A funny thing happened in toy train circles a few years ago-collectors started taking their prized possessions down off the shelf and playing with their trains. Some visitors to my basement were appalled to see my pre-school aged kids pick up bits of die-cast family history, place a locomotive on the tracks, grab the big transformer's bakelite handles and send it round the layout. Fifty years ago, my grandfather's trains were toys meant to thrill young engineers and that's their purpose today, at least as far as I'm concerned.

Likewise, many collectors of vintage automobiles have come to realize their cars are meant to be driven and not used as static sculpture. Sure, some are stashed away, hermetically sealed and never seen, but more and more wonderful machines see the light of day every year. Vintage racing has been a boon to owners and motorheads alike, the Vintage weekend at Watkins Glen is second in attendance only to the Nextel Cup race. Concours have sprung up across the country and events like the Colorado Grand provide sporting venues without the risk of a racing accident.

But if you drive a vintage BMW, Europe was the place to be, at least until now. The BMW Veteranen-Club Deutscheland e.V. organizes many vintage tours and rallies of varying lengths. Most are too short for many Americans to attend but in 2001, Rudiger Jopp organized a 12-day, 12-country, 2,500-mile tour, the Classic Marathon. Jim Smith and Goetz Pfafflin were among the American entries. "We decided to organize [a U.S. event] when Charlie and I were careening through Europe in a 507-which was red and sexy-on what was supposed to be the last European Marathon," said Pfafflin. "We said, 'This has to happen again!'" Smith told a tale of promises made late on the last night in the spirit (and possibly with the help of strong spirits) of the event that somehow still seemed to make sense in the harsh light of morning.

It had been 25 years since anything like this last happened in the U.S. vintage BMW community but Pfafflin was up to the challenge, with moral support from Smith and others, even forming the new BMW Vintage & Classic Car Club of America to sanction the event. With BMW's 75th anniversary upcoming, the company stepped in to offer support and this September, after more than 2 years of planning, the 13-state, 2,500-mile 2004 BMW Vintage Marathon-USA became a reality. ec was invited along for the last few days.

Dr. Richard Meinig was part of the Colorado Contingent and joined the Marathon for the second week. His sentiments echoed my own, "At first I was very skeptical, wondering if a bunch of car enthusiasts would be this much fun, but it has been totally incredible! I enjoy the people, enjoy the cars and the venues have been spectacular. This is not a group that pampers their cars. They flog them and enjoy every minute! That's what these cars are for and people forget that." On Rudiger's recommendation, Dr. Meinig had loaned his Z1 to a German couple for the first week of the tour. Regrettably, there wasn't enough time to meet everyone but there was time to meet a few.

Last year, 73-year old Mathies Studemann quit riding enduros (week-long 1,000km-day European TSD motorcycle events) but rode his 1928 R42 without gloves through all kinds of weather on the Marathon's 2,500-mile route. His only regret? "My wife is too old to sit behind me, now I must ride alone!" She followed along in one of the pre-war V8s instead. No such worries for Wolfgang Cordel. After finishing the Marathon, he and Anna Landgraf were riding their R90S from Savannah to Monteray Bay before returning to Germany. While fully half the entry was from Germany, there were also the women from Norway, noted Swiss parts dealer and organ maestro Manfred Brodowski and his wife and the two English gents in the Fraser-Nash overhead bemoaning the event's finish, "Well, we've both got wives and this is much better than going to work!" And don't forget the "shoe lady," who along with her Z1, shipped 10 pairs of shoes from Hamburg.

Stateside, Colorado answered the call with Denverite Decker Swann leading the way in her 1938 328-a lovely example of the car that put sporting BMWs on the map, winning 141 of the 200 or so pre-war races it entered. Jerry and Heidi Lynch showed up in a 1949 Veritas, a car built by BMW engineers based on the 328 chassis. A 328 Wendler, BMW 327/3, 3200CS, 1800 Ti/SA, 2002 Tii Touring, the list goes on and on.

"It's kind of sad that so many of these cars have disappeared into storage," said Otto Lies, who came to the States 39 years ago (bringing with him one of the first Beetles to enter the country). "I drive my 503 every summer but no more than 50 miles. AAA covers [towing] for 100 so I stay within that! I hadn't really ventured on a long trip like this. My car gave us some trouble and needed some adjustments to the clutch and transmission. But for the last 1,000 miles [my 1956 503 Cabriolet] seemed to say every day, 'Hey, I'm happy to go! I think it was actually running better the second week."

Of course, joining a vintage rally without a vintage car rather defeats the purpose. BMW NA made our small group the envy of the Marathon, bending the '74-or-earlier rule and bringing along a 1980 M1 and 1988 M5 for our motoring pleasure. The upright, staid look of the M5 belied its true nature. Despite room for five full-sized bankers, the 277-bhp M5 was responsive and sure-footed with a fun-to-drive quotient reminiscent of the best-and much smaller-2002s. Even 16 years old, the M-badges attracted an admirer at a gas stop in Blowing Rock, N.C. The admiring and knowledgeable questions stopped only when he noticed the M1 parked on the far side of the pumps. The slack-jawed quiet lasted several seconds; 25 years after it was first introduced, seeing a Giugiaro-designed M1 close up still stops people in their tracks.

Given that we had time before dinner and the rain had momentarily stopped, we popped the rear hatch to show off the straight-six's Motorsport valve covers and snapped the obligatory "grinning-in-front-of-the-supercar" photo. What really did my car karma good, though, was opening the door and inviting a perfect stranger to try an M1 on for size. At 5 ft 10 in. or so, our new friend fit just fine. Jealousy reared its ugly head as I snapped another photo-this wasn't fair, at 6 ft. 2 in. I hadn't. After weeks of eager anticipation, my first drive in one of my personal automotive icons was pretty much a disaster. I gave up after 30 miles of two-lane driving, cursing ItalDesign for the lack of headroom and reaching for the Ibuprofen.

Hurricane Ivan moved inland overnight, knocking down trees at our stop and sending down a slashing cold rain. After a few photos, I climbed back into the M1 for another short blast of two-lane. With the seat pushed so far forward my knees brushed the dash, I was able to scrunch forward and down enough to get my head inside. The wildly offset pedals (the clutch is in line with the steering column) seemed perfectly positioned and suddenly I was home. At our next stop, I laid claim to the M1 for the rest of the day and the next 200 miles were car-guy heaven despite the crick in my neck and worrying about hydroplaning in the occasionally torrential rain. True, you can't see anything behind you without the mirrors, but who cares. The 24-valve six's baritone note, complete with a joyous mechanical contralto overtone, warranted calls to brothers and motorhead buddies across the country. "Hi, listen to THIS!" was all I said as my right foot went to work.

Fearing the soggy conditions and short time in the car had clouded my impressions, I contacted Jeff Zwart, photographer and director extraordinaire, for his opinion. "I owned an M1 for just over 10 years," he said. "The thing I was most surprised by right off was how well it did everything. For a limited-production car everything worked very well. The engine sounded great when you stood on it and the ride was fantastic, very solid yet supple at the same time. Little things like air-conditioning worked really well. When you think about Fiberglass cars of that time, nothing had the build quality or ride. Even a mass-produced Corvette in 1980 did not come close. I always referred to it as the first German interpretation of an exotic car. There really has not been one since unless you count Lamborghini, currently owned by Audi. Funny thing, it was Lamborghini that BMW went to, to build the first M1s. It's only because of Lamborghini's poor performance in delivery [final assembly was eventually shifted to Baur] that the M division was created. My M1 was great car with no real reliability issues. The only issue was that the seats did not provide enough lateral support for the performance the car was capable of." I couldn't agree more.

With BMW focusing more attention on corporate history and vintage car owners through a resurgent Mobile Tradition and the newly formed BMW V&CCCA off to a spectacular start, keep your fingers crossed that the Vintage Marathon 2004-USA is just a precursor of good things to come. As Lies continued, "The Europeans use their cars, over here people are not so active. Maybe this will give it a little boost." Amen.

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