Saturday, June 07, 2014

It Isn't Just Transportation

1980 Toyota Celica GT Liftback
image source:
NOTE: All cars pictured are the same color and style I've owned and driven.

For most American teenagers, the rite of passage into adulthood is obtaining a driver's license. We reach elite status when we get to drive not Mom's or Dad's car, but our very own.

1980 Toyota Celica GT Liftback

The very first car I drove on a regular basis was my Mom's 1976 Buick Century. While it was the car I tested in to get my license, I had no real emotional attachment to it. Most 16-year olds do not want to be seen driving a Buick.

About a year into college at Ohio State, I saved enough money to put a down payment for a 1980 Toyota Celica GT Liftback. I went from no attachment to my Mom's Buick to big time emotional attachment as it was the car that my brother Sherman and family friend Stan drove across the country (I was mostly a passenger on this trip) when I moved to San Francisco.

Street parking in the Outer Sunset neighborhood of my first place was pretty easy. But after a stolen wheel cover and a dented front panel while parked, I rented a garage at the end of the block for $50/month.

I put in lambswool seat covers after 5 years or so to cover up tears on the sides of the front seats. The drive of the car began to bore me when friends drove cars with a stick. So, with only 1 previous stickshift lesson with a former co-worker in her Honda Civic, I traded in the Celica in March 1988 for an Acura Integra.

Acura Integra RS
LS had different wheel covers

1988 Acura Integra LS 3-door

Lots of firsts and great memories with this car. First car bought in California (March 1988). First stickshift car. First car with a sunroof. First and only car without air conditioning.

As I wasn't proficient enough yet to drive home the car, the salesman drove it home for me. I drove the dealership's Acura Legend while the salesman followed me home driving my newly purchased Integra. For 3 consecutive weeks after work, I'd go out for a drive so I could get used to driving a stick.

I had this car during the October 17, 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Jeff drove the car while I was away in Ohio for a family and friends visit. It was the car a friend of friend drove back to San Francisco while I sat in the front passenger seat in January 1991 after I tore my ACL at Kirkwood near Lake Tahoe.

When I traded in the car in April 1995, it only had 52,000 miles on it. I drove the car mostly after work and on weekends until 1994, when I got a job in Burlingame. No more MUNI.

1995 Acura Integra LS 4-door
image source: Digi-Go
1995 Acura Integra LS 4-door

After 7 years with my first Acura, I was ready to get a new car. I wanted a sedan for easier back seat access yet still be fun to drive.

It wasn't. For me, the car never met those expectations. I'll explain why in a bit. I traded in the car 3 years later.

In December 1995, 8 months after I purchased the car, I was on my way to work in Burlingame during a bad rainstorm. I drove past several downed power lines and no traffic lights were operational in the Inner Richmond neighborhood (where I lived at the time). I approached the intersection of Cabrillo Street and Park Presidio Boulevard as a 4-way stop with the intent to make a left turn onto Park Presidio.

Within seconds, a San Francisco firefighter broadsided me. He was on his way to work an emergency shift due to the bad weather. He ran to my car after impact and profusely apologized. I missed work that day. The firefighter's insurance company contacted me later that evening and settled damages within 2 weeks. The crash gave me a big bump on my forehead. A week later, the bruise moved downward and gave me 2 black eyes.

After the accident, the car made 3 visits at 2 body shops over the span of 3 months. The repairs never corrected the steering wheel vibrations that I'd feel whenever I drove at speeds above 45 miles per hour. Even before the accident, the car never handled as well as the first Integra. I gave up. Cut my losses and decided to trade-in for another car.

1997 BMW 318ti
image source:
1997 BMW 318ti

I wanted another car but didn't want another Integra. Mostly because the model style and features hadn't changed.

Everyone drove Honda Accords. Honda Civics were prone to vandalism and theft. Toyota Corollas and Camrys lacked pizzazz. Volkswagen GTI's had too many maintenance issues. Celicas looked too macho and muscular. The stickshift gearbox in the Nissan Altima was clunky and very ugly.

My next car needed to retain the practicality and fun that I had with my first Integra. No automatic transmission. And I wouldn't buy it until I felt it was the right car. It took almost a year, but I found the one.

It came from a softball teammate. A few games into the start of the 1998 season, Diane got a black BMW 318ti. At first, I wasn't impressed. It looked like a shortened 3-series coupe, convinced it was BMW's lame attempt to appeal to the budget-minded, status-conscious car aficinado who longed for a luxury brand but couldn't afford the price tag.

On a short trip to Soda Springs (just outside Lake Tahoe) with Diane, she drove her car for our trips into town. It felt a lot like the Audi 5000 my parents drove in the early 1980's - solid, taut and responsive. A few months later, I test drove the car at a BMW dealership. I knew then this would be my next car.

I bought the car in April 1998 at Weatherford BMW in Berkeley. It was a 1997 demo with only 8,000 miles on it. With 138 hp's, it was technically less powerful than my previous 140 hp Integra sedan, but it had much better acceleration. A former Gymboree boss, who owned a BMW M3, said the 318ti's superior acceleration was due to more torque than in the Integra.

My passion to drive returned. It was like driving my first Integra and so much more. A definite, distinct European luxury-like feel in this car.

The 4 year/50,000 mile warranty still applied so my only real worry was the monthly payments. How much I loved this car showed in the miles. It took me to games for the 5 softball teams I played on at one time. It took me to work in Burlingame, Redwood Shores and Foster City. I drove it on trips on windy roads to Mendocino and Cambria. As the car approched 100,000 mies, my itch to get a new car intensified. I sold the car with 97.000 miles on it to an ex-boyfriend's former roommate and his girlfriend.

2004 BMW 325i

I bought the car online through CarsDirect in October, 2003. My original intent was to buy a 2003 model at the end of the model year in hopes to get a reduced price.

However, when the search for a 5-speed stickshift in blue or black sedan became slim pickings, the online broker suggested I order the car as a 2004 model with my desired specifications. It would take 6 weeks to build and ship (from Germany) and only cost me $500 more.

Within the first month I got the 325i, I drove the car on a mini-vacation to Los Angeles. With a straight 6-cylinder engine under the hood, it took some time to adjust and not push the gas pedal as hard. I got personalized plates that drew the smiles and compliments of many Chinese upon seeing it. When I bought a TIC condo in 2006, I paid off the 325i early so I wouldn't have the burden of carrying a mortgage and car payment at the same time.

Paid off indeed. It got me through my 3 1/2 year unemployment phase. I learned how to replace headlight/tailight bulbs and wiper blades thanks to YouTube videos. It is the most expensive and longest time I've owned a car - 10 years, 7 months old with over 129,000 miles on it. As you can see in the picture, despite the unseen minor dings and dents, the car still looks nice.

I'm not sure when I'll replace the car. Perhaps in another year or so. What I do know is that I will get another BMW 3-series with a manual transmission. In blue. Or bronze. Or black.

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