The Art of Aging without Grace

October 15, 2014 at 10:51 pm

Ask anyone familiar with BMWs and they will tell you the E36 was the bottom of the barrel amongst recent product lines. Cost-cutting everywhere, l0w-grade materials throughout, and enough rattles to make you think they hid a den of snakes in the door panels. Still, the chassis was well vetted, offering a fairly sublime driving experience particularly in M3-guise.

I still don’t care.

Up until about six months ago, I loved the M3. It was fun to drive, cheap to own, and looked great from every angle. It still does the last thing, but as my E30 has gotten pretty close to daily-driver reliable, I’ve felt let down by the M. Why is the E30 quieter? Why does the valvetrain have less clatter? Why do the materials feel richer, more substantial? Is it all mental? Or does the ancient E30 have an edge quality-wise over the newer M3?

I think the answer, like many, lies somewhere in between. And full disclosure, I love the E30 so much that I’m sure my judgement has been swayed as the car has improved with ample maintenance dollars thrown at it. But it doesn’t dispel the notion that the M3 feels older with each passing season, whereas the 325is feels better and tighter as one more final tweak is made or another maintenance item is taken off the list.

Many will tell you the E30 has some special ingredients dialed in, cultivating memories of BMWs past. A little bit of 2002, some E21 – and viola, you have the perfect driver’s car. Is it my imagination? No, but the M3 does feel like it is aging rapidly. And given a sudden uptick in mechanic visits, the proof is in the invoices. Perhaps I need to accelerate my plans for a used Tacoma and a second E30.

Sucking up Cobwebs, Donning Jetpacks

October 13, 2014 at 10:32 pm

For anyone still reading this site, it’s clear we have abandoned you. And by we, I mean me, because the site’s co-creator made a serious go at keeping content fresh while I left to write for a blog that paid out meager revenues. Hey, some dollars is better than no dollars.


That is, until it hits you that you’re being paid peanuts and for the little you’re paid, you should at least have the freedom to speak your mind and call a spade a spade. And if you don’t, you should be glad they cut you loose so they can keep chasing champagne wishes and caviar dreams while paying themselves the princely sum of $5 an hour.

In the words of a woman-turned-internet-meme-sensation, “Ain’t nobody got time for that.”

Time to dust off the cobwebs. A lot has happened in Jeff’s world of cars. The E30 is ever-closer to completion; the M3 is essentially serving as a light-duty pick-up truck while still getting hammered in daily commuting; and I am itching for a third vehicle. Why? Because the E30 is almost done, broseph. When one door closes, another bottomless pit of needless spending opens.

If I leave you with anything – beyond the promise of more frequent postings – it’s that I need an Alpine White 325IX sedan in my life. If you see one, shout it out loud. I’ll buy it quick.

And if you don’t have one of those, a Subaru XT6 with a stick would also suffice. Find me both and Bob’s your uncle.

The best thing about this blog? I can preach about whatever I want with no money to show for it. Hence, jetpacks (you know, the whole limitless thing. I realize jetpacks are expensive). Sometimes, less is indeed more.

The Secret Life of the Velveteen Rabbit

December 18, 2013 at 11:37 pm

The holidays have become known for a few things, none of them good: excessive consumption of Chinese-manufactured technology goods; holidays sales that put low-wage employees in harms way and away from their families; and a society-wide binge on throwaway products endorsed by a rampant barrage of media buys that do nothing but make the have-nots feel worse while convincing them that the only way to salvation is to put themselves even further in debt so their children – like, 5 years old – can own a Macbook Air.

When I was 5, Hot Wheels and Darda filled my wish list. Granted, the quantity of these requests could fill a small orphanage, but still. It seems blessedly tame in comparison to what today’s offspring demand.

Other things the holidays are known for include big-ticket cinematic releases, which I’ve always been amused by. Yes, I am aware some people do not celebrate Christmas. But is that their automatic go-to? Let’s check out a movie? In this era of Redbox and Netflix, I’m somewhat surprised that hopping into the family truckster to take in a flick on a holiday is a go-to for some folks. I suppose if the drive-in theater is still fighting the good fight, an indoor (re: warm) cinema should have no problem filling seats.

One such film slated to open this month is The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. From what I can discern, it’s about an individual dripping in anxiety about his self-worth based on accomplishments someone else told him he should have (I suspect there is a need for validation by a female involved as well, but if Kristen Wiig is your idea of a good time, have at it). So, despite knowing very little about this film, a juxtaposition unfolded in front of me today. This movie does capture the validity of the imagination, and the journeys that are feasible if only your mind is open to wandering and letting the empty spaces remain vacant for a roaming thought or two of, “Well, what if that was possible?”

There’s a thought I have – often when rambling, roaming, or otherwise exploring my vast subconscious – about energy. Ghost hunters will tell you spiritual activity is less about a moaning white sheet and more about the lasting impression of a particularly intense moment of energy, be it anger, happiness, jealousy or what have you. And often, physical environments are the recipient of these imprints, be it a grand staircase, a child’s room or a garage, filled with tool chests and grease, full of smells and stains of previous occupants.

By that logic, cars are a perfect conductor of this energy. They bear witness to fights, romance, frustrations. From bringing home a wife to bringing home a child to bringing home a termination letter, or traveling to a new job or cruising into retirement – vehicles are with us at those moments that typically define our adult lives. They are silent passersby who happen to be our first reprieve from whatever psychological high or low we are experiencing at that moment. This is why I know, without a doubt, some of my cars have spoken to me while others have had nothing to say, despite the trials I was enduring at that moment. This is not unlike people: some are caring, able to express concern in perfect silence, while others wouldn’t bother to hold you up as you struggled to stand.

My ’87 325is is a conductor of this electricity, this memory burn that cars can absorb. Like an older adult, the car has more years under its metal, giving it the benefit of time to become an accomplice to memories. But it doesn’t have to speak to me; it doesn’t have to provide that channel of energy, of memories that come alive every time fuel flows through its weathered lines. As the ghost hunter will tell us, however, when the energy is great enough – intense enough, either in good or evil – it becomes impossible to ignore. And you can stare into its headlight bowls much like grandpa’s ancient retinas, and know it is watching every moment, recording them either for your benefit or that of the next owner, convinced it will live forever to tell those stories. Of first loves, second chances, and of nothing at all. Of drives that go in circles, or plans that last as far as the next gas station.

So, where does the velveteen rabbit come in? Margery Williams said that things become real when they are loved for a very, very long time. I happen to know for a fact this E30 was cherished by its first owners, and despite the shambles it arrived in, loved enough by later stewards that it stayed on the road, despite accidents and deferred maintenance. It is a conveyance of memories; it has witnessed more in its life than I have despite my abilities of free will and intelligence. Think about that: this car is almost as old as me and has lived in more places. It sat on a ship and sailed the great oceanic divide, and took center stage at a major auto show. It’s likely faced more challenges, too, as my health has rarely been compromised and I’ve never been left to waste away. Its resiliency is undeniable.

And unlike the rampant consumerism this time of year, which relies on selling fake notions of wants and needs, things that are made by hand and forged in factories of men and sweat reveal to us daily that its original maker had no intention of it living an abbreviated existence. Whether “it” is an rambling old home, a pair of pliers or a set of stiff and woolly overalls, these things – and yes, they are things – can carry the energy I speak of. They were designed to be used, to do a job and to be a conveyance of achievement, whether a simple task or a lifetime milestone. And they bear the brunt of our existence, much like a family member, but doing so in complete silence and dutiful service.

So yes. This Christmas, go to the movies. Buy your flatscreens. But take a moment to stand in awe of that around you which has endured, be it a relationship with a spouse or your childhood home. Remember what it means to withstand the test of time, and realize the power contained when perseverance and emotion collide. Mercedes-Benz did a bang-up job capturing this in their fantastic ad, “Soul.” Enjoy – and merry Christmas.

Mercedes-Benz – “Soul”

Writing About Cars: Listen, this Blog is Cool, but…..

October 2, 2013 at 11:26 am

I haven’t really discussed this before, but I really need to find a way to write about cars, motorsports, and the hobby for a living. Like, a good, healthy living that doesn’t involve living hand-to-mouth and selling off my collection of mismatched BMW parts. A living that ensures the E30 receives the restoration it deserves and the M3 lives to see 250,000 miles on its original bottom end. That kind of living.

Long ago, I interviewed with Grassroots Motorsports magazine for a job as a reporter/writer. I was offered said job, which prompted a near nervous breakdown of deciding to invest in what I saw as a valuable relationship, or throwing caution to the wind (and said relationship) and moving to Florida to essentially live at Daytona. Did I mention that I would later be fired from the job I was considering giving the gigantic middle finger to while I relocated to Daytona Beach in the middle of a vicious New England winter? Yes, that happened. But the pay was low – really low – and I believed the relationship I had found was far more significant than the opportunity presented by the editorial staff. This decision was validated by my marriage not two weeks ago to an absolutely wonderful woman, but the scars of regret haven’t fully healed.

So what do you do? Well, if you’re like me, you dust off your Linkedin profile and see who might know who in the automotive world. You discover that a native Rhode Islander – right down the road, in fact – is a PR consultant for Porsche’s North American Motorsports team. You get him on the phone, in which he proceeds to tell you that the industry is a barren wasteland and that you better really enjoy making just enough to cover travel expenses while never earning what’s needed to support that restoration three years in the works for your 1987 325is. I don’t doubt the man, but in my phone-call fantasy, he was supposed to tell me he needed an extra set of hands to punch out press releases, set up interviews, and travel to Road Atlanta in a support role. Mere table scraps, and I’d take them. Truth be told, even table scraps are hard to come by, according to him. I’m a realist, but that was hard to digest.

And then you do the sit and wait thing, where you feel like a drug addict coming off of buzzy highs and hope-swallowing lows. After discovering a potential connection worked for one of the major media conglomerates with multiple automotive properties, I sent him my resume at his urging. Grateful, I am, but the excitement of this close connection was quickly subdued by the realization that my information is a mere email – a speck – in a inbox that is as vast as the universe itself, with unknown depths and myriad possibilities for when, if ever, my deets are viewed.  I’m not naive. I hate entitlements. Don’t feel like my profile deserves viewing any more or less than the next guy. But holy God, getting noticed and having a conversation seems like its light-years away after witnessing the effort involved in just finding someone with an email address that doesn’t begin with “info@…..” True, it’s half the battle – and for that, I am grateful – but when most of your mojo is locked up until an in-person meeting is proposed, you begin to understand how a third-string quarterback might feel. If you gave me the ball, you might just see that I can chuck that thing out of the stadium. Sure, my face will get stomped on a few times. But until you get that chance, how will anyone know?

I love writing. I do. I believe I’m good at it. That’s not to say a trip to J-School isn’t required, but I’d be willing to make that leap if someone gave me a sign that the investment is worth it, and that my life won’t turn into that of a starving artist. I look at why my subscription to Car & Driver will never lapse, and that’s because I love reading the columns penned by John Phillips and Peter Egan. Good writing does sell products, and I am hungry to prove my worth at any number of publications. I’m not picky. I’ll bring my own computer, and jump on a plane without hesitation. You want me reviewing a Nissan Versa in South Dakota? Done. Analyzing vinyl seating surface durability in New York City cabs after years of carting millions of gross, disgusting asses? Where are my latex gloves? Interview members of the Green Party about their hatred of horsepower? Heck, I’ll even wear a Prius button just to set the mood.

I’m sure there are thousands of gearheads and writers who would answer yes to those questions as well. But you’ve got to respect the guy who came up with them in the first place.

What I’ve Been Up to Lately

August 25, 2013 at 11:53 pm

…clearly not posting, for sure.

Sorry to say, but life does occasionally get in the way. But I’m happy to report that in the time since I’ve last updated you, life has been pretty OK with the E36 M3.

What I enjoy most about this car is how it reflects the basic enhancements needed to make the E30 more modern without abandoning the simplicity that made the elder statesman so great. The E36 carries on the tradition of simple bolts and screws, halogen headlamps and bulbs,  manageable wheel and tire sizes, and so on.

Not to mention, prices for parts are fairly cheap – and in abundant supply. I’ve been amazed over the last few weeks seeing how inexpensive parts can be for the E36, now that it is at the absolute pit of its depreciation curve. $20 for a brake light switch, $190 for an OEM clutch kit, $50 for a replacement 17″ alloy wheel – the list goes on. People don’t love these cars at the moment and it shows, making it all the easier for me to fix the few ills it has and preserve it for the long haul.

That’s not to say the cream of the crop don’t command big money – upwards of $25K for low-mileage examples. But even for those investment grade automobiles, the simplicity of its operations remains the same and the cost of parts stays low. Although I am aware my clutch needs replacing and the driveshaft is starting to bind up, I’m undeterred by making those investments, given how low the projected cost of ownership looks to be.

The bottom line is this: in the weeks since I’ve last written, I’ve only grown fonder of the car. But the wife recently picked up a new Mazda CX-5, and that’s compelling for all sorts of new reasons – especially for the introduction to the new Mazda 6 I had while waiting at the dealer. Until next time, where I discuss the first Japanese vehicle in a while to give me pause.

It’s Time for a Volkswagen BRZ

June 26, 2013 at 8:02 am

For the past few weeks, I cannot keep my mind off of oddball Volkswagens, especially those with a track record for being as reliable as often as a Kardashian is mistaken for an intelligent person. I’m talking about Vanagons, Sciroccos, and anything that came from the factory with a VR6. In particular, I have dedicated my search to a clean B3 Passat – yes, the one that looks like its perpetually frightened, thanks to its wide-eyed face and ticking timebomb of a motor.

While it’s not G60 levels of self-implosion, the first-generation of any motor is usually somewhat of a moving testbed, a prototype that you get the privilege of paying full price for without the pleasure of destroying when its mule-ish reliability wears thin. The factory gets to experience that joy, while you just find a way to live with it. However, it seems like the B3 is dying like it lived – quickly, and forgotten behind a mechanic’s service bay.


The reason I love this early Passat so much is because it was the most modern answer Volkswagen was willing to give to the windswept movement that has made most new cars look like a snow drift with headlamps. Instead, they took essentially the same rectangle-with-a-glass-bunker design language that defined every one of their cars and smoothed out the still-square headlights while rounding the very edges of the fenders. It was as if you could imagine ol’ Wolfgang screaming bloody murder that the suits wanted shapes that didn’t resemble a refrigerator and, after months of indifference, this is what he came up with. A gigantic brick of a middle finger to management, with a howling VR6 in the nose. God love ol’ Wolfgang.

My underlying affinity for cars like this is because they are no longer made, especially by the Germans. Congress began discussions recently that cars in the future will feature some sort of wi-fi labyrinth that will determine if a driver is using their phone when moving. Certainly we can all agree that distracted driving is a problem, but instead of improving drivers so they don’t kill themselves or each other behind the wheel, we once again further neuter the car from any sense of engagement because, well – most Americans have no interest in actually improving their response times or making the car the central focus of driving. From a styling standpoint, these amorphous blobs we now call “new cars” (I’m looking at you, Hyundai Elantra) are so lacking in design character that they’ve become both anonymous and identical to every other car on the road – all in the name of small improvements in fuel efficiency. I drive a boxy ’95 M3 that still gets 22 m.p.g. on the highway, a scant 6-8 miles difference (estimate) from today’s compacts. Big loss in the name of incremental efficiency gains.

I have to give the Japanese credit: they had the stones to see the BRZ asd FRS through to production, and they’ve been praised handsomely for it. It’s time for ze Germans – and who better than Volkswagen – to sell a stripped-down, rear or all-wheel drive platform with a nose-heavy VR6 and boxy styling. Otherwise, I’m going to keep looking for a Passat (like this one!), or a Vanagon, or Scirocco…or maybe a Quantum with Syncro….


The Invisible Autocrosser

June 19, 2013 at 10:53 pm

For the past several weeks, I have joined millions of other Americans in being glued to the NBA playoffs and finals, as well as the race to the Stanley Cup in the NHL. Throughout all of this, I have been inundated with commercials showcasing athletes at their fiercest, pushing their bodies beyond the limits of endurance and replenishing valuable electrolytes with a plethora of Gatorade products.

I get it. They are the top of the physical specimen foodchain and deserve close-ups of battle scars and dripping sweat. But through all of this, I notice every commercial showcases most major sports leagues, even those that are months away from championship-caliber events. So here’s my question: where are the drivers?

E30 autocross

After autocrossing for the first time this season last weekend, I’m reminded how on even the most basic level, racing is exhausting. The level of concentration it demands. The way it forces you to improve every few minutes. The unpredictability of piloting a 3,000 lbs. hunk of steel as your primary means of improving your times. Memorizing a course after a brief walk-through. Analyzing what you did wrong in a five-minute break before you go back on the course and try to shave a tenth of a second off your last run. And so on.

Do I need to train for five hours a day, develop a ridiculous diet and hire a coach? No, but professional drivers do. And it’s about time they were represented in the media more widely than Ken Block and his various knock-offs. Hopefully, movies like Ron Howard’s forthcoming creation Drive will open some eyes to the grueling and competitive nature of major-league racing such as Formula 1. For now, I would like to see your average high-school soccer player settle into an ancient rear-wheel drive coupe and try not to sweat when navigating the Chicago Box.

The Forever Car

June 5, 2013 at 10:54 pm

Recently, my brother shared an article that discussed how a Porsche 911 was the author’s “Forever Car”  – a car that he would never sell unless it was physically impossible to retain it. As some of you may know, I recently acquired a 1995 E36 M3 coupe on a bit of a whim, and I can say this: it has the stuff forever cars are made of.


I don’t know what it is, but older vehicles for me capture a mixture of qualities that today’s new cars and trucks can’t re-create, features that appeal to the senses and slip further and further out of grasp with each platform change or model update. I suppose people from every era say the same thing about how generational shifts aren’t moving us forward, whether it’s the type of service you receive in a restaurant to the price of a good pair of shoes. As I grow older, I find myself somewhat ambivalent about most of the changes we’re experiencing.  I can appreciate a good mobile phone, and eating organics can only serve to improve my health. But throwing down $30 large for a soulless rolling technology convention just isn’t going to happen.

The M3 is full of instant sensory gratification, from the way it just makes noise – it sounds fast when you’re creeping out of a parking space. It is eerily silent when you’re sitting in traffic, save for a rich mixture giving it a pulse at idle. The exhaust is bassy, full of bumps and pops when coasting down a hill. The intake noises, from the whine in first gear to the air horn-like blat it gives at full throttle, is nothing any new car can offer without acoustical support from some electronically manufactured soundwave. Kids today think all car movies are filmed with CGI, thanks to Fast & The Furious. The M3 is Ronin compared to Tokyo Drift. 

It looks natural. It’s a normal 3-Series coupe, from the side skirts to the trunk lid, yet a set of chunky wheels and aero kit transform it, with the 235-series rubber poking out from the fender. It’s as if the designers knew all along the ordinary E36 would accommodate such enhancements, even when there were no plans to bring the M3 to the U.S. Today’s  performance variants need lowered suspensions, 19 inch wheels with tire monitors, LED lighting and 500-watt stereos to convey performance; the M3 accomplishes the same without a bumping system and Von Dutch pinstripes.

Most of all, it’s a giant middle finger to our throwaway society. It’s got 153,000 miles of memories, and is testament to a proactive maintenance schedule and passionate owners. Today’s gadget-hounds and window shoppers find contentment knowing they’ve purchased the latest and the greatest, and tremble with the realization that newer and better will be here in six months – or worse yet, next door. Good for them, I suppose. Hope that new infotainment system keeps them occupied – God forbid they actually find driving engaging enough.

And that might be the bottom line of all of this. If you enjoy driving, you find pleasure in the tactile sensations of older vehicles, from the smell of fuel wafting through weathered gaskets and the rough leather patches of a worn steering wheel with hand-stitched M colors. If you just want to ensure your ego can keep up with the Joneses, your driveway will become a revolving door. If you want a forever car, you buy an M3.

You’re Either the Fence or the Switch

May 27, 2013 at 11:21 pm

“Hold onto your butts.”

Ah, the immortal Samuel L. Jackson and his cryptic words of wisdom before doing something that would both save the asses of everyone trapped in Jurassic Park while completely screwing over the slow kid stuck to the electric fence. In a somewhat premeditated move, I chose these very words to describe how I feel the night before I take delivery of a 1995 BMW M3 coupe from San Diego that I bought sight unseen.


In one regard, I have feelings of great anticipation. Hope for redemption, that after falling out of love seemingly overnight with my 2003 BMW 330i ZHP, that the M3 will indeed unlock Pandora’s Box of daily-driver bliss. That like the moment ol’ Samuel realized he had found the path to potential safety from certain death by tyrannosaurus, I have discovered the automotive fountain of youth, where, with every turn of the key, I am reminded that a car can deliver such satisfaction that its welcome is never worn out.

At the same time, I could be that idiot who climbed so God-awfully slow up the fence that you were almost rooting for him to get his brains fried when the juice was pumped through the lines. As you watched, you’re at first cheering for him, something like this: “Yeah, Jeff – a nice, clean E46. It’s got modern safety features, functioning air conditioning, hasn’t been stolen and put back together after an insurance auction, etc…” But then, as you watch little Joey Mazzello climb up the fence like he’s afraid it’s going to give him AIDS you start to think, “Goddamnit, you’re  a few apples short of  bushel, ain’t ya? You know what? You deserve whatever you have coming to you. Sam Jacks, turn that mother on and let’s see some suffering.”

All that said, I’m not sure what side of the fence I’ll end up on. Slowly taking a drag from a cigarette after a job well done, or writhing in pain as my intestines turn to jello.

Either way, it’s safe to say we better grab hold of our posteriors and hope for the best. The M3 should be here by this time tomorrow night.

Feel Special for $800

May 16, 2013 at 11:46 pm

It’s not often you see a Saab Special Performance Group (SPG) 900 in the wild, let alone one that’s sitting idle waiting for the next sadistic fool to take his chances on this Swedish chariot. But points must be given to the current owner of this broken banger for having the foresight to store it indoors for at least part of its hibernation.

I don’t know much about Unity, New Hampshire but I’m assuming its namesake doesn’t apply to the status of this car’s most important bits. They’ve been scattered a bit like ashes, with the body kit removed, a dead fuel pump and a blown turbo. Perhaps it’s unified in its project car status, or maybe united in its goal to bankrupt subsequent owners.


Whatever premonition the car’s location supports, there’s no denying its significance as a crowning achievement in the Saab lineup. The 160 bhp 16-valve motor made for spirited performance, but this one’s faulty components – primarily responsible for fuel delivery and delivering the turbocharged-rush Saabs are famous far – let down what is otherwise a truly special car.

It baffles me sometimes how cars can be torn down in what seems like a valiant attempt to bring it back from the dead. Unfortunately, whether life gets in the way, bills pile up or the spouse gets cranky, many cars lie dormant, victim of their owner’s ambitions. With only 7,000 SPGs imported into North America, its rarity is well documented – but will this one get out of a shed in remote New Hampshire town to return to the ranks of its limited production brethren?

Hopefully, time moves a little slower in Unity.

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