It's a question whispered, like a secret, to the automotive writer: "What do you drive?" The answer is always assumed to be something exciting and eclectic, fast, romantic, and possibly a shade unreliable--like, say, a right-hand-drive Nissan Skyline with a 1967 Chevrolet Chevelle body and twin helicopter engines. But it seems that for every writer like Jamie Kitman, keeper of some thirteen British cars, there's someone else driving a decrepit, rust-eaten Saab 900 that wears discount Korean snow tires year-round. (Umm . . . that would be me.) As the saying goes, the tailor's children wear sweat-stained Hard Rock Cafe T-shirts, right?
This was due to change. My fiance, Heather, got laid off from her sales job, and soon enough, a man arrived and took away her company car--her only car. Silver Chrysler Sebring, we hardly knew ye. A pessimist might have seen this as a cause for belt-tightening, a time to start perusing the classifieds for a sensible, low-mileage Toyota Tercel. But I am not a pessimist--or even a realist. And so I envisioned a completely different opportunity unfolding: Instead of Heather buying a cheap car by herself, we could go in on a car together and procure something a bit more . . . exciting. Something that I--I mean, we--have always wanted: a BMW M3. Losing your job may seem an odd occasion to start shopping for an M3, but to hijack a popular truism, you don't drive the car for the job you have, you drive the car for the job you want.
At first, Heather didn't know she wanted an M3. She thought she wanted an Audi Cabriolet, possibly one with an automatic transmission. It would have room for her and her friends to cruise top-down on the three sunny days Boston gets per decade, and it wouldn't cost a fortune. That would be a fine car, I agreed, but wouldn't she like something a little more powerful, a little less Curves parking lot? Why, BMW happens to make just such a car, a convertible even, and one of the 1998 or '99 E36 models would fall squarely in our price range. She definitely would rock harder in such a car. She bought my argument for female M-powerment, and I began the search in earnest.
It bears mentioning here that I'd never actually driven an M3. All I knew about it, I knew from reading car magazines, and car magazines generally regard the M3 the same way a four-year-old regards Santa Claus. It's larger than life. If it were a baseball player, it would be suspected of using steroids.
Despite its greatness, there were surprisingly few '98-'99 M3 convertibles from which to choose. Of those, a horrible lot of them were equipped with an automatic transmission or painted a color BMW calls techno violet and I call disgusting bruise. Others had 100,000 miles on them or were located in L.A. But eventually, on eBay, I found a candidate only ninety miles away. It was a five-speed, titanium silver '98 with 49,000 miles. Perfect.
Or rather, nearly perfect. Two things about this car troubled me. First, it was fitted with clear, aftermarket front turn-signal lenses. This is not the sort of modification made by the infirm old lady who I'd hoped would hold the title. Second, in the background of the photos, behind the M3 in the driveway, was parked a Saleen Mustang. The Saleen told me a few things about the owner: he obviously likes to drive fast, probably has a portrait of someone's face tattooed on his shoulder, and possibly participates in Ultimate Fighting events.