Back in the aughts (the 2000s, for our younger readers) there was a joke going around: Q: What is the difference between a BMW and a porcupine? A: The porcupine has the pricks on the outside. BWM as a brand was seen as a car for the upwardly mobile, for the Gordon Geckos of the world: The ambitious, sometimes pushy folks on their way up the social ladder. It was something of an aspirational brand for 30-somethings who wouldn’t be caught dead in a Cadillac or a Lincoln, the aspirational brands of their parents.
By 2002 Rick and I had owned our Jeep Grand Cherokee for six years. After the warranty expired, the Jeep began to have continual trouble. The transfer case leaked, the padding on the rear doors began to warp, and the oil pressure gauge sometimes went to zero for no reason. We decided to shop for another vehicle with four wheel drive we could use to get to and from our cabin in West Virginia without white-knuckle anxiety that the car would break down in the middle of nowhere with no cell phone service.
Our first thought was to look at a BMW 3-series wagon with X-drive. X-drive is the BMW label for full-time all wheel drive. I did the research on the internet (on a dialup modem linking to AOL) and the reviews were positive. We didn’t really need off-road capability, just something that was good in snow. We went off to the dealership and test drove a 3-series. It was OK, but it felt a bit small inside compared to our Grand Cherokee. (Of course it had limousine spaciousness compared to Rick’s Miata). Plus, I really didn’t want a wagon. To me, wagons were what my mother drove, and which I drove when she handed her Buick Sportwagon to me. I wanted something sexier and a bit more spacious for my six-foot frame.
Rick, knowing I’m a sucker for shiny bright toys, pushed me towards a sparkling silver BMW 525xi. The 5-series was considerably larger, considerably more luxurious, and considerably more expensive than the 3-series wagon. But it was super cool inside, with all the fancy electronic gizmos—like the much-derided iDrive system where you selected a range things by twisting a dial and pushing down on it to make your selection. It was over budget, but I took a deep breath and signed the deal. So Bradley the BMW came home with us.
We elected to keep the Grand Cherokee up at the cabin in the mountains for the summer, and use it only for hauling large loads to and from DC. The new BMW would be my daily driver. It was one sweet ride! Quiet and comfy in town, it had great handling and a high zoom-zoom factor when whipping along curvy mountain roads. And, I’ll be honest: I loved the “OOH! AHH! reaction when I showed up to rehearsals for the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington DC. I had arrived in peak Yuppiedom.
In fact, we only used the car in snow a couple of times. Once our schnauzer Bentley Continental got sick and I had to take him to the vet in the middle of a snowstorm. The car handled the snowy roads with aplomb. We had one hairy ride where we nearly got stuck on the steep part of the road to our cabin in West Virginia, but we made it fine and used the Jeep to return home, in the snow.
Eventually, our luck with the Jeep ran out. Rick was driving back to DC one Sunday when the oil pressure gauge dropped to zero. We had been assured by the mechanics at the dealer that it was just a sensor problem, but not this time. By the time he got home the engine was clattering like someone was shaking a coffee can full of coins. I had it towed to the dealer, and they gave me the bad news: Then engine was shot because the bearings were fried due to lack of oil. They offered me $5,000 in trade if I bought a new Jeep Liberty they had on sale, but I’d had enough of this dealership and Jeep products, so I had it towed to a friend’s mechanic for a second opinion. Alas, the engine truly was shot. So Jeffrey the Jeep was towed away for salvage and was out of our lives.
This was in March 2006. It was also around the time of my 53rd birthday. I was feeling another mid-life crisis, so off we went to the BMW dealership and traded Bradley BMW, the 2002 525xi, for a shiny new silver 2006 528xi, which I named Beauchamp. Looking back, that was rather silly: the 2002 had low mileage and was mechanically perfect; there was nothing wrong with it, it was paid off and in excellent condition, since the vast majority of its mileage was from our weekend trips to the mountains—I lived only 4 miles from work. The 2006 was even the same color inside and out. But it was new, it was sexy, and I. Wanted. It. Now. So the deal was struck.
A few months later, around Rick’s birthday, he decided that since I got a new car, he deserved a new one, too. His Miata was now approaching 12 years of age and was beginning to show some wear and tear. We talked about it, and agreed that another SUV to replace the Jeep would be in order, since neither the BMW nor the Miata was any good for carrying large, bulky things. So back we went to the dealership, where our friendly salesperson steered us to a used demonstrator 2004 X3. It was the size Rick wanted and came with the extras he demanded, such as the premium sound system and leather interior. I thought the color was horrible—a rather ghastly dark shade of green somewhere between Charred Olive and Wilted Basil. But he liked the color, and so I took Bentley Continental for a long walk while he dickered over the price. When I came back the deal was done. Our salesperson figured out we were a couple, so she asked if we wanted both names on the title and registration. Simultaneously Rick said “No” and I said “Yes”. I gave him my patented Yale Ph.D. Death Stare, and he agreed to put my name on what would be his car. At the time we could not legally marry, and I felt strongly that both names should be on the title in case something happened to him.
So we we now owned two two (or nearly-new) BMWs. Both were a lot of fun to drive. The X3 had a bit firmer ride than I liked, so it was a bit bouncy on the rotten, notoriously potholed streets of Washington, DC. The X3 in particular was great in the snow, and got us down off the mountain several times when we got caught in WV with a sudden snowstorm. We thought we were all set for years of reliable driving, since the 2002 BMW had no problems at all.
Right about the time the warranties and covered maintenance agreements wore off, all sorts of things started to go wrong. We spent $1,000 getting an electronic switch replaced on the X3’s sunroof; it was stuck in the “closed” position and kept draining the battery. Then something else broke and the sunroof wouldn’t close at all. Not a good thing during the summer thunderstorm season in DC. So that cost us more money to replace. The driver’s side front brake on the 528xi started to squeal. Loudly. VERY loudly. Cat-that-got-its-tail-stepped-on loudly. A super-expensive brake job was the outcome. Then a thermostat needed to be replaced. And the coup de grace was when I was driving home from WV one day and all the warning lights and alerts went off somewhere between Moonshine Hollow Road (where our cabin was) and Front Royal, Virginia. I had no cell phone service and the BMW roadside assist didn’t work. I limped home, and by the time I got to DC my display panel was lit up like the bridge of the USS Enterprise. Most alarming was the warning “X-DRIVE SYSTEM INOPERATIVE! DRIVE SLOWLY”.
I took the car to the BMW dealer and they gave me the bad news: At least $5,000 to fix all the problems. After I recovered from shock, they made me a reasonable offer on a trade-in if I bought a replacement vehicle from stock. I didn’t feel like sinking money into the 2006, and frankly I was pissed at it, so I accepted the offer.
So we said goodbye to Beauchamp the 528xi and signed a three-year lease on Sasha, a 2014 528xi. I liked the looks of this one better than the 2006; BMW got rid of the “Bangle Butt” (named after Chris Bangle, who styled the 2006) and the overall the lines were cleaner and much smoother than the 2006. It also had a different drivetrain: Instead of the inline sixes in our previous BMWs it had a turbocharged inline four. It took me awhile to get used to the rougher idle of the four compared to the six, but the power was more than adequate.
It also came with start/stop technology where the engine would stop when the car idled for more than a few seconds. This caused me no end of panic when, upon driving the car home, the engine stopped when I got off of I-395 in downtown DC. OH NO! I’ve broken the car! The salesperson neglected to explain that when you step on the gas the motor starts up again. There was a switch to turn stop/start off, but when you turned off the ignition it reset to the default of stop/start being “on”. I asked BMW if you could disable it, and they said no, it was a way to get the fuel mileage up, as calculated by the EPA.
For awhile, Sasha behaved. Then, six months into ownership, I was driving to Baltimore and suddenly the engine overheated. I limped back to DC, and then everything was fine. BMW replaced the thermostat under warranty. A few weeks later I stopped at Front Royal to get some things at Walmart for a long weekend at the cabin. When I got in the car to drive next door to Lowes, the steering felt oddly mushy. I parked the car, and noticed a large puddle of engine oil from a gushing leak in the engine compartment. I called AAA, and after an hour wait they sent off Bubba McCoy with his truck to tow me back to BMW in northern Virginia. I was stuck for 90 minutes with a tobacco-chewing hillbilly who hadn’t bathed since the Battle of Antietam. I was NOT amused. BMW took the car and declared it was a failed oil pump, which they agreed to fix for free. I didn’t receive compensation for pain and suffering of being stuck in that tow truck, but at least they ate the towing costs.
In 2016, we were hit with a tragedy: my Dad died at the ripe old age of 96. I flew out to see him before he passed, and we were able to say our goodbyes. Under the terms of his will, he left the family home in Seattle to me. Which presented us with an opportunity: We could retire from our jobs early, sell the homes in WV and DC, and move back to Seattle to live mortgage-free. We’d always planned to move home, and when we ran the numbers it was clear even on reduced retirement income we’d be better off in Seattle with no mortgage and no income tax. Plus we could sell both houses at a fantastic profit; we’d lived in DC for 30 years, and housing prices had grown astronomical.
So we spent a year getting things in order. We sold the cabin in WV (which broke our hearts); we spiffied up the home in DC, and Rick sold his X3 to CarMax for a decent price. We sold our home in DC for an obscene amount of money, and in May 2016 we left an empty house with our new schnauzer Nash Metropolitan in the back seat and headed out to Seattle.
We had to make the trip in no more than six days because we needed to meet our furniture when it arrived at Dad’s house. Now, since I have chronic lower back problems, I can’t drive for more than a couple of hours at a time. Rick did most of the driving. Most of it at 80 miles per hour in rural areas and screaming like a sailor with a broken toe when we were stuck in traffic. To add to my discomfort, he liked to listen to Classic Country music on the satellite radio as he drove. I heard him sing (badly) along with songs like “I love my truck” and “you’re the reason our kids are ugly.” On top of it all I was praying that nothing would go wrong with the car. BMW dealers are few and far between in North Dakota and Montana. It was, to say the least, stressful. We would stop every two hours or so to give Nash a potty break and for me to sit quietly and listen to new-age relaxation apps on my iPhone.
We made it to Seattle safely, with no auto-related drama. Six weeks after we got here the temperature on the BMW shot up and stayed up. I took it to BMW of Bellevue (a suburb of Seattle), and they said it needed a new thermostat. They said it would take two hours, and they had no loaner cars available, and the best they could do was drive me to a bus stop. It would take two hours each way with three bus changes, so I settled down with my iPad to cruise the net and chat on Facebook. Two hours became three. Then four. As Rick had no car and we knew nobody in Seattle to come get me, I was stuck. So I sat. And sat. And sat. And sat. The battery on my iPad gave out and I was reduced to watching reality TV in the lounge. Finally, after four and a half hours the car was done. I went and SEETHED at the manager of the dealership, and posted a particularly VICIOUS statement on the dealership’s Facebook page.
In January 2021 the lease on the 2014 BMW was up, and we had decided to switch to Mercedes for our next car. More on that in my next segment of COAL.
COAL № 3: 1965 Buick Sportwagon • My first car.
COAL № 5: A Pair of Pintos.