I fell in love with cars the summer of 1980. I was playing with the neighbor kids on the lawn between our two houses, when a gleaming white Pontiac Turbo Trans Am pulled into my driveway. The music was up, the power windows were down (the first power windows I’d ever known), the “T-Tops” were out revealing an impeccable red interior. The long hood and scoop that read “4.9 Liter” was set on fire by a red and gold accented “Screaming Chicken” decal.
Beneath it, the Pontiac turbo charged 301, the first of its kind. Dual exhaust, with chrome quad tips and big, beefy tires. It was a moment of captured beauty. The last thing I noticed was the driver, my old man, beaming with pride. He was “the man” that day and I was no doubt, the coolest kid on the block. I hope to always have that memory. I also hope to one day have that car.
From that moment forward I was hooked.
I noticed everything on the road, from the Chevy Chevette to the Chevy Corvette. During shopping trips, to Sears or Venture, I’d make my mom roll through the tire aisle. She always assumed I liked the smell of new rubber, but I was hoping to catch a glimpse of the cool set of wheels used to display those Goodyear’s.
Back in the day of “Smokey and the Bandit” and even “Knight Rider,” it seemed most of what I encountered was American muscle until I found Road and Track magazine and discovered the beauty and wonder of exotics. Ferrari Testarossa. Lamborghini Countach. Even the decidedly American Shelby Cobra 427. Suddenly I’m asking to stay up for “Magnum P.I.” and “Hardcastle and McCormick,” not because I cared at all about the show, but because I wanted to see Magnum fire up that 308 or McCormick chase bad guys in the “Coyote X.”
I could go on for days about why I love cars, but my intent here is to explain how I love cars.
The BMW E30 M3 is considered by some to be one of the best “drivers” cars ever produced and in some respects, one of the greatest cars of all time. I came to know the car in 1987, courtesy of a neighbor and friendly acquaintance of my parents. He treated the car like an angel, hand washing it every weekend and wiping it down every day. I would find myself riding past his house just to catch a glimpse.
As luck would have it, one weekend afternoon as several neighbors gathered in a common driveway, the talk turned to cars. My mom, who would one day destroy my teenage driving dreams of a 300ZX, came through on this day and mentioned to said neighbor that her oldest son was “obsessed with BMW.” He shot me a look and asked “ever ride in one?” Never. Not once. Not even close.
He jumped from his lawn chair and disappeared between a couple of houses, through a backyard and to his garage. I could hear the car heading up the street and I knew my chance was on its way. Once in the car, I took it all in. The spare dash, tilted slightly to the driver. Short shift manual gearbox and simple, uncluttered steering wheel (while a great convenience, I’ve never been a fan of a cluttered steering wheel) and a speedo with digits larger than 85.
As we passed out of the neighborhood and a little further away from town, he looked me and said, “ready?” I nodded and off we went. Torque pulling me back into the seat, the force making the giant smile on my face that much easier. There were quick straightaways and winding turns, but I was never afraid. The car was built for this run and it reveled in the opportunity. I can still recall the sound of the engine, something true BMW enthusiasts will understand. Not quite the F1 sound of a Ferrari, but something still sinister. I’ll call it a well-engineered harmony of contralto at 5,000 RPMs and baritone at low revs.
I walked away that day knowing how to love a car.
Everyone approaches cars in a different way. For many, they’re simply a mode of transportation between Point A and Point B. A utility with a functional life that will hopefully outlast the payments. I just don’t see it that way and never will. I bought my first BMW in 2007 and caught some flack from friends and co-workers. They saw it as a “status symbol” or a sign of flashiness. I’ve never really been able to explain it in a way that made sense.
Cars are an experience for me. I do the majority of my driving with the radio off because I want to hear those engine notes. I don’t speed on the highway, because it’s a ticket waiting to happen, but I’ve met many an on-ramp with vigor. Give me a winding road and 50 mph, over fast and straight any day of the week. Braking, suspension, handling are just as important as looks for me. No doubt, the car has to be cool, but if the driving dynamics don’t match the cover, I’m not interested.
I’ve heard many people bemoan the expense of owning luxury or exotic automobiles. Ferrari’s and Lambo’s will break down. They’re hell to maintain. True, but get behind the wheel of one and you’ll understand what it’s like to drive the future. Every available technology in a Toyota Camry was built on the back of an exotic from anti-lock breaks to steering wheel mounted paddle shifters. I bought one of my dream cars a few years back, a used BMW 750, because it’s their "flagship" model.
Every commercially available piece of technology that will find it’s way to the 5, 4, 3 and X models gets it’s start in the 7. It’s nearly the size of a limousine, but put it into sport mode, tighten up the steering, stiffen the suspension and unleash nearly 400 horses and that limo can go. This wasn't a vanity purchase, it was an attempt to find the same joy that kid who ran to that 1980 Trans Am once felt. The same kid, who would one day wait months for his new pickup because he had to have the 6.2L instead of the 5.3L, then made his wife stand behind the truck so she could hear the exhaust at startup. Who once drove a Ferrari 360 Modena over 160 mph with the windows down just to hear that engine do what it does. I’m an enthusiast, and God willing, I’ll one day earn the right to build a collection.
Jay Leno is one of the foremost car collector’s living today. While I’ve never found him funny, I could watch him talk about cars for hours. I owe him a debt of gratitude for this blog entry after watching the “Jay Leno’s Garage” review of his new McLaren P1, one of only 375 cars that McLaren will produce.
It’s long, but worth it if you're interested at all in automobiles and progressive engine technology (a 900+ horsepower hybrid engine). There is a scene, as Jay is driving through the hills of Los Angeles, that he’s trying to describe the experience of driving the car. Eventually he gives up and just drives, giggling as he works through the turns and gears.
It was a perfect narration of my own love affair with cars. It’s not something easily put into words. It’s not the why…it’s the how.
Do yourself a favor and check out the McLaren P1 in the video below. Skip ahead to about the 16:30 mark to hear Jay talk about his experience with the car: