18 000 km from Cape Town to Munich in a 28-year-old BMW E30 called Percy. What could possibly go wrong? Carri-Anne Jane recounts the exploits of the legendary Back My Wheels expedition
It’s happened, people, the very last BMW 3 Series has rolled off the production line at BMW plant Rosslyn. How can we as motoring enthusiasts first; and Saffas second, not weep a collective tear for our dearly departed? That’s 1 191 604 3 Series, five generations, made and sold locally and exported internationally to worldwide acclaim. The little old factory that could at the bottom of Africa was even awarded a J.D. Power Platinum Plant Quality award – not just singling it out amongst the BMW manufacturing network but effectively marking it the best plant in the world (in 2015). Quite an achievement. Much like the band of merry men who drove a 28-year-old BMW with over 500 000 km on the clock from Cape Town to Munich as part of a cleverly titled expedition called Back My Wheels (BMW).
The notion behind the BMW expedition began, as it so often does, with a bet in a pub. A friend of the team wanted to part ways with his beloved 318i E30, that had surpassed half a million kilometres, by returning it to the home of its maker, BMW in Munich. That idea soon developed into a recycling project and the purpose of the trip evolved with it. Firstly, the team wanted to showcase African development by meeting with entrepreneurs, social innovators and NGOs along the route to learn about and share their work. The second goal was to understand ‘Africa done by Africans’. And finally, as one of the team members, Max, puts it, ‘the expedition was also to fulfil a number of personal dreams, whilst thanking BMW for a fantastic piece of engineering that has changed lives in more ways than they could have imagined.’
After five months’ planning, a rough route was laid out and the logistics were (mostly) done – after all, how do you make the universe laugh? Tell it your plans. Percy (the E30) was stickered up and ready for the off, as were its occupants, Max, Ian, Ray and Rowan. Beyond South African borders lay a route through Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania (with a visit to Dar es Salaam and Mount Kilimanjaro), The Kenyan coastal town of Mombasa, North Sudan and Egypt. On the European side their route would take in Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Austria and finally Germany. How long would the trip take? ‘Hopefully very long,’ said Max. That’s if they could fit all their gear in (or on) the car.
Reliability fears over the nearly three-decade-old Beemer reared their ugly head before they’d even left South Africa, with a leaking fuel hose that needed righting in Johannesburg. From there, a battle getting across the Zambian border owing to insufficient local currency for carbon and road tax (it’s a non-negotiable border fee in most African countries), monster potholes and road blocks in Zimbabwe, fines for not having third-party insurance in Zambia, and scary night driving in Tanzania were all par for the course. At some point the BMW’s electric windows began acting up, not great in sweltering heat with zero air-con, but also the spark of fears that more mechanical maladies were to come. On to speeding fines in Tanzania: the country is duly proud of its roads that are in stunning condition, but they also have preposterously low speed limits, and traffic officers’ speed guns are always at the ready. Dar es Salaam’s traffic is crazy, with tens of kilometres taking hours at a time, so it’s little wonder the team beat a hasty retreat out the city towards Arusha and the foothills of Africa’s tallest mountain, which just happened to be shrouded in cloud. No pictures of the great mountain, I’m afraid.
Then there was a big fine for overstaying their allotted days in Tanzania, this was solved with ‘careful negotiation’ (interpret that at will). In Kenya the BMW received a much needed service at Bavaria Auto Kenya, revealing a hole in the exhaust. Once fixed, ‘she purred like a kitten’ again, and drove miles better, too. A visit to the Sudanese embassy proved a massive speed bump; however, it would be two weeks before the bureaucratic issue of applying for a visa outside your home country was sorted. And then, outside Nairobi, things got really tough, as this blogpost from Day 52 describes:
‘We woke up in luxury, ate like kings, and then beat the sh*t out of Percy. The drive north from Nanyuki is amazing, and I mean that in the real sense of the word. Quite suddenly though the scenery fizzled out and the road grew foul, it came at us like Bismark at a Blue Bull.
You’ll need any two of these four things to conquer this treacherous corridor: a battle tank, the power of Moses, the beard of Zeus, or a BMW with the ground clearance of a sausage dog. Guess which we have. Now Percy has chugged us up this far without even the slightest whimper. Today though, he spoke to us, or yelled, it was hard to tell amidst the cacophony of sound… The strange noises were enough to cause concern, so in the midday desert heat, we hopped out to test our mechanical diagnostics abilities. We had a pap shock absorber, without a spare. So we drove 2 km over the next 25 min, discussing how we could solve this debacle, and eventually settled on the perfect solution: point North, and drive at 15 km/h with Bob Marley assuring us that ‘every lil thing, is gonna be alright.’
Eventually they’d find a bush mechanic, where else but in a pub, and the impoverished shock was repaired. It was a temporary fix, however, that required a better one for new and modified shocks in the next big town. From there the rest of the journey was mostly plain sailing, except for the moments it wasn’t: detours around washed-away roads, getting lost in slums in Addis Ababa, sand storms in the Egyptian desert, not to mention hitting a pothole and denting a wheel rim. Or that time they ran out of fuel, missed a ferry and had their passports taken away by a vigilant cop for several hours, lost reverse gear and damaged their exhaust system yet again (there’s something to be said for a 4×4’s added ground clearance).
105 days, 18 245 km all told, Percy and the band of merry travellers arrived in Germany on the day of the 2014 World Cup final to witness Germany defeat Argentina 1 – 0. Great atmosphere and a euphoria to match that of the Back My Wheels team. However, better news was to come. The next day, unbelievably, the guys from BMW asked, instead of recycling Percy, if they could put him in their world famous BMW Weld museum to live out the rest of his days in peace and comfort. He was left on display outside the front door of the museum for the rest of summer, before being moved inside, a proud reminder that a fantastic piece of German engineering is more than just a car, it can be a vehicle that changes lives.
Just one thing, lads. You do realise if you really wanted to drive Percy home, you could’ve saved yourself 17 145 km and gone no further than where it was actually produced, right: Rosslyn, Pretoria. Yes, yes, we know… that wouldn’t have been half as epic an adventure.