The car is not dead at Griot’s Garage in Tacoma.
Cars fill a lot of different niches: transportation, badges of identity, gadgets to geek out over, engines of freedom, signs of adulthood, destroyers of the environment and such.
Over the past several years they’ve lost some of their status in American life, especially with young people, who love their iPhones more, but they’re still more than metal and plastic to a lot of people who have a special bond with their babies.
A friend had been telling me about Griot’s for years and finally got me to go have a look at his world a couple of Sundays ago. Everyone walks through the door, he told me, and they say, “Wow.”
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I did too, but maybe not the same wow. Griot’s is a huge place all about keeping your car looking sharp, which to me didn’t seem like a viable business model until I watched people swarming over the goods. The first room is full of stuff for cleaning and polishing and buffing cars. There’s a restaurant and space for car-care classes. Some people love their cars.
Most of the people shopping that day came to Tacoma to show off their cars to other enthusiasts, in this case, owners of BMW M cars. They’re fast models that owners — like my friend Brian Cone — dote on. He owns a 1991 M5, and a Mini.
Cars figure into just about every conversation with Brian, who’s married to my wife’s cousin Terri, and he usually has a new picture to show me. Having something to be passionate about is a wonderful thing, and with Brian it’s cars, particularly BMWs. And he always wants to share his enthusiasm.
The Sunday I visited Griot’s, he led a caravan of 15 M cars to Tacoma from the Portland area, where he lives. There were owners from all around the Sound and some from other states, too. Besides a huge building, Griot’s is situated on a large piece of land where it hosts events for lots of car clubs, which is not too bad for business.
BMWs are expensive, luxury cars, and outside of Brian, I had a certain image of their owners. But at the event there was a mix of people beaming about their used Beamers, as well as guys showing off new, status cars. Where else am I going to mix with guys who make big bucks, one person asked me.
Brian is a leader in the BMW and Mini clubs in Portland and is often up here for events, so he seemed to know everyone and had intimate knowledge about their cars. “Jerry, you remember this car from Renton a few years ago?” I didn’t.
He introduced me to some people from Seattle and the ‘burbs, like Duane Montagne and Lucetta Lightfoot who told me about their cars, especially the 2002 M Coupe Lightfoot was so proud of.
“They only built them for four years and I have one of the last ones,” she said, which means it has a larger engine and is especially coveted by BMW fans.
She said when her car is parked she gets notes under the wipers from prospective buyers. While I was talking with them, a guy came over and asked whether she’d sell it to him.
Another owner, Steve Questad, is trying to beef up an event hosted each summer by the Puget Sound Chapter of the BMW Car Club of America. Questad, who’s worked at Boeing for 35 years, said his son was a big BMW fan. He chided his son about paying so much for parts, when maybe he should have been saving the money for his two kids.
Questad’s son, Joshua, died of pancreatic cancer in 2004 at age 22, and Questad now has Joshua’s car and his engagement with the club. It’s a community, and that’s one of the reasons people belong. You come together with people with whom you share an interest, and that is valuable no matter what your interest is: knitting, model trains, or cars.
Questad doesn’t even drive a BMW. He said his son’s car stays safely in the garage while he drives a Ford Ranger, and his wife drives a PT Cruiser. He’s been to lots of other auto shows and said each kind of car attracts a different group of people. Questad says BMW club members are well-organized, his wife’s PT Cruiser club, a little more informal.
He said he set out once to bring together the clubs of the all the German luxury brands for an event, but changed his mind — the other clubs were too different. The Mercedes owners at a show he visited were much older, for one thing.
There was a pretty big range of ages clustered around cars the Sunday I visited, some hovering over engines, some admiring bodies, many trading tips. One of the guys from Portland said there are three types of people who like car shows. Some are into the engineering, some like to modify cars and others are crazy about vintage models. Sometimes the modifiers drive the vintage people bananas.
BMW fans seem weighted toward folks who are in technical fields and are attracted by the engineering. There are a lot of them in this area. Brian’s a chemist, and he helped me pick out a starter set of car-care products.
I mostly care about safety, so I’ll at least wash my car windows.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org