In 2001 I met John Southin, a car aficionado of the highest order.
A retired Biologist and Geneticist who was a professor at McGill University for 28 years before he retired early (he got his PhD at the age of 23), John was incredibly bright, and unlike most academics I’d known before or since, was also incredibly humble, down to earth and easy to talk to.
But one of the most important things about him when we met was our shared love of all things automotive. Although he’d been a city dweller for most of his adult life and had relied on public transit in university and early professional career, by the time John hit his mid-40’s he was ready to be a motorist.
He used to joke about how he took driving lessons with a fellow professor in Montreal, and when then went to the transportation ministry the person doing their road test pretty much only watched them drive around the block before passing them. He always said it had something to do with being academics.
After having spent the decade after getting his license sating all of his automotive desires (at one time he had a Pontiac Trans Am, Chevrolet Corvette and VW Beetle at the same time), he winnowed his collection down to one: a 1991 BMW 318i. It was this car that he had when we met.
On one of the first road trips we did, I told him that I could drive a manual transmission. Having grown up a farm kid and having driven tractors and combines, I assumed that I could.
However, after stalling the BMW about five times before getting out of my driveway when he came to pick me up, I quickly realized that thinking I knew how to drive a stick wasn’t the same as knowing how to.
From then on, he usually took the wheel whenever we went anywhere. However, from the passenger seat I got to observe the car in through detail. It was all black, with sturdy grey upholstery. It always seemed pretty quick with the manual but at higher rpm the engine was a bit noisy. The inside seemed well put together if a bit austere.
From the outside it was obvious this was the strippo 3-series of its time, with rather chintzy plastic wheelcovers and black plastic fillers where the fog lights were supposed to be. I also thought it looked a bit ‘retro’ blocky, not unlike other long-lived designs like the Volvo 240.
He had purchased the car in 1992 after it had served as a dealer demo model at Canbec BMW in Montreal (a dealership which still exists). But after driving it for a decade, he decided he wanted something new, or rather two somethings new. So his faithful 318i was traded in on a 1998 Suzuki Sidekick (which eventually became mine), and he decided to move up the teutonic ladder a bit with a car he’d always admired; a 1993 Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.6.