BMW: Milestones and Mishaps

3 Series, Interesting | March 17th, 2012 by 10
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It has been a year since I started writing for BMWBLOG so to commemorate the anniversary, I wanted to mark some milestones and even some mishaps I have witnessed during my time at a BMW dealership since I started in the mid 90s.

When I started, the now venerable E34 5 Series was still in the showroom. It was considered to be the premier midsize sedan of its time, and today it has roughly the size of a new F30 3 Series.  The E34 was also slower, less efficient and costly. Yes, less than what a comparably equipped F30 328i costs today, roughly $41,000.

But it handled incredibly well and had the tactile feel very few cars can match today. The E34 reached its full potential with a special edition 540 M Sport powered by a 4.0 liter V8 that today is still very sought after. Looking back at the E34 I find myself lusting after E34 M5s in the same way one would look at a hot cougar. No, not the car!

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There was also a peculiar car in the back of the showroom when I started, it was always locked and nobody ever test drove it. The sales manger at the time explained to me that it was a race car for the street and most people wouldn’t understand why anyone would want to drive a car like that. It was obviously an E36 M3, but it had a big wing, “M Checkered” stripes on the front and back and lacked a radio and climate control. It was also about $15,000 more than the newly announced E36 M3. Why would anyone want to pay more for a car with no radio or climate control that would be driven on the street?

Well, that car is now extremely rare to find E36 M3 Lightweight.

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BMW built around 120 of those cars. The M3 lightweight came to market to battle with Porsche at club events and was campaigned by Tom Milner (co-developer of the M3 Lightweight) in IMSA racing. It was right there and then that I decided to sell my Porsche 944T and buy an E36 M3. So I did. It wasn’t a lightweight but it was a 1996 model with the new 3.2 liter I6, updated climate control and the new DSC traction control. And that M3 sealed my love for Roundel.

The end of the 90s also saw the introduction of the E39 M5 and the launch of the BMW Performance Center in Greenville, South Carolina. Why are those two items particularly significant? Because with the purchase of a new E39 M5, BMW would send you to the Performance Center for two days to learn to control the monster.

First time I fell in love with the E39 M5 was at the New York Auto Show in 1999 where BMW displayed a model in carbon black with caramel interior. You know that feeling you get when you first see the woman you’re going to marry? Well, that’s the warm feeling I got all over. I made owning an E39 M5 a top priority which came through just ten months later.

In October 1999, I gave my heart once again to the E39 M5. Together with a client of mine, I attended the 2-day “M5 Driving School” at the BMW Performance Center. We were greeted by the ex-boss of BMW M in the U.S., Erik Wensberg. I will never forget that first night’s dinner with 35 M enthusiasts from all around the country eagerly anticipating the next morning when we would finally get to drive the mighty M5 on a closed course, at high speeds! I couldn’t wait. Needless to say, not much sleep was had that night.

But what stood out more during that dinner was the welcome speech by Mr Wensberg. As you would expect, it revolved around the M brand and where the company was heading back then. Looking back, I should have recorded that speech and play it back today for the good folks at BMW M.

He told us then that there were a few basic principles of BMW M that would never be broken. One was that an M had to be normally aspirated and high revving. Next, they would never be all-wheel drive because that will eliminate the characteristic of a balanced rear wheel drive platform. And finally, BMW M would never make an SUV. That’s important since BMW was just launching the first gen X5. I guess we now know that direction at BMW M can change and most likely will.

And that’s a good thing.

The new millennium rolled in and no computers imploded! We were all alive and the zombiepocolypse never happened. Good thing too, I needed more seat time with my new M5. But what we saw was a new design chief making waves with the design language. He was none other than Chris Bangle.

I will never forget the first time I laid eyes on the new E65/66 7 Series. It was during a BMW trip for the launch of the new 7er in Miami, Florida. What an epic trip that was. Sun, beach, bikini clad beauties rollerblading on the sandy concrete sidewalks, and ….the “Bangle-butt” new 7. We were in quite a shock!

We were greeted by the new 7er sans shift lever, iDrive, and a whole lot of new technology that required a six hour day class to learn how to operate it. What was BMW thinking? What was Mr Bangle thinking? Where was the svelte 7 Series we all got to love?

And it didn’t stop here. In 2003 we received the Bangle treated E60 5 Series,  a “flame surfaced” Z4 Roadster (which I owned and loved) and the first re-iteration of the 6 Series since 1989. I have to admit, looking back at the design direction change, it was a huge bold move for BMW, one that would pay off big time in sales and profits. So, kudos Mr. Bangle for your foresight, and kudos to the BMW board of directors for having the guts to let him run with it.

2006 saw the introduction of forced induction at BMW, ushering in an era that’s here to stay. As of this summer, BMW will be producing only forced induction engines, with the exception of the outgoing V8 in the M3. But it wasn’t without massive teething problems. The first N54 twin-turbo inline-six was plagued by high pressure fuel pump issues. These issues led to a massive ongoing class action lawsuit and many dissatisfied customers complaining that their 335i models are rendered unsafe and not drivable when their car goes into “limp mode.

In my opinion (with limited knowledge of the internal discussions at BMW), I believe BMW handled the “HPFP” issue all wrong. They waited until DateLine aired a piece on the topic forcing BMW to come clean and admit there was an issue before they responded. Every car has its problems, it is how the manufacturer handles those problems that separates the good ones from the great ones.

CAFE stands for “Corporate Average Fuel Economy” and we’re now living in an era where CAFE regulates how a manufacturer engineers and produces cars. There is no doubt that BMW is at the forefront of exceeding those mandates while still producing exciting cars we want to drive. Are they as tactile and lightweight as they used to be two decades prior? No, no manufacturer is. Cars get bigger, heavier, and with that, less tactile in some ways. But it’s the capabilities and performance BMW has maintained throughout the last few decades that has them at the top of the Luxury car market. Which in itself is an insult to BMW, because we all know they build performance cars.

Thanks for taking the time to like or at least read my articles here on BMWBLOG!