By Sam Smith, The Gearhead
THE BEST WORST car I ever owned died a horrible death twice. The interior smelled like a cross between elephant and old grandmother house. The middle of the left door, maybe six inches up from the sill, held a rust spot the size of a football but still managed to be one of the nicest panels on the car. The silencer hangers and clamps were so rusty that the exhaust fell off weekly. Paint flaked off in chunks. For the entire time I owned this buttbeast – roughly a year, start to finish – I did not have a girlfriend, which is far from coincidence. No other vehicle in my personal history has been as laughably ugly or as structurally unsound.
Lord, I miss it.
What a terrible mistake that car wasn’t. It cost so little as to be almost free. Three hundred dollars for a bronze 1984 BMW 318i that spent much of its life in Chicago, Illinois. In retrospect, I both paid too much for a self-powered dumpster and somehow managed a bargain. What is it about the objects that find us in our times of greatest need? What gives them such irrational appeal and emotional weight?
I was living in Chicago at the time, fresh out of university, unable to find work as a writer. Broke and in need of transport.
Chicago eats vehicles on an accelerated clock; the city pairs America’s snow belt with mile-racking commutes, terrible roads, and minimal parking. Half the cars there wouldn’t pass an MoT, but America has no safety inspections anywhere near as serious as an MoT, so it doesn’t matter, and some ferocious junk stays on the road.
And the BMW was close to that. At just over 150,000 miles, it still had good seats and door seals, but also a rust hole in the driver’s floorboard that occasionally ate my shoe. Fuel and coolant lines leaked at odd times. Corners were a symphony of irreverence and the joy of the risked disposable. None of the car’s parts were so un-rusty as to be worth repairing, but nothing on the thing really broke, so the point was moot. Any sane country would have euthanased the BMW long before, but the first time it started – no hiccups, firing on the button – on a -10°C night, I fell. Infatuated with the car’s shameless stink, I took to detailing it. Shampooed carpets, buffing compound on the rust holes. The heart can make you crazy.
I bought the 318i from a friend, who had bought it cheap from some other silly person. It needed everything and I gave it nothing and it ran right up until it didn’t. A rod bearing spun near St. Louis at the top of third gear. Fixing it was more expensive than finding another $300 car, so with much ceremony, I gave the thing to another friend, who entered it in a local demolition derby. We dropped the sump one night and slammed a new bearing into it over beer. The rod journal appeared to have gone down on the Titanic. The bearing was destined to spin again and did, but not before the derby stomped the body to mush. Scrap.
This is where I’m supposed to trot out some cliche about how you can’t go home again, and how even trying is a regrettable act. But this morning, as I stepped out to walk the dog, I heard a familiar noise. It was coming from a remarkably civil-looking 318i, no visible rust, tootling down the street past my house.
Shiny paint. An ’84 or ’85. Loud exhaust. Maybe missing a silencer.
I boggled, then ran after it. Yelled a ‘Hey!’ at the driver, but he didn’t hear. As reality sunk in, I stopped running. Too many projects already. Too many numberplates in my name and not enough parking. The car wasn’t rusty enough. A long list of reasons to… not.
Then I thought on it for a few minutes. Logic, it occurred to me, only has the power to sway your life if you weight it over emotion. And the joy of a disposable redline.
Several years ago, I acquired an old megaphone for use in a magazine project. This afternoon, I took it out of my office closet and set it on the front porch. No sense in purposely seeking home again, but if that car drives down my street one more time, I’m taking it as a sign. And yelling a hell of a lot louder.