It’s been 35 years since I bought my first BMW, and as I reflect on it, it’s almost a miracle that I ever considered getting another one. But I wasn’t one to give up easily. Remember that sinking, cold sweat feeling when you realize your car is nothing but junk? It’s like expecting to hear the opening chords of Dylan’s ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door,’ only to be greeted by Gabrielle instead. That same feeling was what I experienced with a 1977 BMW 320i (E21 generation), the full-power 125 bhp European version.

How it all started

In 1988, I was deeply immersed in buying and selling cars, and this 1977 BMW would have once been considered an expensive and highly prized possession. But time and miles don’t show much respect for a brand, and after a grueling 100,000 miles, its value was best measured by its weight, thanks to the ‘help’ of a notorious craftsman named Monty, who essentially ruined it.

The car had previously suffered from oil and water mixing issues, and I acquired it from the dealer who had given up on it. But, like every hopeful aficionado of “Man Maths,” I thought, “How bad can it really be?” Initially, the outwardly clean E21 fired up and sounded surprisingly decent. I paid £300 for it and drove it home with the enthusiasm of a skid-row executive.

However, soon enough, doubts began to creep in. “Is that a strange noise?” I wondered. The car seemed to be both detonating under light loads and rattling the rod ends when revved. I realized I might be in for more trouble than I had anticipated.

The much needed inspection

Image by Andrew Everett

Back at the garage owned by my dad, we put my BMW on the lift and gave it a thorough inspection. It turned out that all four lifting points were in terrible shape. To remedy this, we resorted to reinforced fiberglass paste, which had many nicknames, such as “red welding,” “cold welding,” “Hairy Mary,” or “cold MIG,” among others. This versatile material could bridge gaps that were almost as wide as the Grand Canyon.

As for the engine, it was in a sorry state, to say the least. Many praise the old BMW M10 engine as the best thing since sliced bread, but my memories are filled with overheating issues and top-end troubles due to a worn-out cam. Add a cracked cylinder head from previous overheating problems, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.

Desperate Measures: Oil Changes and Overheating

After only 200 miles, the oil in the engine mixed with coolant, creating a mayonnaise-like mess. New oil would be ruined within another 200 miles. To cope with this, I started changing the oil weekly, using leftover oil from someone’s Ford, pouring the second-hand oil directly into the BMW.

However, it was evident that my 1977 E21 BMW 320i was on borrowed time as it began to overheat. I had even adjusted the ignition timing to mask the growing rod knock, which only made matters worse. It was time to part ways, and the only exit strategy was a one-way trip to the auctions after one last dose of pre-owned 20/50 oil.

The Auction Escape

Can you picture the scene at the auction?

“Has the vehicle traveled over 100,000 (one hundred thousand) miles?”

You betcha!

“Is any guarantee offered with this used vehicle?”

Buddy, my guarantees guarantee nothing.

“Does the vendor have any guilty conscience about selling this motor vehicle?”

Ask me after you’ve bought it. I already know the answer.

The pre-sale preparations were brief but effective. We removed the thermostat to keep the M10 engine as cool as possible and “enhanced” the oil with two liters of axle oil. Surprisingly, the old beater made its final trip without any hitches and even sounded decent as it entered the auction hall. The sorry heap was sold for a pittance, marking two months of semi-prestige motoring.

Lessons from the Beater

What did I learn from this ordeal? Well, it taught me a colorful array of expletives that I still use to this day. It’s an art knowing when to bail out of an old car that’s teetering between life and death. But, my passion for old beaters like this never waned. In the 1990s, I went on to purchase many more old Bimmers, some for about as much as a pair of Converse boots.

A 1977 BMW 528i Automatic, a 1982 E28 525i, an E21 323i, and others that are now considered sought-after classics. While a show-quality E30 M3 Sport Evolution and the E9 CSL that followed were expensive, the car in my driveway right now is a 2005 118d that I bought from Copart and fixed for a mere £100.

Me, a cheapskate? Say it ain’t so!