What were they thinking?

Engineering Idiocy. I know I’m late to this particular party, but I had not encountered this until today. Several years ago, after picking us up at the Houston airport, Linda was riding in the rear seat of my father’s BMW 535i, and casually said “Charlie, I love your car. If you ever think about selling it, I’ll buy it from you.”

Long story short, we bought the car from my mom not long after he passed away last summer. We drove it home last autumn, where it spent most of the winter parked in my shop as it isn’t really an ideal winter car. For that we drive her old Subaru.

This 5-series is several years old, but has very low miles. We literally doubled the odometer driving it from Texas to Oregon. It is likely overdue for an oil change in time more than distance. I looked up the oil required and bought two large jugs of it yesterday. I had stocked up on filters from BavAuto (R.I.P.) soon after we bought it. I opened the hood in the shop to be presented with…

NO DIPSTICK!

I recall lots of complaints in Roundel (the BMWCCA magazine) about this issue back when BMW started doing this, but I didn’t give it much thought.

So I was sort of stuck. The owners manual doesn’t list the engine oil capacity(!) and everything BMW presents you with basically says “bring it to the dealer for oil changes”… grrr.

I’ve been changing my own oil since I was a teenager. It was the first thing I learned about automotive maintenance. For me it is almost a therapeutic action. It is good for the car, it is good for me. I drive away with a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. But now I’m just confused.

Thankfully I have the Internet. The Internet tells me I need 6.5 Liters of oil for this engine. Typical of how I’ve always done this I’ll fill it a bit short of what should be “full” and then top it off in small increments to avoid overfilling the engine.

However without a dipstick, there is no way to actually do this. To measure the engine oil you have to be in the car and use the onboard computer. Not only that, the car has to be on level ground, engine on, and UP TO OPERATING TEMPERATURE. ????

This is sort of stupid. I let the oil drain out overnight. The engine is cold. In fact it got below freezing last night, so the engine is about as cold as it will ever be. I feel stupid starting a cold engine with at least a half a liter short of the correct amount of oil… then letting it idle for long enough to warm it up.

The dipstick is a perfectly adequate tool for this task. It takes seconds to measure oil levels with a dipstick, and it poses ZERO risk to the engine to use it. While I’m not really scared of damaging this car, doing this for the first time ever does make me feel… mild trepidation mixed with annoyance for some engineers in Munich.

So here I KNOW I shorted the amount by 500ml, so I expect the car to tell me to add that after I perform the check…

…and…

Now I’m REALLY annoyed. How can I trust this thing? It’s like those temperature gauges they program to stay right in the middle unless something really bad is happening. I know I’m 500ml short, but the car tells me “I’m at 100%” (note the lack of actual measuring units).

I guess I’m going to have to check often to see if it changes.

So happy that all the other engines I care for have dipsticks.

Scratch pad for a proposed car article…

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.

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“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.

BMW E21 320i

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.

BMW E21 320i

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.

Current Market
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.)

Future Market?
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.

Review: Using the ReachNow car sharing service…

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!

Default View

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.

Car Reserved

Walking to 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.

Welome screen.

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.

BAT Success Story: Part 2, M6 from Wisconsin to Oregon

This is part two of a two-part series. Part one is here.

Another M6 shows up on BAT

Just about every E24 M6 that appears on BAT over the past year has drawn my attention. I’ve actively bid on several, including a few that I lost in the final minutes to a higher bidder. Most of my attention went to M6s that are not either Black or Red. I’ve owned a black car before and never liked how it shows every flaw. I’ve just never liked red cars. Sorry for all you red car lovers, but to me they look flat, completely lacking in depth. In my opinion the metallic blues are the best colors, as they have amazing depth and change in different lighting conditions. The week before this auction there was another M6 on BAT, upon which I was the high bidder, but it failed to meet reserve. I was having a few offline conversations with the seller, when this one appeared. Soon regular BAT commentators are calling me out by name:

You guys have my back. Love it!

I happen to be in Maui with my girlfriend (she has taken me there for my birthday) as the auction is coming to a close, so I set an alarm to get me off the beach and back to my laptop in time to make some bids. As with every BAT auction, the finale seems to end up like that final showdown scene in “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly”, with two or three bidders virtually staring at each other, and finding the courage to up their bid as the timer counts down again, and again… and again.

Turns out I am the last man standing.

Continue reading “BAT Success Story: Part 2, M6 from Wisconsin to Oregon”

Proposed BAT “Success Story” post

Working on some stories for the website Bring A Trailer. Feel free to comment/correct in the comments.

BAT Success Stories: Two almost flawless Arrive & Drives.

I’ve never owned a BMW until a few years ago, now I have a shop half-full of them; two of those are thanks to BAT. I’d never even driven a BMW until 2011 when I joined a 24 Hours of Lemons team who campaign a beater 1990 325i (E30). A few laps into my first race I fall in love with the little lightweight coupe and its perfect balance between power and handling. Thus begins an addiction.

I bought a used 2007 M Roadster (E85/S54) as my daily driver a year later, which is a pure joy to drive. Then, last summer while visiting Portland, Oregon for a week of business I tack on an SCCA Track Night and Portland International Raceway, and a BMW Club tour through the Oregon Wine Country. At PIR the only car in my advanced run group that out-runs the M Roadster is a race-prepped Mustang with 2X my horsepower, and I still managed to stick to his tail through the corners. Then the next day on the tour I find myself behind a late 80s E24 M6. The big coupe never fails to pull away from me on every straight. I’m dumfounded. How could this old car do that? I’d seen E24s for years but never really noticed them… even a good car-guy friend in Bellingham, WA has two “Sharks”… but I always look right past them at his E-type Jaguar.

But here this elegant and clearly luxurious machine is also now making me work to catch up to it in my, lightweight, fairly minimal roadster. And the sounds that it makes… GLORIOUS! At every rest stop I linger over the M6, looking at every angle. I decide I had to have one. Thus begins my hunt…

Continue reading “Proposed BAT “Success Story” post”

Farewell Aperture, for now.

At least this houseguest cleans up after itself!

My 30-day Apple Aperture trial expired. I ended up deciding not to buy the software though. Why?

$199 seems steep for an application that runs like molasses on my fairly well-spec’ed machine; a MacBook Pro 2.53GHz with 4 GB of RAM. I like Aperture’s RAW editing features. Once I got the hang of them that is. But… damn this application is slow. This was with a library of less than 100 photos. I note that iPhoto bogs down once its library exceeds 5000 images. Aperture was dog slow right from the very first image.

Every once in a while I would see some moment of brilliance, and think I was falling in love with the software. Then it would smack me with a spinning cursor and drive me away. I would hope that a trial period would show you all the reasons to love a new product, but in this case it just drove me back to using iPhoto + Photoshop.

I’m open to being convinced otherwise, so feel free to chime in if you have a differing opinion.

A Truck Load of Salt

I took my son Nicholas to see his favorite musician, Jonathan Coulton play at the Moore Theater in Seattle last night. We drove down from Arlington, with a stop at Seattle institution Dicks for a bite:

Mmmmmmm. Says Nick. on Twitpic
The opening band was Paul & Storm:

(and yes, panties were thrown at the performance last night… seven of them in fact.)

Nick acquired a “Skullcrusher Mountain” T-shirt and stocked up on so many nerd hit points that I’m certain he’ll dominate the next D&D match he plays.

There was really only one downer for the whole night. A few rows behind us was seated a guy who was not only really loud, but also cracked wise at every pause in the show. Paul & Storm strongly encourage audience participation and this guy took the bit and ran with it… non-stop.

All.

Night.

Long.

Literally not a minute of the show went by without this guy hollering a punch line, or wisecrack, or just something stupid. One or two of his remarks/heckles/outbursts were quite funny. Three or four of them were picked up by the performers and made for funny moments. But the other eighty six of them were just tiresome, annoying, and several times threw the performers off their game. We ALL paid good money to see this, and more importantly HEAR this event, but at literally every quiet moment this yahoo became a bellowing distraction.

Like spice in a well-prepared dish a bit of audience participation is a wonderful thing. Had the audience last night all sat like cadavers, it would have been pretty dull (though one song demanded that we become zombies!) However too much is just too much. In this case a pinch of salt would have been perfect, and this one guy in the audience (let’s call him “Richard”, or “Dick” for short) arrived with a dump truck loaded with sodium chloride, backed up (beep… beep… beep… beep… ) into the auditorium, then dumped two tons of salt all over the show.

Really? Don’t be that guy.