8 memorable driving experiences in 8 different cars
We all have our reasons for buying a particular car. Beyond their obvious utility value, many of us plunk down our disposable income for a specific automobile because it’s an object of passion, and the car’s presence stirs our soul.
I’m as likely as the next person to turn around and look at one of my cars after I park it, but I hope that somewhere on your list of reasons for owning the car you do is this: You love driving it. With that in mind, I thought I’d look back at my most memorable, and enjoyable, drives.
1974 Fiat 128: My first manual-transmission solo drive (1975)
I didn’t learn to drive on a Fiat. That honor went to my mother’s venerable 1969 Plymouth Satellite with a 318-cubic-inch V-8. I certainly remember my first solo drive in that lumbering mid-sized boat immediately after coming home from my successful license test. But a few months later, during the gas crisis of 1974, Mom decided to buy a smaller, more fuel-efficient car. Even back then, I was bitten by the BMW bug, and begged her to buy a 2002. It was too expensive, however, so she bought a 1974 Fiat 128. I naturally treated the Fiat like it was a BMW 2002 substitute. Hey, it was boxy, European, about the same size, and, in ’74 had the same hastily-slapped-on bridge-abutment bumpers. The Fiat actually took the abuse pretty well, but it started to rust if someone ran a faucet within 50 feet of it.
It’s my first solo drive in the Fiat that I remember best. My mother taught me how to drive its standard transmission. A few days later, I was going to a dance at my high school. I said, “I know you don’t think I’m ready to solo on the Fiat yet, but I’m asking.” She smiled and handed me the keys. It wasn’t a long drive, but those first four upshifts, alone in the car, are forever burned into my brain. It may just have been a little 1.3-liter, 62-horsepower Fiat, but it felt like a Formula One car to me.
1970 Triumph GT6+ land speed record (1977)
The first car I owned was neither a Fiat 12 nor a BMW 2002. It was a 1970 Triumph GT6+, the car that proved everything bad you’ve ever about British cars is true… the electrical problems, the metal fatigue, all of it. These days, there’s some revisionist history going on in which folks who own pampered British cars—kept dry and only driven on sunny weekends—wax rhapsodic about the cars and insist that all the Lucas jokes are overblown. (I’ll admit that I’ve been surprised how well-behaved my Lotus Europa has been.) But back when these cars were relied on as daily drivers in rain and snow, yes, they were every bit as bad as everyone says.
No matter. The GT6, with its two-liter de-stroked TR6 straight-six engine, was a right quick little thing. All the molecules in the car seemed happy at 5000 rpm, which was 87 mph (funny, the things you remember about certain cars). I’d get it on the highway, plunk it down on that rpm, and leave it there.
In the fall of 1977, I was still going to school in Amherst (Massachusetts), and I’d driven to Cambridge to see a midnight movie with a girl in Porter Square. I was hoping that the evening would be more than just a movie, but when I walked her back to her apartment, I got the “friend kiss.” It was clear that I wasn’t going to be spending the night. With nowhere else to go, I headed back to Amherst, which was 90 miles away. I left Porter square at 3 a.m., got the Triumph onto Route 2, set it at its 5000-rpm happy place, and arrived in Amherst at 4:15. Even though the 50-mile section of Route 2 from the Concord rotary to the Route 202 exit is essentially highway, to this day I still don’t know how the drive took just an hour and 15 minutes.
For all the trouble the GT6 caused me, it gave me this memory, for which I am grateful.
1971 BMW 2002: First real drive in my life-long companion (1982)
If you’re reading this, you probably already know the story of how I became the owner of my 1971 BMW 2002. A Hampshire College student lived with us for a summer when I was 13. He had a ’71 2002 and drove me around the back roads of Amherst, scaring the crap out of me and forever impressing on me what this little boxy Teutonic sedan could do. I joke that I imprinted on it like baby geese on a glider, but it’s true. It took a while, but when I moved to Austin, Texas, in 1984 and got my first real job, I bought my first 2002. It was equal parts orange paint, Bondo, and rust, and it needed the transmission rebuilt due to a cracked cover and bad synchros, but I didn’t care. I was in heaven, and I set about yanking and rebuilding the transmission.
When I got the tranny back in and shoed the car with a brand-new set of Pirelli P3s, I took it for a drive in the Hill Country west of Austin. I’d just installed an Alpine cassette deck, a pair of ADS speakers, and a power amp (the shiznit back in the day). I have this indelible memory of, 15 years after imprinting on that 2002 in Amherst, experiencing a perfect moment nailing and wailing on my now-running first 2002, taking it through the curves while listening to The Psychedelic Furs’ The Ghost In You. Honestly, I think that, across my entire life, the gap between what I wanted and what I already had was never smaller than in that moment.
A few weeks later, the transmission synchros began crunching again, but it was great while it lasted.
1973 BMW 2002: Austin to Durango (1983)
I had the Inka 1971 2002 for not quite a year when I happened into a barely-running Malaga (burgundy) ’73 model. Cosmetically, it was in rough shape, but it had air conditioning, which made me and Maire Anne happy. We were planning a big road trip in our ’69 VW camper, whose engine I’d just finished rebuilding—a week-long hiking trip in the Weminuche Wilderness near Durango, Colorado. Unfortunately, about 100 miles out the camper started running hot. Clearly something wasn’t right with the rebuild. We turned around and limped it back to Austin. Dejected, we examined our options.
“Why can’t we take the new 2002?” asked my girlfriend Maire Anne, who later became my wife.
“Well,” I said, “It burns oil. It’s got no spare tire. The giubo [the rubber flex disc between the transmission and driveshaft] is cracked. I’m sure I’ll find a million other things when I go through the car.” But without a lot of other options, I bought a case of oil and a can of Fix-a-Flat, threw them and the camping equipment in the Malaga 2002’s trunk, and we made it to Santa Fe the first night and Durango the next.
By the time we made it home, the giubo was so deteriorated that anything but feather-light acceleration caused it to smack the underside of the shift platform, but this was the trip that forever cemented in my mind how robust these little cars are. The fact that we left Austin as boyfriend/girlfriend and arrived home an engaged young couple also drilled the car into our hearts. I’ve owned, at last count, 37 2002s, but this is the one that I wonder about and think, as Neil Young said, “Long may you run.”
Banked Oval: BMW Test Center, Mirimas, France, 1992
I don’t go on many traditional automotive journalist junkets, but in 1992, Roundel magazine (official publication of the BMW Car Club of America) sent me to southern France to cover the press introduction of the new E36 3 Series BMW. While I loved driving the new car through the southern French countryside, what I remember best is BMW’s winter test facility in the town of Mirimas. It includes a short road course, a flat oval, and a banked oval. I never have been a big track maven who is skilled in the intricacies of apex targeting, but any idiot can plant their right foot in a car on a banked oval, and I am any idiot.
I took a number of cars on the banked oval. The one that felt the most stable was a big European E32 7 Series sedan. With the speedometer in kph instead of mph, and with all the usual cues of speed—trees, phone poles, dotted lines, other cars, even lateral G-forces—removed, the high rate of speed was disconnected from most regular sensory input and the neurons that receive and process it. It wasn’t until I got back to the hotel that evening and did the math that I learned that the 230 kph I saw on the speedometer was 145 miles an hour. I wasn’t wearing a helmet. My knuckles weren’t white. It’ll never happen again, but it was a truly unique experience.
The 2002 Conga Line: Eureka Springs, Arkansas (2014)
I hadn’t done a long road trip in a 2002 since that run to Durango and back. In 2014, I set out to rectify that, and took my 1972 2002tii on a 3000-mile round-trip to MidAmerica 02Fest in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. I do other regular drives to vintage BMW events, but this is a smaller, more intimate 2002-specific gathering. Often, by the time I arrive at one of these shindigs, after two days of driving, the last thing I want to do is get back in the car for a forced march through traffic to some swank restaurant, but the organizer of this event knows the roads in the area extremely well, so the drive is a drive.
As I said in a recent piece about the Lotus, if you’ve never done it, there’s nothing like being in a line of cars the same make and model as yours, and seeing them stretched out in front and behind you, like different-colored pearls on a necklace of passion. Plus, from a purely practical standpoint, there’s nothing to spur you on in enthusiastic driving like seeing all the people in front of you effortlessly execute a curve at a speed that feels a little hot to you.
The Mad Dash: 1999 BMW M Coupe (2012)
Six years ago, my son Ethan entered the 48 Hours of Film Festival. This is an event where you and other teams are given a topic for a short (10-minute) film, a line of dialogue, and a prop. Everyone has 48 hours in which to write, shoot, and edit a film that includes those items. When the time is up, all parties must converge at a given spot, usually a bar, to hand in their wares. There are no retries and no mulligans.
Ethan mapped out the distance to the drop-off point in downtown Boston and reported to me that it was 12 minutes from our house. I scowled. We live a half-mile from the entrance ramp to I-90, and it is a straight shot from there into the city, but that sounded awfully aggressive. “Maybe with zero traffic and driving like Ayrton Senna,” I said. “If you want to get your film in on time, I’d count on at least 20.”
He and his crew shot and edited the film, but when they were done, the export from the computer to thumb drive took forever. The drop-off deadline was 7:30 p.m. As the clock passed 7:15 p.m. and the file was still exporting, failure seemed certain.
Finally, the computer’s hourglass turned to a “completed” message. Ethan grabbed the thumb drive and we ran Le Mans-style out to the driveway and hopped in the M Coupe. I burned rubber out of the driveway. I ran red lights on the way to the interstate. I went around a guy on the left and hung a right in front of him to get on the entrance ramp, which, once there, the car bit into so hard that I flung Ethan into the passenger door. I drove at 90 and passed people on the right. I never do any of these things. In short, for the first and possibly the only time in my life, I was driving like an asshole in a BMW. This being a film-related project, the parallels to Bullitt, The French Connection, and Ronin were not lost on me. Time seemed to stretch as we burned east on I-90. “Impossible” transitioned into “Well, stranger things have happened.”
As we took the exit in Boston, the car’s clock ticked to 7:30. After three agonizing turns and red lights I couldn’t safely run, Ethan said, “STOP! THIS IS THE PLACE!!” He jumped out, and I double-parked and waited to console a dejected child. To my stunned surprise, he came out a few minutes later, beaming and bouncing the triumphant strut only a 24-year-old can have. “I ran in during the 10-second countdown,” he said. “I got a standing ovation!”
That night, Ethan posted on Facebook, “NO ONE drives like my dad.” Breaking the law and bending time, in service of getting my son’s film submitted… I’m not saying I was right or that I’d do it again, but it was what needed to be done.
The next day, Ethan learned that his film was disqualified because it wouldn’t play. It turned out that, even though it was exported to thumb drive, it still contained links to clips on the hard drive.
Still totally worth it.
Collecting my reward with Bertha in Asheville (2019)
I wrote last year about buying back Bertha, the car Maire Anne and I drove off from our wedding in (see my just-released book). After I revived the car, I drove it to The Vintage, an annual BMW event in Asheville, North Carolina. Counting the ancillary festivities, it’s about a thousand miles each way. The resurrected car behaved flawlessly, and the roads up through the mountains around Asheville are great, but I was a bit hesitant to get on the car too hard, as it had been off the road for 26 years, and I still had to, you know, get back home.
At the event, I wound up doing a good deed and replacing someone’s cracked giubo in a barn whose space was donated by a local guy both of us had just met hours before. Such pay-it-forward is always satisfying, but by the end of the day, I was baked and dehydrated. When I was done, I hopped in Bertha and burned back to the hotel. Usually, in piloting these twisty roads, I find myself either in a conga line of other vintage cars or behind farm equipment, but this time, the lateness of the hour meant unimpeded asphalt.
I no longer cared about treating the car gently to ensure my return trip north. I wanted to hear those dual Weber 40DCOEs roar deep throaty and metallic when I pinned them open and when the engine came on the 300-degree cam. I wanted to see how well the new Kumho tires played with the Koni suspension package I’d installed during Ronald Reagan’s second term as I hammered the car through the tight twisties and long sweepers. In that moment, if I had put a rod through the side of the block, I honestly think I would’ve been more disappointed at the abrupt ending of the visceral experience than at the expensive logistics needed to get myself and the car back home.
Despite driving off from my wedding in the car in 1984, using it as my daily driver for years, driving up to Nova Scotia with Maire Anne in 1988, selling it to a friend, buying it back, and reviving it from a 26-year slumber, it’s likely this drive will be my defining memory of Bertha.
Here’s hoping your cars are more than garage art or portfolio enhancers and you make memories like these.
Rob Siegel has been writing the column The Hack Mechanic™ for BMW CCA Roundel magazine for 33 years and is the author of five automotive books, including Just Needs a Recharge: The Hack Mechanic™ Guide to Vintage Air Conditioning. All of his books are available on Amazon. You can also order personally inscribed copies here. Siegel’s new book, Resurrecting Bertha: Buying Back the Car My Wife and I Drove Off From Our Wedding, will be released later this year.