COAL: 1972 BMW Bavaria — Right Place, Wrong Time

Last week, I discussed my angst associated with owning what was largely an American car masquerading as a German car. So, when it was time to send the Rabbit out to what may have been its perpetual life out west, what did I replace it with? Why, how about an actual German car with a name that only America could have?

The E3 series of BMW (1968 – 1977) was a four-door sibling to the sporty E9 coupes and the 2002. Still, for reasons I’ve never really understood, E3s have not attracted the attention or long-lasting desirability of the E9 and 2002. This is despite the fact that the E3 – what we knew as the “Bavaria” here in the U.S. — was the direct ancestor to much of what BMW would produce for the next 40 to 50 years, arguably much more so than the coupes or the 2002. Mid-sized, solid, reasonably quick touring cars with a smooth inline 6, the E series started with the E3 in 1968 and continued through the E9x cars that only went out of production in 2011.

The rest of the world knew Bavaria as the 2500. BMW’s US importer – Max Hoffman – sold BMW on the idea that by combining two versions (different in engine size and luxury features) of E3 and offering the resultant car as the “Bavaria” would be a good way to sell these larger touring cars in the US market. Max turned out to be right and the Bavaria did quite well here. In fact, of the two versions of E3 imported in the early to mid 1970s – the Bavaria and the 3.0S (Si once fuel injection was added) – I have mostly only seen Bavarias.

My Bavaria ownership was mostly experienced as a daily driving project car.

I found my Bavaria as a For-Sale-by-Owner car parked on its owner’s front lawn. The owner was a local dentist (rumor has it that most of these E3s were owned by dentists and physicians) who had owned the car since new. For years he had taken it to the same indy shop for all routine and not so routine service. In fact, I knew the shop because they’d towed me home at least once when the Buick broke down close to them. Anyhow, I was able to check out the car’s history with the folks who had worked on it for over a decade and I had some sense as to what I was getting in to. Only some as it turned out.

I convinced myself that even if it was an automatic (there’s always a manual conversion….) the Bavaria would be a heck of a lot more fun than the Rabbit, a car I never touched mechanically due to a perhaps irrational fear of messing with a diesel engine. Furthermore, a larger car would be nice, particularly because we had now acquired our first dog. She’s the good girl in the opening photo. Her name was “Bitte;” because she was exceedingly strong-willed and we were always asking her if she could please do something. Like, please do not run down the middle of the road. Or, would you like to eat the couch, please?

The deal that I made on the home front is that I would not have two cars. So, if I was willing to undertake the Bavaria, I’d have to let go of the Rabbit. For reasons that really probably don’t need much explanation here, I readily swapped the underachieving (yet entirely serviceable and practical) diesel Rabbit for the 10 year older, relatively giant, needy, BMW.

Anyhow, the dog would be much more comfortable in the BMW. This wouldn’t be the first time – or the first household – where car decisions would be driven by dogs.

What specifically attracted me to the big BMW was the reputation that these cars had for being quick (for their size) and smooth owing to the inline-six. Ideally, they’d be excellent highway cruisers. While I had zero interest in BMW’s 1980s yuppie image, it seemed that these older 70s cars weren’t the same thing at all.

No yuppie worth his suspenders would have wanted a 15 year old Bimmer with steadily advancing issues.

As you can see from this view, the car was certainly not without its issues. Mechanically, it ran well enough, but the killer for all BMWs of this vintage was ubiquitous rust. Mine had been given the Ziebart treatment when new.

Apparently the treatment mostly consisted of applying this sticker to its rear window. Sadly, my car’s sticker was weak in its magical rust-proofing properties. The Bavaria had somewhat advanced rust issues when I got it.

My prior experience with rust had been the Buick, where most of that damage was in the floors (to the extent that there were no longer any floors when I got rid of it). The BMW’s floors were solid, so I figured that I was in good shape. What I didn’t know was how E3s (and E9s) are legendary for rusting in the various cervices where the fenders meet the body – especially at the front of the rockers, on up the body seam inside the fenders below the windshield. Also bad is rust in the rear strut towers (a characteristic shared with 2002s).

My car’s front fenders were basically rusting from the top, front, and rear.

(Not my car, but pretty much its exact twin outside of the automatic transmission. I did score a set of those exact wheels for mine at one point)

Those lovely fender-mounted turn indicators? Not so lovely when they have little more than paint and iron oxide to hold them on to the fender.

Nowadays, confronted with something similar, I would probably walk away from buying the car, or at least look into new front fenders. At the time though, my uninformed thought was that while replacement fenders would be necessary eventually, I could get by with:

Actually, the curvy lines of the Bavaria’s front end inspired me to think of my Bondo work more as sculpture than simply hole-repair. And really, if you look at that front-on photo, above, I think I did a pretty good job. Yeah, the right/passenger side turn signal did end up sitting a little bit higher than the left side, but it was all smooth. I was pretty pleased with myself.  That really ought to be enough in a driving project car.  It was darn well going to have to be enough for me, my learn-on-the-go skills, and this particular project.

What Bondo couldn’t fix was the significant rust in the rear shock towers. That rust wasn’t entirely obvious until I had the car for a year or so and took it in to a body shop to get an estimate on painting the front fenders. Replacement new metal was found and then I no longer had to worry about the possibility of the rear shocks blasting through the trunk lid.

With the front fenders painted, the car actually looked pretty good. Fortunately there wasn’t much rust on any other exterior body panel and the paint had held up nicely. So the whole thing cleaned up well.

Mechanically, the car was pretty sound, for a 15 year old BMW. It was at around 75 – 80K when I bought it, and I slowly added on the miles. I should note that at around this time, we’d moved on from small trucks as our second vehicle to a new 1988 Isuzu Trooper II. Really, we would have been happy with just a Trooper I, but no one ever seems to have seen one of those.

As a new car, this became the vehicle that took over on long trip duty. For example, there was the time (above) that I and four of my high school friends spent a 3 day weekend driving from Massachusetts to Chicago via NYC for another friend’s wedding. It was a hot and sweaty trip given that the Trooper didn’t have air conditioning (“We had to take a Trooper II, but damned if we were going to get roped into luxuries like air conditioning!” Wait, where have I heard that before?). Although, among all my friends, I surely had the newest, if not the only “new” car less than 10 years old, so all were happy to take my car on the 2000 mile 72 hour road trip (with a 12 hour long Hindu wedding ceremony thrown in for intermission). Proving yet again that having the big car had social benefits.

I did manage to take the BMW on a few heroic road trips toward the end of its driving days. In the early 90s, my wife and I finished graduate school and decided that it might be a good idea to try living somewhere other than where we had been for over a decade in and after college. One thing lead to another, and I ended up taking a job in Western KY. Owensboro definitely succeeded in checking off the “different than Western MA” box — actually quite a few boxes for better or worse — but in the process of that whole experience, I managed to make several round trips in the BMW between KY and MA.

Here’s where I’ll note that driving the E3 on the highway was where it absolutely excelled. While definitely not “sporty” – if you want sporty, you should get a 2002 – it was silky smooth and just gobbled up the miles at highway speed. In the northern European tradition, the seats were fabulously comfortable for long trips. Even though the Bavaria was built upon the “stripped of luxury” 2500 (Hoffman’s idea was to put the larger engine from the 2800 into the relatively spartan 2500), it still had nice creature comforts.

It didn’t have air conditioning, but all things considered this was probably a good idea given its persistent overheating issues. BMW had not engineered a particularly robust cooling system for American driving conditions. The car perpetually ran hot no matter what I did in terms of radiator replacement and cooling system maintenance. It had an electric auxiliary fan that needed to constantly run when sitting in traffic during the summer, and so traffic jams were always a nail-biting experience.

The Bavaria continued its daily driver duties in Owensboro, a small city where I soon learned that residents were seldom more than 10 minutes from anything and were at least an hour and a half from everything. Some guy in KY once told me that if it wasn’t fast food, or at one of the Walmarts, you might could just go without.  He was right. So I seldom asked more of the BMW beyond short trips around a very small city.

Here it is in front of our house, with a Town Car that my parents had rented to drive down from MD to visit us. I include this picture as much for the Bavaria (see the Ziebart sticker there in the window just at the Hofmeister kink?) as for the Town Car; because that would be the car that I drove with my mom as a passenger, for the first time since that time I ran into the carport in the Town and Country. I think I said “over 10 years” back in that article. Geeze, I guess it was more like 15. Since they were visiting me in my town, I was chauffer.

Note that 15 years later, I still didn’t succeed in “killing us all”.

One of the many things that didn’t exist in Owensboro in 1993 was any kind of mechanic who would or could work on older European cars. The nearest BMW dealer was in Lexington (about 2 hours away) and likewise Lexington, a college town, had several indies who might support the Bavaria. But unless I took a two hour trip to Lexington, I had no professional system of mechanical support for my car.

My work in KY involved a considerable amount of out-of-state travel, and that put the time at home where I could tinker with a project car at a premium. I had considerable interest, but little ability to do things like work on the cooling system, replace the various driveshaft components (the classic BMW flex-disc or “guibo” and the center bearing did not seem to play nice with the automatic transmission), and synchronize the dual carburetors. Without a proper mechanic, the Bavaria began to slide further away from being a daily driver…leading toward what would be its replacement.

Even as I did replace it with the car that I’ll write about next week, I continued to hold on to the Bavaria because technically it ran…it just had needs. Needs that I was sure that I could address as soon as I had time.  Therefore, during this particular period of delusion, I also managed to accumulate a pretty good collection of parts.

Some, like these real wood veneer dash pieces (which usually adorn a shelf in my office) were from the original car and had been substituted over time with nicer replacement parts. Others, like the two short blocks inexpensively obtained awaited refinishing and installation. Over time, this parts collection started to inhabit the interior of the parked car. Or in the case of the blocks, garage/barn floor space somewhere near the car. As I later moved from KY back to MA (that house had a barn) and then on to another house in MA, the Bavaria and its parts traveled with.

Here, we flash forward nearly 10 years from KY and see my 4-month-old first child marveling at the hoisting necessary to move the BMW and its traveling parts department into my current garage…where it sat until the above child was about 6.

As we all know (or will know, or should know) automobile restoration is not something likely accomplished when small children are about, and so by the time one kid was 6 and another 3, I basically threw in the towel and gave up on the idea that I’d ever actually restore the Bavaria. I found someone on Craigslist who was interested in it and the 2 short blocks. He arrived with a flatbed, I handed him the title (and my folder of receipts/records) and that was that.

It turns out that out of all of my cars, the Bavaria was the one that I owned the longest (about 16 years) and yet probably drove the least (maybe 30K miles). Despite this, it paved the way conceptually for a number of cars that I have subsequently owned and have driven much, much more. As they say, my heart was in the right place, but I was in the wrong time for a project car. Both sides of that situation would ultimately be addressed, somewhere further down the road.