(welcome our new Sunday COALer) In the summer of 1985, I was 15 and a rising high school sophomore. I had a pretty good work ethic for a kid. I mowed lawns for our home and a few neighbors. I also rode my bike to a nearby shopping center where I was a stockboy for a gift store a few hours a week. Most of the employees were elderly ladies, and the storage room was in the basement of the center. I carried the very heavy boxes of stock back and forth as the seasons and holidays came and went.
But by far, my favorite “job” was the car cleaning business I had built up. Between my parents, their friends at work, my grandparents, and their elderly friends, I detailed 2-3 cars a week. At the time, I charged $50 or so which was really good money. I purchased all the supplies, which wasn’t cheap, but there was still a lot of profit.
The cars were always interesting to me….some were a complete bear, like a 1972 or so Cadillac Fleetwood that my grandparents’ friends bought new. Some were weathered, and therefore a challenge (about any 4-5 year old metallic anything from that era falls in this group). Many of my parents’ friends’ cars were newer and pretty easy to get looking showroom clean. I recall a new Volvo 240, a couple of new Buicks, a 200SX and a 280ZX, and of course my grandmother’s 1984 Bonneville.
But the car that caught my eye the most, as far as me wanting it for myself, was a 1982 320i. It was owned by a lady who worked with my dad. I don’t recall her name, but she was younger, single, and “cool”. I detailed the 320i a couple of times for her. It was metallic Baltic Blue with blue cloth, and pretty much a “stripper” but that’s the way 3 Series BMW’s were at the time. Crank windows, manual locks, crank sunroof, no power steering, and certainly no cruise control. I don’t think most of the missing power accessories were optional at all on the 320i.
It did have power mirrors, which seemed odd to me, but I guess BMW considered that to be a driver safety item. Power brakes, fog lights, air conditioning, and one of the first LED readout factory cassette stereos I had seen were all present.
The air conditioning for the 320i was clearly, to my untrained eye, an afterthought. It occupied the space under the center heat controls were the stereo would usually be. It was not integrated, meaning it had a separate on/off switch and blower knob. It meant that the stereo was then upturned vertically, in front of the whole condenser housing. And the sides of the whole housing were covered in padded black vinyl which looked cheap and out of place. All the cooled air was discharged not from the dash vents, but from two vents in the center, on top of the dash. To add insult to injury, they were not adjustable at all. It was all very odd, and I had never seen anything like it.
Since it was owned by a single lady, it was never very dirty to begin with. I washed and waxed it, lightly sprayed the wheel wells with flat black paint, and worked on the vaned wheels with a toothbrush. But I don’t recall having to shampoo the carpet at all.
In early 1986, my dad came home from work one day an announced the co-worker was looking to sell the BMW. I don’t recall a lot of detailed discussions about it, but he bought it and my recollection was it would be mine when I turned 16 that July, or, he would drive it and I would get his older but very nice 1979 Mercedes 280CE coupe.
My dad drove the 320i but decided it was a little too “stripper” for his taste. The 280CE was older and to some eyes not as “hip”, but it had power everything, automatic climate control, wood trim, and was finished to a much higher level overall. He kept driving it and I took the 320i that July.
I don’t recall exactly how many miles the BMW had on it when I was 16, but it was not six figures. I recall it had a stalling problem that the dealer could never resolve….I got used to it stalling, every morning, at the first stop sign in my neighborhood, without fail. You would restart it and it would be fine the rest of the day. It also had a weak synchro on 2nd gear. You needed to shift slowly into 2nd especially on a cold morning or you would feel and hear the “crunch”
It was no speed demon, but for a 16 year old, that’s a good thing! Without looking up the stats, I’m pretty sure the 1.8 liter fuel injected four had 101 horsepower and about the same amount of torque. Given the lack of equipment (no ABS, no airbags, no power accessories) it was pretty light and had plenty of power for the task at hand if the AC was off. The AC made a marked difference. Compared to my mom’s 240D and my friends’ Corollas and diesel Rabbits and the like, it was dangerously powerful! One of my best friends at the time had a 1972 BMW 2002tii. It was quite fast…..and he totaled it while were still in high school as a result.
The stereo readout quit not long after I started driving it, thus introducing me to the world of the Crutchfield catalog. I replaced the stereo a couple of times, first with a cassette unit, and later with a CD unit. I added an equalizer as well, and eventually replaced all the speakers. Stereo theft was a real problem back in the 1980’s, at least in my town. I purposely chose “low key” looking head units and kept the factory speaker sizes and grilles. I hid the equalizer in the glove box.
I had my first and so far, only accident in the car that fall, if you can believe that…..there was a 90 degree curve in my neighborhood. To this day, I insist I wasn’t going very fast, but it was raining and the leaves were down. So, it was slick as ice. I spun all the way around and the front of the car took out a number of bushes and a split rail fence in a friend’s yard. A telephone pole stopped my car, right in the passenger door. It was pretty badly pushed in, but still opened and closed just fine.
I was sick. My parents were pretty easy on me, because they knew how I felt about my car and no further punishment was really necessary. I paid to replace the bushes in the friend’s yard (she had the aforementioned diesel Rabbit) and I paid them back to fix my car. We took it to a body shop that pulled it out and bondo’ed it. The color matched fine but the bodywork was pretty shoddy/wavy. I hated that door from then on. I was super embarrassed about crashing into my friend’s yard…but not long afterwards she backed her Rabbit out of their garage with the hatch up. You can imagine the carnage that resulted to the house and the Rabbit. So everyone at school soon forgot about my screwup.
The car took me to school, to work, to two proms, and went with me to college. I had a number of other “firsts” in the BMW, which do not need to be addressed here. It was really one of the more reliable and uneventful periods of car ownership I’ve ever had, as I look back. It always stalled once in the morning and had the crunchy 2nd gear, but those issues at least never got worse. I recall the AC leaking down and needing a charge or two every summer, as time wore on.
The paint always stayed shiny and deep, but I waxed it a LOT. I recall my dad telling me I was going “rub the paint off that car”. I replaced the BMW emblems on the hood, trunk, and wheels as the blue and white paint gradually all flaked off. The dash developed a crack or two. The cloth seats faded rapidly and began to rip in places . About 1990 or so I had them reupholstered in a navy blue fabric that was darker than the factory greyish blue, but looked better to my eye and matched the navy blue vinyl sides, back and door cards.
By 1991, I know it had well over 100,000 miles. I want to say about 130,000 comes to mind. I was 21 and my sister was turning 16. She needed a car, but I think my parents felt the BMW needed replacing sooner rather than later. I was spending a semester abroad, so the car was at home. My dad called and asked me if I had a choice of colors for a new car, what would my first and second choice be? Red, dark blue, and white were the choices as I recall.
I didn’t know what they were looking at and I didn’t want to know. I preferred it to be a surprise when I got home. My dad had a new 1991 Accord SE we were all very happy with, silver with black leather. So I suspected they were looking at something Honda…..
What’s your “first car” memories?