"You just go along figuring some things don't change... like being able to drive on a public highway without someone trying to murder you. Then one stupid thing happens, and all the ropes that kept you hanging in there get cut loose. And it's like there you are, right back in the jungle again."-David Mann, Duel
There's nothing like getting out on the highway and just driving. That might be a mystery to anyone who treats driving simply as the utilitarian task of getting from point A to B. But after the week-in, week-out grind on over-populated surface streets and freeways where the proverbial Rat Race never was so convincingly illustrated, there's nothing like escaping with a little automotive catharsis.
Of course, there's driving, and then there's driving a really good car on an especially secluded, seldom-traveled and deviously winding road. No car I've driven recently has stirred me like our long-term Z4 M. It isn't the most powerful, fastest, best handling, most economical, cheapest, or most comfortable car I've ever driven. But it's a pretty good combination of all those things.
Angeles Crest Highway, otherwise known as California Highway 2, is a pretty good local road. Likewise, it isn't the most breathtaking road I've driven, and it can hardly be described as seldom-traveled. But for a reasonably clear, relatively technical road, you could do a lot worse at the back doorstep of the Los Angeles basin. It's a decent drive as long as you've got no traffic, but more importantly, it's a passage to California's high desert, which is in turn a passage to the Sierra Nevada mountains and some of the best driving roads anywhere.
Now, if I can just get past this truck...
For the last dozen miles a hulking, filthy tanker rig has blocked my view of the road. A grave admonition, "FLAMMABLE," is stenciled in what once might have been red paint across the ovular rear face of the tank trailer. It's now barely legible, coated in what must be a decade's worth of road grime and oxidation. Trundling down the long, sweeping grades that make up the tail end of Angeles crest en route to scenic Palmdale, the tanker resembles nothing so much as a massive, rust-colored turd. It downshifts with a low, farting rumble and roiling black smoke pours from the exhaust stacks, enveloping the BMW in cloying automotive flatulence. This is not what they mean by clean diesel.
The northbound lane opens suddenly, widening to reveal the final passing lane before the last downhill leg of the Crest. I shift to fourth and goose the throttle, whipping around the mobile roadblock as the M's S54 straight six screams past 4500 rpm, putting me in the middle of the powerband's choice tenderloin. The tanker blasts me with its airhorn for my efforts, swerving drunkenly in a crippled attempt to cut me off. Too late as I hit 7500 and shift to fifth, left arm jerking into the one-fingered So Cal salute-a bad habit, sure, but one that seems these days as reflexive as a hiccup.
I ease off throttle as the leviathan recedes into my rearviews and shift to sixth. If there's one thing 12 months of driving the Z4 M has taught me, it's that speed can be deceptive. And detrimental to one's driving record. Better to save the hedonism for short bursts along empty stretches of road or lonely mountain passes. For all its virtues, Highway 2 northbound counts as neither.
Twenty thousand miles-the M Coupe's odometer now registers several dozen clicks past 21k-is a lot of distance to cover in soft-compound summer rubber. By that time the OEM Conti SportContacts were in need of replacement. For sake of experimentation, for the last thousand miles or so our Coupe has been wearing some of the newest summer rubber from our buds at Nitto. Amazingly, the Z-rated Nitto Invos have actually improved ride comfort to a fair degree. Engineer Febbo informs me this is likely due to a softer sidewall, which might trade a degree of initial turn-in, but from the seat of your pants it's difficult to gauge. You'd need identical M Coupes, I think, on a closed loop, one wearing Contis and one wearing Nittos, to really measure the change...
I'm jolted out of my reverie by the obscene fanfare of an all-too-familiar airhorn. I glance at my mirrors and find them filled with twenty tons of pissed-off, dirt-colored tanker truck. The mid-morning sun flashes off its split windscreen as it bears down on the small silver coupe, making the fascia resemble nothing so much as a murderous, lunatic face.
It looks like he wants something. And I'm in a giving mood.
I blip the throttle and knock it back into fourth, then roll hard into the gas. The S54 sings again and the Coupe surges forward, easily clearing the rapidly encroaching, rust-pocked bumper and slingshotting me once again down the road. I shift to fifth briefly to air it out a little, then blip back to fourth, shedding speed, then third as the BMW slices into the last set of switchbacks before the bottom of the hill. I never liked BMW manuals before I drove this car, finding them vague and uninspiring. The Z4 M's is a whole different story. Some complain it's too notchy, too deliberate, but that's exactly what I like about it. Easy to miss a shift maybe, but only if your name is Mary or Susan. And it's so utterly satisfying when you punch the lever home.
I concede the M Coupe can be a nightmare over bad pavement. The car itself remains fairly composed and isn't easily upset, but your backside will suffer. On smooth, cultivated tarmac-any good canyon road-it rides as comfortably as anything. Throw it hard into a few corners and I'd challenge you to measure the degree of body roll with your butt.
I hit a decreasing-radius hairpin and the Nittos groan ever so slightly as the front end pushes toward the turn's apex. I once wrote that the M Coupe is one of only a handful of modern cars with an inherent bias to oversteer. I stand by that analysis, but admit that with stability control fully engaged the M, like most other modern cars, does understeer approaching the limit. It's a built-in safety net, but switch off stability control, apply more aggressive, more abrupt steering inputs, and the tail will come around. You better be ready when it does.
I leave DSC engaged. I usually do on public roads. I've never really felt that breaking the rears loose made me a faster driver-outside of exorcising a little hooliganism, maybe. And now isn't the time to be going sideways. An old racer once told me, if you're goin' sideways, you ain't goin' fast. Modulate your speed, go smooth with your steering, and the car carves like a chainsaw. The tanker falls back into the distance where he belongs.
And catches me again on the grade slanting north to Highway 14. Damn, this guy just won't quit. I slow to 50, and the truck closes. I goose the throttle and pull away. I slow to 50. He closes. I goose the throttle. The airhorn howls.
I'm getting bored.
I seem to remember a story someone told me once, a harrowing experience involving a big rig and an underpowered, piece o'crap red Plymouth. The story ended with one or the other plummeting off a cliff and erupting in flames. Supposedly the story was true. Or maybe I dreamt it.
That isn't going to happen today. I'm no longer in a playful mood, and I'm weary of this clown's hi-jinks. Highway 14 and the southern Sierras beckon. I downshift to fourth and the tach needle spikes at high noon, 5000 rpm. I stomp on the gas and six individual throttle bodies cheer me on.
For The Love Of The Game
*If you're familiar with my work you may have noticed I'll sometimes alter images to make photos that would otherwise be impossible. For this assignment I had to take previously shot images of the truck and add them to the new photos of the BMW. Luckily I was able to get in touch with the current Duel truck owner, Dan Bruno of Saint Louis, as well as Daniel J. Linss at 10-4 Magazine who shot the truck in 2004. They were both willing and able to provide me with enough images to recreate the scenes without bringing the truck out from Missouri. What you see in this article is the work of many people to recreate images from a film loved by many and still watched by some-kind of like this magazine. I hope you were able to rekindle an old memory and quite possibly have the hell scared out of you again. If not, your consolation prize is seeing ec's long-term M one last time.-Eric Simpson