Never Drive Your Heroes Vol. 2: Meet Max!
You may have noticed the boxy sedan that’s about to drive into the title on our site and wondered, “Why would a car enthusiast site have some boring old sedan as its logo?” Because that’s my car, and this is my site, goldurnit, that’s why. That’s Max the Wundercar up there and Max is anything but boring.
Max is a 1973 BMW Bavaria, the first modern BMW sport sedan with the marque’s signature propulsion system, an inline six. It’s also the only BMW model ever sold with an actual name and no alphanumerical bologna, so that alone makes it pretty sweet. Compared to the similarly styled (but rather prettier and much more
expensive collectible) E9 coupes with which it shared its big six, the Bavaria and its brethren in the E3 sedan family are a well-kept secret, boasting more modern suspension design, four-wheel disc brakes instead of rear drums, better build quality – although they are still rust prone and Max is essentially Swiss cheese under the paint – and even lighter weight than the two-doors.
What’s up with the name “Max the Wundercar,” you ask? I mentioned that the Bavaria is just one in a family of six-cylinder BMW sedan models; the E3 range was introduced in 1969 in two flavors, the 2500 and 2800. Each badge denoted the displacement of the engine, rounded up, in cubic centimeters; in addition to its bored-out six, the 2800 featured a trick self-leveling rear suspension and many more comfort and convenience features than the 2500. At $5,284 for the 2500 and an additional grand for the 2800, however, prices were a bit steep for American buyers who were still largely unfamiliar with BMW – remember that the 2002 only came out the year before, and a Mercedes 280S was about the same price. BMW’s U.S. importer at the time, the inimitable Max Hoffman, convinced the mothership in Munich to create a hot rod hybrid combining the 2800’s bigger engine with the simpler spec and suspension – and lighter weight – of a slightly decontented 2500. Thus was born in 1971 the Bavaria, BMW’s first U.S.-specific model, advertised as the “Wundercar” with a more appealing base price of $4,987.
So this is where we get into the often-inscrutable reality of my automotive lustings. The truth is, I often have no idea why I get hung up on certain cars; I just do.
Bavarias were never terribly common and, as I mentioned before, rust loves them and, as I haven’t mentioned before, they left the factory with utterly inadequate cooling systems resulting in a tendency toward cracked heads, so I can’t imagine that they were a regular sight when I was a kid in the early ’90s, but I have this dusty sense memory of picking them out and being drawn to them whenever I did see one. I certainly had no appreciation for any of their mechanical finer points or any of the history outlined above – that’s all justification after the fact. The Michelotti-influenced styling was clean and attractive, but very much in the BMW mold and hardly distinct from a 5-series fifteen years its junior.
There is one distinguishing feature of the Bavaria that I remember always being fascinated by, and this is where you discover how deep my nerdiness runs. Are you ready for this? Oh, boy. It was…
Two big, chunky headrests plunked down at either end of the rear bench seat. Even as a little kid, I instinctively knew that those headrests had been an exotic feature when these old cars were new. And they were! In the early ’70s, the Bavaria was the only car this side of a Rolls-Royce that was commonly equipped with rear headrests.
There you have it. I’m a freak.
The good news is that the Bavaria is much more than a pair of foam cushions wrapped in embossed vinyl and placed just right to cradle pampered passenger necks. It is, in fact, quite good to drive.
From the driver’s seat – which has a headrest of its own, thank you very much – visibility is excellent, as you might expect from the low beltline, towering greenhouse, and slim pillars. The dash layout is modern and the walnut shifter for the four speed gearbox falls easily to hand. Oddly, the turn signal stalk is on the right-hand side of the steering column, making it somewhat tricky if you need to engage the signal and execute a downshift at the same time; maybe this is why that whole tradition of BMW drivers pretending that their cars don’t have turn signals got started.
Starting in 1972, the Bavaria’s six was enlarged to an even 3 liters, and while European E3s got the option of fuel injection, the Bavaria continued to make do with dual Zenith carburetors. The Zeniths were notoriously difficult to keep properly synced; my car, like many surviving Bavarias, has swapped them out for a pair of Webers. The big six pulls like a freight train; a short first gear is optimized for the Alpine passes of the Bavaria’s namesake homeland, and while fourth gear provides a wide power band for moderate- to high-speed driving, an overdrive fifth would be a welcome addition. Handling is surprisingly agile, although there is a fair amount of body roll. Above all, as fun as it is to toss around a back road, the Bavaria is an assured executive express, perfect for bombing down the highway while ferrying four adults in comfort.
A little obscure, a little funky, a little unloved, a little imperfect, and very cool – Max the Wundercar seems like the perfect mascot for this site.