“Great, the heater needs some work too”, I thought while standing in rush hour traffic on a cold December day. It’s yet another thing on a long list of issues that needs to be fixed. Fortunately the heated seat is giving its best to at least keep the new driver’s butt warm.
I bought a cheap, twenty year old car with 240,000km (or 150k miles) on the clock. I never expected it to be perfect and I keep calm like the owner of a very old dog that just wetted the carpet again. Everything it needs to daily drive safely is still working fine so I’m able to tackle the problems without any real urgency. I also knew beforehand that I’ll have to spend an unreasonable amount of money to address all the flaws and to set the car up for the next 100,000km or more. This financial burden is enhanced by the fact that I don’t know shit about repairing anything and need help with basic maintenance. Of course I’m willing to learn, and I will try to pick up skills, tools and the confidence to use those while working on my car.
Anyhow, all in all I can tell you that I made a good purchase. Not because the car was a bargain – my hackling was in fact terrible - , but because I don’t think about the money I spend on it. The car looks good and – heating problems aside – I feel comfortable and relaxed inside. I know it is sturdy enough to be a good companion to daily drive it and maybe travel around in it during the summer.
I have a difficult relationship with the sports exhaust though. I still don’t know whether I like it or not. To be honest with you, I listened to different setups on Youtube long before it was certain that I’d be able to buy a 520i. I quickly realised that fitting a sports exhaust could easily be an expensive mistake. So I was suspicious when I saw my car for the first time. Has the previous owner violated the car with this modification? Will it be obnoxiously loud? Will it ruin the driving experience by droning until my head explodes? I bought the car, so it clearly wasn’t bad. It makes a deep, bassy noise when idling and cruising along at low rpm. I didn’t hear it from the outside when someone floors it, yet. Inside the car the exhaust is noticeable with a deep rumble, but it’s never annoying or immoderate. I’m fine with it.
I like the angry, somewhat lazy character it gives the car. In addition I like that it forms an opinion about the car and me – even if it’s a bad one. Forming opinions is entertaining. And when something is entertaining, it’s clearly not boring. And “not boring” is what we want most in a car, isn’t it?
Sadly, the muffler has one big flaw. It’s – no matter how much you or I might like it – a cheap fart-can. It doesn’t enhance or fine-tune the specific BMW inline six sound in any way. It produces a noise, and I’m afraid it produces this noise almost regardless of which engine it’s bolted on to. That’s tragic in itself, but the real crime is that even non-jalops are able to hear the cheapness of it all.
I lusted after a big station wagon – specifically a BMW E34 520i Touring - for a few years. It combines quite a few things I like in a car in one nice looking package. And most importantly it’s a dream car I can actually afford.
So it might surprise you that in the two weeks of my ownership experience I had a slightly odd feeling of distance to my first car. I had to work, the weather was terrible and nobody I know in real life is into cars and/or is away over the holidays so I’m basically alone with the car and can’t share the experience with anyone. All this means that I didn’t want to spend time outside with it and I drove it less than 200km until today.
Considering everyone of us loves the first car we own even if it’s a crack pipe, I wasn’t sure what I loved about my car. Was it the actual car I bought or just the statement I made with the ownership?
To be frank: The car isn’t particularly nice to drive, because everything about the boat feels heavy and stubborn. I didn’t expect a Miata-esque driving experience, and I knew that this pile of 80’s materials would struggle to keep up with modern 90hp Golf TDIs at traffic lights. But that’s not a problem for me. When I drove my cousin’s 1970 Mercury Cougar with the 302 Windsor I didn’t care for the speed either. It was all about the attitude, the noise and the style. Like the 302 wasn’t designed to win a drag race the 520i was never intended to be the performance car in the line up. The mileage and age of my car is obviously partially to blame for a lack of liveliness too. However, the engine is still relatively healthy. This was proven by pulling eagerly up to 200kph on a short stint on the Autobahn before I had to slow down. I’m sure it had some kph left in it.
Nevertheless, you have to understand that over here in Germany petrol prices and labor costs are a real concern for car owners. A twenty year old 520i is therefore excessively expensive for “normal people” like me. The only reason why I’m somewhat able to afford a six cylinder gas guzzler on a small salary is that I basically just work for the car. I share a cheap, moldy flat with two other guys and don’t have any other financial responsibilities at the moment. So I thought: Fuck it!
I don’t want to reveal too much about myself to strangers on the internet who probably read this without wearing pants, but I’m a person who tends to overthink pretty much anything in life and in the end is too afraid and/or shy to make any kind of move – let alone a daring one. And I admit that I felt the need to justify myself every time I talked about my plan to buy a 520i with my non-jalop friends. I also felt a bit like a cock when saying “I want a big six cylinder BMW” and always quickly added “station wagon” to brush the bro-iness off at least a bit.
In this context the purchase of an unreasonable money-waster with a fart-can is a glorious decision and for some people who know me perhaps an unexpected statement of boldness. I love that!
While watching the plummeting petrol gauge, I was wondering whether this infantile statement is enough to sanctify the financial abyss I’m about to fall into.
The big questions were: Is it really fun enough to drive to balance the headaches it’s going to provide regularly? And is it a jalopy delight or just an appliance which happens to be my first car with a cheap fart-can on it? Was it ultimately a mistake to buy this thing?
I was afraid – what a new feeling for me – that the car can’t possibly live up to my expectations. I avoided to get more intimate with my own dream car. What if it’s just old, scarred, slow and expensive – or downright disappointing?
So today, nearly two weeks after I bought the car I finally had the balls to confront my fear. What did I really buy?
I decided to take her out on a date. We made a road trip to the “Weser-Skywalk”.
But that was just an excuse, of course. I chose a route through the back country which offers some beautiful scenery and a few different types of road to test my car.
It was a revelation!
Like I wrote earlier, I didn’t expect it to be a performance oriented machine built for pure driving pleasure, and needless to say it wasn’t. Yet it was still amazing to experience the car for the first time without the constriction of the city and the doubts I had.
I let the car idle while clearing the windows from ice and carefully short-shifted for about another 15 minutes. My normal way to work is just 6km long so the engine is never properly warmed up while commuting. I know, I know that’s a bad thing to do. I promise you to only do it when the weather is too awful to use my bicycle. This means I never really revved the engine before today. Now I left the city behind, thought the engine was ready and stepped on it.
Third gear, 2,000rpm, 3,000rpm, 3,500 and then there it was, the BMW inline six finally came to life.
All hail the VANOS!
150hp and 190nm – when new – where never truly powerful, but for the first time I felt the surge and a - yeah, admittedly manageable - force pushing me back into the seat. I laughed out loud.
Once up to speed the big Bavarian showed me what it was designed to do: Cruising between 80 and 160kph. What was heavy and unwilling before, now felt somehow unburdened. The steering is still precise and the chassis feels planted and confidence-inspiring. This helps a lot to keep up the momentum you need to keep the engine in the power band.
Read this in your best Vin Diesel voice:
I live my life in short bursts of acceleration at a time. Nothing else matters: not the repair bills, not the petrol price, not my friends and their opinion of my car. For those 2,500rpm or less, The car revvs free and so am I.
The brakes are trustworthy enough to hit them just a bit later than a passenger might want you to.
Is the old girl a real driver’s car? I can’t compare it to anything remotely considered to be one, but it surely isn’t. It was nonetheless impressive to find out what this scruffy E34 520i is still able to do. Hell yes, it’s fun!
Don’t forget it’s almost a classic. Who cares about the new-ish Opel Soulless-Drone-Mover getting bigger in the rear-view mirror the whole time you feel like you are going supersonic? He might have the power and a crisp clutch, but he doesn’t have vim!
I’m not going to lie to you. There is a lot to do to make my boat seaworthy again, but now I’m truly convinced to tackle the task. And I’m looking forward to more adventures with my car!
More importantly: I know for sure that I love the car I bought.