Now it can be told, more than twenty years after the fact. This recent kid-smashing-up-press-car incident has caused me to think about my own misspent youth and the potential parallels between it and that of Little Lord Cheney. My father was a decorated war hero rather than a demoted war reporter, and when I crunched the nose of my first car my dad responded by taking away my license for an entire year and forcing me to ride a bicycle to my job washing dishes from 8pm to 2am at the local pizza-delivery place. He also made me learn how to drive on his stick-shift BMW 733i, so I never had the chance to drive a car through a garage door.
Still, I can point to a few incidents of damn-the-torpedos bad judgment in my teen years, and perhaps my favorite one was the day I found myself behind the wheel of a brand-new BMW 750il and decided to take a shot at one hundred and fifty-five miles per hour.
In the summer of 1989, my one-year license suspension came to a end and I was permitted to go to work for David Hobbs BMW as a parts and service delivery driver. This was a reasonably miserable job, as it mostly consisted of driving replacement body panels to local collision shops. I drove a stakebed Plymouth Arrow truck — the little-known and even less-loved badge-engineered variant of the Dodge Ram 50, itself a badge-engineered Mitsubishi Mighty Max — which had a tape player but did not have power brakes. When my co-worker totaled the truck, I rejoiced… until the replacement arrived, a four-speed Ranger without power steering and a max speed of sixty miles per hour downhill.
I considered myself a bit of a wheelman in this, my eighteenth year, but in truth everything I knew about driving had been learned from one snowy winter powersliding a bias-ply-tired Mercury Marquis around. I’d also read a lot of Car and Driver, so I could regurgitate everything their staff knew, which wasn’t much. I did, however, know that the new BMW 750il could read the exalted, improbable speed of 155 miles per hour.
Don’t laugh. Here in 2010, when Camry Value Editions can clock fourteen-second quarter-miles and SUVs regularly knock on the door of 170mph, the idea of doing 155 doesn’t seem so impressive. Twenty-one years ago, it was almost unheard of. Unless you had a Ferrari, Lamborghini, or a recent Corvette, you weren’t gonna come close. And here’s BMW, with an outrageous twelve-cylinder luxury car that can take you to Mach 0.2 with the air-conditioning on! Not that the dealer would ever let the parts-delivery kid drive one.
Until, that is, the day when a typically snobbish Eighties Bimmer customer called and demanded that his car be returned to him across town. He had one of our loaners, and none of the service writers had time to make the trip, so I was called up to the sales desk. They told me to spend five quality minutes with a can of DL Hand Cleaner and to deliver the car without incident. I knew immediately that I was going to try for 155. I had the same dreamy, dazed certainty that comes over a teenaged boy the first time a girl slides her jeans off. This was going to happen.
My first impressions sitting down in the E32 750il was that it wasn’t much of a step over Dad’s previous-gen 733i. Most of the surfaces were flat, boring, and cheap-looking. Only the impressive tape player saved the visual day. The seats were wide, flat, not sporty. The five-liter V-12, already considered an “irredeemable piece of shit” by the shop mechanics, was utterly quiet and characterless. Still, it punched me forward like nothing I’d ever driven. The 533i which held pride of place in my personal Top Trumps was a sled compared to this. Time to go for a ride.
The downtown freeway, I-70, was bumper-to-bumper and it appeared I wasn’t going to have a chance to cheat death… but five miles from the client’s exit, open lanes began to appear so I pressed throttle to carpet and literally grabbed the wheel for dear life. I’d never beaten 90mph, but I was past 100 before I began to feel any kind of concern about the situation. Up and up the needle drifted as the traffic flashed by. Into the V-rated-tire zone, the big BMW wasn’t perfectly stable, following the road crown and the tractor-trailer-generated depressions in the road with a few alarming wobbles. Just as I cleared 140 a car ahead wandered into my lane. I jammed the brakes, passed it on the right, took a breath, and accelerated again.
Back up to 140 and I could see the exit ahead. One mile left. The “Seventy-Five Oil” didn’t exactly scream for the limiter. Slowly we approached 150… then past it… did I hit the limiter? A pair of trucks reeled back into the windshield. I mashed the brake with all the subtlety of a newspaper journo hackin’ it up at Mosport and swung across the solid white lines onto the exit ramp at the last minute.
I stepped out of the car two minutes later, sweat staining my dirty “BMW Service” T-shirt, and sat shaking in an office as our important client demonstrated his importance by making a desperately poor, tired, and frightened seventeen-year-old wait half an hour to exchange keys. The loaner car was a 325iX, BMW’s unlamented all-wheel-drive E30 sedan, and I knew it was considered pretty hot stuff, but I didn’t even bother to hit the speed limit on the way back. I’d done it. I’d reached a speed very few American drivers could honestly say they’d seen, and I’d been paid $3.45 an hour for the drive.
Naturally, I couldn’t keep my mouth shut about the escapade, and for this and many other entirely legitimate reasons (such as falling asleep in the parking lot during lunch and waking up hours later after the shop had closed) I was released from the employ of David Hobbs BMW a month later. It would take me a decade before I owned a BMW myself, and by then the dealership, of which I was far from being the most incompetent employee, had managed to wander out of business. I would like to tell you I’m wiser now, but if I’ve learned anything, it’s only that time flies and sometimes you need a wide-open throttle to catch up.