Curbside Classic/Auto-Biography – 1980 BMW 320i – When BMW Became The Ultimate Fashion Accessory

Just when did BMW transition from being the enthusiast’s ultimate driving machine to the hot fashion accessory brand? The 1990s? The 00s? Maybe as early as the late 1980s? Not in West Los Angeles. I witnessed it happen very graphically there in 1980. And I know of another incident in 1975. There may well have been others, but these two I can vouch for.

In 1978 I started working at the little tv station (KSCI Channel 18) in Los Angeles. It was owned by one of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s transcendental Meditation (“TM”) organizations. I knew nothing about tv, so I just worked my way up on the production side of things, since the station had a fairly small but well-equipped studio, including broadcast quality equipment with 2″ IVC 9000 helical video tape recorders (above) and such. I did everything, from camera operator, video set-up, video tape operator, editor, technical director and director.

The TM movement had applied for the license of Channel 18 back in 1973, at the peak of its financial success. At the time 40,000 people were paying $35-60 to learn TM every month. Do the math. The original idea of the station was to broadcast Maharishi, who had been videotaping his lectures for some years, as well as related programming, including a daily newscast that was only going to cover the good news, as a key premise was that if enough people (1%) of any city or country meditated, things were going to get better and better. Obviously.

I recently found a box of 3/4″ videotapes in my closet including of one of these “Age of Enlightenment News” programs, and sent it to a facility to transfer it to DVD, but they said the tape was unplayable. Major bummer, as no one has ever uploaded one to YouTube. I will try with other means to get it done. It needs to be seen. It was parodied by many in LA, including Johnny Carson.

By the time the station went on the air in 1977, the TM organization’s income had drastically shrunk, and the station’s support from the central organization was being cut way back. So the studio and production facilities were rented out to outside clients, and that became the only major source of income. And that’s what I was involved with.

KSCI was able to attract a steady stream of outside clients, including Mr. Wizard (Don Herbert).  “Watch Mr. Wizard” had been a popular series of half-hour shows that ran from 1961-1972. In 1977, he started these 90 second short segments that stations could run during local newscasts or such. They were produced at KSCI. And the only tape of the four I sent in that did play and was transferred is this one.

As pressure for more income increased, KSCI sold some time slots to Japanese and Korean broadcasters, and had gotten involved in an ill-fated attempt at Spanish language tv during the daytime hours. TM programing ran during the early evening time slots. And in order to sell ads for the Spanish language shows (I directed many, but the tape with one also didn’t play), the TM lifers that ran the station at the time decided to hire an experienced radio ad salesman that one of them knew through some connections.

Rich Lyons was his name, and he was straight from Central Casting for the role: slick, always smiling, extremely well groomed, spoiled and demanding, and impeccably dressed. He demanded a big base salary and a high commission rate in order to come to KSCI, as well as a new company car. This was not easy to stomach, as everybody was making a flat $500 a month (about $1900 adjusted), regardless of position. Yes, that was enough to live on in West LA back then.

And what car did Rich demand? A new BMW 320i. In silver. And with an automatic. And air conditioning. Was Rich even remotely interested in handling and performance? Not in the slightest. It was simply something to be seen in tooling down Beverly or Rodeo Drive, and that the valets at the restaurants where he ran up big lunch tabs entertaining clients wouldn’t hide in the back of the lot. Maybe even park in the front of the restaurant if it was a bit of a slow day. And create the right impression wherever he went. The Ultimate Status Machine.

Regarding that badge on its trunk lid: this might just be the first time BMW started fudging with what it stood for. The second two numerals traditionally indicated the engine’s displacement, and the 320i (E21) did gave a 2.0L four for its three years in the US (1977-1979). But the 1980 model came with a 1.8 l version, and had 10% hp drop from 110 to 101. Even with the manual, 0-60 times went from about 10.3 to 11.1 seconds. Not exactly the Ultimate Red Light Dragster. With the three-speed automatic, I’m going to guess it was closer to 13-14 or more seconds. With the a/c on? Glacial. The Malaise Era BMW.

No wonder Cadillac deluded themselves into thinking that their Cimarron with its 88hp 1.8 L pushrod four was going to be competitive with the 3 Series.

I drove it once, when it needed to go to the shop and Rich was tied up with “an important meeting”. Not surprisingly, it was pretty feeble, acceleration-wise. The four 1980 Buick Skylark V6s that KSCI bought later that year would leave this Bimmer in the dust. Handling? In the perpetual stop and go of West LA traffic, who could tell? I’m sure it felt ok out on the open road, but the automatic sucked what little fun it might have had right out of it.

Things were not going well at KSCI. These TM “governors” (the equivalent of Catholic cardinals) that were running the station had no business instinct or skills. They were space cadets. The station was bleeding cash, and Maharishi wasn’t sending any more. Quite the opposite: he wanted the station to make money to prop up his organizations and line his off-shore coffers.

I won’t go into the gory details, but there was a bit of a palace coup, and I suddenly found myself as the General Manager at the tender age of 28. I had developed a plan to make the station profitable, and the sweet old German guy who was the nominal overseer liked it and supported my side of the coup. I soon sent the “governors” packing.

I lkilled the Spanish programming block (and related 26 employees), which was bleeding red ink, as well as the TM programming, and started selling the blocks of time to more ethnic programmers, in 15 different languages, mostly Asian and Middle East. (I eventually brought back a Spanish block when the environment for it and the quality improved).

And I negotiated a deal to be the first affiliate of FNN (“Financial News Network”), a new mostly-cable network that eventually got bought by NBC and turned into CNBC. Back then, much of LA didn’t even have cable, so FNN was desperate to be seen on the air, and we had morning and early afternoon time free after killing the Spanish block.

It was a protracted negotiation, as FNN was stretched financially due to sketchy backers. They wanted us to carry it for free, in exchange for half of the ad time that Rich was supposed to sell. But I didn’t see Rich selling much, so I demanded they pay us an hourly carriage fee and we kept just a few ad slots. Which Rich mostly didn’t sell.

This picture is from the launch of FNN; I’m on the left, BMW driver Rich Lyons is on the right (doesn’t he look like a salesman?), and FNN founder Glen Taylor is in the middle right. He was a sleazy guy (doesn’t he look it?) who had made a very dubious business producing tv programs as tax shelters that never got aired. It turns out he had to resign not many months after FNN went live due to “various legal issues”. Rodney Buchser is next to me; a nice guy Glen hired to oversee FNN’s production in their Santa Monica studio.

Rich and the BMW weren’t around much longer; I fired them both. He was just like his damn BMW: overpriced and under-delivering. Lots of show, and not nearly enough go. The Ultimate Put-On Mobile. I can’t remember what I did with his car; he might have taken over the lease, or we somehow got rid of it.

And the station quickly become very profitable, and I became Maharishi’s new BFF (well, not forever exactly). That’s how it worked in the movement.

As I mentioned earlier, the station had bought four specially-ordered 1980 Skylarks not long before I took over. One of the engineers was still a GM acolyte, and he fell for the new X cars. To his credit, the option box had been duly checked for every possible heavy-duty and performance item, including the 110 hp, 2.8-liter V6, automatic, heavy-duty suspension, higher-effort power steering, wide wheels shod with plump 205 70R-13 “performance” tires, transmission cooler, HD cooling system and anything else that caught his engineer’s fancy. They were loaded, well-equipped for both drivers and passengers, with cruise control, tilt wheel, A/C and other amenities. And being the Limited model trim, they even had the velour loose-pillow seats.

They were all white, and mine had a blue interior. And it turned out to be a pretty good car, without the usual first year X car ailments. It pulled hard (and to one side under full acceleration) and handled pretty well. I wrote up my experiences with one of GM’s Deadly Sins  here.

So that was my very direct experience with how BMW became the Ultimate Fashion Direct. But actually, not my first one.

When I first came to LA to work at KSCI, in September of 1977, I needed a place to live. I saw an ad at the TM center for a garage apartment, and went to see it, some blocks south of the Beverly Hills city line. The house was owned by Dolores, my future MIL. She was off in Europe on an advanced TM course (natch), so her daughter (and future soul mate) Stephanie showed me the unit and I rented it.

And what was in the actual garage, under my apartment? A tan 1975 BMW 2002. Dolores, a single mom trying to support four kids as an executive secretary had inherited a bit of money from an aunt that year. She wisely bought the house, and with the remaining money she bought the BMW, on the advice of her son.

I need to mention that Dolores and Stephanie were always impeccably dressed back then. They shopped at the finest stores in Beverly Hills, and had Gucci handbags, Hermes scarves, Ferragamo shoes, cashmere sweaters, silk blouses, etc.. At a time when most American women were unaware of them. As well as BMWs.

Now was a little two door BMW the logical car for a mom and four teenagers? A car whose engine blew up and had to be replaced under warranty? And a car that I had to rescue her from several times when it overheated (repeatedly) or something else broke down? No. But it was so cute, and a BMW, meaning it had to be a really good car, right?

I drove it a couple of times, including up to Mammoth Mountain, and yes, it was a pretty nice drive. It had a stick, fortunately. With four aboard, it was a bit undersprung and underdamped, but it had a nice ride for such a small car, and the engine pulled pretty well. It wasn’t overtly sporty, but that was the reality of European cars back then. They hung in there on rough roads with their supple suspensions, but they were hardly skid-pad terrors.

Dolores wanted out of LA and “retired” to Fairfield, Iowa in 1985, where there is a large TM community. I told her point blank that the BMW was going to be a very bad choice to take with her. Service? Rust? She actually took my advice, for a change. I sold the immaculate-looking 2002 to a kid for his first car. He and his dad came to get it, and the kid was over the moon to find such a nice 2002.

And what did Dolores’ son find as the replacement for her to take to Iowa? A 1970 or 1971 Fury Grand Coupe, with the Mod Top vinyl roof. And under the hood? A 440! Yup; quite the antithesis to the 2002. Drove it a few times; what a beast. She was dubbed “La Bamba”, and it gave her good service chugging around Fairfield for a number of years. When in Iowa, do as the Iowans.

And in West LA…


The next chapter: Auto-Biography – Mercedes 300E and the Birth if Telemundo