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Once Upon A Time in Munich...

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The year was 1994. It was a summer evening, just after sundown on the outskirts of Salt Lake City. I hopped out of my Dad's Jeep Cherokee with my sister as we walked towards the used car section of the local Acura dealership. It was dark enough that the parking lot was illuminated and the view inside the showroom was clear and backlit. We must have been there looking for something cheap and uninteresting for my Mom to drive, something along the lines of a used Dodge Shadow or Mazda 626.

I was very much into cars at that age, mostly obsessing over Mustangs, 1970's Broncos, Probe GTs and other Fords. Aside from the import cars every kid knew about in the early 90's: Ferrari's, Lamborghini's, and Porsche's thanks to bedroom wall posters at home and "Justification For Higher Education" poster inside the faculty office at school, I was mostly disinterested in anything else that didn't look fast, or wasn't sporting a blue oval. I especially was not interested in any of the new Acura models that were on the lot.

Acura was a brand that I equated with Buick since I only really noticed older people driving Legends and the occasional Vigor. After a minute or two of walking around silently, my dad spoke up for the first time since we had gotten out of the car as he pointed inside the showroom.  "That's the new Acura that's as fast as a Ferrari" I perked up and looked inside to see the brand new 1994 Acura NSX in Formula Red. I was taken by surprise that this once lame old-folks brand, Acura, had crafted such a stunning sports car.

This picture of Senna's NSX inside some showroom is a fair representation of what my 9 year old self had witnessed inside the showroom that night. The blur adds a nice touch of realism since trying to remember that far back isn't quite crystal clear in itself.

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That evening brought about a paradigm shift in my assumptions about Acura and  Acura became one of the "cool car brands" thereafter.

Meanwhile in that same year, the much anticipated E36 M3 was being unveiled for America. Enthusiasts who subscribed to European Car or Performance Car magazine were undoubtedly grumbling at the neutered version that we would be receiving, down 42hp from the euro-market's 282 and perhaps finding out about a 6 speed manual that we would never get. 

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Early 90's BMW enthusiasts probably scoffed at how much heavier the E36 was over the E30 M3 and how the heavy iron-block DOHC VANOS 6 cylinder strayed from the simplicity and lightness of the 2002 tii, E30 318is, E30 M3, and others that had come before. "BMW is changing, and I don't like it" they said.  Perhaps this wasn't even the first time BMW enthusiasts had felt the company was going down a wrong path and were discouraged by the next iteration of the lineup. The "softening" of the E28 and E30 with the 528e and 325e likely drew plenty of criticism with their low revving engines and economy-minded gearing. These were not the Ultimate Driving Machines they were used to and this would certainly not be last time the brand loyalists would be struck with disappointment.  

BMW fanatics in the 80's were eventually able to move past the 'eta' cars and squash any fears that the brand was losing its way when the E30 325is and 318is came out a few years later along with a more handsome facelift.
BMW owners in the 90's who may have had disappointment over the non-bespoke E36 M3 engine, and perhaps a plastic cooling system component or two, were able to accept change and move on from their initial disappointment as there were other exciting cars in the lineup such as the 540i/6 and the new Z3 roadster as well as whatever was to come. The aftermarket support and tuning community was alive and it was 

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To its marketing department, and perhaps to a few hundred thousand enthusiasts worldwide, BMW is known as The Ultimate Driving Machine.

“The Ultimate Driving Machine“ can be boiled down to a formula which is easy to catch on to once you have experienced it.


-Near 50/50 weight distribution

-Rear wheel drive

-Manual transmission

-Everyday practicality and comfort

-Responsive steering and suspension

-Great visibility

-A refined powerplant

-Subtle, timeless styling and charm

and a dab of "luxury" amenities

This has been the formula for BMW's success which has made BMW the benchmark for the entire industry, most notably the 3-series.

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In its day, the 2002 was more practical than an MGB GT, and had similar acceleration to the V8 Mustang Cobra, with much more nimble handling. 

For the driving enthusiast in the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s  BMW ownership was a pretty obvious choice. Some cars may have offered a little more performance, a little more comfort, or were more affordable, but nothing else was nearly as well-rounded.

A Corvette was fast but not practical.

An Accord was practical but not sporty

A Taurus SHO was a valiant attempt, but still just a Ford Taurus.

But eventually the BMW advantage would become less clear and the playing field would become more level.

 

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.......

 

It was the year 2000. Y2k. The world breathed a massive sigh of relief when January 1st rolled around and the computers which controlled everything from VCRs to the World Banks and air traffic control systems partied like it was 1900. Everything was fine and our very computerized civilization did not succumb to an unknown fate as the double digit date systems rolled from 99 to 00.  Cars too were increasingly bogged down with computers and technology, for better or worse. CAN BUS, throttle by wire, traction control, anti-theft systems and intelligent keys. Worst of all, somebody gave Chris Bangle access to a computer which helped him create one of the most controversial BMW designs yet. The E65  "Bangle-Butt" 7er. 

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Until this point, the electronics and computer systems were certainly becoming more of a nuisance for the home mechanic who loved to keep their BMW passion affordable by doing some of the work on their own. But it was apparent that the technology was going to be increasingly hard to keep up with. 

The X5 was a thing.  A tall, heavy, lumbering truck-like organism from a company touted for driving dynamics and performance. 

You were no longer able to get a BMW with a limited slip differential unless it was an ///M product. 

Things were starting to become different a bit more often.

Amongst the unsettled feelings people may have had about some of the newer developments, enthusiasts took comfort in the exceedingly masculine, driver oriented,  manual transmission only, V8 E39 M5.  Familiar turf to keep ones interest in a time of uncertainty about our bloated and computerized future. Better yet was the highly anticipated E46 M3. A reminder to enthusiasts that the brand was not about to abandon its winning formula.

 

 

 

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The early 2000's were when BMW first popped up on my radar. Until then I was still engrossed with muscle cars and had grown an appreciation for some of the Japanese cars through excessive gameplay of Gran Turismo. As 15 year old me searched the newspaper, Auto Trader magazine, and street corners for my first car, my sights were set on something with a V8.  My budget was under $2000. My dad and I went to look at a number of cheap, not-so-great cars including a 1979 Firebird 301 Turbo that I was sure I was going to come home with that day, similar to the one pictured. It was slow, floaty, and loose, but I thought I could somehow fix that.

The last real Trans Am - and the end for Pontiac - EPautos - Libertarian  Car Talk

My dad steered me another direction, insisting that something better existed.  I found an '85 Z28 with the 305 V8, T-Tops and an automatic for sale in the paper nearby for $1500.  Anxiously I waited for my dad to get home from work so we could go look at it. The car seemed too good to be true. It looked phenomenal for the price. It ran and drove fine, and the older folks who were selling it mentioned it belong to their son. Perhaps the son was being incarcerated for domestic violence or a DUI, something I assumed based on the only other Camaro owner I knew who lived across the street from me in his parents basement as a 40 year old deadbeat. Regardless, this car had to be mine!  It was either this, or some kind of 2wd Ford Ranger. My dad once again told me it was not the right car and something better would come along.  I was shattered and frustrated and started, but what I didn't know was he knew that it was an amazing deal and bought it without me knowing the next day (actual car shown below).

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It was a great surprise and a very magical highlight of my life at that point, my first car being presented to me as a surprise (for which I was quickly assured I would have to pay my parents back ASAP).  I was not yet old enough to drive but my Dad and I took it out for a few drives. It certainly had the right looks, made all the right noises, but the performance was just not there at all! Perhaps my expectations had been set too high, but I was disappointed at how gutless the 305 was, how slushy the 4 speed automatic was, and how clumsy the body control was for a sports car. After finding out how much insurance would be for 16 year old me, I decided I would flip it for a profit.  After an easy sale at $2500, I was able to pay my parents back what I owed them, and expanded my budget ever so slightly. Back to the car search.  I became a little disenchanted with my muscle car experience and began looking for a Jeep. 

Shortly after, a situation presented itself to me in the form of 2 Volkswagen Rabbits.  One with a horribly bent chassis but good powertrain, and another with a bad transmission and clutch.  Both were acquired for the sum of $700. After an $800 repair bill to swap transmissions and install a new clutch on the bunny that wasn't bent, I was up and running with the first car that I would become enamored with as well as the first car that I would crash. 

In contrast to the Camaro, the Rabbit seemed just as fast, the insurance was cheaper, gas mileage was much better, and the steering/handling feel was such an improvement. I had learned what Fahrvergnügen was and I was now sold on the appeal of German cars. Better yet, my best friend inherited a clean alpine white 1984 318i for his first car with 75k miles from his Dad who bought it new in '84.  Together in our enthusiasm for German cars, we spent nearly every day talking VW/BMW, trying to make them better, and drive places each in our own separate cars even though it made vastly more sense to just take 1 car. 

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My friend's 318i had a lot of body roll but of the two cars, it was just a little bit faster and handled a little bit better.  He ended up buying a set of Falken Azenis tires, which were scary in the rain, but were entertaining as we went to autocrosses with his car and got to experience it with a higher level of grip.  We continued to have fun beating on these cars until the day I lost control trying to break the sound barrier through a deep puddle and crashed through a brick wall surrounding a trailer park. My friend shortly after ended up dropping a valve while bouncing the engine off the limiter and launching it at every stoplight after finishing the last day of school in 10th grade. 

We both needed new cars and by then I knew German cars were for me but I wasn't quite ready for RWD. I picked up an old Audi, which got boring fast and was replaced with an '88 Jetta Coupe which I modified with a bigger cam, headers, weight reduction, manual steering rack, GLI Recaro seats and spoilers, aftermarket wheels etc.  I learned a lot from working on that car and I loved it but it was NOTHING compared to my friend's next car.

One day I get a call from him saying he is on his way back from Los Angeles with his new car but he wouldn't tell me what it was.

A few hours later he showed up in my driveway with a gorgeous black 1989 E30 325is. I noted that it was pretty much just like his last car but with a body kit on it, which we joked about it saying "AC Schnitzel-burner", it supposedly had a chip and some other "Schnitzel-burner" things on it as well.

If only we had known then what we know now.....

It was essentially this car but with basket weaves and no pinstriping. Not an actual ACS car, but one with a few pages of the ACS catalog thrown at it.

Different BMW E30's: Alpina, Hartge, Schnitzer | RTS – Your Total BMW  Enthusiast 

 

I hopped in and went for a demo.

My friend may have only been 16 but he was a fairly confident and skilled driver relatively speaking. If anyone else I knew at that time was driving the way he did on the test drive I would surely be expecting to not return unscathed. He did well enough demonstrating the capabilities of the car for me to receive automotive enlightenment.

WOW

This was the kind of excitement my Camaro and every other car I had been in, had failed to provide. This 325is was fast, handled amazingly, and sounded exotic (all things relative to 16 year old me). This was the exact moment when I started paying more attention to BMW.

 


 

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Hmm, suspenseful. Great post so far.

No doubt that people have become achingly nostalgic about the 90s given all that's happened in the world since then. From a car-centric point of view, the 90s was when the industry finally started to catch up with the environmental and safety regulations that came into affect 20 years earlier. As an e21-loving curmudgeon, I'd have a hard time accepting any argument that the early 2000s was some golden age. That being said, riding an e46 to me feels better than an e90. The feeling of riding in newer cars feels like riding in a steel egg, lined with thin metal bubble wrap. Safe and protected, but completely isolated from the sensations of driving we remember from the older cars.

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In 2004 I was preparing to leave the country for some service and missionary work for a couple years. This was a convenient time to get rid of things and start over upon my return.  My friend had owned his '89 325is for a few years and was getting nervous about its reliability and any money he would have to put into it in the near future. Admittedly he ran it hard and didn't maintain it accordingly. He sold his E30 for $6,500 and wanted to get into something cheaper to save money. I sold him my 88 Jetta for $2,000 which he didn't seem to have the greatest luck with and after a few months he sold that and got back into a BMW, admitting the VW was a mistake.  No hard feelings. 
Here is the only picture I could find of the '88 Jetta Coupe from his Cardomain profile 😄  Digital cameras were not as accessible, nor as good, as they are now. 

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While I was out of the country, my dad bought his first BMW. It was a 1990 E34 525i (M20) automatic in Bronzit. This car was sold to my uncle, then later my cousin and remained in the family for a few years. 

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After that he picked up a black E34 535i sport pkg with manual trans and style 5's. Very sharp looking car!  

Essentially this without the clear signals:

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As I was nearing my return home from a couple years out of the country, my dad started emailing me about cars. He was a sucker for a clean Japanese car and had picked up a very nice unmolested S14 240SX with 90k miles  just because he couldn't resist. He didn't really have much use for it and offered to sell me either the E34 or the 240SX for cheap once I returned if I so desired. Many years of playing Gran Turismo had polluted my mind and gave me an unconscious bias towards the tuner car. I certainly loved BMWs but I viewed the E34 as a bigger less sporty car with less potential. He held onto the S14 for me until I got home and traded the E34 in towards a truck. Arriving back home stateside was met with excitement, not only to see my family and become reacquainted from things I had left behind, but to own a car again and do car related things.

Little did I know then, I would regret choosing the S14 over the E34.  
 

 

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2006:

I tried to be cautious while modifying the S14. It was in great shape and hadn't been destroyed by unsavory modifications and criss-crossed zip-tie bumper repairs.

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This was my first RWD car. I quickly gained an appreciation of how different the performance was from the FWD VWs I was used to. It was a great car, but it was no BMW. its "truck engine" open diff, basic interior, and an awkwardly styled rear end left me regretting not choosing the E34.

Life started to happen fast. I met my wife, once again liquidated some assets, including the 240SX to help pay for a wedding ring, tuition, and books for my first semester as ai moved to Wisconsin and started college.
Over the next couple years we were mostly a 1 car household, shared my wife's Beige 2001 Rav4. 

Like every car guy in college, I was sometimes a little bit distracted while studyIng and would find myself searching cars for sale on a study break and daydreaming about what I might buy once school is over and all the loans are paid off

By this point in 2007, my opinion of BMW had not changed and it seemed like they were beginning to spice things up and bring some fresh things to the table:

The M3 had a high revving V8 and a dual clutch transmission. Love it!

Indicator shifting lights - BMW M3 Forum (E90 E92)

 

The M5 waa a family car with a V10. How cool is that?!

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The Z4 styling had REALLY grown on me.

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There was the Hydrogen 7, showing the world that BMW was still trying to be an innovator 

BMW Hydrogen 7 | The Hydrogen Blog

There was a twin turbo 1-series which I had always hoped would come stateside as a hatchback, but I will gladly take it. 

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Wait, now hold on a second.

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Theres a Nissan GT-R and it's how fast?!? 

Wow, even the the Rav4 has a V6 and does 0-60 in 6.3 sec! why would you even need that?

what else is in here...

The 350z now has a track package with Brembos, an LSD, and 306 hp, not bad!

The Camaro is back, I thought they killed the Camaro. The Dodge Challenger is coming back too!?

Hyundai now makes a RWD V8 sedan and their going to make a RWD coupe?

Some guy named Elon is going to start electrifying a Lotus Elise and sell it to the public, I bet it wont even go 60 miles on a charge.

Where on earth did all these rear wheel drive cars come from because the last time I checked I was pretty sure RWD was dying off due to consumer choices, packaging, and efficiency and that was part of what made BMW cool. The fact that they were one of the few companies who still made a car with RWD and a manual transmission. 

Right then and there I was beginning to feel that we were on the cusp of an automotive renaissance. V6 engines with 300hp and more were showing up in ordinary cars. Electric cars, hydrogen cars, hybrid cars, RWD cars, crazy CVT and dual clutch transmissions, lots of cars coming with all-wheel drive as an option. 400hp is the new 300hp for V8s, old nameplates being revived from the dead and more!

2008-2009, in my opinion, marked the start of something big in the auto industry. After the 2008 economic downturn, domestic automakers were forced to trim the fat and re-strategize. It almost seems that an industry-wide ass whoopin' had taken place in the which new management and executives were under fervent pressure to deliver to shareholders and to find a way to end any malaise that had been lingering.

The big 3 started to suck a lot less. Hyundai/Kia was nipping at the heels of Japanese automakers and really began digging into their market share. And then there were ze Germans.


What the hell was going on in Germany?!? New models of BMW, Audi and Mercedes were being created, seemingly out of thin air to fill gaps in the model range that people really weren't even aware existed and mostly didn't care.

Audi:  Sup. 

BMW: um, yeah?

Audi: We just made a 2 door version of our 4 door car. Check it.

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BMW: No problem, we’ll just call our 2 door 3-Series; a 4 series. And while we are at it halte mein bier...  How about a 4 door version of the 2 door version of our 4 door car called a “gran coupe"

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MB: We made a van, lol. 

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Audi: wtf, why?!?

BMW: LMAO

MB: Fine, We will bring bigger van to America and dominate sales. HA HA! You do not have a van.

image.png.71cbe4de8b02edab0f7d474cbc73c7d7.png

BMW: Right, haven't you heard? The people do not like vans,  they want crossovers. But why give them crossovers when you can give them.... Sport Activity Vehicle! *mic drop*

image.png.8bdb5448de84f9909ee01ce3b37bebbc.png    image.png.cae75261dcc2d307158392a3ea77beba.png

MB: That's not even hard to do.

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Audi: Those all look awful.... try again.

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BMW:  (lets see if they'll take the bait)  UNCLE BENZ! WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THIS???

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***PORSCHE HAS ENTERED THE CHAT***

PORSCHE: Sup f***ers

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Audi: This is getting too weird. Im out.

BMW: I need to go see how Lexus is doing, i’ll be back later.
 

MB: Hey Bim, I heard some of your guys were interviewing at Hyundai, you might want to check on that too, lol.


***AUDI HAS LEFT THE CHAT***

***BMW HAS LEFT THE CHAT***

***MB HAS LEFT THE CHAT***


Porsche: l bet you can’t guess where we put the engine on this one!

guys?....

 

 

 

 

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While the Germans were busy adding more turbos, more cylinders,  and more obscure nonsensical models to their lineups, the rest of the automotive world was advancing rapidly on normal products. We have come out on the other side of this whirlwind with an insanely level playing field like we have never seen before. There is ALMOST no such thing as a bad new car. There are no Hyundai Pony, Yugo GV, Ford Fiesta.... wait.  There is a Ford Fiesta. and it comes in "ST" flavor with a turbo and people actually really like them. 
The bottom line is. There are A LOT of very good cars today. All of them are heavier, quieter, safer, and more numb than what we grew up with and thats what we want in our daily drivers/ family haulers. But where are the soul-stirring RWD, manual sport sedans that gave BMW their legendary reputation?

I look to the M2 Competition, the F80 M3/M4, perhaps even the M240i on the cheaper end of the spectrum and fragments of the pure E30, E36, and E46 that came before. You read reviews of them about how magnificent they are, perhaps lacking some steering feel, or rawness, but overall how they are very serious performance cars. You don't necessarily need to buy the biggest baddest fastest version of a car to enjoy driving it, or to be an enthusiast, but most normal people I know simply cannot and simply should not try to afford these newer performance versions of the cars. The F80 M3 starting price was in the upper 60's and can easily get up to $80k out the door. Again, the average enthusiast is not going to be able to afford these new, but how can you feel good about driving an $80k car hard and risking putting it into a ditch, or into the wall on track. It makes me nervous at least. So then what is the point of owning such a car if its too expensive, too fast, too difficult to repair, and doesn't really get used? There is entirely too much performance in many new cars for street use to where you might start to justify saving a load of money and "just getting an F30 328i 2.0t". After all,  for a MUCH more reasonable price, you can get:

-RWD - 242hp Turbocharged engine - M-sport aesthetic options - All the comfort and technology anybody really needs - Near 50/50 weight distribution -

All a very nice start to the classic BMW formula. But then comes the list of counterpoints:

Sure, it's RWD, but it has an open diff. You may as well get the AWD model to help out with adverse weather and just use the "X Delete" app to make it RWD with an open diff again when you want it.

-Both the 2.0T and the 3.0T engines are a gem, but the newer generations of BMW engines are still littered with stupid problems that really shouldn't have to exist anymore. 

-The balance between comfort and cornering grip in the new chassis is stellar, but there is very little sensation of speed and the "feel" is different. Different is not always bad, but it is different. 

-The automatic transmissions are getting so good that you should really just get an automatic. This is because you are getting older and since you aren't going to track the car and are getting an x-drive to make things more practical, you may as well just seal the deal with an automatic. 

When you start to be realistic about current day BMW ownership from the vantagepoint of a more basic 3-series, You have to accept the reality that you might be better off getting a Honda Accord Sport. The playing field might just be that level when you aren't targeting a new ///M car.

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The year was 2020. It was an unseasonably warm November evening, just after sundown on the outskirts of Milwaukee. I hopped into my E46 M3 with my 9 year old daughter who pleaded with me to go for one last drive in it before putting it away for the winter.  On our drive we passed some dealerships and I decided to take a quick look at what was on the lot. As we walked towards the new car section of the local BMW dealership. It was dark enough that the parking lot was illuminated but still easy enough to see a new G22 chassis code 440i x-drive with its controversial front grille. I took a look around the car to see if the polarizing style would be better from different angles and wondered if within time I would get used to it and realize that perhaps BMW was brilliant and ahead of their time, but I just wasn't seeing it.  

Parked next to the 440i was a new fwd-based 228i listed for $45k and scoffed at both the price tag and how small the interior was, immediately thinking about who might buy such an expensive and impractical car. I kept walking expecting to see some kind of M-sport model that would catch my attention that perhaps I could look forward to owning sometime in the next 10 years.  My daughter shares a sliver of my BMW enthusiasm and with curious excitement asked me which of all these new BMWs I would pick. I paused and looked around, taking her question fairly seriously.  I glanced at the 4-series, a row of 2-series, some more basic 330's. 


"None of them. I honestly would not pick any of them.”
 In that peculiar moment I was surprised by my own response.was 

 

Once upon a time in Salt Lake City I was a 9 year old boy in the parking lot of an Acura dealership, struck with awe at a single car that captured my attention and completely changed my perception of a brand. Today, I am struck with awe that I cannot find a single car that captures my attention on the BMW lot. 

Once upon a time in Munich, the Ultimate Driving Machine was not so hard to identify.
 

061D229C-2B8F-46F9-B25B-BED7780C4B24.thumb.jpeg.6e605068c179a72e0391b79a8d61f0cb.jpeg

 

END

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On 11/21/2020 at 9:59 AM, YoungCR said:

I'm still working on reading through this as well but I was gonna say this is a hefty jalopnik column

I second this motion. 

 

Its crazy to think how much development and change has happened just to get where we are today. Oddly new cars do very little for me, which I am unsure if its me getting old, or its just the industry morphing into something that I no longer find appealing.

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3 hours ago, Jdesign said:

I second this motion. 

 

Its crazy to think how much development and change has happened just to get where we are today. Oddly new cars do very little for me, which I am unsure if its me getting old, or its just the industry morphing into something that I no longer find appealing.


Objectively they are most certainly better, but I know what you mean. I hardly pay attention to new cars coming out and within 4-5 years they start showing up on my radar more when they hit the used market and how they hold up is better known 
 

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4 hours ago, B C said:

Objectively they are most certainly better, but I know what you mean.

I could spend a lot of time riffing on this sentiment...

We've lost our way. We've traded in the arts and humanities in favor of STEM and systems analysis. We're caught in the middle between what we feel and what we know, all the while knowing and feeling that what we're doing is not sustainable. Admitting to any of this is to admit that we are wrong and that we've made a mistake. That's too much for most people to deal with, especially since giving up on what we know leaves us in an uncomfortable place of uncertainty. So we continue on, searching for a more logical solution, thinking that somehow going farther down the path that we're on will somehow replace the things we love that we've lost and left behind.

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