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.