Back when I lived in Beacon Hill, there was a guy who owned a blue Audi S4, which he parked on the street. The S4 was a flagship for its day, and it had the upgraded super-bright H.I.D. headlights. Which, unfortunately, also fit the lesser Audi A4, making them a favorite target for enterprising thieves. I’d walk past that car on a given morning, and its headlights would be gone. I’d see it the next week, and it would have new ones. The following week, the headlights would be gone again. And so on, repeatedly. That guy just wasn’t giving up on having a cool car in Boston.
Besides the random acts of thievery, there are plenty of other factors that can make you want to buy a Charlie Card and a Zipcar membership and never look back. Car owners contend with gnarly traffic, scant parking, exorbitant insurance premiums, blizzards, potholes and speeding tickets. If you have a car in Boston, you may as well drive a rusty Ford Granada held together with gum and Dukakis-era bumper stickers. And yet many of us, despite abundant logic arguing otherwise, still buy cars that are far too clean and new and larded up with horsepower, relative to the fate they’re slated to endure. I guess at some point, you want the car of your dreams, and damn the logic.
That’s how it went with me and the M3. The M3 is BMW’s hottest 3-series, and I’d always wanted one. Eventually, depreciation dropped a silver M3 convertible down to Honda money, and I bought the car that I assumed would magically transform Boston’s streets into my personal playground. Sure, I’d have to park it on the street in Southie, but lots of people park nice cars on the street in Southie.
Street parking didn’t turn out to be the problem. At least, not the whole problem. Yes, the front bumper got torn off by an absentminded driver (the culprit honorably arranged repair at his cousin’s garage in Dorchester). And in the winter, passing snowplows would spray salt slush all over my poor M3, precipitating the need for brake jobs even when we hadn’t been driving the car. So street parking wasn’t great. But driving was worse.
There was a six-hour drive back from Burlington—not the one in Vermont, but the one right next to Woburn—when the accumulation was so high that the BMW’s front bumper was literally plowing snow, and I think I depressed the clutch pedal 3,000 times. There was the time my wife lightly rear-ended a pickup truck down by the waterfront (when you have a sports car, any vehicle you hit will inevitably be a truck made of solid iron) doing zero to the F150 and $2,000 in damage to the BMW. The elaborate power top would sometimes go out of alignment, its various hydraulic levers and rods refusing to cooperate until a wizened dealership guru—I imagine he looked like Geppetto—coaxed it back to health, in the process generating a $1,500 repair invoice. Nothing that went wrong with the BMW ever seemed to cost less than $1,500.
Possibly the least-expected M3 ownership hazard came in the Financial District one sunny day while I was waiting to pick up Heather after work. Our dog was in the back seat. Perhaps you’re aware that dogs are equipped with an anal gland? Well, they are. And if you startle a dog badly enough, that anal gland might spontaneously expel its contents, which smells even worse than you imagine. So there we were, enjoying top-down BMW Boston summer leisure, when one of the Faneuil Hall horses clomped around the corner and peered down into the car. Our dog, though accustomed to the usual city bustle of traffic and humanity, was unprepared for the abrupt appearance of a large equine snout in his field of vision. Yikes, scary horse! And then, anal gland, all over the back seat.
After about three years we capitulated to reality, selling the M3 and buying a pragmatic all-wheel-drive Mitsubishi Outlander. It took a whole week before someone keyed it.
While an M3 is a sweet car by any measure, it’s not an exotic car. But by dint of my job as a car reviewer, I’ve learned firsthand that truly high-dollar machinery introduces its own particular set of conundrums. When I had the keys to a $450,000 Rolls-Royce Phantom Drophead convertible, parking became a source of utmost anxiety. A drive to the South End occasioned the complete rearrangement of a friend’s one-car garage, and even then the two-door Rolls barely squeezed into a space that normally houses a Grand Cherokee. But what was I going to do: Put it at a meter, or attempt to navigate the bollard-filled subterranean labyrinths of an hourly garage?
The Rolls made me nervous even when I returned it to the locked Southie parking lot where I rented an off-street spot to safely stash cars of this ilk. Southie is, paradoxically, a pretty good place to park a Rolls. For one thing, cars don’t get messed with in Southie unless someone has a reason to mess with them. For another, nobody in Southie gives a crap about your fancy Rolls. One day when I was navigating into my space, a neighbor standing on her back deck yelled, “Hey, what is that? Some kind of Lincoln?”
Exotic cars also earn you attention of an unwanted sort, namely from the police. I was driving a $150,000 Ford GT in the Big Dig tunnel, listening to the thunderous exhaust carom off the walls, when blue lights filled my mirrors. The state trooper didn’t even know how fast I was going (answer: not very, because I was in second gear), but he knew he wanted to give the guy in the Batmobile a stern dressing-down. And he did, at great length, concluding, “I’m down here all the time. Don’t let me see you again.” This is the kind of constabulary encounter you don’t have when you drive a Honda Accord.
At least on that night I’d been driving fast enough to rev the motor up a little bit. The first car I ever tested was a screaming-red 2002 Chevy Corvette Z06, and I naively steered it straight into an annual travel debacle—I-90 West on Columbus Day weekend. A few weeks ago, that particular Friday exodus saw an epic 45-mile traffic jam, but the mess I encountered with the ’Vette probably wasn’t much better. I had 405 horsepower under my foot, yet it took me three hours to get to Worcester. Screw the foliage, honey, we’re going to see whatever’s happening at the DCU Center. Monster trucks? Great. I wish I had one right now.
Maybe, in your daydreams of your perfect car, you’ve got it parked at your perfect vacation house. And I’m sure there are Lambos, Ferraris and Astons sprinkled along the coast and up in the mountains. But you know what everyone on Nantucket drives? Old ’80s Jeeps. A couple of months ago, I was talking to Leon Miller, founder of Wagonmaster, a Texas company that restores Jeep Grand Wagoneers to better-than-new condition. “We’ve got 43 or 44 on Nantucket,” Miller told me. “People there can drive anything their heart desires. And they’re driving Grand Wagoneers.” These are $40,000 Grand Wagoneers, I might add. There’s nothing more New England than spending a lot of money to look like you didn’t spend a lot of money.
I love an old Wagoneer, and one of those pragmatic beasts might fit in my Powerball-funded garage, but I still pine for a fast car. For all the tribulations it put me through (and vice versa), my memories of the M3 are rose-tinted—blasting down Comm. Ave. with the top down on the first really warm spring day; hugging the Atlantic on Jerusalem Road in Cohasset, stuffing the trunk with luggage for a weekend road trip to Bar Harbor. Around here, the opportunities for automotive bliss come fleetingly, and, as such, their impact is magnified. “In New England, we appreciate it all the more when a nice day happens,” says Jamie Liu, a local Ferrari club member who owns a 430 Spider. “It’s not the same if you can do it any day of the year. Boston has more than its share of crappy roads and rush hour traffic, but we’re also close to the White Mountains, a rally around the Quabbin Reservoir or a summer cruise along the beach. Storrow Drive at 4 am is the world’s best video game. Plus, my husband, with the emotional maturity of a 17-year-old, really enjoys hearing the Italian V-8 singing at 8,000 RPM while bombing through the Tip O’Neill tunnel.”
I might warn you about that last one. I happen to know of an ornery state trooper. He’s down there all the time.