This piece originally appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of The Ultimate Classic, the publication of the BMW Classic Car Club of America.
“California recently opened a new freeway designed to cut the driving time between Los Angeles and San Francisco by more than an hour. It was then discovered there were no filling stations or restaurants along a 184-mile stretch. The long straight route also causes many cases of highway hypnosis….”
So reported Road & Track in June, 1972, when Interstate 5 through California’s Central Valley neared completion, and while Google Maps confirms that it does shave about an hour, and fifty miles, off of the trip, it’s still a lousy drive. It’s also an uncomfortable drive in an older car; should anything go wrong, there are few places to stop and fewer still where you have a chance of finding help.
Thus it was the longer but more populated—and scenic—US Highway 101 that was the chosen route to drive my ’73 Bavaria from Oakland to Los Angeles over the first weekend in November to attend the tenth annual SoCal Vintage BMW Meet, and in the end my choice was vindicated. After all, you never know what’s going to happen on a long trip in an old car.
I suppose it’s never a great sign when a trip begins with a visit to your mechanic, but there was a small matter that I had neglected to get attended to the last time I’d taken the car in, so a quick detour to E3 guru Bill Arnold in San Rafael was the first order of business Friday morning. There was a Z8 parked in front of the shop when we got there, so the Bavaria was in chic company, and we left and began the trip south feeling confident that the car was in fine fettle.
The first leg of the trip, to San Luis Obispo, where we planned to meet up with friends for dinner, passed uneventfully, and our arrival in town further bolstered my sense that it was going to be a great weekend when, wonder of wonders, a pedestrian actually got excited and gave the Bavaria a thumbs up. Most people, at a glance, assume that I’m driving a diesel W123 Mercedes, still a common sight here in California, and don’t take any notice of it, so an appreciative gesture is a rare thing.
As it happened, the event took place as we were turning to enter a parking garage, and the pedestrian in question, who was probably a Cal Poly student, hurried to his own car in the garage and proceeded to hunt down where we’d parked to get a better look. He turned out to be driving a very nice Euro-look E12 5-series, and he seemed disappointed to say no when I asked if he would be headed down to the show the next day. Hopefully he’ll be able to make it next year.
So it was in good spirits that, following an overnight stop at a motel just south of Santa Barbara and a quick stop at a gas station to vacuum up the horsehair that had rained from the seats onto the rear footwell carpets, we arrived at the show field in Woodley Park, an urban oasis that you’d never guess was situated right in the armpit of the US-101/I-405 interchange.
I’ve pretty much given up on our local BMWCCA meetups where, for all the M4-driving Silicon Valley types care, my Bavaria might as well be, well, a diesel W123 Mercedes, so the SoCal Vintage show is something like Nirvana. Not to say that the cars on display don’t run the gamut—typically, all BMW models introduced at least 25 years ago are invited, although the newly qualified E36 3-series was a can of worms that got kicked down the road, and they haven’t been added yet—but it does my soul good to see a healthy representation of the patrician E9s and E3s in the mix. Among these were a stunning pair of Euro-spec 3.0Si sedans, including Rey Rivera’s Best E3 winner resplendent in Taiga, and Chris Macha’s garage find 1970 2800, which deservedly won the award for Best Original. Mike Berger’s thoroughly reimagined “3.8CSi” took the award for Best E9.
The 2002 remains the backbone of vintage BMW events like this, and they were out in force—only matched in turnout by the E30 3-series, representing a new generation of now-vintage BMW enthusiasts. The 2002s encompassed the spectrum from crusty survivors to immaculately preserved originals to every possible degree of modification, including one car that was hiding a heart transplanted from a Honda S2000, although there was no masking the sound as it sped away at the end of the day. The star that took home the Best 02 award was Greg Lennox’s beautiful 1974 Turbo. The E30s, with the exception of some of the M3s, were more or less all modified to some degree, ranging from simple wheel swaps all the way to full ’80s-excess body kits.
At center stage were a selection of earlier and more significant cars. The small Neue Klasse contingent were gathered here, along with the show’s only pre-NK cars, a pair of Isettas. Jack Charney and his 1957 Isetta may have been the day’s most delightful characters as he joyfully pointed out all of the car’s curiosities to children and regaled adults with the incredible story of how he had bought the car new, only to sell it then find and restore it again decades later.
The show’s organizers, John Barlow and Jeff d’Avanzo, cannily scheduled it for the same weekend as the Best of France and Italy show, so it was well worth it to spend the night and return to Woodley Park on Sunday morning. This show was a special delight; while Ferrari, Lamborghini, and Maserati were all represented, the focus was more on Citroën, Alfa Romeo, Peugeot, Fiat, and more obscure marques. The highlight for me was a luscious Lancia Flaminia Pininfarina coupe, a two-door cousin to one of the more exotic of the many cars my grandparents owned in the ’60s.
Thus sated, we began the trip back home right around noon on Sunday—and we nearly made it, too. Just eighteen miles from our driveway, and a couple of hours after nightfall, we were alarmed to realized that the Bavaria’s headlights had dimmed all the way off. This was followed in rapid succession by the loss of the driving lights and turn signals, a puff of smoke from the A/C vents, several loud popping sounds, and finally a completely darkened dashboard. Of course, by this point I was making my way to the shoulder; it wasn’t until half an hour later when the tow truck arrived, that I noticed that in doing so, I had also managed to run over something and flatten the right rear tire.
It could have been worse; it could have happened along one of I-5’s many desolate stretches, had we chosen that route, or further from home in any case. In any event, it ended an otherwise enjoyable weekend with a bit more of a literal bang than I would have hoped for, but in the long run, I guess it will just make this year’s SoCal Vintage meet that much more memorable!
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