What do you do when someone unexpectedly drops a $100k convertible in your lap in the depths of the Canadian winter? Sure, you could just tool around with the roof up, like a poser – or you could squeeze as much fun out of the already-too-short top-down driving season as possible by girding your loins—seriously, a frozen loin is no good to you at all–activating the heated seats, and donning some goggles for a week of open air driving.
In short, you Roadkill it.
I really have no explanation as to why BMW left a 650i xDrive Cabriolet in the press fleet past the month of November, when Montreal temperatures are already flirting with freezing (and don’t let up until April’s showers have melted away most of the snow). Still, who was I to deny myself this rare opportunity to experience the holiday season much the same way Santa does: with no roof over my head, and with everyone staring at me at each stoplight like I was some kind of weirdo.
The BMW 650i is certainly no slouch in the performance department, as its twin-turbo 4.4-liter V8 engine puts out 445 horsepower and 480 lb-ft of torque. Throw in an all-wheel drive system (xDrive) and an active suspension setup, and you’ve got an admittedly porky cruiser with substantial straight-line speed. I wasn’t going to need any of that, however, to have fun with the 650i during our week together. No, all I required was that the BMW’s top mechanism not flinch when it hit the drop button at 25 degrees.
The first time I tried it I was legitimately worried my revels would end before they even had a chance to start, as some members of the BMW fleet (including a number of its MINI Cooper convertibles) refuse to reveal their tender cabins below a certain temperature. It’s a protective programming feature has something to do with the flexibility of the roof fabric and the sanity of the owner, I think, but fortunately for me the 650i took neither of those things into consideration as its various motors and servos whined and complained while they tried to fold and stuff the stiff top into its trunk receptacle, daintily shaking off a light dusting of power in the process. By the second or third time the top went through its groaning, displeased shimmy at being called into action under completely inappropriate circumstances, I barely even noticed. You see, I had other things on my mind.
I’ve long held the opinion that convertibles are the pickup trucks of the sports car world. After all, with the roof out of the way, there’s very little you can’t stuff into the confines of even the smallest roadster – and the BMW 650i is certainly more capacious than most cabriolets out there. Plus, its rich leather interior is relatively waterproof and easy enough to clean, further adding to its utility allure. It was with that in mind that the first order of business was to be spreading a little holiday cheer, convertible-style. After picking up my colleague Fred Boucher-Gaulin, a BMW owner in his own right who is currently building up an E36 as a desert pre-runner, we set out to find out just how much Christmas tree we could fit inside the 650i.
In Montreal, the Christmas tree market is dominated by two major forces, each of which is pitted against the other in a battle for the hearts and minds of celebrating citizens. In one corner you have the major tree farms that stake out prime real estate at supermarkets and Home Depots, offering up carefully-trimmed holiday units that are organically grown and guaranteed to attract maximum giftage. In the other are the tree hobos, roving packs of pine mercenaries whose operations spring up in church parking lots, empty street corners, and sometimes even the odd chance encounter with an old, tree-topped truck at a red light.
Given that it was mere days before the big day, we had zero luck at any of the major Xmas tree clearance centers. Each lot stared back at us with a mixture of emptiness, tumbled-over cyclone fencing, and piles of pine needles contrasted against the well-trodden snow. This meant only one thing: it was time to hunt down the mysterious itinerant fir-dealers and see if any of them were still peddling their back-alley wares. Surprisingly, this proved to be a difficult task. We hit up the usual spots, hoping to catch at least one tree-dealing fly-by-nighter with a little excess inventory, but after almost an hour of teeth-chattering futility hope began to fade.
It was then that we spotted it – a lone, cobbled-together trailer seemingly fashioned out of aluminum siding and chicken wire, with smoke pouring out of a coffee-pot chimney, sitting in the parking lot of a strip club operating out of the basement of an abandoned restaurant. Yes, zoning regulations in Montreal really are that different. A thin company of small, Charlie Brown-esque trees ringed the ramshackle compound, but despite their aesthetic imperfections we were in no position to be picky. It was last call at Tree Bar, the lights had all been turned up, and neither of us wanted to go home alone.
We poked around outside the trailer for about 10 minutes, sizing up our various coniferous options, before the proprietor made his presence known. Happy to sell us one of his last $20, five-foot trees, and a little less certain about posing beside it for a picture, he ran it through the baler and walked it over to our car, standing expectantly at the trunk. Fred and I looked at each other, and then at the gentleman holding the tree.
‘It’s actually going in the back seat,’ I said, gesturing towards the small tarp I had purchased as an insurance policy against the wrath of BMW’s fleet manager.
‘The back seat,’ he repeated back to me, not so much a question, but more of a confirmation that he had heard me correctly.
His eyes trailed over to the white leather interior, which had by this point become speckled with a brown-and-black mixture of slush and road salt. He silently took in the antlers we’d affixed to the front mirrors with elastic bands, and quietly, but with great care, placed the tree in the rear quarters of the 650i with the kind of gentle touch one would reserve for lowering an infant into a cradle. One non-judgmental handshake later, and we were on our way.
To…where, exactly? You see, each of us was already well-prepared in the tree department, and now that we had the world’s largest pine-scented air freshener sitting just behind us, we realized that our plan wasn’t really a plan.
We were also attracting a lot of attention. It seems that nothing engages the holiday spirit quite like a pair of idiots treating their (but not really theirs) luxury sled like a rented U-Haul trailer. We lost count of the thumbs-ups, smiles, pointed fingers, and thousand-yard stares received at each and every stop, not to mention the camera phones flashing at us like some kind of Christmas paparazzi catching us in the act of dragging around Santa’s rotund body rather than a mere fir tree.
I began to dial friends, acquaintances, local businesses, the Salvation Army, anyone I could think of who might need a tree, but it turns out that pretty much everyone who’s into the Christmas thing already has their respective preparations locked down in the 48 hour window before the actual event. It was then that I had a stroke of luck. Over a broken Bluetooth connection, buffeted by the harsh arctic wind and the sounds of appreciative honking, I convinced my friend Ray at Crossover Comics that what his shop foyer really needed was one of the saddest-looking pieces of pine that had ever been harvested, and that no, it would not clutter the space whatsoever or in any way impede his ability to earn a living.
I wasn’t sure about any of that, but no matter. Ray had said ‘yes,’ or what I heard to be yes over the crackling in-car connection, and I kicked the twin-turbos down into ‘MUSH,’ hurtling towards Crossover’s part of town at speeds that quickly began stripping pine needles from the branches of our tiny sapin vert. How quickly the honks turned from joyous, to ‘what the hell did you just spray all over my windshield?’ How thin the veneer of society.
It was all worth it to see the confused smile on Ray’s face as we double-parked in front of Crossover Comics and took a whole bunch of photos before handing over our prized tree, and then taking another round of photos. With zero context as to our caper, he accepted the seasonal gift with admirable grace, promising to put it in a place of pride inside the shop – which translated into it slouching in the corner, unloved, and most likely unnoticed by the majority of customers.
Our task completed, we had the remainder of the day stretched out ahead of us, seat heaters warm, climate control blasting on HI, and a backpack full of video gear to play with. It was time for part two of our Convertible Christmas adventure, a chance to finally execute an idea that had been brewing in the back of my mind during the top-down days that led up to this glorious, sub-freezing pre-Xmas afternoon.
When my father was a younger man, his parents owned a car they called ‘the battle wagon,’ because its copious cargo area could contain a full complement of adolescent boys, snowballs in hand, and then set sail through various neighborhoods to terrorize unsuspecting pedestrians. I had long wondered if a convertible wouldn’t be a more effective winter war sled, given the 360-degree sightlines and plausible deniability of simply cinching up the top and claiming ‘who in their right mind would drive around with the roof down, officer?’
It was time to put that theory to the test. After a surprisingly small amount of cajoling, Fred and I found someone willing to subject herself to potential snowball assault, all in the name of Internet entertainment. Sporting a big red bow and a Santa hat, and as it turned out almost completely safe from snowball impact thanks to Fred’s admittedly untested throwing arm, we caught the entire experiment on video, which you can check out below.
As the winter sun faded below the horizon – which happens at about 4 pm in this frozen hunk of Canada – the three of us bundled back up into the BMW and set out for home. Top down, of course. You see, after spending a week driving in the polar vortex without any protection from the elements other than what you brought with you into the car, your body loses the ability to feel cold. Instead, a gentle, soothing numbness envelopes you, proving that the winter weather is in many way’s nature’s own Valium.
I left the car parked with the roof open, because my fingers were too frozen to work any buttons to close it. The next morning it appeared that both a squirrel and a passing vagabond had spent the eve luxuriating in the BMW’s stiff, frozen seats. Nobody is ever giving us a car this nice again.