The nature of automotive regrets—those sold and those not purchased
My mother, easily the wisest person I ever met, coined the phrase “the good regret.” It was 40 years ago. We were on one of our last family vacations together and stopped at some little craft store. My mother was taken with a hand-knit sweater but decided against buying it. As we were driving away, she said, “I’m going to regret that.” I, the dutiful son, slammed on the brakes and spun the car around.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“Letting you right your regret.”
Her reaction was surprising. She informed me that that was not what she wanted. But soon we were back at the shop. She sighed, got out of the car, went back inside the store, and came out a few minutes later. Without the sweater. She made the same decision she made the first time.
“Damn,” she said. “That would’ve been a good regret.”
The idea was, in a world of physical objects and emotions, a regret could be somewhere between the two, and having the regret might even be better than having the item. It’s something that’s stuck with me.
I think a lot about the nature of automotive regrets. They seem to fall into two broad categories: Should-have-boughts and shouldn’t-have-solds.
First, you need to understand the big contours. I’m not a collector. I don’t have the money to buy acknowledged low-mileage classics in grade-A condition, nor to pay for climate-controlled space in which to store them all while they climb in value. Instead, there’s been a 35-year-long rhythm of daily drivers, mostly 10-year-old BMWs, being purchased and used until the New England winters rust them, and the economics of getting out of them and into something newer with technology or features that I want makes inexorable sense. I do have eight vintage cars—seven older BMWs and the Lotus Europa Twin Cam Special—half of which are in my cramped garage at the house, the other half in rented storage 50 miles away. Not a one of them is a grade-A-condition car. I’ve owned the ’73 3.0CSi since 1986 and will never sell it, but the other vintage cars come and go, part of a natural ebb and flow of passion, opportunity, needs, wants, money, and space.
Trying to make a go of it as a writer has been a lot of fun, but there’s not life-sustaining income in it, so every once in a while, I do need to sell something that’s dear to me to wrestle the finances back into the black. All of that is to say, if we’re going to talk about automotive regrets, some folks might spin that all the way to “Well, I regret that I’m not a hedge fund manager with the coin to buy everything I want,” whereas I’m more of a Beatles’ “I’m so happy just to dance with you” kind of guy.
With that perspective, the should-have-boughts are easy. We all have them (the regrets, not the cars). I, like many in the BMW world, vividly recall when you could pick up E30 M3s and E28 M5s—both highly collectible cars these days—for eight grand and less. Now, the entry price is more like $50K. A number of years ago, I had an epiphany that made dealing with these kind of should-have-boughts easy: Even if I had bought that $8300 E30 M3 back in 1997, the odds that I’d still own it now are negligible. It would’ve gotten used, rusted, and sold in the big automotive churn just like the rest of the daily drivers. So, really, what’s to regret? (I did, however, meet a guy who told me that, while he was in college in the early 1970s, someone offered him one of the six original Shelby Daytona coupes for eight grand. He said that he begged his father to loan him the money, but his dad was as resolutely rational as fathers can be. Now that’s a regret. But even he had to admit that, had he bought it, the odds he’d still own it—given the realities of textbooks and beer money, not to mention horsepower and telephone poles—are slim.)
My own “good regret” story features a BMW 850i. This was BMW’s technology-laden, flagship, two-door, 12-cylinder coupe imported from 1991–97. The car didn’t sell well, as it was heavier and much more expensive than the 635CSi it replaced, and it developed the reputation of being an expensive-to-maintain boulevard cruiser, not a sports car. However, the 850i was available with a six-speed stick. They’re rare, with only 847 imported to the U.S. Mind you, the list of 12-cylinder six-speed cars is extremely short (Ferrari, Lamborghini, Aston Martin, the 850i, and … I think that’s it), but the value of 850i sticks languished along with 850i automatics. Time, though, has been very kind to the car’s graceful lines, with its planted rear end and narrow front kidneys, and about six years ago I developed a very serious jones for an 850i stick. I found one locally, but it was very needy—one front strut was poking through its bushing and banging against the underside of the hood, oil smoke was pouring from one muffler, the exhaust was so loud that I feared the neighbors would call the police, it had electrical issues, and more.
The barely drivable car was offered to me for $4000, but I looked on eBay at the completed listings, saw a few less-needy 850i sticks in the $6000–$10,000 range, and passed. A day later, I changed my mind, but by then the car had been sold, and I badly regretted for waffling. But a few months later, I found a second, local $4000 850i stick. This one actually drove but munched several gears. I learned that the six-speed Getrag G560 gearbox is used only in this car, and is, as they say, rare as hen’s teeth. To my surprise, I passed on it as well.
Incredibly, a few years after that, by sheer coincidence, I crossed paths online with the guy who’d bought the first car. He offered it to me, saying, “It’s still pretty rough.” I passed, thus completely expunging whatever regret remained. The value of these cars has risen quite a bit, but I was better off without either of the two cars I looked at.
Let’s move onto the shouldn’t-have-solds. These cleave into two camps: Cars that you used as daily drivers, and cars that were already pampered classics. I find that there’s an important distinction between the two.
Over time, it’s gotten easier for me to tamp down regrets associated with daily-driver shouldn’t-have-solds. As I said above, there’s a natural rhythm with the way daily drivers enter and leave your life. You use them until issues of reliability, rust, size, safety, whatever, force you to replace them. If you’re young and starting a family, swapping out your passion car for a minivan or a crossover SUV is especially painful, maybe even heartbreaking, but for most people, there’s simply no choice. If the car has become needy, pulling it off the road and garaging it may put its needs and resultant drain on the family finances into a kind of suspended animation, but that often simply postpones the inevitable. Even with a supportive spouse, justifying garage space for a dead rusty car while daily drivers sit out in the snow becomes difficult. In hindsight, everyone who ever sold a rusty long-hood Porsche 911 for peanuts kicks themselves, but no one has a crystal ball, and even if you did, the economics of paying market rates to store a beloved car rarely make sense on paper. Around Boston, you pay $300/month for accessible storage. Do the math. That’s $36,000 to store a car for 10 years. Even if you find space for half that, that’s a lot of money. Do you love the car that much? Are you that sure it’s going to appreciate in value? Do you have the money to both store and restore it? No. So you let it go. It’s just the way of things.
I’ve found that it’s the regretted sale of cars that had already passed into pampered classic status that really stings. I think the reason why is that you’d like to think that, when both you and a car reach the point in your lives where the car has achieved that status—that is, your financial and housing situation are both stable enough that you have another car that’s your daily driver, you put your treasured classic baby on a Hagerty policy, and allocate full-time garage space to it—that it’s safe from the vagaries of an economic-driven sale, but life isn’t always like that.
Witness the story of my 1982 Porsche 911SC. I bought it in the early 2000s for 10 grand, insured it conventionally, and drove it daily when the weather was good. Then, a few years later, I bought a 1999 BMW M Coupe (a.k.a. “the clown shoe”). In 2005, I built my garage. With dedicated garage space available, I put the 911SC on the Hagerty policy. Since I could no longer daily-drive it to work, its usage dramatically fell. In the meantime, I’d accumulated more cars than I could hold in my garage and had wrangled some space in a work-related warehouse.
Then, in 2011, my income from my engineering job dropped by 2/3, they were closing the warehouse in a related downsizing, and I had to make some choices. I loved the Porsche, but it felt similar to my other vintage cars, whereas the BMW M Coupe felt like nothing else I owned. I figured that, when my income stabilized, I could pick up another 911, maybe a late 3.2 Carrera with a hydraulic clutch and the G50 transmission. I sold the SC for the $10K that I’d paid for it. It wasn’t a panicked sale; I had it on Craigslist and eBay, and local 911 people came and looked at it. Ten grand was what it was worth. But it was only a few months before the air-cooled Porsche market went nuts, and it was clear that I’d sold at exactly the wrong time. I soon came to deeply regret the decision.
If my emotional defense against the should-have-bought regret is “you wouldn’t still own that car now anyway,” the coping mechanism for shouldn’t-have-sold is “even if you knew about future appreciation, it doesn’t change the fact that you needed the money.” All you can do is make decisions on the basis of the information you have at the time. Going back over the Porsche sale in my mind, it all makes sense.
Since I’m not a collector, the purpose of keeping these cars is rarely financial gain; it’s feeding my passion. So, to me, when I sell something, regret rarely comes from feeling that, had I waited longer, I could’ve gotten more for it. Instead, the root is that I had a car I felt a strong connection with, it’s gone, and now, because of appreciation, it would be difficult for me to buy back in. So I’m still really sorry I no longer have the 911SC, but not being able to see what I’d do differently takes the sting out of the regret.
Another example of this was my 1987 BMW E30 325is. There were two unusual aspects about my ownership of this car: 1) I’m not really an E30 person, and 2) Because of that, it in fact was a car I bought for investment, not for passion. It was my first car where my goal was really not to drive it any more than just keeping it exercised, as driving brings wear, which brings repair. I would’ve sat on it for longer, but I suffered the odd simultaneity of losing my job and then having someone offer me a 1972 BMW 2002tii at a price I couldn’t refuse, and I needed to sell the 325is to make it work. Like the Porsche, it made perfect sense at the time—it wasn’t in the least an agonizing decision—but as the years have passed, I’ve increasingly regretted selling it. One big reason is that, despite not being an E30 guy, the car had already worked its way under my skin (it was a particularly nice bone-stock example). Like with the Porsche, the car having more than doubled in value since I sold it is less of an issue to me than the fact that I had bought in, then cashed out, and with rising E30 prices, buying back in will be difficult.
About two years ago, I let a very meaningful car go: My Chamonix (white) ’72 2002tii “Kugel” (named both for the Kugelfischer mechanical fuel injection as well as in honor of the Jewish egg noodle dish). Like the Porsche, I’d owned it for 10 years. It was on the cover of my first book. I thought it would be the last BMW 2002 I ever owned. It had everything going for it—a nearly rust-free body, the close-in ’72 bumpers, A/C, sunroof, five-speed, rebuilt engine and suspension. However, for reasons that are difficult to explain, I felt more of a connection with the other 2002tii I sold the E30 to get, even though that one doesn’t have any of the plus-ups that I listed for Kugel. The reason for selling it was simple: I needed to get rid of something dear to right the family’s financial ship. I floated it on Facebook, folks to whom I’d sold another car expressed interest, and I wound up driving it down to a BMW event in Greenville, South Carolina, to deliver it to them, letting me have a nice long goodbye drive with the car. The buyers even brought a guitar, and took a video of me next to the car, singing the Neil Young song “Long May You Run.” I can’t imagine a better goodbye, and I don’t have a single regret about it.
In my first book, I noted that having a long-dead project car in the back of the garage or under a tarp in the backyard is like your passion simmering on low, and reaching the point where you need to sell it, effectively taking the pot off the stove and pouring your passion down the drain, can be an immeasurably sad and jarring experience. Years back, I saw an affordable but needy E-Type on eBay. I contacted the seller, not to buy it (though perhaps I should’ve) but to ask the seller how he felt about it. He listed the reasons for the sale—space and need for tuition money for his daughter. Then he said something that’s stuck with me ever since.
“You know, in the end,” he said, “It’s just a car. There’ll be more of them.”
I try to remember that whenever I sell something, especially if it’s dear to me. There’ll be more of them. Maybe even ones you’re more passionate about.
May you manage your automotive regrets well. If you have them, may they be good ones.
Rob Siegel has been writing a column (The Hack Mechanic™) for BMW CCA Roundel magazine for 34 years and is the author of seven automotive books. His new book, The Lotus Chronicles: One man’s sordid tale of passion and madness resurrecting a 40-year-dead Lotus Europa Twin Cam Special, is now available on Amazon (as are his other books), or you can order personally-inscribed copies from Rob’s website, robsiegel.com.