About a month ago I bought a 1997 E36 M3 sedan in Boston Green with Dove interior. Since then, I've driven it about 800 miles and have begun a series of small tasks to bring it back to perfect. Today, I thought I'd give some brief impressions of what it is like to meet a childhood hero, and whether it has lived up to my lofty memories.
Buying an M3 was a journey. Not just in terms of finding the ideal version that lived up to my teenage memories and dreams of auto shows past, but also in terms of coming to grips with what I wanted out of a time machine. Did I want to go back to something I knew well as a young man, like an MKII GTi, or be transported to the realm of boyhood fantasy and dive into a 1992 Viper RT/10? Ultimately, my best memories are of those of cars where I have a tangible, palpable memory of the car and how it felt, but sort of at an arm's length. A friend's fathers car, or the vehicle of a friends boyfriend, or maybe my bosses weekend toy that I'd rarely see, and even more rarely get to go for a ride in. This middle ground of nostalgia linked to visceral memories of how a car can make you feel, whether young and careless or approaching middle-aged living with meaning and consequence, resonated with me. A Viper would make seven-year-old me quake with the knowledge that one day he would possess such a thing. A MKII would transport me to a time of reckless abandon, endless summer nights, and first tastes of heartbreak.
The M3, however, was aspirational. Motivating. Attainable. It also provided me with a conduit back to some of my fondest driving memories under cloudless California night skies, tearing from hilltops toward the coastline with Tupac accompanying us in this spaceship between adolescence and adulthood. The M3 moved my mind back to 1995, seeing a little German sedan parked amongst K-cars and Tauruses on a cold February evening at the Calgary International Auto Show. Exotic. To me, the M3 moved me at two pivotal points in my life. And, with that in mind, I bought one in August.
When my M3 arrived at my door it had an unfortunate set of aftermarket wheels but a superb maintenance record dating back to the day it rolled off the lot, no mechanical modifications, and the confidence that can only come from a seller whose honesty only trails his kindness. Since then, I've replaced the wheels with a set of LTWs and Potenzas, fixed an interior vent, restored some seals, replaced the brake sensor, and a couple other detailing jobs to ensure it stays as pretty as it has since January of 1997.
My impressions of the car can be summed up with brevity. It is everything I remember and more. My first drive of an E36 in 16 years left me a bit worried. What have I done? It isn't that fast. It isn't that sharp. Was my memory just clouded by the euphoria of youth, or am I just not giving the car what it needs?
The latter turned out to be true. The harder I pushed, the more the car gave. Deeper into the revs. Deeper into the corners. Deeper into the brakes. All this pressure is met with mechanical enthusiasm as if it is asking "Is that all you've got?" At some point on public roads, it is, and there is more left in the car. It may be 22 years old, but holy **** is it alive. The engine revs and howls with smoothness and finesse. It isn't loud. It isn't particularly powerful. But it does its job with purpose and poise, speaking each rev in a language lost in the age of turbos. The steering communicates better than any partner I've had in this life. Its thoughts and feelings become vibrations that resonate from hand to mind with a clarity I'd forgotten existed in this age of electronic racks.
As I get braver, the old M3 rolls into the corner hunkers down and asks me what I've been doing with my life as if I've let it down, too. The more I try, the more I remember. These old cars aren't fast, they have body roll, they creak, and they're ****ing amazing. But they remind you what it means to just drive. To feel the pebbles, the undulations, the era of quiet performance when what mattered was the honesty of the driver with themselves in what they were willing to risk. My old M3 is better at this age than it was new because it makes me remember why I love cars every time I see that M badge as the engine purrs to life and it dares me to go just a little faster next time.