The BMW Z3 returns to my garage, temporarily
A few years ago, I wrote a piece about my “bargain” 1999 BMW Z3. Bargain in the sense that when I bought it in 2013, it was the least-expensive running six-cylinder Z3 in the country available on Craigslist—its price driven down by mildew from sitting outside, a dead battery, multiple dash lights blazing, and an expired inspection sticker. I threw a fresh battery in it, drove it home, cleaned it up, fixed a couple of things, and got an almost sinful level of pleasure out of it for the next five years.
If you’ve ever owned a convertible, you know that there’s a whole-body relaxation response that happens when you drop the top, see all that sky, hit the road, and get all that wind in your hair and sun in your face. Clichés, yes, but also all true. Make the convertible a zingy little two-seater roadster with decent acceleration and crisp handing and the package becomes downright irresistible and addictive. And there are so many wonderfully whim-ably inexpensive choices out there. Select your nationality and brand loyalty and pick one. American iron? Lots of well-priced Corvette ’verts. Miata fan? Bless you for your rationality. You love Honda products? S2000. Porsche person? Boxster. Creaky inexpensive old Italian metal? That would be 1980s Alfa Spider or Fiat 124. Brit? Many awful choices with great dashboards. The specifics don’t matter. I’m a BMW guy, so the Z3 worked for me in spite of its somewhat bulbous nose.
I remember when I used to see people driving convertibles with the top down and gloves on in March or November. I’d think “It’s obviously too cold to be doing this. What a narcissistic jerk, wanting everyone to look at him/her driving that convertible with the top down.” It wasn’t until I owned a drop-top and began doing this myself that I realized the person driving in cold weather with the top down doesn’t give a hoot about what you think. They want to experience that relaxation response the car gives them. As often as possible. My Z3 was so good at this that my wife, our friends, and I took to calling her “Zelda the Therapy Car.” Friends would text me and ask if they could “schedule therapy.” I called them “The Cult of Zelda.” The car was worth almost nothing, so I was even less shy about loaning her out than I’d normally be. You want to drive it into Boston, go to a restaurant, and park it on the street? No problem. Have fun.
Unfortunately, the fundamental problem with convertibles is the necessary consequence of their removable top: They all leak. Unless you live in a dry climate, you really have to keep them garaged or, as evidenced by my Z3 when I purchased it, water will get in and mildew the interior. And, whether you’re a car person with multiple cars competing for multiple storage spaces, or a more conventional owner with perhaps a daily driver for you and your spouse and a garage full of stuff, rigorous garaging becomes problematic.
The other problem is that the whole “summer car” image of a convertible is more marketing than fact. “Wind in the hair” is almost always welcome. “Sun in the face,” not so much. ’Verts are great in the spring and fall, and heavenly for evening summer drives once the edge is off the heat of the day, but in the full blaze of a summer day, convertibles are incredibly hot, unbearably so if you’re caught in traffic. Even if they have working A/C, the thin canvas top is poor insulation for keeping the cold in and the heat out. If you have a choice for a summer ride between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m., most times you go for the tin-top car with the cold A/C.
For these reasons, to many people, convertibles are a nice fling. They get one, enjoy the hell out of it for a while, but it’s the first thing to go if they’re challenged by the practicalities of finances or space.
Me? Guilty as charged. I’ve had and sold three—a 1984 Alfa Romeo Spider, a BMW E30 325i ragtop, and Zelda. (Four if you count the 1982 Porsche 911SC Targa, as the Targa top is much closer to a fully-open car than a sunroof can ever hope to be.) About two years ago, storage space issues caught up with me, and I made the decision to put Zelda up for sale. My neighbor Kim, part of the Cult of Zelda, bought her once she worked a deal with another neighbor for garage space.
Kim is one of my wife’s and my closest friends, so I’ve made her one of a handful of exceptions to my rule about never working on friends’ or family’s cars. Shortly after the pandemic rolled in in March, she reported that Zelda wouldn’t rev over 2500 rpm and that the “Check Engine” light was on. I went over with an OBD-II code reader, pulled the code, found that it was likely due to a carboned-up throttle plate, and cleaned the throttle body. Problem solved, it cost nothing, she was grateful and cooked a drop-off dinner for my wife and me, and I got to drive Zelda for the evening.
Last week, Kim said that the car had a new throttle-related problem—the gas pedal didn’t work at all. It felt like it was completely disconnected. I searched online and learned that this is actually a fairly common problem on certain BMWs. The throttle cable is held to the linkage from the pedal by a little rubber grommet, and when it deteriorates, the end of the cable pops out.
Even though it looked like an easy repair, I limped the car home at idle (our houses are three right turns apart), so I’d have all my tools nearby. I pulled my Z3 M Coupe (a.k.a. “The Clown Shoe”) out of the garage and pulled the Z3 in. This time, the repair had some cost—about $3 for the grommet. Again, a relatively quick and easy fix, and a grateful friend.
I was prepared to return the car when I noticed something. The stalks of both side mirrors were wrapped in duct tape. I’d forgotten that, when I sold her the car, the spindle mechanisms—the things that allow the mirrors to rotate so you can swing them in tight to the body to prevent errant strikes from passing cars while parked—had failed. This is a fairly common problem on Z3s. I’d meant to fix it for her before the sale, hadn’t gotten around to it, had put some clear packing tape on to hold them in place, and had forgotten all about it. Over time, they loosened back up, and her son, being helpful, had wrapped on a layer of duct tape. Now that had failed, and they were both flapping and ugly. I texted Kim and asked, “While I have Zelda, do you want me to fix the mirrors?”
“That would be great,” she responded.
With the car still sitting in the garage, I popped off both door panels, removed the mirrors, and inspected them. In addition to the broken spindles, they were both in pretty ratty condition. The quickest and easiest path was to try to find good used mirror assemblies the same color as the car (Boston Green), as this eliminates the need to either replace the spindles or repaint the assemblies. Miraculously I found left and right mirrors on eBay; the left one was on the left coast (California) and the right one on the right coast (Philadelphia). I verified both were Boston Green and had intact spindles and clicked “Buy It Now” for both.
I then waited for the replacement mirrors. The driver’s side mirror (ironically, the one from California) arrived in two days. I installed it, then inexplicably had to wait nearly a week for the one from Philadelphia. For practical reasons, I left the Z3 in my garage where I’d begun doing the work, which was in the spot in front of the single roll-up door. Thus, the Z3 was blocking the exit for the other two cars in the garage.
While I was waiting for the second mirror, hot sticky weather moved into Boston. Yeah, I know—if you live in Florida or Alabama, you laugh when I say, “hot sticky weather in Boston,” but by New England standards it was pretty oppressive. As you probably know, I’m a fiend about having working A/C in my vintage cars, so that wouldn’t have stopped me from driving them. But the partially disassembled Z3 was in the way.
One evening, after the heat of the day had broken, I wanted to go for a pleasure drive. I could’ve taken the Clown Shoe, which was still sitting outside, but for some reason it wasn’t what my neurons craved. Normally I would’ve grabbed the Lotus Europa, but I’d temporarily shuttled it off to external storage. I looked at the air-conditioned BMW 3.0CSi and the 2002 in the garage, at all the tools and parts strewn about from the work on the Z3, and then at the Z3 with the right door panel off and hanging by the speaker wires.
Then I thought, “It’s a summer evening. This is roadster weather. There’s a roadster sitting right here. You don’t need to move it to drive other cars—you need to drive IT. Just carefully put the door panel inside the Z3, close the door, and take Zelda for a spin.”
It was the right call.
In the cooler evening air, I immediately experienced the whole-body relaxation response that a convertible brings, and as soon as I was on a good driving road, I was reminded how much I’d grown to like the Z3. If I didn’t still have one more car than I have garage spaces, I’d buy another roadster, or another Z3, or this Z3 back, in a heartbeat.
But as I drove the Z3, I was made aware of a hat trick of clutch issues. There was chattering, probably due to oil on the clutch, probably from a leaking rear main engine seal. There was a fair amount of bearing noise with the clutch depressed, almost certainly from the throwout bearing. And with the clutch released and the engine idling, I could hear what was likely pilot-bearing noise. Pulling a transmission to replace the clutch and both bearings falls way outside the favor envelope. I called Kim and told her that the car could probably get through the summer if driven gently, but that in the fall, it’d need a clutch, and a garage would charge her $1000–$1500.
For now, swapping a few evening drives for some simple repairs is a good arrangement. I’ll bet another Z3 graces my driveway before fall. Maybe it will be Zelda, in need of a clutch.
Rob Siegel has been writing the column The Hack Mechanic™ for BMW CCA Roundel magazine for 34 years and is the author of six automotive books. His most recent book, Just Needs a Recharge: The Hack Mechanic™ Guide to Vintage Air Conditioning, is available on Amazon (as are his other books), or you can order personally-inscribed copies here. His new book, The Lotus Chronicles, will be released in the fall.