Remember To Drive

Deep in the heart of central Texas, it’s twenty nine degrees. I’m hungover, waking with a half-eaten McDonald’s burger laying next to me. What a waste, I tell myself. Eventually, I collect my head, walk out into the cold and crank over my two-week old 1986 BMW 325. These little cars have a funny high-pitch starter whine, cranking to high hell for two seconds and drumming to life in an instant.
The dog is wandering through the yard as I spread out a Mexican blanket in the back for him. Today, we’re going on a quick drive while the roads are free from the fear of ice to get to a little spot along Highway 360 where I can take a few photos of the little E30 (nicknamed EDirty).
The reason this is a special little trip, and this is a special little story, is this E30 has restored the pleasure of driving that I’ve lacked for a long time. Over the last year, life has kicked me sideways, upside down, and underground many times. I’ve been bruised hard enough to lose interest in most of what I loved; be it people, writing, or automobilia.

One of those kicks came from my 1998 Legacy GT eating three motors over the course of year. It becomes frustrating that a new motor is a part of your oil change intervals, to put it mildly. It sits in the field of broken dreams at the rallyshop and waits for enough motivation to see another motor, this time removing the plagued Phase I EJ25D and replacing it with a miserable though bullet proof EJ18.
In the meantime, I have been dailying a borrowed 1998 Impreza Outback. It’s alright.
The thing is, for the most part, all 1990-2000ish Subarus drive exactly the same. They all use the same identical platform, engines, suspension, et cetera. All-wheel-drive is fun in poor conditions, but otherwise it’s a safe, sane, and stable platform. Long story short, I am bored with them — nearing frustration.
Last month a few friends and I hit up K1 Karting on my birthday night. Naturally, we end back up at the Petrol Lounge to see a few of the new arrivals. On the way up, Glen, who operates the facility day-to-day, lightly kicks the bumper of this faded E30 that’s parked out front and asks,
“Hey! Know of anyone who would like to buy an old 325 for a few hundred bucks?”
I was back a week later to see it in daylight, and confirm my suspicion that I was going to buy this little BMW. Three one hundred dollar bills later, and it was mine.
This car has more character than Marilyn Manson. The story of this car is as flippant as the owner’s attitude towards non-essential maintenance. Fifteen years ago, Glen worked at a Toyota dealership as a salesman. One day, he gets a call from a woman who was trying to figure out the trade in value of her little 1986 BMW 325 before bringing it to the dealer. With out seeing the car, he couldn’t honestly give a price. But, this lady was adamant about getting a quote over the phone or she wouldn’t drive up there. After a quick talk with his sales manager, Glen told the lady that if it can drive itself into the dealership, he can give her $500. At the time, he needed a car, so he bought it for a few bucks more.
NDSC_3705ow, the quirks — Speedometer tends to drop out, you fix it by grabbing the wiring harness to the cluster and moving it around until it’s happy. Coolant gauge is dead, but I have since hardwired the electric fan — because the mechanical fan failed long ago and was removed (“Just keep moving, or shut it down at stops”). The fuel gauge only sweeps to half-tank when empty. The wiper switch is missing, but the contact for the washer pump and wipe still works — you just finger the contact to stay closed and you have wipers. At the time, it had a strut up front that was so terrible that it could fill with water and freeze solid on a cold night — that was the first to go. If the driver’s window stops rolling down mid-travel, open the door and then roll it down further — the door stop lost its bushing and tends to interfere with the glass. The On Board Computer works, even auto-dimming the display with a little photo-resistor in the face, but sometimes needs a knock or two to get out of what I affectionately call rave mode, where the display’s digits all spaz out and flicker wildly. Some girlfriend or another once broke the driver’s door handle off while trying to open it with the door locked. There’s a paint can tool in the center console to pry at the linkage with. And of course, the odometer is broken. It’s always broken in E30’s, apparently.
… I think that’s everything. Maybe. There is no unerring certainty of machinery here.
But mechanically, it’s brilliant. It fires right up, no problems. While little niggles were ignored, the car was maintained in intervals of months and years since there’s no mileage count. Three oil changes a year. A timing belt every two. Tires as needed. Hell, the brake pads lasted fifteen years! You can thank Pelican Parts for that.
And it is a riot to drive. I haven’t even gotten to the best part, it’s propensity for oversteer is admirable. Despite the open rear differential, if you set the car up for a corner just right and let it step out, you can roll into the throttle and let the flat torque of the 2.7L straight six carry the back end around. It’s not powerful, by any means, but dolls out enough torque to keep the rear wheels lit. The semi-trailing arm suspension, by design, induces oversteer. It was immediately entered into Lone Star Rallycross and beat senseless. Though last in class, mostly due to finding the limit of steering angle much sooner than expected, I was able to turn decent lap times if I could keep the car pointing in the right direction. I have been racing and instructing rallycross in front wheel drive and all wheel drive cars for years. Rear drive is simply a joy, and an entirely different experience.
DSC_8781   Flickr - Photo Sharing!
That was when I found joy in the machine, again. Shit eating grin, every lap. The little EDirty is a breath of fresh air. It’s a simple car that reminds me why I involve so much of myself into this strange little niche that we call the automotive world. I look forward to hearing that silly, high pitched starter every morning. Taking in the subtle but defining hum of BMW’s straight six, pedaling down on the heavy clutch and throttle, and clicking it into first, the car is an involving experience through its core.
If there’s one suggestion I have to a frustrated automotive enthusiast, it’s that you need to remember to drive and enjoy these cars. If complacency sets in, change.

Photos: Phillip Thomas, Jim Pickering (rallycross)

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  1. dukeisduke Avatar

    Dang, what happened to the rear bumper? I’ve never seen a aluminum bumper do that.

    1. Phillip Thomas Avatar
      Phillip Thomas

      Rear-ended enough times to finally crack the aluminum.

  2. roguetoaster Avatar

    You may be the happiest ETA owner on the planet. As you well know that engine will continue to operate long after every last creature and plant on the planet has been converted in to some sort of petrochemical.
    Also sounds like you could use a few bits and pieces. If you wish I’d be happy to provide what help I can from my cache. You can find me on r3vlimited under the same name.

  3. ninjacoco Avatar

    I still totally hate you for scrounging up $300 faster than I could.

    1. Phillip Thomas Avatar
      Phillip Thomas

      You wouldn’t know what to do with the thing.

  4. ptschett Avatar

    There’s an amazing amount of fun to be had in a RWD car on dirt and gravel roads once you’re past the xx,000 miles point that defines when you no longer care about whether the rocks thrown from the wheels are sandblasting the paint off the rocker panels/quarter panels/fascia.
    My Thunderbird got to that point for me about 9 years ago. There were times that I’d use the dang thing for a prerunner on my favorite gravel-road dual-sport motorcycle riding routes in the early spring to decide that the roads were ready for the 2-wheeler, and again in the late autumn when deciding if it was time to park the bike; also I occasionally ran both new and familiar routes with the car to cement them in my mind while I had the opportunity to travel them in a statically-stable 4-wheeled vehicle where I could divide my attention between driving and reading the map. It was on a mid-summer edition of one of those trips, somewhere between Lisbon and Kathryn, ND on the Sheyenne River valley scenic-route road where I finally made the decision between a 2011 V6 6MT Mustang and a 2010 Challenger R/T Hemi 6MT (in favor of the Challenger) somewhere between two corners that were traversed with the Thunderchicken going sideways at some [5th amendment invoked] multiple of the posted speed limit.

  5. caltemus Avatar

    Great article. I felt much the same way after driving Volvo’s and Subaru’s and before to a Firebird. I just can’t enjoy FWD as much, regardless of it’s real world advantages.

  6. roguetoaster Avatar

    In case my old comment does not migrate it seems that you are the happiest ETA owner on the planet!
    If you feel a desire to fix any of the little issues on the car I may well have the bits and pieces you need laying around, feel free to ask.
    Just to keep testing DISQUS on the ‘verse I’ll add my niece’s p-shop revision of my ’91 318i.

  7. Bret Avatar

    Great article indeed. My Miata does this for me. I’m so glad I decided to keep it in favor of a “better” sports car.