For many, me — the Rust Man himself — buying a 2014 BMW i3 was a massive surprise, and possibly cause for concern. “Has DT gone Hollywood?” one could hear whispering in the streets of Detroit, Pittsburgh, Lincoln, and other fine American midwestern cities. I don’t think I’ve gone Hollywood, but what I will tell you is this: I bought that i3 for a specific reason — LA was making me hate driving my classic cars. And to be clear: This was no fault of the cars, and very much just a byproduct of how LA is laid out, how it operates, and what I need from my cars.
I’m liking Los Angeles so far, after having spent a decade in the Motor City, which I quite liked as well. I’m still way behind in telling the story of the move, the pre-move party, and my current garage situation, but right now it seems everyone is curious about why the hell I bought a tiny electric BMW city car. Why would someone who once daily drove this:
Want to drive a newer BMW like this?:
It seems like a major 180.
LA’s Roads Will Chew You Up And Spit You Out
The answer lies in the way LA is laid out. Detroit, my former home, is basically one giant grid, with massively wide and traffic-free streets:
If I wanted to drive from my former home of Troy down to Detroit in my 1965 Plymouth Valiant, it was no trouble — I’d just head south on one of the gridded streets (Rochester Rd) then west on another wide and gridded street (14 mile road), then hit Woodward Avenue (that’s the one labeled “1”) and cruise down it at 45 mph until I got to Detroit. Literally three turns, including the one out of my driveway.
LA is different, in part because of its geography (lots of canyons) and in part because of how tightly everything is crammed together:
Look at that twisted up mess of roads. They’re hardly gridded at all, and in the areas where they appear to be, the grids themselves are tiny. There simply aren’t as many wide, traffic light-free surface streets that you can cruise for miles and miles, and the ones that do exist are choked with wild amounts of traffic.
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I’ve been driving my brother’s 1966 Ford Mustang and my 1985 Jeep J10 here every day, and it just hasn’t been working out. Specifically, I’m referring to my commute from studio City (labeled on that map with a heart) to Van Nuys just northwest. That’s even a gridded part of town, but because of traffic on surface streets, I’m forced to take the freeway. There’s no Woodward Avenue to cruise up, it’s 65 MPH followed by a hard stomp on the brake pedal, some slow moving traffic, then 65 MPG again — rinse and repeate. Meanwhile, vehicles are moving in and out of lanes on every side of me. There’s zero lane discipline.
When driving my old iron on the highway, all I see is danger. Huge, modern trucks and SUVs weaving in and out of my lane, stomping their brakes, and behaving erratically at the slightest sign of precipitation, of which there has been much lately. On surface streets, all I see is potential fender benders, as gridlock abounds.
Compared to Detroit, LA just doesn’t feel as conducive to classic-car commuting. Cruising on weekends? Absolutely. The weather is great (I’m told), and there really are some great cruising roads. But commuting on the highways, then gridlocked surface streets — it doesn’t feel safe to me, and it’s just unnerving.
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I don’t feel that way in the i3. The car is small, visibility is great, it’s quiet, it can handle high speeds without issue, and I know that if I crash it, I’ll have a much better chance of surviving than if I crashed one of my old cars. Also, less will be lost (as much as I appreciate the i3, it’s not rare). Just listen to how relaxed I sound in that video above; that’s not the case when I’m behind the wheel of my J10 on the highway, especially in the rain.
Parking Ain’t Easy
And then there’s the issue of parking. Believe it or not, the first-generation Ford Mustang is humongous, at over 15 feet in length. My 1985 Jeep J10 is well over 16 feet. These are long machines, and though they offer fairly decent visibility, it’s still hard to precisely park them in tight spots, especially without a backup camera. The i3 is about 13 feet long and comes equipped with parking sensors and a backup camera.
Again, I don’t need any of this fancy stuff, but it does help.
Gas Prices Are Tough
And then there’s the obvious point about gas costing $5 a gallon. I realize that buying an $11,000 BMW i3 that needs expensive insurance isn’t going to save me money, even over multiple years driving my 13 MPG Jeep J10, but there’s just something that feels off about pouring $100 worth of fuel in your vehicle each week. It hurts a bit. I guess if my i3 is reliable and holds its value, maybe it could save me long-term, but I’m not expecting any cheap electric car to hold its value long-term, as the technology is advancing too rapidly and government incentives keep bringing the price of new EVs down.
Still, it’s not about the money.There are many reasons why I bought the i3: I genuinely like it! I think it’s technologically fascinating, I think there’s value in getting the experience of driving an EV (especially given my current post), and there’s social value in being able to drive folks around in something they feel comfortable in (something I’m realizing as I get older).
But the big factors are me feeling safe, being able to park, not dealing with the sting of pouring hundreds of dollars into a car each week, getting the EV experience, saving my old machines from potential fender-benders, but above all: It’s about preserving my love for those machines. Because commuting in them, especially when I’m running late for a meeting, turns what I see as beautiful mechanical-partners into utilitarian objects that frankly don’t really do this specific job that well. And my old cars are so much more than that.
They’re soulful beasts that bring me genuine joy when I’m behind the wheel on a weekend, just cruising. My BMW i3 commuter is going to make sure that never changes.
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Hey David! Would you consider doing a deep-dive on the i3’s fascinating carbon fiber “life module”? Tipping the scales at, IIRC, only 150kg, it serves as a bracket for all parts, much like a conventional unibody, but serves as an incredible safety cell, too! Frankly, the countless ways that car was lightweighted to achieve its efficiency targets should get an article or two of its own, IMO.
It’s been years since I went down that rabbit hole, but it stands out in my memory that the rear liftgate structure weighs less than the rear window itself.
I think this is the key sentence:
“Because commuting in them, especially when I’m running late for a meeting, turns what I see as beautiful mechanical-partners into utilitarian objects that frankly don’t really do this specific job that well. And my old cars are so much more than that.”
I get this – I’m an adherent to the idea that owning one good car that doesn’t need fixing is a key to happily owning a bunch of old cars (for me, it’s my JSW).
But David doesn’t go quite far enough. It’s car dependency and lots and lots and lots of people who drive cars in car-dependent areas because there are few to no good options that can make someone fall out of love not only with old cars, but with using cars, period.
When you drive because you *have* to, it can stop being fun pretty quickly, no matter what you’re driving. The right car, like David’s i3, can help, but it can only do so much.
A good friend lives in Pasadena and has occasionally wondered why I don’t live in LA – he thinks it’d be a great place for me. I don’t disagree, in many ways. But I’m not so sure about transportation. When I got laid off from Chrysler at the end of 2007, I was contacted for and interviewed for a testing position with Edmunds, based in Santa Monica. I gave serious thought to moving to LA (in the end I didn’t get the job, otherwise I’d still live there) but even then, coming from Detroit, I wasn’t so sure about the car dependency. In my final years in the Detroit area, I commuted from GPP to Auburn Hills, but the neighborhood I lived in was human-scaled, walkable and bikeable, and I used my bike for much of my social life in Detroit. In the end, I took a job in Chicago and committed myself to using my bike for everything in the city.
Driving in Chicago sucks, perhaps at a similar magnitude to how it sucks in greater LA, but in much of the city you don’t *have* to, and I don’t. My home, my sweetie’s home, and my office are all blocks from train stations. For a decade my office was five miles and a 20-minute bike ride away, and I drove to work only on Fridays I was driving to Detroit for the weekend. Since it moved to 15 miles away, I drive regularly because it’s faster. But I never have to. I can ride my bikes anywhere, or take public transit anywhere I want to go in the city.
You didn’t have it so bad in Detroit because, as car-dependent as it is, there just aren’t enough people for traffic to be *that* bad. Obviously this is not true in LA (and it’s not true in Chicago, either).
I’m making over $13k a month working part time. I kept hearing other people tell me how much money they can make online so I decided to look into it. Well, it was all true and has totally changed my life.
That is what I do… https://c2d.in/joblive76
how the fuck did you get in here, Linda?
All the reasons you give for not daily driving an old car in LA apply to driving in the Toronto area. Same kind of driving on the highways, fuel that is at least as expensive, but with cold/snowy winters and salted roads thrown into the mix.
Classics like your Mustang are at best 3-season cars up here.
My kids refer to it as having the “NPC” car. I guess that means “non playable character” in video games. Basically, when in crappy traffic, it’s best to have a traffic vehicle you don’t have heart and soul into.
Save those classics for the side road drives. Now get out there and enjoy those old cars David!
Raleigh traffic sounds like cake compared to that! My actual commute is mostly through rural areas, fortunately. On the rare occasions that we have actual winter weather, my preferred vehicle used to be my ’97 ZJ, but between my state’s love of hosing everything down with brine and native drivers being unable to wrap their heads around the concept of winter driving, that Jeep now stays safe in the garage when it’s going to snow.
You have found The Way. It also took me a while to come around, but I will never again be without basic reliable, modern transportation. Old cars and bikes are fun – I love them. But when you need to make that run to a Dr’s Appointment or a first date, it’s nice to show up on time and not smelling like gas.