The BMW E82 1-series was a polarizing car during it’s 5 year run in the United States. The styling was derisive, some commenting that it’s bulldog looks lacked proportion and was ugly. Others loved it’s short wheelbase punchiness, and general ethos of being a personal-sized BMW coupe with simple design. I definitely fall into the latter. Ever since the car came out in the States I was a fan, it was so aggressive compared to everything else, and as an enthusiast, I knew that smaller meant lighter. Sign me up.
First, let me back up and preface this story. My previous vehicle was a 2008 Mazda3 hatchback. That car was my first foray into modifying, and racing cars in any capacity. I owned that car from new (March 2008) to January 2013, and it taught me so much. Everything from understanding engine tuning, chassis tuning and suspension dynamics, and how to start getting into autocross and track days.
It was a willing, and reliable partner, but not without it’s quirks (kind of like the driver). There were so many “firsts” with that car, and the memories will always be close to my heart.
However, after nearly five years, several revisions, reboots, and changes to my modification pathway for the car, I wanted something different. I didn’t have the means at the time to keep two vehicles, so it was with a heavy heart that I returned the car back to stock, parted everything out, and began looking for something new.
I had a general outline of what I was looking for, faster, manual, RWD, sporty. I had loved the look of the E82 since I first saw it, and really wanted a 1M but I knew that financially, it was simply not possible. My roommate at the time had picked up an E90 335i and was constantly in my ear about the tuning potential of the N54...
I looked at an AP2 S2000, it was like a Miata turned up to 11, but I physically did not fit in it, and the motor didn’t blow me away like I thought it would. It lacked the urgency, freneticism and “punch-above-it’s-weight” feel that I had known with older Honda products.
I looked at an HR 350Z, it had presence, and felt substantial, Japan’s take on an American cruiser/brawler. The engine felt meaty, and the gearbox was pretty nice. Ultimately, it was too much of a cruiser, and didn’t set my hair on fire enough.
I looked at a 2.0T Genesis Coupe 6MT R-Spec, which was in every way terrible.
The FRS came out in 2013, and I was all aboard the hype train. I wanted to love it so much, because, on paper it was perfect for me. I was on the forums every day, planning out modifications, and generally trying to absorb every bit of information that I could. However, I drove a few of them, and was underwhelmed. I knew that like the S2000, I was supposed to love this, but it just didn’t do anything for me.
So, I kept driving the Mazda.
One day, after visiting my Mom at her place, she mentioned seeing a “cute” car up on the plinth at the local BMW dealership. My Mother generally doesn’t know, or care about sports cars, at all, so I brushed it off.
The next day, she sent me an autotrader link to the cute car that she saw. It was a CPO 2010 (N54) 135i, 6MT, stripper car in Alpine White on the used lot, with 10,990 miles, still on the OEM tires. I drove to the dealership with my roommate and my Mom and took it for a test drive.
Maybe it was indicative, but the sales associate took a look at me and my roommate and told us to go out and have fun, he would keep my Mom company at the dealership. I drove the car around town, it was smooth, but nothing special. I hit the freeway on-ramp and hammered it, and I was...underwhelmed. This couldn’t be right, this car had firepower under the hood. This is the lightest BMW made with the N54, it should be a rocket.
I looked at my roommate and asked if it felt slow to him. He said it was just in my head, and that I wasn’t used to the lack of drama associated to the flat torque curve of the twin-turbo engine. I came into this, used to my roommates tuned N54 car, I guess the tune makes that much of the difference. A bit disappointing, but I kept driving, and driving. The more I drove, the more I became acutely aware that something about the car just felt right. The way that the thick ///M sport steering wheel fell right to hand, the seating position was low, and the notchy shifter had a spring loaded tension that flicked from gear to gear like it was eager to be rowed. I felt right being in this car, in a way that I didn’t in the others. There was an intangible feeling that this was the car that I was supposed to be piloting.
Eventually, there was a long clearing, and soon I was foot-to-the-firewall on it. Second gear, into third, the car felt pretty good, so I kept in it, and into fourth, not looking at the speedometer, just looking ahead. It was all so smooth. My friend asked if I was done yet, that’s when I realized that we were going quite a bit faster than I thought. The N54 is a deceptive beast, the linearity and smoothness of the power delivery does not relay the fact that this car could hustle. I was sold.
In January 2013, I had my 1’er, and on the original stock summer runflats, I braved an Ohio winter, but it didn’t matter, because I was in love.
But there was one prang of the heart, early into ownership.
My Dad ended up seeing my old Mazda at the auction block a few weeks after I bought the 1’er. He said that after listening to the same loud, booming cold start every day for several years, that he couldn’t mistake it for any other Mazda3 wagon. He said, it was mostly there, but it looked like hadn’t been washed since the day I traded it in (I spent the night before giving it a send off detail), and overall little worse for the wear.
Hearing that pulled at my heartstrings. I loved that car, and it was (and still is) near and dear to my heart. I had to let go of it, like a lover mourning their dead spouse.
I was okay though, happy even. Every time I sat in the 1’er, I knew that I had made the right decision. Every autocross and spirited drive brought me closer to the sort of mechanical harmony that only my Ultimate Driving Machine could deliver. Both cars had character, both had soul, and I realized that it wasn’t necessarily that I loved the way that Mazda3’s drove, no I just loved my car, because I had 81,000 miles worth of adventures in it. I wouldn’t want another one, unless it was mine specifically. The 1’er had the sort of exuberance that can only come from a compact coupe with a wild donkeypunch of an engine. It was ready for 81,000 miles of adventure, and if I have my way, many more than that.
When I began this article, I was conflicted, was it a celebration for getting the car that I had long admired, and coveted, or was it a swan song for a passing legacy? Now that I’m getting near the end of this sob story, I think that most people who love cars would agree with me here: it’s both. I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to describe this, as I’ve owned my 135i for well over two years now. Perhaps it’s the fact that I’m a sentimental fool, and was reminiscing about all of the good times I’ve had, now, with both cars. At the present time, I’m convinced that despite me constantly griping (in a loving way) about the shortcomings of the E82, that there is no other car out there, that I would trade for, and that includes the ND Miata, which if you know me, is absolute lunacy. Maybe I’ll keep it forever. Maybe I’ll finally tackle that 1M widebody conversion. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll be thankful for what I’ve got, and continue to enjoy it as much as possible in those ways that are still intangible, but still so enjoyable.
So here it is, my long overdue goodbye, and my equally long overdue hello. A toast, to the cars I love(d).
[Jake Stumph is a track day bro, and general hack of a writer. You can follow him on Facebook for track side commentary, pictures, videos, and colorful commentary on modifying and trying to set lap time records with an unusual choice for a track day car (it seems to work well, thus far). He also wrote this in the third person, because he likes to jam more self-deprecation into his content, by any means necessary.]