A BMW M3 is just what the doctor ordered
Petrina Gentile, The Globe and Mail
He’s a multi-talented individual – a medical doctor who has won Canada’s most prestigious literary award, the 2006 Scotiabank Giller prize.
It was for his first book, Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, based on his own experiences in med school. Nowadays, internationally acclaimed, best-selling author Vincent Lam has just released his latest novel called The Headmaster’s Wager.
When he’s not working as an emergency physician or penning his next book, he’s driving around Canada’s largest city in a 1988 BMW M3.
Why did you buy an old BMW?
It’s quite a special car. I looked for this specific car for about 10 years – I’m not kidding. While I was looking for it I drove a succession of 1980s BMWs and all the while I was looking for this particular car, which is quite rare and very hard to find in good condition. Then I finally found it two years ago.
I kid you not, it took me 10 years to find the E30 M3 – that’s the BMW designation, that was as clean and as nice as I wanted. I got it from a guy in Toronto, which was amazing. This car was a Florida car and the previous owner had imported it. The only reason he was selling it at the time was because he found another E30 M3 which was an Evolution II, a special edition, even more collectible car.
What’s so special about this car?
It’s the first year the M3 was sold in North America. There were a few cars made as an ’87 model, but those were only sold in Europe – ’88 was the first production year sold in North America.
It was an interesting car because it was derived from the BMW 3-Series, but it was really engineered with the competition in mind. Nowadays, lots of cars make more compromises because they’re making a sports car tailored to a luxury market. A Porsche 911 nowadays or even a modern BMW M3 is a fast car, but it’s also meant to be luxurious.
But at that time, engineers really didn’t think about that at all. They just built it for racing.
It’s a remarkably sensible car in some ways despite being this rare collectible car. You can put four passengers in it comfortably along with luggage for four people for a weekend.
How’s it different from competitors like Mercedes’ AMG division?
The philosophy is quite different because the AMG always relied on really big displacement engines that produce a lot of power and a lot of torque. The BMW M3, in contrast, has a 2.3-litre 4-cylinder engine and you don’t get to its peak torque until you’re above 4,000 rpm. It’s really a car that you need to rev. That’s how it would be different from an AMG, which is a car that has a lot more low-end power and low-end torque.
The M3 is rear-wheel drive. It’s well known for its balance. It gets its handling from a 50-50 weight distribution between front and rear. It’s a car you don’t have to drive that fast to be having fun. It’s not even that fast by modern standards. It was a fast car at the time. The horsepower is 192 although mine probably makes about 200 right now because it has a slightly different computer chip from the original.
Most of the fun is in the feel of the car, the balance of the car, and the response of it. As much as being a car guy, I totally get why people want 400-500 horsepower cars. I understand that Y chromosome madness, but that’s totally useless because you can’t drive a car with 500 hp. The speed limit is 100 km/h and we don’t have an autobahn. You can’t even get to a speed that touches the car’s character. Whereas with these old sports cars you’re enjoying the car a great deal at sensible speeds.
What does an older BMW say about you?
It’s kind of like me in a way. It’s very particular. I think you could put someone who drives cars blindfolded into this car and within a minute they would know what they were driving without looking at it. It has got a very particular personality, sound, and feel.
And yet it’s very unassuming. If you didn’t know cars and happened to see it on the street most people would say, whatever. It’s not a flashy car, yet it’s a very special car. I wouldn’t say I’m special, but I’m very particular. I have my particular personality quarks and way of doing things. It’s like me. I’m fussy in my writing. I like to wait until its right as opposed to just turning something out there. So I guess the car is like me in that way.
Did you use your Giller money to buy the M3?
No. By that time the money was already spent on sensible things – paying down part of the mortgage.
Have you always been passionate about cars?
Actually, no. I have a greater passion for bicycles. For the longest time I was not a car guy. I was going through medical school, telling people I’ll just ride my bicycle. I won’t buy a car. Everybody laughs – one day you’re on call and you’ll have to get to the hospital in a hurry and you will buy a car.
Do you ride a motorcycle, too?
I love the idea of motorbikes, but it’s just too dangerous. I keep on telling my wife if I live to be 80, I’m buying a really fast motorbike when I’m 80.
How did you get hooked on cars?
I got invited to a wedding and I didn’t have a car. It was in cottage country and the person who was getting married said, ‘Can you drive a standard transmission?’ I said, ‘Yeah. I have a friend whose family can let you use their car.’
It was like a scene from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. I showed up at these people’s house and they opened their four-car garage and it was full with BMWs. We took a 1980s BMW 535, which is a powerful six-cylinder car, and I drove it up to cottage country with lots of winding roads. That was the day I became a car guy.
If you win another Giller will you buy a new car?
No. No. I like the one I have. The truth is cars are a lot of fun, but they are a certain amount of hassle. When I turn 80, it’s the motorbike, but that’s not for a while.