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.
I paid eight dollars for an AutoCheck report and ran the M3's VIN. It hadn't been in any accidents and was originally registered in the Hamptons, which meant it was driven by a rich person who took good care of it--or by a rich person's spoiled progeny who regularly drove it into swimming pools while snorting cocaine off the dashboard. I crossed my fingers, hoped for the former, and put in a bid.
I won it for the reserve price, and for Honda Accord money, I was now the future owner of one of Germany's finest automobiles, circa 1998. I headed to Springfield to pick up this car that I was legally obligated to purchase but had never seen in person. Since I'd read all about the M3, I knew exactly what to expect from the engine: nothing less than nuclear-bomb power, delivered with the velvet purr of a hundred tiger cubs licking butter from a sheet of glass. I knew the steering would have so much feedback that if I ran over a nail I would need a tetanus shot.
The owner, a beefy, shirtless fellow who demonstrated his Saleen by starting it up and immediately redlining it in neutral ("Ha! You didn't do that to the M3, right? Ha. Ha. Ha."), handed me the keys, and I tentatively climbed aboard and prepared for undiluted driving bliss. My impressions, in order: "These seats are as good as they look. If scientists should develop an immortality pill, I shall keep my M3 until the sun grows cold and the earth is but a barren rock hurtling through lifeless space!" Second, "Did vandals steal the chassis reinforcements? The original Tacoma Narrows Bridge had better structural rigidity than this." And third, "Wow, great power up to 4500 rpm! At which point, the engine apparently morphs into a Singer sewing machine."
At first blush, 1998 doesn't seem like that long ago, but when you stop to think about it, eight years ago Bill Clinton was president and Eagle-Eye Cherry got regular radio airplay. Eight years ago, people paid $46,470 for 240 horsepower. Thanks to evolutionary styling changes from the E36 to the E46, onlookers sometimes mistake this car for new, but damning evidence to the contrary lies in the glove box, where I discovered a "BMW New Owner Audio Program." It's on a cassette tape.
Today, my old M3 is handily outpowered by the likes of the Honda Accord Hybrid and the Hyundai Azera. That's pathetic. So I've learned to take pleasure in the subtleties. The way the grips at ten and two o'clock on the steering wheel have slight indentations to accommodate your thumb, for instance, or how the wheels, puny by current standards at seventeen inches, nonetheless hunker under the fenders in a butch stance. You wish for a six-speed transmission not because the engine needs it but because that stubby little shifter is so light and smooth you'd like one more opportunity to change gears. And thanks to its 50/50 weight distribution and a set of Vredestein Wintracs on 1995 M3 rims (another eBay find), this rear-wheel-drive droptop is much fun in the snow.
Sure, the current M3 will whup my car. The upcoming V-8-powered M3 will rip its wheels off and stuff them up its tailpipe. But rather than dwell on the superiority of the future I can't afford, I prefer to live in the past. Pretending it's 1998 is free. So when the sun is shining and Will Smith is blasting, I flip open my Motorola StarTac and yell "Whassup!" over the roar of my mighty 240-hp M3, the baddest car on my street.