When Murray Fowler first ripped around Southern California in his 1969 BMW 2800CS coupe, there wasn't a whole lot there.
He remembers weaving around orange groves and oil fields and "not a lot else" between the small town of Corona and the Pacific Ocean. If anyone asked where he got his rare car he'd tell them: "They're hard to find. But soon, there'll be a lot of BMWs here."
Now 81, Fowler sticks to back roads rather than driving on crowded freeways, avoiding the ubiquitous high-end BMWs frequently favored by Orange County billionaires and Hollywood celebrities. He has also stuck with his "Blue Max," the BMW coupe he bought 39 years ago with less than 40,000 miles on the clock.
Fowler's car now has an incredible 416,610 miles. He believes it's the most miles on any such car in the world. Fowler says his achievement is the result of "defensive driving" and "a lifelong love of BMWs," but one glance at the shiny coupe sitting in his Costa Mesa garage leads to a different conclusion. While Fowler hasn't fully restored the car he bought in February 1972 -- "it's never been off its wheels" -- his attention to detail in caring for his car over the years befits a former naval officer who once serviced aircraft and gunboats. Blue Max shimmers like a serviceman's newly polished shoes under the Pacific coastal sun.
When we took it for a ride, I was blown away. Torquey at low revs with a lot of grunt off the line, it handled astonishingly well for a 40-year-old car when I pushed it along winding coastal roads. It's a classic, low profile tourer, with a reasonably large back seat and a cabin that feels spacious as a result of its slim C-pillar and a whole lot of glass. Compared to new cars it almost feels like a convertible.
Fowler bought Blue Max locally from an army officer who'd picked it up from the Bavarian factory in September 1969 and had it shipped across. Fowler has owned more than 20 BMW coupes in his time, and currently owns another late-model BMW alongside his regular ride, a 5-Series. He says he once put more than 50,000 miles on a BMW M1.
Fowler has driven the 2800CS across the country many times, including a memorable road trip that took him north up the Pacific Coast Highway to Vancouver, Canada, then more than a thousand miles due east to the Dakotas and down through his native Midwest back to California. His favorite drives are with fellow BMW enthusiasts and members of SoCal's numerous classic car clubs.
The coupe has been modified a good bit along the way: Fowler rebuilt its engine by sourcing core parts from Munich (with the help of racing luminary Hans Hermann) and adding a Weber 38 carburetor, a new cooling system for California's climate, new AC, upgraded brakes, and a five-speed manual box. It sits on new wheels with newer bushings and Bilstein shocks. Fowler keeps meticulous, hand-written records of every bit of work done, and every service.
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Outside, the car was repainted 19 years ago and has a new windshield but it boasts all original chrome work that's in impeccable shape. Inside it's original apart from the seat fronts, steering wheel and shifter, which Fowler had custom fashioned by a wood-carver buddy. The odometer, turned over four times, reads 16,610. Not bad for number 16 of some 3,100 coupes released for the American market.
Fowler has come a long way literally and figuratively since his Missouri upbringing, serving in the Navy's Pacific fleet, working for Chrysler in Detroit after a stint in New York, and then settling in Southern California four decades ago. An adventurer in more ways than one, and a great character, he says in the 1980s he "lost a home, a garage full of toys and a wife; the only thing of a tangible nature I've managed to hold onto is Blue Max."
Now he occasionally commutes into Los Angeles from Costa Mesa or runs the car around glitzy Newport Beach -- drawing stares reserved for all but the most unusual rides. Fowler says he has only broken down once or twice and has never been in a accident.
His first car was a 1953 Ford two-door V8, followed by several Chryslers (when he worked in Detroit) and then a Porsche 912. But after buying his beloved Blue Max, Fowler has never looked back."My earliest impression was that it felt as if it were carved out of one piece. It's a driving impression I've gotten from every quality BMW I've driven. They communicate to the driver what's happening and provide input, and it does just what you want it to do."