This week, I went over to the dark side.

Yes, technically it is a four-year-old car and technically, it cost less than a Mazda 2 1.5 despite being an auto and having only 27 600 km on the clock. But it bears the kidney-shaped grill, the badge divided into blue and white quarters (a spinning propeller against the sky, as all the pub quiz nerds know) and that distinctive engine note, a note I could detect even as a child, possibly a consequence of growing up in Joburg’s northern suburbs.

It’s a BMW. And that makes me a BMW driver.

I never thought it would happen. Aside from a reckless flirtation with Fiat (I was desperate, the car looked sexy, one thing led to another), I was a sensible Toyota loyalist. I went for reliability and resale value. I prided myself on my rejection of German engineering and associated status value.

As a collector of South African insults, I have amassed a litany of accusations against the brand otherwise known as Be My Wife or Black Man’s Wheels. (Tony Jackman’s blog on the issue covered a few of them — the comments are also worth reading.)

If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone.

So I wonder if, on some level, all South Africans want to be BMW drivers. This brand has a hold over us that no other expression of automotive engineering can aspire to. That’s why, when Vodacom wanted to rip off its own customers, it offered them the chance to win one of 100 BMWs at R10 an SMS. Hendrikus Wessels spent R48 000 on SMSs. A woman called Marelize spent R27 000. One Johannesburg man managed to send R150 000 worth of SMS entries before his cellphone service was suspended.

Yes, Audi drivers may aspire to be dooses on the scale of BMW drivers. Some of the worst driving I’ve ever witnessed has been exhibited by people behind the wheel of a Volvo. Just the other day, a Golf GTI was trapped at 236 km/h. And as for double cab drivers, the four-letter word that encapsulates their singular offensiveness has yet to be invented.

But somehow the BMW remains emblematic of all that is most off-putting in South African motoring behaviour. The selfishness, the aggression, the unnecessary speeding. Can BMW drivers be human? If you prick BMW drivers, do they not bleed? (Yes, we all know the joke about the difference between a BMW and a cactus: with the cactus, all the pricks are on the outside.)

So far, the evidence is not encouraging. A couple of years ago, for instance, a Lonehill woman found a family of dassies in the engine of her BMW and attempted to get rid of them by driving at high speed on the highway. Who else but a BMW driver would be so callous?

The passion that BMWs excite in South Africans is perhaps best illustrated by an incident that took place on the N1 near the Botha offramp in Centurion. A 3 Series BMW tried to persuade a 7 Series to move over. When the 7 Series remained in the fast lane, the driver of the 3 Series felt affronted.

Rather unwisely — one would have thought — the two cars then pulled over for a BMW-driver-on-BMW-driver confrontation. The driver of the 3 Series fetched a sword from his boot, (non-BMW drivers may not be aware that luxury German vehicles come equipped with the iconic weapon of medieval knights, which are stored alongside the emergency triangle and the first-aid kit) and started hitting the roof of the 7 Series with it.

Wanting to get a bit of a run in before launching the next assault, he took a step back. And was promptly taken out by a passing Honda.

What can one say? The Almighty clearly moves in mysterious ways, some of them involving reliable Japanese sedans.

I could argue that, for the money, the 1 Series was by far my best option in terms of quality, safety features and resale value. I could argue that it was a rational purchase. But it’s a BMW. And I can’t get away from the fact that yes, I am now a BMW driver. Just this morning, I lost it when a woman in a gold Polo went out of turn at a four-way stop (technically, a set of traffic lights on Summit Road in Morningside, which have been out of order for the past month — thanks to the Joburg Roads Agency for fixing them. Not). I’ve lost it with people at four-way stops before — as far as I am concerned, people who don’t know how to use them, or think they can get away with nipping in deserve to be flogged at dawn — but there was a new dimension to my anger. Already, the brand has seeped into my soul.

Perhaps I was a BMW driver all along.


  • During the day Sarah Britten is a communication strategist; by night she writes books and blog entries. And sometimes paints. With lipstick. It helps to have insomnia.


Sarah Britten

During the day Sarah Britten is a communication strategist; by night she writes books and blog entries. And sometimes paints. With lipstick. It helps to have insomnia.

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