My '97 BMW 318ti is the first car I've really owned and maintained by myself. It taught me how to think like a mechanic, act like a mechanic, and fix things like a mechanic. It has no shortage of things to fix and I've loved every second of driving and caring for this car.

Rally Dreams

I bought this car right out of college, and though I worked at a coffee shop during school for a brief period of time I only saved up $1400 before quitting that job to focus on school. Throughout the day I fantisized about buying my dream car, at the time a Volkswagen Golf GTI. This love for small hatchbacks was imparted on me, probably, by the hours I sank into Need for Speed: Most Wanted 2 (PS2) in middle- and high-school.

The spring of my last semester in college I was extremely fortunate to line up a job starting exactly the Monday after my last final exam, ECE453 — Electric Motors, on a Tuesday. As soon as I collected my first two paychecks from my new job as a software engineer / routing person which trumped anything I ever made working at the coffee shop I went car-shopping. I looked everywhere for a clean GTI but didn't find one within a good distance. But soon after I started looking I found this BMW 318ti, almost completely stock, for a mere $4000. After I test-drove it for 10 minutes I knew I had to have it. I immediately had my boyfriend drive me to the bank to swap cash for title with the owner. With no rust and in running condition this, I decided, was going to be the car to get me into cars.

I heard a lot of things like "BMWs are hard to maintain" and "the parts are too expensive" and while those things may be true of newer BMWs they could be no further from the truth when it comes to older BMWs. The E36, which is the chassis code of my particular 318ti, is an extremely simple machine with a small 1.9L inline 4-cylinder M44 engine. Fuel-injection is controlled electronically and, being a later-model E36, it's equipped with OBD-II instead of OBD-I which makes diagnostics far easier. The engine can be a little sluggish, especially considering that some E36 have 6-cylinder engines, but it's still a snappy little car in turns so I can forgive it for its lack of punchy acceleration. It can still go quite fast too, I've taken it up to 105 MPH on the highway and it shows no hesitation at even higher speeds. The power is hidden in the higher RPMs so you can let it wind-up to 5000 RPM to really see all the little engine is capable of.

The only part I can tell which is not stock is the aftermarket JVC stereo, which I've since hooked up to a subwoofer in the trunk for the true hatchback experience.

Maintaining the Dream

I've taken care of the regular maintainance on my E36; its one of the things I'm very proud I can do. I've torn down the entire intake, carbon-cleaned all nooks of the intake manifold and put it all back together just using my growing set of automotive tools and my copy of the BMW E36 Bentley service manual, a 1000+ page book detailing every inch of the E36 and how it all fits together. With BMW's unconventional variable-length intake manifold, things can get pretty complex in there, but the experience made me far more comfortable working on cars than I thought I would ever be.

And with an old Thinkpad X61 tablet I bought at N.C. State's electronics surplus sale for a mere $10 I'm able to read OBD-II datapoints from the car and plot them either while idling or while driving. It's an incredibly valuable tool for diagnosing problems because you can check read data as simple as intake air volume all the way down to minutia like the contribution of each cylinder to the total engine output power.

Overall, making the jump from not having worked on cars to being very comfortable with many aspects of regular and specialty maintainance had a very positive impact on my life; the experience reminds me that with enough effort and confidence I can tackle many things which may seem daunting at first. This outlook is reflected in a lot of the things I do and in the chances I take today.