Becoming a Gearhead

Recently, Alpha Gearhead posted that we were looking for guest writersAaron Smith of New Tripoli, Pennsylvania answered the call, and it is some really great work!  Enjoy!

Apathetic?  Not Quite

I can remember quite vividly the day that I went from being an automotive apathetic to an automotive enthusiast.  Well, maybe apathetic is too strong a word.  I had always had a fascination with things with wheels, wings, tracks and engines.

The Early Years

The first memory that I recall regarding cars was as a child, at Christmas, when I received a white, Martini liveried Porsche 911 RS race car that just so happened to transform into a robot and shoot plastic missiles.

Transformers Encore Jazz Reissue Toy
Transformers Encore Jazz Reissue toy : photo from

Since then, countless matchbox toys, video games, X-wing fighters and remote-control dune buggies have come and well, stayed in my parent’s attic to this day.

When I was twelve, I learned to drive in my father’s old manual transmission Subaru Legacy in the cornfield behind my house.  I wish I could say that I learned left foot braking techniques and the Scandinavian flick, but we really just tried to drive fast enough with the windows down to keep the hornets in the trunk from flying up to the driver’s seat.

Youtube didn’t exist yet and Colin McRae’s rally exploits had yet to hit the shores of New Tripoli, Pennsylvania.  My siblings and I were happy just to be able to shift into fourth gear on our dirt circle track.  The old Legacy gradually died a heat death from a radiator clogged with ragweed and goldenrod and eventually my Dad decided that it was better off at the junkyard.

My parents have always had a Subaru or two in the stable.  The quirky Japanese manufacturer was one of the few companies that made an AWD wagon and living on hilly back roads in Pennsylvania, we needed a reliable vehicle that could get up and down a snow-covered driveway in winter.  I wish I had known more about the performance variants that Subaru offered when I was a kid but alas, I still remember the dark times when I thought a Geo Storm was a cool car (Impressive fuel mileage notwithstanding).

When I was in high school, I rode the bus one hour each way.  Many of my friends drove their hand me down Cadillacs and Corollas to school, while I sat in the back of the bus with a group of middle schoolers throwing balled up paper into my lap and fogging up the windows.

The Transformation

I really didn’t care what type of car I might drive, I just wanted the freedom that was associated with operating your own vehicle.  There was an authority and maturity associated with being able to say you parked in the student lot at school every day.  The idea of automotive ownership was an elusive dream for me.  I was a senior in high school and destined to ride the bus until I graduated.

On December 25, 1995, I went from being a seventeen-year-old kid who couldn’t have cared less about what I drove into a man of distinction, a connoisseur, or some close facsimile thereof.

Early Christmas day, my father had asked me to bring in some firewood for the furnace.  The day had been going poorly and my Christmas haul was lacking, especially compared to the loot that my younger brother and sister brought in.  I was grumbling about having to do chores on Christmas as I was bringing the wheelbarrow around the side of the house when my gaze wandered to the half open garage door.

The Car

Staring out at me, like shining beacons on a darkened night, blazed the dual round head lights and bi-color roundel of an E30 coupe.  I slipped on the snowy ground as I ran back inside, breathlessly asking my Dad why there was a BMW parked in the garage.  Instinctively I knew it was mine as I had looked at the very same vehicle with my parents a few weeks prior.  I needed a reliable car for college, but my parents had quickly shot down the idea because  “BMWs are status symbols”.  Well, the joke was on me and I was blown away by my parents’ generosity.  My first official car was a BMW, a manual transmission 1986 325es coupe in “Delphin Gray”.

The car that started it all

Back in 1995, people actually read magazines and automotive forums were starting to form in a digital medium called “The Internet”.  I subscribed to “BMW Magazine” and “European Car”’ reading each issue cover to cover.  I would pore over comparison tests between manufacturers, dream about getting some aftermarket Bilstein shocks and fantasize about my horsepower gains from a Supersprint exhaust setup from the Bavarian Autosport catalog.

The first performance upgrade that I ever purchased was a BavAuto performance chip that supposedly added 20 hp/21 Tq.  I removed my glove box, dropped the ECU down, pulled some random chip per the instructional diagram and pressed in my ticket to the DTM series.

The 325es was equipped with an “ETA” engine born from the fuel crunch of the 70’s and 80’s and was designed for fuel economy over performance, low revving but high torque.  The 2.7L inline six delivered 127hp and 171 ft-lbs of torque. The little BavAuto chip, while not offering blistering performance, still woke up my little “es”.  And there it was, my first official performance modification and it felt amazing.  From that point on, I was obsessed with making my car look and perform better than my friends’ cars.

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Fast forward three years to 1998.  I was a junior in college and I had semi-permanently parked my e30 in my parents’ garage “to keep the miles down”.  I was daily driving another 80’s yuppie vehicle at the time, a black Saab 900 Turbo, another manual with the coveted “SPG” wheels.

Aaron’s second Saab 900 Turbo

At home over holiday break, a local college buddy called me on a Saturday afternoon.  “I think there is an E30 M3 under a tarp over in Ironton.  You should check it out.” But that’s a story for another time…

Aaron Smith lives in New Tripoli, Pennsylvania with his wife and two children.  He enjoys long walks on the beach and the sound of wide open headers.


3 thoughts on “Becoming a Gearhead

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