Unfrugal: Owning and Restoring a Vintage BMW

by Kevin on June 16, 2009

I’ve got what many frugalists would call a weakness. I love cars.

When you’re trying to get out of debt, save money, invest for retirement, etc. many people will tell you to cut everything. Cut eating out, cut cable, cut internet, cut cell phones… cut everything that isn’t of vital importance out of your life.

Even I have been known to tell you do to those things.

Yet we all have weaknesses. Every single last one of us. I’m no exception to that rule.

I don’t just love any cars. I love high performance machines. You know, the ones that come with a hefty price tag (and hefty insurance costs). To be more specific I love BMWs.

How I Fell in Love with BMWs

It started off simple enough. My parents told me I had to save up the money I earned working at the movie theater during the summers and weekends in order to purchase my own vehicle. That seemed fair enough to me as I never had any expectations of my parents buying me a vehicle or anything like that.

Naturally the vehicles I identified in my understandably low financial range weren’t exactly the safest cars around. I still wanted performance even though I only had a few thousand dollars at the time. I had my heart set on an early 90s Mitsubishi Eclipse. Sporty car that was easy to work on.

My parents seemed okay with it until they called the insurance agent to see how much insuring me in that vehicle would cost: $1,200 every 6 months.

Translation: these cars are death and speed traps and your son will be killed in it if he buys it. (Fair enough.)

Very discouraged I was told to look elsewhere. I looked at trucks, but they didn’t have what I wanted. I wanted performance even though I really had no need for it.

Long story short my Mom visited me at work in a 1992 BMW 325 with 160,000 miles on it. It was a white, four-door sedan. She said it was for sale in our neighborhood and the insurance costs were much more reasonable because it was a safe car. Unfortunately the price tag was double or triple what I had planned to spend — I didn’t have the money. That was okay, she told me. They would co-sign a loan and be my safety net if my job fell through. They wanted to make sure I was safe.

I didn’t end up buying that car, but as an excited 17 year old male that was just given the green light to purchase a BMW I started searching. In the next town over I found a Boston Green 1995 318is (two door with a smaller, less “deadly” engine) with only 127,800 miles. We bought it shortly thereafter and I brought it home.

I’ll be the first to admit this car had its problems. Maintenance was expensive and with that many miles, things were starting to fail. I drove it for 5 years and loved every minute of it.

Practicality Suspends the Dream

Remember I purchased this car with 127,800 miles on it. It wasn’t exactly new when I bought it. After I graduated college and moved to Birmingham to be in the same city as my then-fiancee, I started running into big maintenance issues. Since I wasn’t just in college and needing to get to class anymore. I had a job that I needed to reliably get to, on time, every day.

Needless to say it was out with the old BMW and in with a new-to-me-but-used Honda Accord. Safe. Reliable. Economical. Everything your suburban commuter could ever want.

Yet I was still enthralled with BMWs. I love the cars. When they say the Ultimate Driving Machine, they mean it. You really feel connected to the road.

I knew that eventually, somehow, someday, I wanted to be back in the seat of a BMW, carving up a mountain road with the windows down and the sunroof open. I just needed to be patient for that day to come.

I Married the Most Amazing Woman

Fast forward again one year to 2007. We’ve been happily married for about 6 months and I’ve consistently talked about buying an old, and I mean old, BMW and restoring it. I decided I wanted something older because the cars were more simple — you don’t need a laptop and expensive software to diagnose what’s wrong with the car. Just grab a wrench and have it.

I feel in love with the 1977-1983 3 series body style. I knew that eventually this would be the type of car I would want to have sitting my garage (probably with parts laying all around it waiting on repairs).

We had just signed a contract to buy a house under construction by a builder. It had a garage and I could park my “regular” car in the driveway. I came across an eBay auction for a 1978 BMW 320 in Nashville (about 3 hours north of Birmingham).

I’m a pretty conservative guy. I write about personal finances and emergency funds. I’m not exactly Mr. Risk Taker. But I had the money saved up to spend on the car from our individual allowances from the budget. The car was available and looked to be in fantastic condition. It was being sold by the original owner (hubba hubba).

But I didn’t want to do it. I was skittish. My conservative roots were coming out. “I don’t need it”, “I don’t know how to work on cars”, and “It just doesn’t make sense.”

Enter my amazing wife.

She pushed back against my conservative roots. She told me I never take any real risks and this was a risk of under $2,000. We weren’t betting the farm on anything. She reminded me how much I always talked about restoring an old car. Well. Here was my chance.

She encouraged me to try to buy the car on eBay! (Seriously — the best wife ever.)

So I did. Here’s me sitting in our apartment parking lot the day after we drove it home (which is another story for another day):

My 1978 BMW 320

If You Really Love It, Do It

This week’s theme is Don’t Forget to Live. I hope this story helps make that point.

Financially, owning a 1978 BMW is a terrible decision:

  • the cost of the vehicle
  • maintenance and repairs on the vehicle
  • insurance on the vehicle

Yet it makes me really, really happy. There isn’t a price tag to compete with being happy.

I didn’t break the bank with this either. It’s not like I had a dream of owning four vacation properties in the Bahamas. We didn’t put ourselves at financial risk to make this happen for me. We made smart decisions and did our research before moving forward.

What are you sacrificing that would make you really happy without breaking the bank? Is it worth it?

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ACCORD VRS BMW 320 | World Car Blog
October 24, 2011 at 9:49 am


the weakonomist June 16, 2009 at 8:07 pm

That car rocks my friend! I knew I’d met the woman I would marry when her dad rolled up in an e46 M3. I’ll always have a soft spot for the e36 coupe, my cousin’s husband bought a brand new one and has owned it ever since.

I’d love to restore a 2002 or something similar someday, but half of that would require some skills with tools I do not have.

Stephanie PTY June 17, 2009 at 12:51 am

Awesome car, awesome story. My boyfriend and I both have soft spots for BMWs, so I think we’ll be joining you as members of the BMW-owning community… someday! 😉

Kevin June 17, 2009 at 5:30 am

@weakonomist: someone knows his BMW terms. I didn’t mention E36, E21, etc. because I figured no one else would understand. 🙂

I’m the same way — I am not a mechanic. I’m having to learn as I go. But for the most part the tools are your basic socket sets and things like that. And the car was in really good condition when I bought it — just a few repairs here and there needed. I’ve got a new set of wheels I need to put on it, too…

@Stephanie: I’m not as big of a fan of the new ones. The reason I fell in love with BMWs is there were kind of boxy. Now all the cars are sleek and look like Japanese cars. Not that I’d be complaining if someone handed me the keys to one or anything… 🙂

brooklynchick June 17, 2009 at 5:50 am

Good for you (and your great wife!)!! Life is short, glad you found a way to ENJOY!

Bill June 17, 2009 at 7:04 am

Nice car. I love the look of BMWs and they do drive nice but maintenance costs are very expensive unless you can do it yourself, as you are doing. My similar story is I own a Harley Davidson motorcycle. It’s not very practical and there is the cost of the bike and insurance…but I REALLY enjoy riding it so I’m willing to pay the price for that enjoyment.

Kevin June 22, 2009 at 8:52 pm

@brooklynchick: Yea I give her all the credit. I honestly wouldn’t have done it if she hadn’t encouraged me to do so.

@Bill: Exactly. You pick the things that make the most difference to you and you keep them, while letting others things go. I love this mentality.

leigh June 23, 2009 at 8:43 pm

my husband’s 29th birthday present was a fairly rare 1990 lexus in need of an engine rebuild. $600, ebay.

but he’s an experienced pro mechanic, we were looking for something to replace the car he was driving, and he was really wanting a really special project car.

it was totally worth the $600, it makes him immensely happy to drive that car every day.

Kevin June 26, 2009 at 8:08 pm

@leigh: That’s awesome! Unfortunately I’m not even a shadetree mechanic. One step at a time, though. 🙂

Maritza August 10, 2010 at 4:50 pm

That’s a great story! My first car EVER was the 1978 black 320i just like yours. My dad bought it at a police auction for $600. It needed fixing and he worked on it pretty consistently. I drove it through high school and my first year of college before it became too much of a burden for me and my dad. We kept it though with my dad’s plans to fix it up again, but he never found the time. I’m looking to sell it now and happened upon this post….Well I’m glad you like the car. I wish I could get mine to working order and spiff it up, but it’s way too time consuming and expensive. I hope someone will be willing to take it on.

sue January 7, 2012 at 8:12 am

this article was so refreshing for me….I love little two seater sports cars…. My first was a fiat spyder. I miss it. My big dream is an Jag XKE one day… Right now I’m hooked on BMW Z3. I get everyone telling me the expenses of BMW and you need to go to bmw because specialty tools. I have been away from my love of little cars since my 13 year old son was born and I’m finally having withdrawl. I have to do this to save my sanity. Is the cost that high? I have no real money two kids and house payments but….Bye for now Sue

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