I drove to Seattle on a Saturday morning in a 2006 BMW 325i, and by the time I returned the following day I was behind the wheel of a 1977 AMC Pacer wagon. And yes, it was by choice.
The BMW is a fine car, with a pleasing appearance less Bangle-ized than its upmarket stablemates. As you might expect, the drivetrain and suspension are world-class, capable of handling anything you or I might throw at them. Perhaps Mark Webber or Nick Heidfeld, hammering the 3-series at the Nürburgring, could cause it to lose its composure. Perhaps not.
Unfortunately, BMW continues to take away with the ergonomic left hand what it gives with the mechanical right. Oddly, the car now sports a "start-stop" button seemingly patterned after that in the Honda S2000. The entire insert-the-key, push-it-in, then punch-the-start-button ballet is really a step backwards for the maker of the world's finest no-nonsense sports sedan.
If BMW must emulate Honda, I suggest it start by sending its interior designers to cupholder school. I cannot imagine a more inept design than those in the new 3-series, two flimsy, guaranteed-to-spill holders that pop out from the dash. Another shallow cupholder is concealed in the center armrest, forcing you to make a choice: armrest or cupholder. For $36,500, I want both.
GARAGE SALE RED MIST
But it wasn't the cup holders spilling my coffee for the umpteenth time that caused me to buy a Pacer (my second, I'm embarrassed to admit).
My test drive of the 3-series took me through a small town near Tacoma, WA. A garage sale was in progress, with the proceeds going to benefit a local girl's fast-pitch softball team. Parked in the driveway was a red Pacer wagon.
Pacers are odd cars. Everyone remembers them, but never with affection. In fact, when SCM called the Pacer an "Affordable Classic" in the January 2005 issue, we received a flood of mail in protest, most of it ridiculing the poor AMC as unworthy of gracing our pages.
But at heart, most SCMers would still admit to sharing the same collecting philosophy that motivated me to start bartering for the little wagon: We like any car we think we can make a few bucks on.
IT'S COACH HOLMGREN TO YOU
By now, most Pacers, like most cheap cars that are nearly 30 years old, have either been destroyed or are waiting for the crusher to put them out of their misery. This low survival rate means that good Pacers, like good Pintos or good Vegas or other oxymoronic combinations, are actually increasing in value.
Our subject car was wearing its original red paint, which still held a good shine. The body was straight as an arrow. While the Navajo upholstery was worn out in the front, the rear was good, and the dash had no cracks. The carpet was original and in excellent condition except where it had disintegrated on the driver's side.
Jon Thollander, the seller, proudly demonstrated that everything worked, from the underhood lights to the AM/FM radio, to the struts holding up the rear hatch.
As we talked, we discovered we had gone to the same high school in San Francisco, Lincoln, during the late '60s. I had been student body treasurer and the president was Mike Holmgren, who was also the star quarterback of our football team. Thirty years later, Thollander and I were doing a Pacer deal, while Holmgren was pursuing a slightly more illustrious career coaching the Seattle Seahawks. If he collects cars, I doubt they are Pacers.
IT'S ALL ABOUT THE THRILL
Asking price was $1,800, and I deftly managed to close the deal at $1,400. Getting the cash took quick trips to three different cash machines due to a $500 per withdrawal limit. I calculated that buying a million-dolllar Ferrari SWB using the same technique would have required 2,000 ATM
visits-yet another reason to collect cheap cars.
Once I had the keys, I realized I was 180 miles from home, with two cars. A phone call to a local SCMer took care of getting the BMW back to Portland the following day, leaving me free to enjoy my new purchase for three hours of blissful cruising.
While the Pacer is not a profoundly bad car, it's certainly not one that will ever make anyone's list of the Top 10,000 Best Handling (make that Best Anything) Cars of All Time. But in a perverse way, its deficiencies add to the experience of driving it. As the Pacer and I floated through a curvy section of country road, all four wheels struggling to maintain grip and the body moving around like a giant tortoise on roller skates, I thought about the generation that is learning to drive in cars that have electronic handling and braking assists as standard.
While it's nearly impossible to throw the 3-series off the road, the Pacer feels like it would be happy to just sail blithely through the apex of a turn and into that great Neverland beyond the shoulder of the highway. Simply knowing that you are driving a car whose braking and handling will let you down every chance they get keeps you entertained as you go down the road.
As a daily driver, I'd take the BMW in a Munich minute. But any new-car purchase experience can be easily replicated. Saunter down to the dealership of your choice, and you can drive out in a modern vehicle. But finding the car you never knew you wanted parked alongside the road with a for-sale sign in the window has a thrill factor unique unto itself.
HEADING TO YOU NEXT
Whether it's SCMer David Sydorick finding a Maserati A6GCS Zagato walled up in a small Italian town, or contributor Raymond Milo uncovering an OSCA MT4 in a junkyard in Georgia, or yours truly finding a superb example of one of the worst cars ever built, the fundamental thrill is the same.
For once you've consummated the deal, you have changed your day, and in a small way, your life. My test drive in the BMW morphed into a gearhead adventure, and created a story. And what are our lives as car enthusiasts about if not creating old-car stories, initiated by completely absurd actions that seem reasonable and prudent to us at the time?
As far as making some money on this deal, the Pacer is headed to eBay, where I hope that a pitched bidding war will break out between the fanatics. My prediction? That I'll double my money. The auction will launch on July 10. Turning a profit of any kind would make this a gearhead's utopian fable. Find it, buy it, drive it, sell it and come out ahead. That's one thing you can't do in a new 3-series.