A 1981 BMW 733i With Studded Tires Might Be The Perfect Winter Car
Photography by Jonathan Harper
Written & Photographed by Jonathan Harper
When the cold air blows into the Northeast, Mike Kovac packs away his precious French and Italian metal for the winter. He is usually able to rustle up a cheap yet still fun to drive winter ride, as salt and snow are no friend to rare and delicate machinery. This season is no exception, so I sat down with Mike to get the scoop on the latest addition to his ever-changing fleet.
Jon Harper: We’re out here with your latest winter beater, though I know you wouldn’t call it that. What have you got this year?
Mike Kovac: I have a first generation BMW 7-series, it’s a 1981. You can see it’s definitely one of the earlier ones because it has the shark nose in the front, very reminiscent of the first 6-series that we got [in the US]. I wouldn’t call it a winter beater, it’s more like a winter car [laughs] it actually runs phenomenally well, the guy who had it before me kept a binder of maintenance records, and replaced thousands of dollars worth of parts. I’ve owned many, many 5-series from this generation, as well as 3-series, and I didn’t expect to like this 7, but it drives like a bigger 5-series.
JH: You’ve had had and still have so many cars. You change cars like some of us change socks. Why a winter car?
MK: There’s some cars I’ve got tucked away. There’s some Alfa Romeos, there’s a Ferrari. Italian cars and rust are kind of allergic to each other. They stay in the garage. There’s some German machinery, a 2001 M5, a ’94 E420. They do better but I still feel bad about driving those through snow and salt. Again, it’s not a beater but I think my latest 7-series is best suited for it.
JH: What other winter cars have you had in the past?
MK: I’ve had some odd winter choices for cars. They kind of seem to find me instead of the other way around, always at the last minute. I had a 2001 E55 Mercedes, it was probably the rustiest E55 you’ve ever seen in your whole life, but it mechanically was rock solid, and that thing tore up everything in the winter time. It was hysterical.
JH: Have you ever had a winter car go really wrong on you?
MK: Trying to think of the worst thing that’s ever happened to me in a winter car. It’s probably been more driver error where I’ve stuffed it into a snow bank than actually the car [laughing], which is a good example of why I like to have a winter car. You can just kind of write it off and go ‘Oh well’.
JH: So can you tell us about this 7-series?
MK: This is the engine that made BMW famous, it’s the 3.2-liter inline six that carried over from the earlier Bavarias and big coupes they had back in the ’70s. It’s turbine smooth, it makes 181 horsepower and it’s basically bomb-proof. As is the transmission. You just can’t kill this drivetrain. You’ll see these go for four or five hundred thousand miles with the original heads on them. The rest of the car sits on a stretched E28 5-series chassis, which makes for a pretty adept handler for its size. In modern terms this car is probably equivalent to a Honda Accord in size. Even though back in ’81 this was a very large car. Really cool part about the early 7s is that they had four-piston front calipers, which the later ones ditched. They went to a cheaper single piston caliper, so it actually stops really well too.
JH: What kind of ‘winterizing’ do you do to your winter cars?
MK: [laughing] It’s a good question. In the past I’ve put them up on a lift, I’ve sprayed everything down that can you see with WD-40. This year, at the behest of my Citroen mechanic, he recommended this stuff called Fluid Film. It’s kind of like WD-40 but it’s a lot more evil. You need to use a mask to apply and it basically just coats the entire bottom of the car in an impenetrable film. Nothing can get through it. So that’s what I did with this 7-series.
JH: What about tires?
Mike Kovac: This has basically ATV tires on it right now. I try to get my winter cars with winter tires already on them, but the tires that this car came with were pretty much on their last season, so they had to be replaced. I replaced them with studded snows which I hope will carry me through this season.
JH: You’ve mentioned ice racing. Is that a pipe-dream or is that really going to happen?
MK: That is half a pipe-dream and half reality right now. I threaten to do it every year, then I kind of turn around and wonder if that’s such a great idea. But at the very least I promise you I will be going to an Audi Club of North America event at a lake that’s frozen over, running those snow tires with 50 pounds of sand in the back.
JH: I know you’ve had Audi winter cars in the past, how do you feel about not having AWD in your latest winter car?
MK: I actually prefer rear-wheel-drive because a lot of it comes down to how you steer with your foot, and the throttle. All-wheel-drive cars car actually can be tricky. You have to do the opposite of what you think you’re supposed to do with throttle and steering inputs. But rear-wheel-drive cars are more one-dimensional and a lot simpler to handle. If you have a good set of tires on there like I do, you can go through anything.
JH: I see the exhaust visible under the rear passenger side of the car. Is that normal?
MK: When I first got the car, I thought, there’s no way that’s the stock exhaust for that car. And you gotta do some serious searching on the internet but i did find it, and it is the correct exhaust. It snakes forward and center and then it goes out to the side where you see it there. And then it goes back towards the center again in the rear. It’s weird, but that is the stock setup.
JH: So I have to ask, what did you pay for this car?
MK: You know, surprisingly, it was about the same amount I paid for my E55. I’ll leave it at that. [laughing]
JH: What have you felt about the car as you’ve gotten to know it a little in the run-up to the winter?
MK: Again, it’s surprising how much I actually like driving it. As I said I’ve had tons of the earlier 5-series, I get in this 7-series and it feels like an old pair of jeans. It actually kind of shrinks around you when you drive it. It’s got a lot of feel in the steering and the brakes and the way the motor sounds, it’s just a really comfortable all-around nice car to drive. It has no bad habits.
JH: Has a winter car ever gotten beyond winter, and turned into a car that you’ve kept?
MK: Yes! That actually happened with quite a few of those Audis that I had. Much to the chagrin of my wife, who I promised I’d sell the car at the end of the winter, and it still remained in my driveway well through the year. So yeah, there were a couple Audis S4s, and 90 20 valve Quattros back in the day when you could still find those things laying around. And I miss them.
JH: Do you see a future like that for this 7-series? Or are you resolute on this being a one-winter car?
MK: I’m not resolute on anything. My car world changes on a day-to-day basis. I could very well have this car at this time next year. We’ll see how it goes.