I Drove An E36 M3 To Monterey In Celebration of 100 Years of BMW Cars
Photos by Alex Sobran
What do you do with a few free weeks preceding the annual car party in Monterey? Do you spend more money than you’re comfortable with to take your ’90s sports car from Madison, CT to Seattle, WA, to Monterey, CA? After completing this two week, 6,000-mile marathon, I can officially laud it as a “good time,” to put it demurely.
If you’ll allow a little hyperbole that actually might not be so far from reality, it was an expansive and monumental journey through country, car, and comradery. As spending serious unbroken time with another person often yields, my friend alongside me only became more of one by journey’s end. Certainly having someone to share in the fourteen-hour hauls across the Pennsylvanias and Nebraskas aids in your thankfulness for their company, but of course, it was more than that.
A tableau that will remain with me until Alzheimer’s was of a severely pissed-off storm during the first night, the kind where you are in a deep black and every so often a quick staccato of lightning would pop open the sky, showing just how far and at what you’d been staring, unaware in the dark. Just having someone to exchange “woahs” with can go a long way for your sanity.
While we were in a hurry to put time behind us until our first major stop in Yellowstone (hence the mentioned fourteen hour daily chunks at the start), I will not say that the Midwest has nothing to see from its highways and Interstates.
Every night, looking up out of a windshield smeared with little pocks of bug blood, we were the humble witnesses to sunsets blazing beyond your garden variety oranges and reds and pinks, and even as they faded gave the feeling that life was both a wonder and a speck.
After a long, hot day, looking at a ruler horizon, it was a surreal thing to see the famous suffused skies of a heartland sunset. As the time slid by, eventually we began noticing clumps of wind turbines as we passed out of the quilt work flatness where the land starts to rise and fall with greater frequency and pitch. Heading to Yellowstone was the first true moment of landscape amazement as we cut through the long swaths of roadway that looped around and through the staggeringly immense Teton Mountains. Multiple stops were made for bison. Yee-haw. From there, I could go on about the fogged and foreboding Pacific coastline, but as that has been covered in a recent article, I’ll skip it but to say that driving on winding cliff roads in second gear alongside hawks in full glide was downright mystical. So, on to the car, my 1995 Daytona Violet M3.
It’s a fact that any article even tangentially covering this car will include a certain set of statements peppered through the paragraphs, so let’s just gather them up and get it over with: the U.S. version of the E36 M3 is not the quickest nor most exotic of BMW’s Motorsport creations. There. German manufacturing mandates put in place in the ’90s dictated that a percentage of production cars be assembled using bio-friendly materials, so while the Black Forest may have enjoyed this consideration, it meant that M3 interiors would take it upon themselves to literally become unglued.
It’s the first fully recyclable BMW, and it’s slow. So say the ones who have never driven it.
What you find out in ownership/drivership, is that not only are these criticisms unwarranted, they don’t even deserve attention because all of your mental processes are too wrapped up grappling with the paradox that is a hyper-affordable car with a close ratio gearbox, perfectly split weight distribution, out-of-the-box handling that bested the best of its day, and a responsive and competent engine which also manages to avoid the so-called “M Tax” that some seem to esteem as a weird badge of honor.
To say nothing of the styling, which manages with its knife-sliced body and acid-trip seats to at once represent the outgoing boxiness of the ’80s and the vogue contours of the ’90s in a cohesive way that should not have blended so well.
The truth is it would cause significant hand-wringing and consequent doubt for me to choose another car to drive 6,000 miles across, up, down, through the United States. Of course, a new M3 would be more comfortable sucking through the mileage and would outperform in every statistical sense, but there is a category for the E36 to sit on top: the wishy-washy but also somehow very definite, Experience. As anyone reading this will attest to, there is a specific type of happiness released when driving an anachronism.
For me, for this car, it is tearing through the mundane milieu of the Midwest and looking out the side glass at the zealously contoured sport mirrors in stark contrast to the flat farmland, dipping off the main road in Malibu for some “filmed in Mexico” canyon runs in a car that qualifies for historic plates, even just returning from a healthy gas station lunch of Doritos and Red Bull, to see a small purple wedge amongst a lot full of engorged crossovers, or whatever they call them these days. The weird pleasure in having to manually lock the doors too. These things.
There is also the indulgent sort of joy inherent in brand loyalty that made this trip so enjoyable. Though there are many cars from many countries that populate the garage in my head, BMW has comfortably commanded the top spot for a considerable time and the foreseeable future. So what could be more sanguine than driving an M car to the biggest gathering of BMWs in the country for the 100th anniversary?
The sensation for me was of a somewhat childlike aura of belonging. That’s not right though, it wasn’t immature, but there is that kind of youthful wonderment, like a long-gone rocket rejoining the world to which it belongs. Melodramatic sure, but not any less true, either.
I remember purchasing this car, after an exhaustive search for a first-year-only Daytona Violet, and thinking on that initial drive how mutually positive the relationship could be; taking it out of the Northeast for the first time in its 160,000 miles, winding it through the roads it dreamed of, bringing it to the mecca in Monterey.
I hope I have given it a good life in old age, a pledge I will continue forth after all it has given to me.