Some cities – like New York, the enormous metropolis explored elsewhere in this issue – sprawl endlessly into suburbia over dozens and dozens of miles. San Francisco is different. It ends abruptly. Head north over the Golden Gate Bridge, and within hundreds of yards, you’ll find some of the most picturesque, lightly trafficked roads in the world.
You’ve probably heard of California’s State Route 1, which is called the Pacific Coast Highway in Southern California. North of San Francisco, Route 1 is called the Shoreline Highway, and it’s here that we’ve planned our day trip. Whether heading north or south, there’s no car that could better serve as an accomplice in the conquering of Route 1 than BMW‘s brand-new coupe whose name is of the same numeric value. The new 1-series might be sized like a city car, but it shares lots of components with its larger sibling, the 3-series, which means that the 1 carves through corners like the world’s most involving sports cars. Whereas most city cars serve only to facilitate movement from point A to point B, our 128i coupe will happily scream its way through thousands of corners from Fort Point to Point Arena. How far will the trip take us? You guessed it – it’s 128 miles north along Route 1.
The resplendent Golden Gate Bridge is the northern escape route out of San Francisco, and it carries two roadways – U.S. Route 101 and California Route 1. Fort Point is located just beneath the southern end of the bridge, and we pass directly over it, heading out of the city on a cold morning before sunrise. What we can’t see in the darkness below is a fort, erected after the 1849 gold rush to protect the bay from hostile ships. It wasn’t the first military establishment built here; the Spanish constructed a fort in the same spot more than fifty years earlier, but its adobe structure couldn’t survive the area’s wet weather. True to form, it’s raining as we cross the span.
Just a few miles north of the Golden Gate, Route 1 splits off from U.S. 101 and becomes the Shoreline Highway, leaving all traces of the city behind. Sidewalks and streetlights are replaced by hairpin turns illuminated by the BMW’s swiveling HID headlights. And, thanks to the Bay Area’s many microclimates, rain has already given way to clear skies and dry pavement as we dive deeper into Marin County.
The roads here clearly favor cars that handle well, and Route 1 is no exception as it winds up and around the base of Mount Tamalpais. As the sun comes up, our 128i is relaxed at speeds that would topple SUVs and might make the passengers of big luxocruisers grab for sick bags. The road is narrow, the turns are tight, the grades are steep.
And the ocean is incredible.
To a native East Coaster used to seeing endless miles of tourist traps along the flat, visually uninteresting Atlantic shoreline, the Pacific Coast might as well be a Dalí painting. It is an improbable convergence of impossible geography: cows graze in flat meadows that end at the sea like infinity pools; wide-open hillsides become so steep you wouldn’t be able to stand on them; building-sized rocks jut proudly out of the water. And the road? Were it not for the several-hundred-foot drop into the cold water below, Route 1 could be a competition road course – a would-be racetrack with a stunningly picturesque backdrop, that is.
Just a few minutes ago, our Monaco blue metallic 128i was sitting at a stoplight, and now it can run free. “BMW heaven,” says photographer Andrew Yeadon as the smooth in-line six sings the sweet serenade of twenty-four valves and 230 horses. The sport package’s Goodyear summer tires don’t make a peep no matter how hard we push, and the taut suspension disallows any excess body motion. The electrically adjustable bolsters in the sport seats keep our bodies free of any excess motions, too.
After twenty or so miles of frenetic, spaghetti-like tarmac, Route 1 descends to sea level at Stinson Beach and then lazily curves around the calm waters of the Bolinas Lagoon. Diverting slightly inland, the roadway suddenly becomes tranquil as it heads northwest toward Point Reyes Station, giving us time to contemplate our chariot. With a sticker price of more than $36,000, our loaded 128i certainly is not cheap, but it offers a significant discount over a 3-series with no real trade-off in refinement, equipment level, front-passenger room, or performance. That’s among the highest automotive praise we can give. Its frameless windows let in no wind noise, and its stereo system – with full USB and iPod integration – makes a great companion on a long road trip.
As we make a left turn onto Sir Francis Drake Boulevard for a twenty-mile detour to see the Point Reyes Lighthouse, the scenery begins to look like Wales. A heavy rain again pelts the front of the car, and high winds howl across the rolling hillsides, which are peppered with small shrubs and livestock.
The region’s history is just as diverse as its geography. English-man Sir Francis Drake is believed to be the first European explorer to land here. No one is sure where exactly he originally touched terra firma in 1579 – the port’s actual whereabouts needed to be kept secret from Spain – but his claim allowed the British to declare that they had conquered the New World from sea to sea. Sir Francis Drake named the area Nova Albion, which means “New Britain” in Latin, but it wasn’t long before the Spaniards arrived to stake their claim.
On Three Kings Day in January 1603, a Spanish explorer by the name of Sebastián Vizcaíno used the calm water of Drake’s Bay to seek shelter from a storm. He named the peninsula that juts ten miles into the Pacific – thereby creating the bay – Punto de los Reyes, or Kings Point, because of the holiday. Although Drake was long gone, Vizciano likely knew of him – his pirate exploits were world-famous, and the Spanish referred to him as “El Draque,” a play on his name that means “the Dragon.” And if Sir Francis’s reputation somehow hadn’t preceded him, the region’s native residents, the Coast Miwok people, surely would have told Vizciano of Drake’s prior arrival.
Some historians believe that Marin County was named for an eponymous Coast Miwok chief. Others maintain that it comes from the Spanish name for a bay located on the eastern side of Marin called Baha de Nuestra Señora del Rosario la Marinera. (The name stuck before the Russians arrived just north of here at Fort Ross, or Marin might be called something entirely different.) Either way, we’re driving down a road named for an English knight on a peninsula named by a Spanish explorer who beat the Russians here, in a county that may be named for a Native American chief. And it looks like Wales. Dalí painting, indeed.
Point Reyes is the windiest place on the Pacific Coast and the second-foggiest place in North America, and right now it’s living up to its reputation. BMW heaven has turned to meteorological hell, but we leave the heated-seat comfort of the 1-series cabin to view the lighthouse. The long walk is a fight with the elements that reminds us how impressive it is that the structure has survived for so many years.
Shipped by boat from France and operational for the first time in December 1870, the Point Reyes Lighthouse had to be situated below the area’s typically high fog. To that end, it sits about halfway down the six-hundred foot bluff that leads to the ocean, providing the unusual opportunity for us to gaze down at the top of a lighthouse. The structure survived the Bay Area’s devastating 1906 earthquake despite being shoved eighteen feet northward in less than a minute. Located on the Pacific Plate, the entire Point Reyes Peninsula is slowly moving northwest along the North American Plate. The intersection of these two plates is the San Andreas fault, and it’s responsible for the spectacularly mountainous terrain that Route 1 navigates.
Our 1-series is also making northward progress along the North American Plate – at a higher rate of speed than the Point Reyes Peninsula, thankfully. Much higher, in fact, because it’s not long before the weather turns sunny, dry, and warm. As the road dries, the 128i begs to be driven hard. Wheel spin is no longer an issue, but even with the stability control turned off, the little BMW isn’t a hairy-chested, power-oversteer machine – its open rear differential favors spinning the inside wheel, especially in low-speed corners. At higher speeds, the car understeers a little more than we’d like, which is due in part to its narrow front tires (205-width in front compared with 225-width tires in the rear). The solution is often to keep your right foot planted through the corner so that the engine’s torque begins to overwhelm the rear tires, helping the 128i dance a perfect four-wheel drift through the bends.
Route 1 doesn’t deprive the baby Bimmer of bends, either, offering up corner after corner. It seems as if the road was designed with the mission of never letting the driver straighten the steering wheel. Just when you think there can’t possibly be any more turns, you come over a rise to see a dozen switchbacks lying in front of you, as if the pavement were laid there by an enormous sewing machine set on zigzag. Ultratight hairpins at the bottoms of valleys let you show off your double-clutching skills as you downshift all the way to first and blast out the other side. Small straightaways let the BMW stretch its legs into fourth gear, and then it’s quick on the brakes and back down to second.
The 1-series is a delight in every regard; a pinpoint-accurate, rewarding, and supremely capable machine. Three hours of high-g cornering might not be as blissful for your passengers, however, so choose them wisely should you follow our path. And to help alleviate their inevitable nausea, we recommend the distraction method: point out the dramatic changes of scenery.
Just when your eyes become accustomed to dark pavement kept moist under a thick canopy of dense trees, you shoot around a corner into a clearing. In place of the trees and glowing in the sunshine are rock faces made of layers of orange-hued stones, pushed upward by millions of years of tectonic force. A few corners later, you’re surrounded by lush, rolling green fields. Hey, look over there – a beach!
And then you come to the town of Point Arena. A little slice of the past, Point Arena has but one gas station. It’s full-service, complete with an air tube that rings a bell as you drive over it. The pumps don’t read credit cards or even have digital displays, and the attendant is friendly. Across the street is a general store with a front door that has bells dangling from the handle. Our destination, the lighthouse, is a few miles down the road.
Situated at the end of a peninsula, the Point Arena Lighthouse is 115 feet tall. It’s located close to sea level, unlike the Point Reyes Light-house – and unlike the Point Reyes Lighthouse, it didn’t survive the big 1906 quake. The lighthouse standing here is nevertheless not new; it will celebrate its one-hundredth anniversary this year – the year that marks, according to an inscription on the ring surrounding the BMW’s start button, Year One of the 1.
Simultaneously exhausted from the drive and exhilarated from the experience, we have but one question: how to get home?
We could turn around and do Route 1 all over again – or we could opt to take Mountain View Road, which will lead us back to Highway 101 via Route (you guessed it) 128. We choose the latter.
Mountain View Road’s first-gear, off-camber turns and midcorner heaves prove no match for the 128i. Neither does the 70-mph stint on Highway 101. Nor do the unique streets of downtown San Francisco. Of all the small cars you can buy today, the 1-series’ ability to thrill on any road, in any conditions, makes it the 1 to beat.