One of the things about moving from one place to another is that you rediscover some things just are not as simple as they once were — take transportation. In Chicago, I had access to trains, subways, buses and taxis that would take me nearly anywhere in the city in a timely and relatively convenient manner. Access to that level of transportation convenience over about 15 years drove the need for a car out of me.
Now that I live in the central coast area of California, things are different. Yes, there’s mass transit, but nowhere like what I became accustomed to. Where I could easily catch a bus every 30 minutes to head somewhere in Chicago, out here I’m lucky if the one I need runs every two hours. Transit, it seems, is more of curiosity than a practical reality. Yes, people depend on it for work, but out here it isn’t a viable alternative to the automobile.
And so I bought a car.
Now the last automobile I owned was a 1993 Saturn SL2 and before that, two VW Rabbits, so every indication said that I’d go the practical route. With encouragement from Kathy, I chose to head in a different direction. I did drive a Subaru Impreza, which was spunky but too family oriented, and considered a Mercedes C250, which was sleek but very adult. I even tried a Mazda Miata, which was zippy but seemed too toy-like. At first, my key criteria consisted of an automatic, sunroof or a soft top (I am living in California), and being fun to drive. Until the Miata, nothing clicked but then there was the Miata…
The last time I regularly drove a stick was in 1993 and since then, I drifted into the land of automatics. So when I test drove the Miata, I was wary of it for you see, it was a manual. I hadn’t regularly used a manual for over two decades and I expected to be lost. I wasn’t. Yes, I nearly killed it with an overly aggressive clutch and sweated bullets during a hill start, but I took to it and loved it. I was driving again, not simply pointing and rolling.
Kathy suggested that I take the one car I’ve always wanted to drive out for a spin — a used BMW M roadster. It is at this point I have to share my other manual transmission fear. Back in high school I used to sell fireworks as a summer seasonal job and once at the stand, I needed to move a friend’s car. That car happened to be a manual Toyota Supra and being used to a manual in my VW, it should have been a piece of cake. It wasn’t. I royally embarrassed myself. The thing is I learned at that moment about flywheels and torque. The VW I had was a diesel, which was very forgiving at the clutch as it had for its size a crazy amount of torque. The Supra, on the other hand, had a flywheel the size of a doughnut and far less torque-to-weight than my Rabbit, so when I dropped the clutch I killed the car. I did it over and over again until I simply walked away in total shame. That was the last time I attempted to drive a real sports car.
That Supra really did take hold and affected me as a driver. Although I would push my Rabbit to extremes, I just couldn’t deal with sports cars. Once in college I pulled into the parking garage and followed a brand new Lotus Esprit to the same parking level. Being a car nut, I naturally checked out the car and chatted with its owner. He offered to let me drive it. I totally chickened out because I thought that I would most certainly kill the engine the first time I dropped the clutch, and there was no way I was going to do that to a six-figure sports car.
Now this tale brings us back to the BMW M roadster. I was terrified to drive the thing — it was (is) a 5-speed manual sports car that in its prime could do 0-60 in just over 5 seconds. I had never driven a car with that kind of performance or power, and to jump into one with 20 years of no-clutch driving experience was simply insane.
But I did. And now I own it.
Yes, I’m still sorting out hill starts and yes, I have killed it by dropping the clutch too soon, but those problems are melting away. My problem, I discovered, was that I was thinking about driving a manual rather than simply driving the manual. Once I stopped thinking about it, everything came back like the adage says — like riding a bicycle.
Convertible. Manual. Powerful. Impractical.
A BMW M Roadster based on the Z3 makes it a heck of a lot of fun to be driving once again.