‘What a ter­ri­ble mis­take that car wasn’t. $300 for a bronze 1984 BMW 318i. Lord, I miss it’

CAR (UK) - - Quick Group Test - US jour­nal­ist Sam is equal parts helms­man, car geek and speed freak. He’s ed­i­tor at large at Road & Track mag­a­zine

THE BEST WORST car I ever owned died a hor­ri­ble death twice. The in­te­rior smelled like a cross be­tween ele­phant and old grand­mother house. The mid­dle of the left door, maybe six inches up from the sill, held a rust spot the size of a foot­ball but still man­aged to be one of the nicest pan­els on the car. The si­lencer hang­ers and clamps were so rusty that the ex­haust fell off weekly. Paint flaked off in chunks. For the en­tire time I owned this but­tbeast – roughly a year, start to fin­ish – I did not have a girl­friend, which is far from co­in­ci­dence. No other ve­hi­cle in my per­sonal his­tory has been as laugh­ably ugly or as struc­turally un­sound. Lord, I miss it.

What a ter­ri­ble mis­take that car wasn’t. It cost so lit­tle as to be al­most free. Three hun­dred dol­lars for a bronze 1984 BMW 318i that spent much of its life in Chicago, Illi­nois. In ret­ro­spect, I both paid too much for a self-pow­ered dump­ster and some­how man­aged a bar­gain. What is it about the ob­jects that find us in our times of great­est need? What gives them such ir­ra­tional ap­peal and emo­tional weight?

I was liv­ing in Chicago at the time, fresh out of univer­sity, un­able to find work as a writer. Broke and in need of trans­port. Chicago eats ve­hi­cles on an ac­cel­er­ated clock; the city pairs Amer­ica’s snow belt with mile-rack­ing com­mutes, ter­ri­ble roads, and minimal park­ing. Half the cars there wouldn’t pass an MoT, but Amer­ica has no safety in­spec­tions any­where near as se­ri­ous as an MoT, so it doesn’t mat­ter, and some fe­ro­cious junk stays on the road.

And the BMW was close to that. At just over 150,000 miles, it still had good seats and door seals, but also a rust hole in the driver’s floor­board that oc­ca­sion­ally ate my shoe. Fuel and coolant lines leaked at odd times. Cor­ners were a sym­phony of ir­rev­er­ence and the joy of the risked dis­pos­able. None of the car’s parts were so un-rusty as to be worth re­pair­ing, but noth­ing on the thing re­ally broke, so the point was moot. Any sane coun­try would have eu­thanased the BMW long be­fore, but the first time it started – no hic­cups, fir­ing on the but­ton – on a -10°C night, I fell. In­fat­u­ated with the car’s shame­less stink, I took to de­tail­ing it. Sham­pooed carpets, buff­ing com­pound on the rust holes. The heart can make you crazy.

I bought the 318i from a friend, who had bought it cheap from some other silly per­son. It needed ev­ery­thing and I gave it noth­ing and it ran right up un­til it didn’t. A rod bear­ing spun near St. Louis at the top of third gear. Fix­ing it was more ex­pen­sive than find­ing an­other $300 car, so with much cer­e­mony, I gave the thing to an­other friend, who en­tered it in a lo­cal de­mo­li­tion derby. We dropped the sump one night and slammed a new bear­ing into it over beer. The rod jour­nal ap­peared to have gone down on the Ti­tanic. The bear­ing was des­tined to spin again and did, but not be­fore the derby stomped the body to mush. Scrap.

This is where I’m sup­posed to trot out some cliche about how you can’t go home again, and how even try­ing is a re­gret­table act. But this morn­ing, as I stepped out to walk the dog, I heard a fa­mil­iar noise. It was com­ing from a re­mark­ably civil-look­ing 318i, no vis­i­ble rust, tootling down the street past my house. Shiny paint. An ’84 or ’85. Loud ex­haust. Maybe miss­ing a si­lencer.

I bog­gled, then ran after it. Yelled a ‘Hey!’ at the driver, but he didn’t hear. As re­al­ity sunk in, I stopped run­ning. Too many projects al­ready. Too many num­ber­plates in my name and not enough park­ing. The car wasn’t rusty enough. A long list of rea­sons to… not.

Then I thought on it for a few min­utes. Logic, it oc­curred to me, only has the power to sway your life if you weight it over emo­tion. And the joy of a dis­pos­able red­line.

Sev­eral years ago, I ac­quired an old mega­phone for use in a mag­a­zine project. This af­ter­noon, I took it out of my of­fice closet and set it on the front porch. No sense in pur­posely seek­ing home again, but if that car drives down my street one more time, I’m tak­ing it as a sign. And yelling a hell of a lot louder.

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