There’s something you need to keep in mind about antiques: they’re slow.
When we were trudging through listeria-laden farm fields or putting quill to parchment for the latest guillotine RSVP, it wasn’t much of a problem. Speed, productivity, ROIs and KPIs were philosophies, not measurable business statistics.
And in this age where the micromanager did not have a virtual box of crayolas to use on spreadsheets, it was quite alright that the things we used were not very…expedient.
It’s different now. Engineering, computing, and finance have transformed the modern world into one that demands more; faster, better, cheaper.
The car you see is a product of that age, albeit an early one, where computing was in its infancy and before safety regulations imposed a dizzying array of red tape that exists today. It is slow, unsafe, and arguably archaic – technically, as it is now 30 years old and thus eligible for a special license plate, it is an antique.
When it comes to numbers or spreadsheets with lists of feature after feature, there isn’t any reason why you would want to drive a car like this over a modern counterpart. However, as any car enthusiast with a penchant for the lost spirit of the automobile, it’s the intrinsic values that reveal why driving an older car is a truly unique – and humbling – experience.
What you’re looking at is the most BMW of BMWs, the legendary E30. Built from 1982 to 1993, this was the generation that saw BMW put together a tantalizing synergy of sporting credentials and upmarket polish. It saw the first mass-produced M model, the M3, and saw BMW obliterate the competition in sporting events around the world. It was the quintessential touring car.
And what better way to fully explore that rich history than with the economy model of the E30.
With an automatic.
Yes, what we have here is the 1985 BMW 325e. When new, which was a very long time (and many miles) ago, it had 120 horsepower and an asphalt-splitting 170 lb-ft. of torque. It’s not the slowest car out there, but the “eta” engine, denoted by the “e” in the model name, was a torquey, durable, fuel-sipping engine that is still perfectly suited for city or town driving.
It has certainly lost a few ponies over the years, but it’s hard to imagine this car was very fast to begin with. Acceleration is both terrifying and thrilling. The gas pedal must be on the brink of breaking through the footwell, the rev counter stops at about 5000 RPM, and a 4-speed automatic groans with annoyance as it contends with harried driving far outside its comfort zone.
But, boy does it go. Just like a commercial jetliner ramps up speed on the runway before take off, the 325e has a similar unrelenting pursuit of velocity. It is, after all, German, and from an era where high speed was legal on far many more autobahns. There’s certainly enough power to get it up to a pretty good clip, it’s just that more speed takes more time.
As I said earlier, it is not expedient.
Handling, though, is signature BMW. Weighing in at a little over 2,500 lbs. it’s a completely different animal from a modern car. Steering is taut, with a certain degree of heft needed to go around corners. If you’ve ever seen someone trying to corral one of the old pre-war cars around Goodwood, you know the elbows-out approach isn’t for show, it’s necessary. You need a little muscle to get to point B, but what you get back makes the entire experience of driving an older car worth it.
Before drive-by-wire systems and heavily assisted power steering, one could actually feel the road through the steering wheel, and through the car itself. Devoid of the emergency cocoon of airbags, every rattle, every texture on the road, and every g-force is more pronounced. When you hear a race car driver talk about being on the limit of grip, this is what they mean. You can feel the car through the turns. The more speed you carry, the more concentration and more effort is needed to stay on that ragged performance edge.
And when you need to take a break from more spirited driving, it’s easy in the 325e. Air conditioning, AM/FM stereo, ABS, power windows, a sunroof, and leather seats were all included. Braking…works. And visibility is exceptional, thanks to thin A-, B-, and C-pillars, and a thin, low dashboard. Compared to a modern car, it’s the difference between driving a gondola on wheels and being strapped into a jet fighter cockpit.
Now, some systems have held up better than others over the course of 30 years, and despite a non-functioning A/C on this afternoon, the Florida summer sun was merciful, and even broken up by a quick rain shower to keep things bearable.
The one quibble I have is the shoddy cabin alignment of a left-hand drive vehicle, a rare imprecise detail from the Germans, in which the steering wheel or seat is a good inch or two off-center. You also won’t find a cupholder, because until about 2005, BMW had some weird complex towards putting a proper one in their cars.
But these are minor things; little reminders separating cars of the past from what we’re used to today. On a long haul or fighting through the commute like a kennel of corgis being called to dinner, creature comforts like satellite radio, active cruise control, voice commands, and cup holders bring a much-needed ease and tranquility.
Driving has become easier and more pleasant in the conditions we find ourselves in on a daily basis. But it shouldn’t mean we completely forget about what made the automobile a great thing in its early years. The open-road freedom, the car as an extension of self, the sounds and the feelings of driving the winding road.
The 325e is a little slice of that legacy, baked with the ingredients of what has made BMW one of the premier brands out there. The type that everyone aspires to be seen stepping out of at the corner café. It isn’t the fastest or most comfortable, but it’s an affordable way to experience the best of Bavarian Motor Works and an era of driving we shouldn’t ever forget.