble like V8s, and “dump valves” that made them sounds like buses when they stopped. pftWOOOOSH. That never made much sense to me. Why would you want your car to sound like a bus?
I didn’t have very much money — I had a part-time job, but selling trainers to other kids at the local shopping center didn’t pay that much — and so I didn’t own one myself. I soon went to university in the city anyway, where I didn’t need a car to get around.
My halls of residence were in Hampstead, a posh part of town where rich members of London’s cultural elite — actors, artists and writers— live cheek by jowl with Russian oligarchs, American bankers and middle eastern oil sheikhs. The streets are lined with impossibly beautiful Victorian houses. Life here seemed a million miles away from my home in the suburbs, where drab 1930s semis and naff shopping centers littered the scruffy streets. In fact, only forty miles and the hulking mass of London’s center separate the two.
There were plenty of nice cars parked nearby, but I always noticed the Audi TT on Kidderpore Avenue. The car’s styling captured something of the millennial zeitgeist: a Bauhaus-esque assemblage of lines and curves on the outside with a minimalist, bespoke-looking cockpit of brushed aluminium and baseball-glove stitched leather on the inside. In those days, I had ambitions to become a barrister. This was the perfect car, I thought, for a young, wealthy, upwardly mobile professional. I thought I would buy one soon enough.
In fact, owing to some questionable career choices, I didn’t buy a car of my own until much later, once I’d moved to America for graduate school. And I was certainly not wealthy.
At that point, well into my late 20s, finishing up my PhD, I did what a lot of transatlantic transplants do. Hoping to lay claim to my very own piece of Americana, I bought a Jeep, a 2001 Cherokee Sport. It didn’t matter that it was crap to drive and felt cheaply made, that there was so much slop in the steering that you could wiggle the wheel while driving and the car would not change direction at all. I loved its boxy, rugged styling — suggestive of the outdoorsy life to which I aspired — and the torquey 4.0 liter lump sitting up front, ready to propel me to Freedom (or, more likely, the shops).
It was to be a short-lived affair. The day after I bought it, I broke my elbow. Since the car had a manual transmission, I couldn’t even use it. It sat on the streets of DC for six months as I recovered, at which point I sold it to pay off my medical bills.
I put the Jeep on Craigslist. Within an hour, I had seventy replies. I had underpriced it by quite a lot. A man came with his wife and two children from the Appalachian mountains to buy it from me. He used an expensive flashlight to inspect the car in the dark. He left the flashlight in my house by mistake. I still have it. I feel bad that I never returned the flashlight.
Up until then I had lived vicariously through my dad’s choices of car. So I cannot tell you about my love for expensive German cars, bought on the cheap, without telling you first about him.
Like a lot of working class British men, for most of his life Dad owned garden-variety Fords: Cortinas, Granadas, Capris, Orions, Sierras and Escorts. He bought nice examples that, with some choice accessories, could be made to look a little more desirable. They didn’t cost much, but they looked special. That was important to him.
I remember the unusual square fog lamps inserted into the grille on his white 1984 Orion, a car he bought from my uncle. I never saw lamps of that sort mounted to any another Orion the whole time he owned it. Someone else must have liked them too; the car was stolen and later recovered, but only once it had been stripped of all its parts, including those lamps.
I remember the multi-spoke RS wheels that he put on his chestnut brown 1987 Sierra Sapphire, to replace the stock “pepperpot” style alloys. They made the car look a lot like a Cosworth, the more desirable version of the Sierra raced by rally drivers. And villains from the East End with names like Keith and Nigel.
I remember the rear boot spoiler with an integrated third brake light that he fixed to the rear hatchback of the fire engine red 1995 Escort Ghia. “Does the light sweep from side to side like on the car from Knight Rider?” a relative once asked. “Oh no, it just comes on like a normal brake light, when you hit the brakes” my dad replied, as the three of us stared at the back end of the car, admiring the non-sweeping but still exotic-seeming third brake light.
Perhaps a sign of the times — in Blair’s Britain, we were all middle class now— my dad bought his first BMW in 2000. The car had been part of a fleet of vehicles used by managers at the company he worked for, a huge telecoms giant once owned by the state but privatized in the 80s that ran memorable adverts on television featuring a Jewish grandmother, not unlike my own, named Beattie, who was proud of her grandson for studying an ‘ology. After three years of service, the car was deemed too old to be on the fleet. Dad bought it at what I imagine was a discounted price. It was a hand-me-down from the higher-ups who were driving sporty BMW coupes as company cars, while he was tooling around town in a little diesel van, keeping the phone lines beneath London humming.
The car was an E36-generation 3-series, a 1997 318iS coupe in arctic silver. It had electric windows, cloth seats and a manual transmission. And that was about it. Being an “iS” model it came with firmer, sport suspension. But it was otherwise so sparsely appointed that it didn’t even have fog lights in the front bumper, and the lower sills were black rather than body colored (in time, we remedied both). Powered by a 1.9 liter 4-cylinder motor that pushed out a meagre 140 bhp, it was not all that fast. But the manual gearbox, sport suspension and taut chassis conspired to make it a lot of fun to drive. It was his (and my) first taste of an expensive (cheap) German car. We were moving up in the world.
A few years later, Dad wanted to buy a newer E46 3-series, but he couldn’t quite afford it. Instead he found another E36, this time in a slightly better specification. It was a 323i coupe in madeira violet, with a silver-gray leather interior, 17" wheels, low profile tires and an aftermarket exhaust that gave it a throaty growl. “It’s a bit lairy, isn’t it?” he said to me, with a huge grin on his face, as we drove home in it for the first time, much too fast.
While I was at university my dad finally got his hands on the best BMW he ever owned, an E46 M3 convertible in carbon black, a color that shifts to a gorgeous blue-black in direct sunlight. It had an Imola Red leather interior and a six-speed manual transmission. With it’s bulging wheel arches, squat stance and ostentatious color combination, it looked like a drug dealer’s car. We loved it.
Dad would drive it whenever he could, and put the roof down even if the weather was crap — which it frequently was — just to hear the raspy six sing from those quad tail pipes. Once, he picked me up in it from a party on other side of London. In the small hours of a wintry night we cut a line right through the middle of the city and out its back end, with the roof down and the heaters blasting. “It’s a bit lairy, isn’t it?”
The E46 M3 is indeed a fantastically capable car, even in convertible form. As with most cars that’ve had their roof cut off, the structural integrity of the chassis is compromised, so the dash tends to shake and quiver when you drive over potholes. But the race tuned engine is a fabulous unit— the first naturally aspirated motor to develop more than 100 hp per liter of displacement — and it’s a surprisingly usable car for everyday needs, despite being oriented toward performance.
Though he got a good deal on it from a used car dealer in Birmingham, it was cheap for a reason. After about a week of driving it, he noticed a horrible cracking sound coming from the front end every time he turned the steering wheel full lock. A trip to a local BMW shop and £3,000 later, the front end was quiet again. I tried to convince him to get a refund from the dealer who sold it to him, who obviously knew there was something wrong with it. He wouldn’t. He had too much pride. “Look Craig, when you buy a second hand car, sometimes you get done over,” he said.
My final memory of my dad driving the M3 dates from around March 2011. I had been living in the Middle East, and once it became apparent from our Skype conversations that the tumor growing inside his bladder was life threatening, I came home. He was in so much pain when we met at the airport that I thought he was going to keel over and die right there. I offered to drive the M3 home for him. He refused. He insisted on driving us the whole way, a trip of about an hour, in what I can only assume was the most intense agony. He died a week later.
It fell to me to sell the M3, which I did, resentfully, adding insult to injury and to grief and anger. I put it up on Autotrader. A teenager drove from Wales in a van to see it. He took one look, and bought it right away, leaving me with a rubbish bag containing £10,000 in crumpled notes and a broken heart. If you know what became of RN03 KVK, please do let me know.
I live in America now. I am a contingent faculty member leaping from one contract appointment to the next. The passion for expensive, German cars that I have inherited from my dad must now yield to the harsh economic realities of life on the lower rungs of the academic ladder. I can’t afford to buy anything too new or too expensive. I don’t know whether and where I will be employed next year. So I buy old cars in great condition that I find on the internet that cost less than a month’s salary.
I caught myself admiring a 2016 BMW M4 parked outside the campus gates the other day. Only after staring at it for a few minutes did I realize that there was someone sitting in the driver’s seat. An undergraduate. The car costs $65,000.
The second car I bought in America, after the Jeep, was a beautiful old Mercedes-Benz. It was a 1989 190E in diamond blue that I picked up for a few grand from an older gentleman in central Florida. It had 62k miles on the clock and looked like it had just rolled out of Stuttgart.
I had never driven an old Mercedes before. How to describe it?
It’s like driving a car built by an engineer whose name is Herr Friedrich. Friedrich has one goal in life, which he pursues with single-minded determination. His goal is to build the very best car in the world, no matter what the cost. Friedrich does not even want you to buy the car that he makes. He wants you to assume the role of stewarding it into the future.
Nobody builds cars like Friedrich anymore. Not even Friedrich’s children.
I crashed the 190E in February 2016, when I lost control of the car on the I-95 just south of Richmond in freezing rain and ended up in a ditch to the side of the road, the front right wheel pointing in towards the frame of the car at a disconcerting angle. Friedrich’s precision engineering probably saved my life. But it did not save the car.
To replace the Mercedes I bought a BMW, a 1991 525i with a manual transmission. I found it on Craigslist. It was sold to me by a British man who lives in Pennsylvania. He has a passion for restoring old BMWs, a passion he can afford to indulge because, judging from his house, he is a very wealthy man. It’s nice to know at least one of us has achieved the American dream. The E34 5-series was his daily driver for a long commute, and now it is my daily driver for a long commute. Though he could have afforded something nicer, I think he found it charming. So do I.
It is actually in very good shape, though not quite as nice as my old Mercedes. The paint is beginning to fail in places, the clearcoat subtly blistering apart to leave lines like crow’s feet across the sheet metal. You don’t notice it from more than five feet away. While the 2.5 liter straight six engine is a little sluggish below 3,500 RPM, it wakes up after that and when it does, it’s a gem. The chassis is surprisingly spritely, making the car feel a lot smaller than it really is. It’s definitely a sport sedan. If the Benz was an autobahn cruiser, the BMW is for taking the backroads.
Despite being a more dynamic driver’s car, I don’t love the BMW like I did my old Mercedes. But I do like it. It has the same silver-gray leather that my dad had in his second E36. It even smells the same inside. I think of him every time I get in it. “A bit lairy, isn’t it?” he would have said.
Dad bought expensive German cars despite not having much money. He wanted something better for himself. I do too. But despite having been catapulted into the middle class by my education, my first BMW is even older than his first BMW.
He would have found that quite funny. I do too.
The author is a contributor to germancarsforsaleblog.com.