Yesterday’s drive wore me out, and after a Mexican combo plate dinner weighing my gut down, I fall into a deep slumber instantly upon laying down in bed. Unfortunately, I bolt wide awake around 4 am. Sunrise is still hours away and I want to experience some daylight for the first stretch of road. US Highway 50 west of Delta, Utah into Nevada is a mind-blowing place. The very first time I drove it was on the aforementioned Cannonball Classic with my father in 1999. It is an enormous, austere, and desolate landscape unique to the American West. LONG stretches of arrow-straight asphalt, flying off to the distant horizon. Very little flora, and almost no fauna. Mountain ranges rising as if to block your path, and then the road rises directly into them, and snake through, over and down again into the expansive basins, only to resume the arrow-flight westwards. The experience is visceral and very visual. Driving there is a challenge and an adventure. I long to do it again, which is precisely why I chose this route. I could have continued north on US 6 and Utah 36, on to Tooele (a section that remains UN-highlighted in my atlas), but US Highway 50 is beckoning me back. Night driving is unsatisfying however. When your vision is limited to only what your headlights reveal your world shrinks to that minute speck. It is just asphalt, stripes, reflectors and roadsigns. Without those wide open vistas there is nothing at all special about any road, much less US 50.
So I’m alone, in Albuquerque, with a nice car and no co-driver. Our plans have gone awry, and I have a few choices of what to do next. One is to just continue on to SoCal and visit friends. I’ve already seen the Grand Canyon, so no need for that side trip. Another option is to drive straight home by the most direct route. It’s between 1200 & 1400 miles, depending upon which “direct” route I choose. But here is where I have to admit a personal quirk: I like to drive on roads I’ve never driven on. I’ve been wandering all over this continent in a car since I was a kid, and it never ceases to amaze me at the wonders one can find by taking a road you’ve never been on before.
My brain is fogged. I’ve been driving for two days straight with minimal sleep, after two previous days of driving as well. I’m only ~250 miles from my journey’s end, but I really felt the need to get out of the car.
So here I am, sitting in a Burger King somewhere west of Boise, Idaho, sipping on a cold coke zero, munching on some terrible onion rings, and scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed to just give my brain a rest. How did I get here?
Just doing a pre-edit brain dump on an article I might submit about the BMW E21/320i. It’s status as an affordable classic. Feel free to comment, correct my typos and suggest edits. Likely need to shave about 200-350 words from here… also need to refine the wrap-up. Photos coming later… when the sun comes back.
“Marsha, Marsha, MARSHA!”
Oh, the forever lament of the middle child. Ignored by the family for just being in that middle space between the over-achieving elder, and the darling youngest. The collector on a budget seeking hidden bargains often will find them in between their higher-valued siblings. One such example is the BMW 320i, also known as the E21. Slotted between two more often desired models, the 2002 and the E30, the humble E21 is an under-appreciated and affordable way into vintage BMW ownership.
That is, if you can find a good one. That is difficult, as many remain, but few remain original.
The E21 sold in huge volumes around the world, with more than 1.3 million built between 1975 and 1983. It was the car that launched the BMW 3-series, and cemented it in the mind of many, especially here in the USA, as “The Ultimate Driving Machine.” BMW started using that slogan in 1975 and stuck with it until 2006.
Sandwiched between the 2002 and the E30, the E21 just hasn’t yet lived up to the hotness of its siblings in terms of value, but there are signs that could be changing. The 2002 is a darling of enthusiasts. Light, nimble, modest production numbers, with a robust drivetrain and an elegant appearance compared to the boxy E21. The followup to the E21 was the sleeker E30, which enjoyed a fourteen year run with many variations of engines, fuels, and even the first official BMW Motorsport variant the M3. Values of 2002s and E30s have enjoyed some good runs over the past decade, whereas the middle-child E21 values have remained relatively flat. However that’s why we’re here in Affordable Classics, since much of what made its siblings great can be found in the E21, along with some potential value upside.
From the 2002 the E21 inherited a bullet-proof engine, the venerable BMW M10. This single-overhead cam four cylinder was produced from 1962 through 1988 and powered everything from big sedans to FormulaOne race cars. It is a simple, reliable powerplant available in varying displacements from 1.5 to 2 liters, both carbureted and fuel-injected. In Europe the E21 was available in 1.6L, 1.8L, and 2.0L displacements. They were named “316”, “318”, and “320” in predictable Germanic fashion. Besides badging, single headlights are identify the 316 & 318, and the 320 sports dual headlights. In North America only the Bosch K-Jetronic mechanical fuel-injected 2.0L version was offered initially, and the last three model years (’80-’83)it was downsized to 1.8L and fitted with a catalytic converter, but no matter the displacement all North American cars were badged “320i”. There was an “S-package” called the “320is” in the USA after 1980 which featured Recaro seats, a 5-speed gearbox, limited slip differential, and many other appearance, comfort, and performance additions that previously had to be special ordered. In Europe an E21 was offered starting in 1977 with the BMW M20 straight-six engine that eventually came to North America in the E30 3-series cars, but it was never offered in any North American E21. The US-Market 320i was available with A/C, but were also fitted with enormous “diving board” bumpers.
The origin of the 3-series
The BMW 3-series launched with the Paul Braq penned E21 in mid-1975, but it wasn’t until 1977 that you could buy one in the USA. With overall design cues from the E12 5-series sedans, the E21 was limited to two-door coupes only. (Coachbuilder Baur GmbH converted just under 5,000 E21s to their targa-roof “TopCabriolet” between 1978 and 1981.) The interior was lauded in the contemporary press, with very comfortable seats, U-boat-like red instrument illumination, and a dash that wrapped around, with the center console angled toward the driver – a feature that remained a mainstay of the BMW 3-series until very recently. In the early 80s the 320i was seen as a “Yuppie Car”, an aspirational lifestyle object for successful professionals, and garnered the sort of social commentary we see today reflected in cars like Tesla’s or the Toyota Prius – it defined the sort of person you appeared to be. It was a huge success for BMW and sales increased year over year, firmly establishing BMW in North America. Here was a car that looked conservative, but rewarded its driver with about as much fun as you could have up to the federally-mandated 55 MPH maximum. Rivals responded with similar compact executive cars, such as the Mercedes-Benz 190 (W201) aka “Baby Benz”.
Most have been driven, and modified
If you’ve been exposed to a wide variety of car people, you’ll note that some sub-groups LOVE to drive, and sometimes modify their cars. Vintage Bentley owners fall into this category, and don’t seem to mind driven, or non-original cars, so long as everything is well-documented. BMW people are like this too. It is rare to find low-miles, unmodified BMWs, and when you hang around people and their Bimmers the conversation inevitably gets around to what mods have been applied to their cars. They also drive them. Long journeys to BMWCCA meets and events are common (Ocktoberfest, Sharkfest, Z-fest, Festorics, et al.) So finding an original, low-miles E21 is going to be tough. Many have had 6-cylinder engines or other performance mods installed. Most have been just plain used up. However restoring them is relatively easy and parts remain widely available. A 320i is an excellent project car for the new collector with a modest budget. Weak points are few. The odometer, which can break if the trip odo is improperly reset. The hazard light switch, which fails to “on” and will drain your battery (ask me how I know.) Beyond those two things, standard cautions about rust, degraded rubber/plastics, and mechanical inspection apply. The M10 engine’s primary weakness is overheating, so check for leaks around the head. Avoid examples with leaks or that run above the halfway point of the temperature gauge.
You’re not going to find an E21 crossing the block at Monterey anytime soon, so until that day happens your best bets to find yours are BMWCCA classifieds, and online auction sites. Prices range from $3,300 to $9,000, with a few outliers into low 5-digits. Originality, miles, and condition are going to drive the price. The pictured example was bought online for just over $6,000 and driven home a thousand miles without incident (beyond replacing headlights along the way.)
History may ultimately forget the BMW E21 as a middle child, and properly recognize it as the “Ur-Ultimate Driving Machine” – the true origin of the 3-series. The car that launched BMW from a niche player into the dominant maker of sports sedans, and lead to its amazing success in the US market. The tide already seems to be turning in Europe, where the Verband der Automobilindustrie (the German Automotive Industry Association) which among many other things lobbys for, and tracks the “oldtimer” market, noted that the BMW 320i gained more value (61.2%) in 2017 than any other make/model in Germany. This value increase was over 2x the car that came in second place, its cousin the E24 6-series coupes. Get one now, while they’re cheap, and have fun driving a very affordable bit of almost forgotten recent history.
There is a lot of blather online about how the automotive industry is transforming into a “mobility” industry. From ride sharing to autonomous vehicles, we’re supposedly hurtling towards a very different future. Well, not really because as creatures of habit, we still drive our own cars, usually alone, about 99.999% of the time. But all the hype? It’s on self-driving cars.
I’ve written plenty elsewhere about how I’m very bearish on autonomous vehicles. I just don’t think it is a viable goal to be expending so damn much engineering focus and resources upon right now, given there are far greater problems to be solved. But becasue traffic in Silicon Valley, Seattle, and other technology hub cities, we have software people trying to engineer their way out of their miserable commutes… or at least allow them to spend more time on Snapchat and Netflix while they (don’t) drive to work – but somehow still do it in their own personal vehicles.
In the end the lawyers are likely to kill this baby in its crib.
Meanwhile however, the ways of getting around are changing, and mostly for the better. Ridesharing, which likely can trace it’s origins to the same traffic annoyances of yet another group of Silicon Valley software nerds… (“I bet we can use an app to optimize people into cars to reduce the number of cars that are slowing us all down.”) has effectively disrupted the entire taxi industry by making it a far better end-user experience. Traditional taxis, at least outside of places like London or Manhattan, have always been spotty, inconsistent, and in my experience, a frequently awful experience. Dirty cabs, often retired police vehicles, so you felt like a perp rather than a valued customer, and drivers who often lacked even basic communications skills. Add to that a largely cash-based transaction, or if they took credit cards it was far from frictionless. Apps like Uber and Lyft have made the transaction itself utterly seamless and swift.
I’ve mostly used ridesharing services while traveling, or to avoid the risk of getting a DUI. For the former it is now routine to use an app to get around in a city I am visting for a short time. For the latter it is a lifesaver in every sense of that word.
I don’t live in Portland, Oregon, I live about a three hour drive away from it, but I visit Portland often. In several of my recent visits I noticed various BMW vehicles scattered all around the city emblazoned with a “ReachNow” logo. Curious, I looked it up online and learned it was a sort of car sharing service. I downloaded the app, set up an account (which involves registering your Drivers License and a credit card), and… didn’t use it for months.
But last week Testa Rossa and I were in Portland for a family gathering and some appointments. Time to give ReachNow a try!
When you launch the ReachNow app the default view is a map view of your immediate surroundings, and an ability to sort vehicles by “All”, “BMW”, “MINI” and “BMW i”. BMW i is just i3 cars at this time, no i8s, sorry. But I imagine if they expand that product line more variety could become available. Initially it was the i3s I spotted with the ReachNow logos that piqued my curiosity. I can’t imagine buying one, but I’d like to give one a drive, but sadly in my week of using the app no i3 was ever nearby. Oh well. The MINIs all seem to be Clubman models, and the BMWs either 3-series sedans or X-series SUVs.
To grab a car you click on the nearest vehicle and it will tell you what sort of car it is, what it’s expected range available, and a few other details you might use to pick what works for you, such as how long it will take you to walk there. It also allows you to “reserve” it, which makes it not appear on other people’s searches. This gives you time to finish what ever your’re doing and start walking towards the car.
Once underway on your walk, the map updates live with your location and route. You’ll note on the app screen there are an array of buttons that include “Destination”, “Signal”, “Damage”, and “Unlock”. I’ll admit I never investigated the “Destination” function. The “Signal” button however I found invaluable. On every trip but one, it was after dark, and (shocking I know…) raining. When you press that button on screen, the lights of the car flash a few times, allowing you to see it from afar, or in our case in a dark and rainy night in Portland. I never used the damage button, again mostly because it was always very dark and I would not have been able to assess and report any damage anyway. The app does present you with a screen that points out an existing damage report, complete with a diagram of the car and damage called out. The unlock button is pretty self-explanatory. When you approach the car, it enables and you can see an LED in the windshield that changes color as your phone comes in range, and you press the Unlock to gain access to the car.
The first time I got in a ReachNow car (a 3-series BMW) it required a call to support to figure out how to start it. Normally the center console screen welcomes you, and you enter a PIN. Instead this car’s screen was stuck on something else. Thankfully support was able to clear the error and get me going pretty quickly.
After that first time however, I never had another issue starting the car. I was always greeted by the PIN enter screen. Billing doesnt start until you either start driving, or select “begin trip” from the main screen. Just like a rental car, it always seems like I get cars that were previously driven by somebody well under 5 feet tall, so oftentimes I couldn’t even get in the car without making significant seat adjustments, so like using rental cars I tend to spend a bit of time adjusting things like seats and mirrors before I even think about driving, so it is nice the billing doesn’t start until you’re underway.
Parking is odd. Basically they allow you to park anywhere on a street where parking is legal. No need to feed a meter if it is a paid parking area such as downtown. Just park, lock, and go. You can also park the car and “keep” it by not ending your trip. You pay a reduced rate per-minute to park it, but the car remains for your sole use until you end your trip. So you could park it in a store parking lot, and use it to haul your groceries home after you shop. I never did any of that, because our trips in Portland were all simple point-to-point affairs. For example, we drove to a movie. Once the movie ended, I opened the app and found a car two blocks from the theatre.
Once your trip concludes, you are presented with a receipt, and an opportunity to provide feedback. Pleasantly, I found that the cost per-trip was usually about 35%-50% less expensive than a comparable one with a ridesharing service such as Lyft or Uber.
Over the course of a week we took several trips, and other than the first trip we never really had any problems. The last trip’s car did reek of weed (shocking I know… Portland) and the car was complaining about low tire pressure in the right rear tire. If there is any real problem with the ReachNow service I could think of this is an example, in that there is a shared resource that may not be cared for equally by all members. While I doubt anyone smoked weed in the vehicle, it was clear they smoked a LOT of weed before they got in, so the odor was VERY strong. I reported this and the low tire via the feedback tool in the app, and I hope the car was collected and cleaned/maintained… but who knows?
I certainly appreciate having the ability to grab a car and drive it pretty much on-demand.On the final trip of the week we combined ReachNow with ridesharing to mitigate the risk of DUI, as we drove to a social event that involved drinking, and rode home in the back of a Lyft.
Life takes me to both Portland and Seattle often, cities that are covered by ReachNow. I’ll certainly be making more use of the service.
I hate Las Vegas.
Actually “hate” is not quite the correct term for my loathing and aversion for that place. Vegas is a blight on the otherwise wonderful intermountain west. I can appreciate what Las Vegas represents; a manifestation of liberty. A sort of place where the concept of “sin” is embraced as an alternative lifestyle.
I’m not at all a religious person. Philosophically I reject the claim that there exists any sort of deity that rules or judges our lives and behavior. Virtue is its own reward, not some e-ticket to a post-mortem amusement park. So it isn’t the “Sin City” aspect of Vegas that repulses me. No, it is something far more simple than that: Las Vegas is just a revenue-extraction machine on a grand scale. It steals from the people who love it.
Recently I attended an event in Vegas. It was one of those rare gatherings of far-flung folk with whom all of our interactions are online. Vegas was chosen as the location primarily due to it being a relatively cheap and easy place to get to. The organizers/hosts are from Los Angeles, but attendees came from all over North America. The SoCal contingent drove, but most folks flew in and made a long weekend of it. I’m still seeing all their photos posted on Facebook. Famous Vegas locales where they went, things they did, etc.
Me? I drove. I drove there, I attended the event and a bit of socializing afterwards, then I drove back.
It is about nine hundred miles from my home in central Oregon to Las Vegas. Why the hell did I drive it? Well, because it is some of the last remaining true wide-open driving territory left in America. That is why.
If you look at a map of the USA, the Great Basin is just sort of a big empty space. A blank part of the world that ancient cartographers would have filled with dreadful monsters and nameless fears. Terra Incognita. “There be dragon here” To the west lie the Sierras, to the east lie the Rockies. The philosophically polar opposite cities; Las Vegas and Salt Lake City lie at its edges. In between there is seemingly nothing. Interstate 15 cuts across it’s right side marking a route from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City via Las Vegas. Interstate 80 is the sole artery that dares to go directly through it east-to-west running from Salt Lake to Sacramento via Lake Tahoe. Otherwise this vast emptiness is devoid of superslab. It’s few small towns and settlements connected by a thin web of two-lane highways through giant valleys devoid of civilization. Empty blue highways.
Perfect driving country.
Before 2000, my only times spent in Nevada were an adult-league hockey tournament in Reno, and a middle of the night layover in the Las Vegas airport. It wasn’t until I drove Martin Swig’s crazy “La Carrera Nevada” car rally that I discovered the real Nevada. Not the smoky, white-trashy, sleazy Vegas or smoky, white-trashy, slightly less sleazy Reno… but the wide open and largely beautiful Basin & Range territory that makes up the rest of Nevada. It is vast. It is empty. It is awesomely scenic in its austerity.
It is also the last place you can truly “stretch your legs” in an automobile. Yes, there is the autobahn, but no, I don’t live in Europe. I do live at the very northern edge of The Great Basin however.
Safety Nannies might clutch their pearls and gasp, but… fuck ’em. Hemingway famously said:
There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.
True mastery comes from standing at the edge, looking into the abyss of death, and backing off just enough to truly understand where that edge lies. I’ve played two out of Hemingway’s three sports, and a failed at the basic task of herding some cattle into a pen before being branded, so I’ll take a pass on walking into a ring with an enraged bull. Suffice to say I have a good handle on my limitations. I know and trust myself behind the wheel.
What I can’t trust are the other humans on the road, who are so bored to tears that they have abandoned the act of driving so much that they yearn for self-driving cars to allow them to stare at their phones as they are shuttled from place to place.
Out here in the American Outback, the roads are empty. Those drivers-who-would-rather-be-passengers are all either west of the Sierras, East of the Rockies, or are droning across the Basin on the Interstate.
I chose my route to avoid even US highways where I could and stuck to the most remote of the paved roads, state highways and county roads. It was bliss.
Empty roads. Empty skies. Objective hazards measured largely in open range cattle and roadkill-feasting buzzards.
There were stretches of road I traveled where I never saw another vehicle for hundreds of miles. I was utterly and completely alone for most of the trip.
What this sort of driving brings to the driver is FOCUS.
Well, that is if you choose to actively participate. One could set the cruise control and pass the time the same way I did in my childhood rides across the west, watching out the windows into the sagebrush for Pronghorns and Jackalopes. (I saw plenty of the former, and none of the latter.)
Or you can DRIVE.
Due to some scheduling issues my trip to Vegas was split over two days. Friday I drove from Prineville, Oregon to Ely, Nevada, then Ely to Las Vegas Saturday morning, to attend the Saturday afternoon event. On Sunday morning I woke up and drove the entire return trip in one go, with only about an hour’s stop midway for lunch. Mapping software said the trip should be over thirteen hours long. I set out to see how many hours I could shave off that estimate.
I arrived home after about 10.5 hours of driving, alert and feeling fresh. How? I drove in a manner that many would describe as “reckless” or “dangerous” but is in reality exactly the opposite. I focused like a laser on the simple act of driving.
I played by a very simple set of rules:
1. When in or near any town, drive at or very near the speed limit.
2. When near any other vehicles, drive at or near the speed limit.
3. At all other times drive at the maximum comfortable speed I felt confident doing.
Given that well over 90% of my drive was on empty, well-paved, two-lane highways, with visibility often measured in tens of miles, it was very easy to drive the car at 80% of its true capacity. Being a modern, high-performance machine with tires rated well above my speeds, I felt very confident driving this way. I think I could have shaved more time off my trip had my car had a larger gas tank, or at least if I knew exactly where I might find gas along the route. Fuel consumption at higher speeds and “next gas in XXX miles” signs (which turned out to not be factual) forced me to slow down on two segments. It also rained on me for a short section through mountains in southern Oregon… for that I slowed down to well under the limit. Limited visibility and wet pavement is not the place to go fast.
Otherwise, I only made stops for fuel, food, and bio-breaks.
When I arrived home I felt oddly energized. Not at all tired. It was those hours of 100% focus. They don’t even allow you to become fatigued. So instead of covering ground at such a slow rate that the driver becomes bored, distracted, and fatigued, perhaps we should raise speed limits rather than keep lowering them.
It’s all about focus.
After our road trip, and some attempts at cleaning the New Mexico Road Construction Dust out and off of the car, it has been listed on bringatrailer.com.
As I predicted the wheel whiners came out in force, but have since settled down. With a day to go, I’m not sure yet who is serious and who is just a lookey-lou, but I’ve been trying to be helpful as possible to all questions, online and off. Really hoping this one goes to a good home.
For the folks wanting a serial re-telling of the trip from Texas to Oregon, here is a clickable menu that takes you day by day, with each in a new broswer tab: