My Curbside Classic: 1986 BMW 528i – The Ecstasy of Beige, Part 2

In some ways, it’s the roller coaster of emotion that makes a hobby enjoyable. A good hobby will always provide problems to solve, challenges to overcome, and improvements to be made. For me, the shortcomings of a car are the reason for the attachment.

Not everyone feels the urge to complete. Recently a friend of mine asked my advice on buying a new (to him) car. He has a budget large enough for any number of interesting older vehicles, and I caught myself advising him that he shouldn’t buy something recent because then there would be nothing to fix. I received a well-deserved stare.

But for some the urge to improve things is primal. Looking at a project sends the imagination wild. “Just think what I could build! All I need is time and money.”

That urge landed me landed me with a 25 year old luxury car with no radio, torn seats and sticky brakes.

Part 1

After the wheels were balanced, I was free to explore what the car had to offer. The B-roads of Warwickshire offer a decent mix of fast sweeping corners, tighter blind bends and straightish high speed sections. Good fun in an old Scirocco, but I expected less from the larger and spongier BMW. In a clichéd sort of twist, my expectations were upended.

I’ll admit that my frame of reference for speed is narrow. I’ve ridden along in a family friend’s Porsche 996 turbo and Aston Martin DB7, many years ago. Most cars I’ve driven are pretty pedestrian – a lot of pokey small displacement hatchbacks, a 2-stroke motorcycle, a handful of recent diesel repmobiles and a 2.0 turbo Audi. So take everything I’m about to say with a pinch of salt, although the ad above may be overstating things a little too.

My then-current Scirocco made decent use of its ninety-ish hp. A tall second gear meant it could reach 60 in about 9 seconds, not bad going for an old shed. But the carb needle was toast and performance felt spotty at times. The BMW on the other hand possessed a different kind of speed. In a straight line, it wasn’t much quicker thanks to gearing and extra weight, but the engine was a totally different animal. I hadn’t experienced a (relatively) large displacement naturally aspirated engine before. Torque was heaped beneath my right foot. I could move mountains. More than that, the engine was smooth and incredibly lively, especially above 3,500rpm. Going to the redline was a kind of exciting, frenzied crescendo.

On the drive home from London I had been too preoccupied to notice the confidence with which it moved the car. I was also surprised to find that the BMW moved through the bends with more composure than it had any right to. Once past the (large) dead spot in the steering, turn in was sharp, and the tired old suspension pulled off a sound impression of a good ride.

When August arrived I had done little more than basic maintenance on the car. Outstanding problems at the time included: a slight pull to the left, a dead spot in the steering, a brake that bound in bad traffic, an iffy temperature gauge, a bad brake booster, and the sunroof could only be opened by hand (the horror). I see now that I was an idiot and an optimist as we left our sleepy town at midnight, headed for the ferry at Dover.

We were bound for the continent, where we would spend 30 days living out of the car. Tent, sleeping bags, trangia, food, all our gear – everything went in the car, and the closest we would get to civilised sleep would be in camping grounds or in the car on residential streets. We would drive more than 4,000 miles, spend over £700 on petrol, and visit 9 different countries. We would get lost, stuck, robbed twice, thrown off campsites, play music through the dusk in the Pyrenees, drink from mountain springs, cruise the casino in Monaco, see a huge number of beautiful European towns (and the womens, ahah), and generally wander through the countryside with only a basic idea of where we were going. We let the road take charge, and followed.

The interior as it was. Everything was a mess but it doesn’t matter when your chair has arms.

Frustratingly, we would have no evidence that any of this happened. On the 4th day of the journey, in Ravenna, Italy, we stopped at the beach for while. An hour later when we returned to the car to find we had been robbed. Thieves had stolen my friend’s camera, both our phones, both our iPods, both our wallets, and with them about €100 and all our credit/debit cards, save one. The Italian police were as much use as a chocolate teapot. The Carabinieri just sat around making jokes at our expense (seriously). A very nice regular policeman on duty at the local train station was the only help. He threatened me with a gun, but only as a joke.

Shops have mostly stopped selling disposable cameras, and I didn’t want to spend £100 on a second camera that might just get lost or stolen again. Word of advice: if your camera gets stolen at the beginning of a road trip, buy a replacement.

I’ll leave you with a bit from the journey. You’ll need your imaginations!

Day 2, August 1st: It was raining. We left rainy Belgium and pressed on into rainy Germany. It continued raining. Also, it was cold. Frankfurt and Munich were grey and wet.

Frustrated that things weren’t turning out how we had expected, we decided to put central Europe behind us and rush for the coast, albeit on an interesting route through the Alps on smaller roads. Instead of camping early, while there was still light, we drove on into the night, through the rain. A stop at a motorway service station showed the scale of the problem: water was coming down in sheets, pooling on the ground, and I knew that the tyres on the car were not exactly fabulous in the wet. The rain eased a little and we pressed on. Motorways gave way to large roads, which gradually gave way to small roads as we climbed through the foothills of the Alps, in the wet and the dark.

By 11pm, the effort of driving in these conditions was beginning to take its toll, and my focus probably wasn’t what it once was. I saw a few scattered brown leaves on the road. Something in the back of my mind kicked feebly.

I ran over a large leaf and felt a noticeable crunch. A car passed, I turned on my high beams and one of the leaves jumped. Instantly, I was wide awake and realised: they were hundreds of frogs. Not tightly packed, but frogs, all over the road, for mile after mile. My friend looked at me and shrugged. I suddenly found myself dodging roadgoing amphibians, and come on, those guys are slippery.

The frogs eventually petered out. Somehow in the darkness, we found an out-of-the-way spot to park for the night, and slept in the car. It was cold, and still the rain fell.

In fact, the rain was still falling when we woke up. The car told me it was a 6 degrees Celsius outside. Throwing off my sleeping bag, I wiped the condensation from the window, and groggily started the car.

But as the rain stopped at lunchtime, we began our long descent into Italy down a curving stretch of road through a gorgeous, colourful mountain valley. The clouds parted, angels sang, the temperature climbed to over 30 degrees and the trip began.

[ED: not the author’s picture, and maybe not the right location, but you get the idea]