Hi guys, it's been a while. As some of you may remember, I recently sold my beloved 1991 Audi Coupe Quattro after nearly a year and a half of ownership. For two weeks, I scrambled to find my next set of wheels, turning to fellow Opponauts, friends, and family for help. Nearly three months later, I'm back to report on the journey that is finding, owning, and living with one of my dream cars as a 17 year old kid, and why it's so much more than I ever thought it could be.
At the beginning of June, I decided it was time for the Audi to go. At first it was tentative; I started by cleaning the car up every weekend and bringing it to the local Late-Night car meet. After numerous offers for laughable amounts and horrible justification for said bad offers, ("My friend doesn't want to pay any more than $3,000 because he's probably just going to put it on coils and Fifteen52s anyways." Fine then, bye.) I realized it was time to cut the strings and do it for real. As much as I loved the Audi, I was ready for something different, maybe even something that moved upon hitting the gas pedal.
I listed the car on a couple forums with an elaborate, honest, and (in my mind) fairly well-written ad, complete with tons of pictures and even a video. I even went as far as calling it "The cleanest 1991 Coupe Quattro Left in the U.S," because it really was; don't doubt me, I'll prove it later on in this post.
It was Daily Turismo that featured the car first as a Seller Submission, less than a day after the ad was posted (Thanks again guys!). Slowly, the car began to blow up. My forum post surpassed 3,000 views within the first 24 hours, and I started to get messages. The majority of these messages told me why my $8,500 asking price were too high, but I started to get some legitimate interest as well. It was somewhere around a day later that the ad got posted in Bring a Trailer.
That was where things started to get interesting. Sitting in Junior Spanish class on a Monday morning at 8:00 AM, I checked my email and found I had three emails from VWVortex. Someone had messaged me at 2:30 AM on a Sunday night three times, stating that they were a real buyer, were willing to buy solely based off of photos, and could wire the money that day. I thought it was a horrible internet scam, but I was apparently very wrong.
I sent the buyer-to-be my dad's contact info due to the lack of cell service in my school, told him to give my dad a ring at his convenience, and not so optimistically sat with my phone by my side awaiting the imminent statement confirming my suspicions of scamming. About an hour later I got the word that yes, this was a real buyer, and yes, the car could truly be sold that day. He wanted the car for his teenage son, and had been looking for one as clean as mine. I was happy to hear that it was going into an enthusiast family, where it would be driven and well-cared for by another young gearhead, rather than just tossed on some big wheels and lowered into a future of scraping over pebbles, bacon fenders, and Instagram pictures. I then googled the buyer's name, and things got fun again. For starters, here's one of his other cars:
A week later, the car left on a trailer towards the West Coast. Me, the car guy of my high school, was now officially carless. But with a very reasonable budget from the recent sale of my little white gem, I was determined to be off of the bus and into a new, better car as soon as possible.
Finding the Replacement
"It has to have a turbo." I said it over, and over, and over. My first car was a 2002 Dodge Neon ACR. 2 liter naturally-aspirated inline-4, which was good for a 0-60 time of 7 seconds, and absolutely no torque. As an ex-SCCA racecar, the roll cage and bucket seat were a good conversation piece and the handling was fun, but let's be honest here; it was an old Dodge Neon with less features (these omitted features included useless novelties, such as A/C, a radio…and a clock).
It was a piece, but it was MY piece.
My second car was the Audi. It had (ten) more horsepower, which did absolutely nothing for it. With a 3,200 lb. curb weight, the Audi was my battle tank. Safe, bulky, reliable, and unstoppable in the snow. It made a glorious noise as it slowly crawled forward with all four tires weakly and anemically but slowly and steadily, throatily howling to a blistering 8 second 0-60 time wide-open. I loved every slow minute of it, but I was ready for power, and for torque. I wanted to hit the gas and actually feel the car move.
The first car we looked at was a Jazz Blue 20th Anniversary MKIV Golf GTI. I found it on Craigslist. It was a piece of garbage. Falling apart, clearly neglected, and in need of a ton of work. No records, no maintenance…wait, why was I surprised? I found it on Craigslist.
The second car was a 2001 Audi TT 180 Quattro, and it was awesome. Although it had 116,000 miles under its belt and only 180 horsepower from the factory, it was perfect for me. Loud exhaust, aftermarket big brake kit, Neuspeed intake, Forge wastegate actuator and diverter valve, strut tower braces front and rear, and most importantly, a Unitronic Stage 2 ECU tune.
It was glorious. I sat in the back seat with my neck bent at a right angle against the roof, and my legs wrapped around my dad in the driver's seat as he felt it out for any mechanical issues (I can't do that yet). I couldn't stop smiling. Spool was audible on idle, the blow-off valve made all sorts of wonderful CHOO CHOO noises, and the peppy, eager little innocent TT launched forward at an absurd pace at half throttle. My dad's butt dyno (a very well-seasoned one) estimated around 300 horsepower in that little car, and after looking up the modifications and adding the numbers up later, we learned he wasn't too far off. In my 17 year old mind, it was perfect. Juvenile, loud, obnoxious, and way, waaaaaaay too fast for me. I was in love the second I heard the turbo. It was a good thing it had the bad Carfax, or who knows what tree I could be stuck in in the near future.
About two weeks in to the car-less period, I began to get desperate, as my email inbox began to demonstrate. I was at a point where I was both simultaneously talking to the owner of a swapped-and-turbocharged Volvo 240 located in Texas that I would never be able to get here while also inquiring about a B5 Audi S4 with 180,000 miles and all records right around the corner from me. One morning, whilst doing my daily check of Daily Turismo and Bring a Trailer, I found I had a new email from my dad. "Check this out," was the title.
We have a friend, Mike, who drives a Hellrot E30 M3. It's completely gutted and has a full rollcage. It also has over 400 horsepower due to a swap featuring an S52 and a shiny Garrett turbo. Mike is a big BMW guy, having owned a handful of E30s and E36s in his fairly brief time as a driver. Mike was aware of my car search, and had been suggesting since the beginning that I went for an E36 M3. I was reluctant, considering the cars were naturally aspirated, too nice for me, and were considerably out of my price range.
But when Mike sent a 103,000 mile, Boston Green Metallic, Modena-leather interior 1998 E36 M3 (1 of 52 worldwide, we would later learn) via the local Craigslist for a price that seemed a bit too reasonable to ignore, I started to get excited. We called the owner, located only an hour from home, and began to talk both about the car and price. Despite having a few minor issues to sort out, the car seemed very promising. We decided that while I was working that Saturday, my dad would head up to check the car out with cash in hand. If everything went right, I would be the proud owner of one of my lifelong dream cars before I was even old enough to legally drive friends around.
In between my jobs, I eagerly gave my dad a call. "So? How was it?"
It was mine. Despite having the handful of aforementioned issues and a couple extras to sort, the car checked out. He got the car for a price within my budget, and had already run to the DMV and registered it. We arranged for us to double drive back up the next day, when I would then both meet and drive my new 1998 BMW E36 M3/4/5 on the hour-long ride home. I barely slept that night.
The Ride Home
It was essentially a pick-up truck in its previous life, and that was obvious the second I saw it. The former owner worked in construction, so the car was frequently used to transport asphalt, meaning severely blackened and worn-out carpets, a rough contrast against the rest of the gorgeous Modena Brown interior. It also meant that the car had spent much more time on rough terrain than an M3 ever should. The front bumper was absolutely covered in gravel chips, the paint felt like it had been sandblasted…overall, the car was clearly going to need a lot of love.
A quick snap and some pre-drive checks before bringing it home for the first time.
The seats were gross. Vaders were a much nicer and much more comfortable upgrade.
Here was the initial list of what needed to be resolved:
-Remount extremely loose kidney on the front bumper
-Replace rear upper strut mount bushing (squeaky)
-Steam and vacuum entire interior -Done.
-Remove the stupid A'Pexi badge from the rear -Has since been done
-New rear tires (were basically bald) –Just got some new Hankook Ventus V12 Evos this week
-A really good claying, compounding, and general detailing –After several long days of detailing, the car now looks a thousand percent better. Show-worthy condition.
-An oil change (it had sat untitled for almost 6 months) –it's already had two
-New front seats (they were horrible) –I just swapped over to some nice color-matched Vaders
-Resonator Delete (Because racecar!) –Did that one too
-Diagnose cause of Airbag light –Was a bad mat in the passenger seat, resolved with the addition of Vaders
Most of these issues became fairly clear upon first seeing the car. It wasn't exactly a 10 foot car, it was more of a "30 foot, in the rain" car. But despite the realization of the long road ahead in terms of getting the car where I wanted it, I still sat in amazement just staring at the car. I was looking at a 103,000 mile E36 M3. An M3! And it was mine.
After a quick run to the nearest Autozone in order to get some oil flowing through the M3's arteries, we were off on the hour-long road trip home. I followed my dad through town and back on to the highway in a complete state of bliss and amazement. In my first 15 minutes of ownership, I think I clicked every single button in that interior. Everything was just better in general. The stereo was better than the Audi's could ever have been. The ride was sublime, comfy, but firm and reassuring. And the torque! I never got to fully go wide-open out of the fear of using the 6-month-old gas and oil, but a nice 5th gear half-throttle pull from 3000 RPM up to sixty five was enough to actually send me in to giggles. As the throaty S52 mumbled behind me and overpowered the poor car's many squeaks and rattles, I couldn't help but smile. Yeah, it was all I hoped it would be and more. And it didn't even have a turbo.
An Undeserved Bad Reputation
First thing's first, let me attempt to clarify a common misconception; the ever-despised US-spec S50 and S52 that moved the E36 M3s are bad engines. This bad reputation was mostly due to the fact that US engines made 240 horsepower and as high as 236 ft-lbs of torque, while the Euro market engines placed in the same cars produced numbers as shocking as 320 horsepower and a similar torque figure. This massive power gap was mostly due to a use of individual throttle bodies in the Euro engines, while the North American engines used a single throttle body. Less air, less power. Why? Because BMW.
As a result of the E36 M3 constantly being viewed as "What could have been…" the North American E36 M3 is usually referred to as the worst of the M-cars, the "runt of the litter." I'm going to tell you why this isn't true.
Read this quote from Motor Trend's M3 article from the release of the 1995 S50-powered E36 M3 (running OBDI): "Keep the five-speed manual, tune up the suspension, improve the weight distribution to a solid 50/50 and increase the brake diameter by over an inch on all four corners and you've got a car that will take nearly two seconds off the first-generation's zero-to-60 and quarter-mile times. It also pulled a higher average g on the skidpad and still got better fuel economy, all for less than $4000 over the price of a 325is and only $800 over the first-generation at a paltry $35,800."
So essentially, the E36 is just as capable handling-wise as the ever-holy E30 M3, while it also costs less to maintain, gets better gas mileage, is more reliable, seats more passengers more comfortably, has more aftermarket support, is more useable in day-to-day life, is easier to work on, has a more useable torque and power curve, AND it's faster. I'm not saying the E30 M3 is worse than the "runt of the litter," but when you compare the holiest of M-cars to the most hated of the M-cars, it certainly makes the sub- $10,000 E36 M3 seem like a much better idea than some of its "superiors".
Living with an E36 M3 at 17
Image is part of everyday life in high school. That's just how it was, how it is, and how it always will be. Who has the nicest shoes, the nicest clothes, or the newest technology is always a relevant topic, as dumb as it is when you look at it from the outside once it's all said and done. And with that statement, it should go without saying that my image is fairly important to me, but in a somewhat different way.
For one thing, I'm very conscious of what it looks like from the outside. Young kid in an E36 M3, a gift from my parents and a complete waste of a good car, soon to be thrashed to death. As one of my best friends Kyle and I have discussed on several occasions, I'm "A sleeveless shirt, a couple degrees of negative camber, and some nice wheels away from being a stancebag," because I'm guilty by association. I've been challenged to street race by numerous Hondas and Subies, I've been haggled at car meets just because I was running stock camber, wheels, and cats, and my personal favorite, I was once told to "Bring it back home to Daddy" by a group of dropouts smoking weed in a rusty Cherokee. And maybe that's why my entire focus with this car has been keeping it as clean and original as possible, both to show viewers from the outside that "I swear, I'm not one of THEM" and also to show that there's still hope in this young generation of gearheads, kids who will learn to wrench and repair and actually drive, rather than sentence themselves to futures of negative camber, scraping over speed bumps, and sacrificing all potential performance in order to look good when stationary. I'm sick of hearing that stanced and slammed cars have character and personality; cars are designed to be driven, and if you're sacrificing that for appearance, you're doing it wrong.
But a little extra flow never hurt anyone...
On a much more positive side, however, there's how my friends see the car. Despite popular belief, you do not immediately become the most popular kid in your high school upon purchasing your own sports car. However, I can definitely confirm that I have had numerous friendships stem from the ownership of my E36, and have enjoyed a lot of joy at the hands of this car in my short time of ownership.
When I first was purchasing the car, my friends would always ask "Is it fast," because when you're a teenaged boy, that's all that matters. One day I made the mistake of quoting a 0-60 time, because for a few months, all I heard was "I've heard that car does 0-60 in 5.4 seconds!" yelled mockingly as I rolled out of the school parking lot. Then, I became legal to drive kids my age.
There are no heroic stories of life-saving e-brake drifts at 70 miles per hour on a wet back road, or stories of ripping through traffic at 140, because I'm not an idiot. I'd prefer not to become a statistic, and at the very least, one bad point on my record or one fender bender, and insurance for a kid driving a sports car becomes a whole new world of expensive. But what there are stories of are the wonderful moments with friends merging from a stop onto the highway, of the feeling of going wide open in third up to the speed limit, as the same friend who was mocking my praise of my car only minutes before slowly begins to reach for the door handle and squeak out "Oh my god…" as the new feeling of actual torque lovingly plows them into the seat. What's always better is popping it into 5th after achieving cruising speed, turning my head and making eye contact.
We all know that look a true gearhead gets upon hitting boost for the first time, or driving their first V8, or owning their first fast car; that wide-eyed, dumb-smile, giggly moment of pure happiness and bliss, of basking in the ebb and flow of internal combustion as it propels us forwards, sometimes at speeds that shouldn't be achieved or even shouldn't be possible. And with those brief highway merges up to the speed limit, I can see a glimmer of that in my friend's eyes. I can see them being opened to a whole new world of horsepower, and torque, and the wonderful world of speed and performance. For that one second afterwards, the brief exchange of giggling and smiling, I can see the planting of a seed, one that will grow into a beautiful plant of appreciation and respect for all things automotive, for fuel injection, forced induction, and E85 ethanol. I'm now "The Driver," the one that everyone asks to bring them to and fro, because they love watching me row my own gears, or because they like the noises the car makes, or how firm and sporty it feels. My M3 is, slowly but steadily, forming new little gearheads, opening the eyes of young kids to the automotive life and creating a new appreciation and respect for cars, proving that they can be more than just a way of getting from point A to point B. As a 17 year old with an E36 M3, I can see my lifelong passion spreading to others my age.
Then there are the friends that already know cars. There's Kyle, for example. Kyle drives a B7 Audi A4 on coilovers and Enkei wheels, with loud exhaust, a front mount, and all kinds of turbo goodness. Prior to our first ride together in the car, he questioned the E36 M3 as any good car guy does, due to the talk of the North American S52 and that one throttle body. After the first ride, however, hysterical laughing was had, a new appreciation for variable valve timing (VANOS, yo!) was formed, and the bad reputation of the E36 M3 was once again resolved as it became clear that this was just as much a driver's car as it's relatives.
In addition to my good friend Kyle, there's the girl I'm dating, Claire. Claire is very much a Jalop despite not realizing it, daily-driving anything from a manual Saab 2.0t, to a manual Mercedes C230, and even a manual Mazda 2. Claire has been a certified car-girl since I met her, and maybe that's why the other night as I drove her home, she was leaning forward rubbing the dash with her hand, saying "I love this car." She loves the backfires, and the burbles, and the heel-toe downshifts, giggling and smiling every time. She loves the E36 M3, because just as it did with everyone else, the car touches a different root than other cars. It did just as it was designed to do as an M-car, and opened her eyes to the awesome world of performance and speed.
So, what is life like with an E36 as a kid? It's horrendously expensive, it's occasionally a massive headache, I'm always self-conscious about my image, and I still kind of wish I had boost. But is it worth it? Is creating a handful of young car-lovers, and being able to see the moment in my friend's eyes when they realize just how incredible cars are, and experiencing moments of bonding and happiness and enjoyment over the one passion that most of us Jalops base our lives around, do those things make it worth driving the worst M3 ever made? I'd say they do, and that's why owning one of my dream cars at the age of 17 has made me so happy. I'm living a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I'm loving it. There are a lot of things you can experience in a car, but the lighting of a flame is not typically one of them. Unless it's a Ferrari, of course.