Dear Uncle Harold:

I still can't believe it, Unc. I know it's your money and your life and your right to do whatever a 71-year-old man wants to do. But I can't believe that my Uncle Harold -- the soul of conservatism, the guy who has owned 3,127 consecutive Chevrolets, the crown prince of second gear -- has gone and bought himself a BMW.

"It was only $20,000," you told me, as if you'd put one over on the salesman. Let me tell you something, Harold. No one puts anything over on car salesmen. They can buffalo you with end of the model year sales and rebates and 7.7 percent financing until they're blue in the face. They get their money, believe me. So don't try to tell me you bought this little zippedy-doo-dah number because you got a bargain. You didn't.

And don't try to tell me that this car makes sense for your life style. Has Pittsfield suddenly become a stop on the NASCAR circuit? Not the last time I checked. When a guy has driven from the same home to the same office, over the same local streets, for 44 years, he doesn't suddenly develop the desire to break the speed of sound.

No, it must be something else. It must be some deep-seated longing. It must spring from a lifetime of parking lot attendants who didn't give you a second look. It must be . . . .

Harold, I think you want to be a yuppie.

I don't come to this conclusion lightly or precipitously, dear sir. I have seen those alligator shirts creeping into your wardrobe. I have seen you flipping to the back pages of The Wall Street Journal so you could check out the tax shelters before you check out the news. I have noticed a man who was always satisfied with Budweiser starting to order Galliano on the rocks.

But now you've gone hog wild, Harold. Now you own the yuppiest car ever to jackrabbit away from a red light. And what will it get you, beside a giant monthly payment?


That's right, boss. Enmity and disdain. Sure, you'll get some envious glances now and then. And you'll certainly get approving clucks from anyone who owns the same kind of car. But the vast majority of your fellow citizens will be rooting for you to have major misfortunes.

As usual, your nephew-the-journalist has proof for his rash assertions.

The other day, I'm walking down L Street when I see a jet-black BMW 318I parked by the curb. The hood is up. Steam is shooting into the air. And the owner is sitting behind the wheel in a posture that can only be described as Acute Slump. When you spend 20 Big Ones for a car, it isn't supposed to overheat.

But this one had, in a big way. And as the guy sat there, waiting for the AAA to show up, the most amazing thing kept happening.

People would walk past and offer mock sympathy.

"Aw, gee, rea-a-a-a-a-al tough break, pal," offered one fellow.

"Awful sorry to see it happen to such a nice car," said a woman in Nikes, with sarcasm you could cut with a knife.

"Don't you own your own tow truck, mister?" asked another snide soul.

Harold, your BMW will bring you the same sort of reception.

Harold, your BMW will make you a prisoner of your own conspicuous consumption.

Harold, you've made a big mistake.

Let's look at it logically, okay? For the same $20,000, you could have bought a Lincoln Continental with giblets and gravy. Or a Cadillac with every electronic gadget known to mankind. Or about three and a half Toyotas.

But what did you get for your fifth of a hundred grand? A car that's shorter than a Pontiac and skinnier than a Ford. A car with a trunk the size of a bureau drawer. A car with less leg room in the back seat than they give you in a bobsled.

Aren't you the same Uncle Harold who wouldn't buy a condo in Florida because you couldn't turn around in the bathroom? Aren't you the same Uncle Harold who wouldn't help Cousin Arthur with his sailboat because -- and I quote -- "only a muskrat could fit through the hallways?"

Still, I have to admire you in one way, Unc. You're proving the old saw about being as young as you feel. If this is the way you want to feel young -- and if piloting a zoom-zoom machine actually makes you feel young -- who am I to quibble?

But I'll quibble anyway. Have you forgotten about cost-effectiveness, Harold? There is small, and there is too small. And you definitely have a car that's the latter.

But don't trade the thing in quite yet, all right? I'm planning a visit in a couple of months, and, well, gee, I've never driven a BMW, Harold. Surely you'd do that much of a favor for a yuppie relative, wouldn't you?

Your Loving Nephew, Bob