Everyone says not to meet your hero car. Then everyone that's gone ahead and met their hero decides to write about how everyone told them not to, followed by an explanation of how disappointed or satisfied they were. Unfortunately I'm not unique enough to break that pattern, but that doesn't change how incredible this E36 is.
Dr. Cardon and I had been planning to meet up for a couple of weeks so I could check out his pride and joy, a car that I had been drooling over pictures of for the entire semester - and dreaming to drive for much longer. It was a Friday, and we were supposed to plan a time to meet over the weekend. Seeing that I'm currently on winter break, I'm genuinely surprised that I was awake when my phone rang - it was only 9:58AM.
"So, the storm is supposed to get pretty bad starting on Saturday." His words rang in my ears as I started to consider what he might say next. My heart sank. I only had a week left in the Bay Area, and this storm was supposed to last the duration. As you might guess, this wasn't exactly a car you'd want to be driving in the wet on public roads. Then he began again, "but...," my ears perked up, "I did drive the BMW to work today, so maybe you could stop by and grab the keys from me?"
"Really? I'm surprised you trust me that much," I replied, my heart pounding in my ears as I gulped down the rest of my coffee and started throwing my camera and computer into my backpack. Long story short - and paraphrased -, he explained his experience with driving other people's cars and ride alongs. He said both of us would probably be less anxious if I were alone anyway, and he didn't doubt that I would respect the car. I cancelled my plans for the day - not really, I didn't have any plans - and made my way out to Monty's office. We discussed the car for the few moments that he could take off of work after he handed over the keys. I still couldn't believe it.
Adrenaline pumping, I reached the the lower level of the garage. There was a red RS5 sitting directly across from the BMW, and I quickly noted that this was the first time I had seen an RS5 and been more excited about car I was getting into. I opened the driver's side door to two fixed Cobra Imola Pro's adorned by 5-point-harnesses and wrapped in a black cage. I stood for a full five minutes taking in the beautiful shell of an interior - I've never been so excited about the lack of a headliner or back seats.
Before I get into the drive, though, a bit of background is necessary. The history of the American-spec e36 M3 is a complicated one fraught with underpowered inline-6's, sad headlights, and a disappointing gearbox. In short, many enthusiasts regard the US import e36 as the worst M-car ever made. In the later years of the car's production - following a 0.2 L displacement bump - , there was a notable 81 horsepower difference between the Euro- and US-spec e36. Americans missed out on go-fast bits like independent throttle bodies, an upgraded version of BMW's variable valve timing system, VANOS, and a crisp, new 6-speed gearbox.
Despite being fully aware of these drawbacks, I've always felt that the US-spec e36's failure to adhere to the standards of its European brother was overstated and popularized without substantial evidence. Though I don't have the luxury of driving a European e36, I can't imagine it would be much better than Monty's setup.
My route of choice was a collection of roads I've become all too familiar with over the past couple of years. Because I have so few readers - most of which probably know the road - , I can afford to reveal this 19.5 mile gem nestled in the mountains that separate Oakland and Berkeley from Moraga and Orinda. With miles of switchbacks, long, descending straights, and numerous elevation changes, it's the perfect place to get to know a car. I've taken a handful of cars on this forested trek - some of which you will undoubtedly hear about soon - but I don't think a single one of them elicited the wide spectrum of emotions that I felt with Monty's e36.
The first 10-or-so miles is a well known strip of road. Until you reach canyon elementary, there's a lot of darting in between residential and open roads, providing a good place to get comfortable with whatever you're driving. In my case, that meant getting used to almost no driver assists and - failing - to resist the urge to do 2nd and 3rd gear pulls just to hear the wail of that glorious S52. The Strömung exhaust system didn't make that any easier.
Once you get onto the back tail of Pinehurst, though, the road opens up into an unbelievable hillclimb. With substantial weight reduction, upgraded braking, and a stiffened chassis I could brake late and enter at higher speeds than I care to indicate. I found myself craving the corners, and fell in love with the downshift blips on entry, followed by the perfect torque curve on exit. Believe me, this car has more than enough power.
More so than any car I've driven, this e36 rewarded me for my seattime. It was intuitive, but challenged me simultaneously. It was well balanced, but had a back end that was happy to let loose. It felt confused about what exactly it was - sports car, german muscle, or sedan - but I eventually realized that it was that very identity crisis that made the e36 so goddam fun to drive. I was terrified, exhilarated, and confident all at the same time.
The final section - Redwood road - incorporates a number of sweeping, banked turns, where you can stay hard on the throttle throughout. This is the speed section. If you're lucky enough to find it on a day when the cyclists aren't out - which is rare - you've got a real treat. My road companion, who was piloting an Aston Martin Vantage GT, was surprised by how evenly matched the cars were throughout the drive. To be fair we were driving at about 7/10's, but this was supposed to be the worst M car ever made, and it could still hang with an Aston Martin nearly 20 years its junior.
Based off of my wide breadth of experience driving performance cars - I drove a Porsche that one time - I can tell you you're all wrong about the purportedly abysmal e36. This car, albeit far from stock, did nothing but surprise me. You may write this opinion off as teenage sensationalism, or a concerted effort to favor the underdog, but I mean it when I say that the e36 was the most memorable car I've ever driven. Now, I've said a similar thing regarding another certain German car in the past - ahem, Porsche -, but when Monty asked me my opinion about his car relative to the 911, I responded without hesitation to the tune of my previous remarks.
Don't get me wrong, the Carrera S was an amazing car, but it always felt like there was something missing. Funnily enough, it wasn't until I drove a 20 year old M3 that I realized exactly what that "something" was. I never thought I would succumb to the classic argument regarding modern sports cars and their departure from their analog ancestors of yesteryear, but I guess it's just a problem all gearheads have to face at some point. What I'm getting at here is that, much like many performance cars you'll find on the market today, the Porsche rarely seeks to challenge its driver. The 911 has the remarkable ability to instill a type of confidence that can make a driver feel on par with Michael Schumacher or Aryton Senna. That's undoubtedly an awesome feeling, but eventually you realize that the car itself is too good. It's a product of the continues 53 year engineering project that's been going on at Stuttgart - an obsessive endeavor in which each subsequent iteration has brought Porsche's crowned jewel closer to perfection. It's almost as if perfect balance, wicked acceleration, and impossible cornering abilities were put there to distract the driver from the fact that the car is its own pseudo-sentient being.
It wouldn't be hard to find something that could put down faster lap times, and It certainly wouldn't be a challenge to procure a more practical and reliable sports car. I am confident, though, that I would have a hard time finding something with as much personality as Monty's e36. After just two sessions, the BMW started to feel like an old friend rather than a foreign feat of mechanical engineering. You can have your dual-clutches, autonomous cars, and intelligent computer systems. I'll stick with the understated misfit that's about as perfect as I am.
If you care to see the modifications on Monty's car, here's a screenshot of the initial listing. Thanks again for lending me the car!