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July 18, 1998
a year ago

M3 Weekend

Now I know why.

Lots of various why's. Like why anyone would pay $50k for a car, like why BMW drivers are often real assholes on the road, like why cars really should pull over for motorcycles, and why the interior of convertibles should never, ever, in a million years, be black.

A very, very educational experience.

Carl said that the M3 is a driver-tuned version of the 540i, but I and a few others thought it was an extension of the 3 series of BMW cars, with the new series 3 coupe coming out in a little while. But this was a sedan, convertible, pale yellow like daffodils, paler than lemon colors. With a grey and black interior, black convertible top, and, thank everything in sight, a manual five-speed transmission. The handling was very 3 series-like. It has a 3.2 liter DOHC 240-horsepower 6-cylinder engine, sports suspension, front and rear stbilizer bars, 4-wheel ventilated disc brakes that grab like crazy, and 17-inch speed-rated tires.

Carl had asked if I preferred automatic or manual, and I said definitely manual. So when I finally managed to appear in the Oakland airport, after a set of misplaced pilots from Anchorage finally got into Seattle an hour late, there was a man with Carl who led us to the car.

And since Carl doesn't drive a manual at all, I took happy ownership of the keys and started it up. The engine was utterly silent when at rest, and rev'ing it up gently got it to purr so softly as we maneuvered our smooth way out of the parking lot and towards the proper freeway. Then I hit the gas and the engine gave this low-throbbing growling purr of pure power and we were up to freeway speed in nothing flat. What surprised me was the milage, it was getting a good 25 to 30 MPG on the freeway, not quite what I expected from a sports car.

It was different than the Z3. The M3 was very well-behaved, ultra-smooth, and it felt like it had more inertia than the Z3, as in I didn't just suddenly look down to find that I'd broken the speed limit massively and unintentionally. This gave me nearly perfect feedback as to exactly where I was and how fast I was going. An apt comparison was the Z3 as an adrenaline spike and the M3 as a polite Bengal tiger trained to hunt under ones command. Awesome power and capability at your beck and call and polite to every whim.

I didn't get all this at first. At very first, in stop and go traffic, it was just a sweet car that did what I wanted it to with no complaints, moodiness or finicky actions. I've always found three essential tests for a car test as to how I'll like it and use it. The first is the stop and go traffic test, where you get into the worst jam of the area and feel how the car does there. How patient it is with me and the traffic around me, and how I feel in it both on the short acceleration and all the control stops and slows. Then the straightaway acceleration test, and finally the mountain test. After all that I get to know a lot of the personality of a car, and just how well it interfaces with me.

The M3 was incredibly patient. Actually, I'll admit, it reminded me a lot of my mountain bike, i.e. really, really well made and really willing to do anything I wanted to try and it had some capability to make up for my mistakes as well as get me out of spots that my own stupidity might get me into. Or anyone else's for that matter. As Carl so aptly put it later, "It rewards over-confidence."

It really does. Happily.

One nice thing that I know is that I adapt well to cars. I'm interested in getting every car to do its best for me, and I'm very interested in getting as deep and complete an interface to a car as I can get. To know it's every ability and know it's every limitations and then fly with them. To know them and go with them, and drive them and interact with them in the environments and in the manner for which they are built. It's a lot like love and backrubs and dancing...

And I don't think I've been in a car, yet, that rewarded the time and effort taken to know it's interface as I was rewarded by the M3. It is just a bit tricky as the clutch is nice and tight due to the power of its engine and, for me, the relative size of the clutch compared to the various Land Rover clutches I've been using lately. The brakes were really, really solid, grabby and if I wasn't careful, I could jerk my passengers around with them really badly. But with a little practice and control, I could stop and suddenly and as smoothly as I could start. The engine was smooth and polite, though very eager to give me all the power I could handle and then some, but was very good about only giving me as much as I asked for. Oddly, I felt that the acceleration was much better controlled than with the six cylinder Z3. The steering was solid and smooth and astonished me with some of the solidity, especially around curve. Oh, man, the curves...

... okay. Maybe sex is the apt image.

The drive to the U.N. Peace game was relatively uneventful. The game was fun, though Whirlwind was kinda caught between a rock and a hard place as she couldn't act against her UN Peace friends nor against the people she was with, and so it was really odd, all around.

Gretchen packed up all her stuff, and then we left with the top up for Carl's. Got there around 3:30 in the morning, and while Carl and Gretchen talked, I just went to sleep.

We got up whenever, had breakfast at the waffle shop near Carl's and they had lovely fresh peaches to go on their Belgium style waffles. Yum. Then we got stuff to make sure we didn't die in the heat, which included a lot of liquids to drink, hats, and sunglasses and SPF 50 sunblock. With the 90+ degree weather, it was hot in the car, especially with the top off. I was glad of the experience I have had in the past with the Stoat and hot weather, and so the baseball cap was adjusted properly along with all hair braided and tucked so that it couldn't fly around. In the driver's seat, though, the wind was relatively mild, so I could even have my ponytail down without braiding it if I wanted to.

Then we were off to Santa Cruz and mountains and beaches and environs about and around it. It was an utterly gorgeous day, and as we got out to the coast line it got more gorgeous and cooler as well. The trees were more scraggly than in Seattle, but on the rocky areas it was to be expected. The forest driving was where I got a good feel for what the M3 really could do with its incredible agility. Even just sitting in the passenger seat as Gretchen took us through a good stretch, the smooth power combined with the incredible cornering made the car nearly breathtaking to even just sit in and feel going through the curves.

Most cars have a feeling, fairly early on in the speed scale, for sharp curves, of having less traction or less grip on the curve. The M3 felt more solid with speed than any car I've ever driven, and if acceleration was added at the right part of the curve the speed added even more stability. Gretchen knew the roads we were going up well enough to do that correct acceleration on a number of the curves and it was just such a lovely feeling. It went through easy curves as if it were on rails. The harder ones just seemed to make it want to turn even harder. There wasn't a single moment of slip, and it hugged the road so well, it was just astonishing in instances. I got to drive the last third of the mountain bits, and got to experience that lovely swing and curve as the car catfooted it down as smooth and lovely silk.

We got out to the coast and I got a good thirty miles in under my belt by the sea. It was fun to go down hills and see the jagged coastline, cliffs and beaches framing azure seas and blue skies with just a mild clouding. Out along the coast it was cool enough that I put on my long-sleeved shirt for a bit.

We arrived at Santa Cruz a bit late to go see Gretchen's mom's dog, Otto, so, instead of going there, we went to the Bittersweet Bistro near Santa Cruz. Yum. They're known for their desserts, for good reason, but have a pretty excellent dinner menu as well as little room for non-reserved folks at the regular dinner time on a Saturday. Carl called them from the beach as we were driving in, and got a reservation for us a bit early, i.e. just as the restaurant opened at 5:30, so we were set when we rolled in.

I was glad of my Balinese coin pants on seeing crystal and white linen. Not that the place was terribly stuck up or anything even close. It was just fun to look a little better than just shorts and a t-shirt for once. The food was excellent, and when desserts came around, they were a might too spectacular. When I ordered the Chocolate Trio, I'd expected a few bites of each of three desserts, a chocolate mousse in a filo shell, chocolate cream between two coconut shells, and a chocolate bread pudding with chocolate sauce and caramelized bananas. Instead, I got three entire desserts with little to no hope of eating them all. They were excellent, but we eventually had to pack them up for the trip back.

As a part of dinner, at the beginning, we had bread, as is normal, but it was a local bread made from a local sponge, so it had big, big air pockets in it and was light and chewy and soaked up olive oil and basalmic vinegar very well. The restaurant also sold basalmic vinegar in bottles, and I thought I should get one for home.

Carl was really keen and bought us both dinner and keepsake bottles of vinegar to remember the lovely day with. Very keen.

We then got to see Gretchen's mom's place and Otto! Otto is a lovely slender German short-haired pointer, who is old, but still energetic, fun to play with and really keen to pet. I needed a dog fix by that point, so I played with him and tug-o-warred with him, and thumped him a lot and hugged him some and he licked me happy of the salt. So it was a good fix, and a lovely stop as I've heard a lot of stories from Gretchen about Otto. he was as smart and tempted by apple pie as all the stories said.

He was very fun, and I was glad we stopped. The nickel tour of the house was marvelous, as was the view out the back of their house. It was a view of the valley the house was in as it wended its way down the mountain. It was like a classical Chinese painting, with the woods winding its way down a valley, trees here and there making their individual presence known in the complex green tangle of trees and underbrush, houses, and bits of yard. Each visible at different levels, in different ways, at different angles. Lovely stuff. Especially with the sun starting to slant down to the west.

Gretchen got us to the windy state highway 9, with a gas stop, and then I took over and got to drive the M3 on twisty, goat-path mountain roads, at night. It was a complete dream.

The car could dance up and down the hills, the S-curves were fun squiggles, the corners a chance to fly out through them, the corners that turned into hairpins got ooo's from Gretchen. The road was marvelous as the posted max speeds were just about right, and they really warned of dangerous curves when they were really tight. And when there were no warnings, none were needed, so I could just take it all with some anticipation of what they would or wouldn't do. The car did everything I asked, and when one corner surprised me by turning into a hairpin, it did the really tight and nasty maneuver with such grace there wasn't a single sound out of either of my passengers.

Frightening. To know that the only real limit was how hard I was willing to push it. Some of it was my driving, but some of it really was the willingness of the machine to do anything I asked of it through the physical control interfaces. And I could feel it's balance and grace in every inch of my body. This is why it's worth every penny one might pay for it, and why it would be an exhilarating thing to have even as it completely changed ones self-confidence in a car. It would really change my driving attitude after a long enough while. Even over the weekend I found myself taking fast starts when I needed to much faster than I even had to, simply because I could. Uhm... yeah, it was just that straightaway test. Yeah, that's right. Uh-huh!

It was interesting to know just how much it could change my attitude. Also, Gretchen's estimate to hit Mountain View from where we started was two hours, if we hit traffic. We didn't hit much traffic, and we got there in an hour, took Earl to dessert and tea at the local Chinese tea shop and much fun talk and neeping about gaming, GM'ing and books. That was cool.

Afterwards, we dropped Gretchen and Earl off and I got to take the night drive back to Pleasanton with the roof off, and the night sky spread out all above us. In the mountain passes the sky was pitch black and the stars like glittering dust. "At night it turns into a planetarium," was the marketing slogans for one convertible or another. Carl quoted it happily as we looked up.

From the coast to Mountain View, the temperatures climbed about fifteen degrees, going further inland, it climbed another ten, so a full out swing from about sixty to the mid-eighties at night. The wind was lovely in the convertible, and when we pulled into Carl's parking lot we were pretty nicely warm, and comfy.

The next morning we dropped the M3 off at valet parking in the Oakland airport, so we wouldn't have to mess with it later, and it would be possible for Carl to go to the airport alone if someone was willing to take me there for my much later flight. We then went to dim sum. On the way there, we discovered that I'd left my J. Petermans' coat at Carl's. It kind of threw all our plans out the window.

Or just brought it back around to the old plan, which was to have Carl drive me to the airport when he had to be there and he'd fly out and then I'd fly out at my scheduled flight.

Dim sum was good with some folks of the Horde at Mountain View, and then we all played some Mythos. It was much fun, and then everyone else scampered off to see Zorro so Carl and I just decided to wander off then instead of later.

The plan worked on the most part, and we got to the airport in plenty of time for Carl's flight as it was a bit late. I got to the Alaska counter in time to be put on Standby for a flight nearly four hours before my scheduled flight. So I went to hang out around that Gate the bare fifteen minutes before it boarded. Carl wandered by about then, and we hugged and he waited with me as we waited to see if I was actually flying or not.

I got the last seat on the plane.

It was also a window seat in the emergency exit row, so I not only had room for my legs to stretch out, I had room for my bag to be under the seat in front of me as well and in addition to the other room. So it was likely the most comfortable coach flight I've had in my life.

There was some confusion before my getting on, as I was only able to reach the answering machine at home before heading out. Carl did reach John later and tell him that I had actually gotten on the standby flight, which was very good of him, and that gave John some certainty. I had none, so had to kind of go on faith.

John wasn't there when I arrived. Which disappointed me some, so I called home, and it rang four times, so I knew that he had to have gotten the message. So I stood at the gate for a while, then thought about calling my phone at work to see if John had left me a message there. But I realized that my access information that I had in my head was that for the Data I/O phones. So I quit trying that and went back to standing out in the hallway a while longer. Until it was over half an hour since I'd come in.

So I went to the restroom and then went to the baggage claim area, thinking that John would likely try there after the gate, if he hadn't found me at the gate, then he might look for me there. And while I was there, I steeled myself for having to call the shuttle folks and see what it would take to get me home. While I was standing there debating, I caught a glimpse of someone that moved like John, and I yelled his name. He didn't respond, but I yelled louder, and sure enough, even at that distance, it was him. Hoorah!!

Turned out that he'd actually left a full hour before having to get there, but traffic right in the airport parking had been so horrendous he hadn't arrived at the gate until the plane had already emptied. We must have just missed each other at least three times before I spotted him. I'm glad that we connected up.

We drove towards home, and finally decided to stop at Broadway for a late dinner, some time after 9 p.m. and found the Broadway Grill, which was good. John and I got to talk all through the drive and all through dinner, and John basically got me caught up on his adventures with the Green Monster over the weekend. I'd seen it delivered Thursday night, and it looked like a huge greenhouse with green frames for the multitude of windows, a roll-up back door and really squeaky wheels because the brakes were kinda stuck, and the rear axel was broken. He'd replaced the axel pretty easily, fixed up a differential broken bit that had been unexpected, found the one connector that messed up the electronics, and replaced it. The brakes were fixed to the point that the wheels could turn by Saturday morning, so he was able to get it to the British Car Meet on Saturday at Marymoore. The brakes started going mushy on the way there, and they were entirely non-existent on the way back.

Nicest thing about a manual transmission is being able to use the engine as a brake. The emergency brake was working just fine, so as a combination, the two did beautifully, especially since John stayed pretty slow and let all the cars pass him whenever he had a good long stretch of shoulder to stop in.

Turns out that, as we feared, the new brake fluid had eaten the seals on the brake system, so they'll have to be replaced and the system flushed with alcohol to get the stuff out and put in stuff that won't mess with the seals.

So we talked all that over, and had a good dinner and got home and even got to sleep before my flight would have been in at Seatac. Fezzik was happy to see me home, and we played and John had even gotten him washed that afternoon. Wow.

So it was a good weekend.

The only problem is that I think I melded with that car. I still feel it in my bones and my core and my reactive abilities in the car. My Landies aren't any poorer for the comparison, because I love them for what they are and what they can do for my every day life, and because they're steadfast and lovely and excellent performers in their venue. But whenever we go up a mountain road, or the curving sweep of the roads simply up to the top of the Plateau that our house is on, my body remembers the sweet vibration of the M2 engine roaring up through the curves and the hugging grip of the tires as they catch the momentum and drive through with it.

As I said to John, I will likely not buy such a car until I have more money than I know what to do with; but the rental was nearly perfect. Much like a weekend fling with something exotic, it's fun and it's keen and it's glorious for the time; but it's very, very nice to be able to give it back and put it away and not have to care about it or deal with it in the mundanity of every day. I don't have to worry about nicking it, or parking it, or anything anymore. Very cool to come back to cars that are so very well made for my every day.

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