The Hack Mechanic Online: Louie Makes The BMW CCA Foundation Museum

Last week I assured myself that Louie’s cracked head—cracked through the boss that the valve-cover stud threads into at the top of the left rear corner, not through a combustion chamber—wasn’t going to leak oil onto the intake manifold, and that the car was ready for the 1,200-ish-mile drive to Greer, South Carolina, for induction into the BMW CCA Foundation museum’s 2002 exhibit. I would hit the road in hopes of good weather.

At the last moment, I realized that I needed to deal with the wipers.

Louie still has its original thirteen-inch wipers, whose arms do not appear to receive standard replaceable wiper blades, requiring you to thread rubber inserts through the pinchers on the arms. Instead, I simply swapped the wiper assemblies with Kugel, my other tii, whose arms accept standard replaceable blades; I also swapped washer bottles with Kugel, since Louie’s was badly cracked.

I thought that I had put the issue of the driver’s seat to bed. I’ve had one of my Konig Recaro-style seats in Louie for the past year, but for his stay in the museum, I wanted the original matching seats in the car. I reinstalled the driver’s seat, and it looked great. Then I had a flashback to how, when I’d bought the car, Jake Metz, who’d looked at it for me, described the interior as “crunchy,” warning me that once I sat in it for a while, it might not look so pristine.

It turns out that Jake’s observational powers border on the clairvoyant, because when I sat in the just-reinstalled driver’s seat for the fifteen seconds it took me to back the car out of the driveway, a seam split and a tear opened up.

I thought about re-installing the Konig seat, but then recalled that nearly twenty years ago, Yale Rachlin had given me a sheepskin. I believe that it had been in his 2002tii, license-plate YALE R, until Yale installed Recaros in it. I found the sheepskin in a box in my basement and installed it. I didn’t really like the look, but at least it protected Louie’s original seat bottom.

I put a great deal of thought into what to bring, tools and parts-wise, as the car would be down at the Foundation for nearly a year, and any tools and parts would either need to stay in the trunk or be shipped back at some expense. In the end, I decided to leave behind things of which I have multiples, such as the floor jack and jack stands, a tool kit of largely redundant tools, miscellaneous fluids, and an insulated mechanic’s suit. I put those in the trunk, and packed anything I needed to ship back into four USPS flat-rate boxes. Since I have another nearly identical tii that I plan on driving to Oktoberfest, the spare parts needed to come home.

I also put together a little “Louie museum”—a cardboard box containing Louie’s original donut radiator hose, brass thermostat, badly-corroded water pump, and eight-piece giubo.

With the car ready, the only thing that kept me from jumping in it and heading down the road was a tradeoff between a desire for synchronicity and concerns about the weather. That is, I wanted to leave on Monday, February 19, because that would be exactly one year to the day from when I jumped into a rented SUV packed with tools and parts and began the whole adventure to resurrect and retrieve Louie. Unfortunately, a winter storm was forecast to move in the night of Saturday the 17th; in the end, I’m far too practical to allow synchronicity to triumph over weather, so I needed to either advance the trip to beat the snow or wait it out. I wound up doing the latter, as a week of unseasonably warm weather was forecast to follow the snow. And it appeared that if I delayed one day, and left on Tuesday, the snow would likely melt, and a day of rain might wash off any salt.

The strategy paid off.

The snow was a bit lighter than expected, and when I left at 6:00 a.m. on Tuesday morning, although I drove for several hours on damp roads through mist, I didn’t feel like the car was getting anything remotely resembling a salt bath; the roads may not have been salted at all. Still, I was glad for the good wipers and the working windshield washer.

As I headed out on the first leg of the trip, to see Paul Wegweiser in Harmony, Pennsylvania, as I did a year and a day prior, Louie’s steering seemed a little vague. You may recall that I’d replaced Louie’s center track rod and tie rods in the fall, and for the first time ever, aligned it myself, first using string, then doing it by feel, toeing it in until it felt like it was scrubbing, then backing it off a bit. Now, on the first extended drive since doing that, it felt like it could use just a bit more toe-in, but it was never bad enough for me to stop and adjust it.

This is a drive I’ve made many times. I have no love for I-84 through Connecticut, but the road gets much more interesting as it goes through New York and Pennsylvania. You don’t own a car like a 2002tii to sit at 65 mph in the right lane—at least I don’t—so as I reached I-80, I was thankful that some of us stressed-out Northeasterners know how to haul tuchus. There were stretches of I-80 where I actually had to back off from the speed of the flow of traffic, as Louie’s front end gets a little light above 80 mph.

The only other bothersome thing was that the recent E28 fuel pump seemed to be getting a bit loud, at times sounding like a large slow horsefly was trapped in the trunk.

And a delightful surprise was that the sheepskin made the driver’s seat—dare I say it?—comfortable. I’d brought a Tempur-Pedic back pillow with me, but never needed to use it. My opinion of the sheepskin changed instantly from klugey rip-cover to way-cool period-correct accessory.

I arrived in Harmony at about 3:30 and texted Paul to tell him I was at his house. As I waited for him to get off work, I checked the loud fuel pump, thinking that perhaps a rubber mount had loosened up. I crawled under the back of the car, but nothing appeared to be amiss.

I also gave the engine compartment a quick check, and was startled to see what appeared to be some dampness on the left side of the Kugelfischer injection pump.

I ran the engine and verified that nothing was spirting fuel, but when I shut it off and ran my finger through the dampness on the side of the injection pump, it did seem to smell like gas.

The injection pump has a number of rubber seals, all of which I’d replaced last year. It hadn’t leaked a drop since. It also has metal crush rings beneath the delivery valves. I’ve had the experience of disturbing the crush rings and having a hard time getting them to reseal, so I simply made sure that all the injection lines and the delivery valves were snug, wiped off the dampness, ran the engine for a few minutes, and didn’t see any evidence of leaking. I wondered if what I saw was a little old gas from when I’d disconnected the fuel line to swap the radiator. I vowed to check it whenever I stopped for fuel.

Just after I took the obligatory photo of Louie next to Paul’s F-Bomb, and thought about doing something funny—like, oh, say, swapping the F-Bomb’s Cromodora alloy wheels for Louie’s steelies—Paul drove up in a customer’s orange ’72 VW Westfalia camper, saying that he needed to drive it to catch it in the act leaking oil. I got in and experienced a big waft of nostalgia, as Maire Anne and I had a nearly identical camper 30 years ago.

I also thought that catching an air-cooled VW in the act of leaking oil might be the easiest job ever assigned to a mechanic.

When Paul dropped me off back at Louie, I asked him to listen to the loud fuel pump. He wondered if the weight of the boxes in the trunk might be pressing down on the rubber fuel-pump line on the top of the gas tank and slightly constricting it. I made a note to check it.

That night, again reprising last year’s trip, I had dinner with Paul and his significant other, Wendy. Catching up like this is half the fun of these sort of trips.

In the morning, I hit the road again at about six to pound out the remaining 550 or so miles to the Foundation. As I came across the I-79 bridge over the river just west of Pittsburgh, the sunrise lit up the clouds and gave me one of these moments where I felt privileged to be having this little adventure.

At some point during the drive, Louie’s odometer rolled over to 43,000—or is it 143,000? I’m still not entirely certain. I should say it tried to roll over, but failed. The digits in odometers in vintage cars often get askew as they roll over, and generally line back up as they spin, but clearly Louie’s had broken, as if it was saying, “I draw the line at 43,000.” I had been inside the odometer last year, putting in a gear from Odometer Gears to get it working. As part of doing that, I added in the miles I thought I’d put on it when I drove the car home. I thought I’d done it correctly. Perhaps not. Anyway, it was the only thing that went wrong on the drive down, a fact somewhere between funny and astonishing.

The drive down the portions of I-76, I-79, and I-77 that scoot back and forth over ridges of the Appalachian range was wonderful—until the road flattened out and I was met with construction and traffic. This, combined with the unseasonably warm weather, had me in a T-shirt with the windows rolled down, and I don’t mean this in a good way. The heat and the road were starting to wear on me as I finally approached the exit for the Foundation in Greer.

And then I drove right past it, because, well, actually, I wasn’t going to the Foundation quite yet. I was going to look at a car.

Wait, what? I was dropping off Louie, right? I had to get back home somehow, right? I could either purchase a one-way ticket and fly, or find something interesting to buy and drive. I’d been pounding on Craigslist in the Greenville area for weeks, and I’d found something that piqued my interest. I’d rather not reveal what it is, as I haven’t fully played my hand. But it turned out to be about 50 miles past the Foundation, thus adding a hundred miles to the trip.

I nearly bailed on it and took the exit for the Foundation, as I was hot and road-weary, but I was interested enough to have made the appointment. You can’t know what a car really is until you lay eyeballs on it, and I thought I’d regret it if I cancelled.

Unfortunately, after driving for another hour and inspecting the car, it was clear that it was not in a condition for me to jump in and drive it a thousand miles home. I considered the logistics involved in “doing a Louie”—fixing it on-site—but it was not a common car, I’d need to order specific parts that would likely take days to arrive, and I needed to be home by Sunday for a gig.

I considered the synchronicity of this, as I’d missed a gig a year ago due to my stay with Louie running longer than I’d planned, but this kind of synchronicity was something to be avoided, not emulated. I made no offer on the car.

As I was driving to the hotel I’d booked near the Foundation, still running over the pros and cons of this other car (e.g., the cost of a one-way last-minute plane ticket buys a lot of parts), Louie began hesitating, then stumbling. My first thought was that it was a fuel-delivery problem, related either to the loud fuel pump, the dampness on the injection pump (although I didn’t smell gas), or a clogged filter. I waited for the other shoe to drop—the car would feel like it was running out of gas—but it kept on running—badly, but not apparently getting worse. My second thought was, “It’s either a broken injector, as befell Brian Ach a few years ago”—I didn’t have a spare injector with me—“or I’ll get lucky and find that a plug wire has simply fallen off.”

Although I was close enough to the Foundation that, if necessary, a call to Hagerty Roadside Assistance would’ve gotten me there, I felt that I was an idiot for adding another hundred miles onto the already long 1,150-mile trip simply because I wanted to look at a car. I don’t need another car. I’d taken a chance that didn’t need to be taken. I should’ve simply taken the exit for the Foundation several hours earlier and declared success.

The road I was on was a two-lane limited-access highway with construction—not a place I wanted to stop for a roadside repair unless I had no choice. I toughed it out until there was an exit. Fortunately, just off the exit, there was a gas station with a big, flat parking lot. I opened the hood, and immediately smiled as I saw, plain as day, that a plug wire had indeed simply fallen off and was sitting on the hot exhaust manifold. I’d even caught it before it melted! I thought about what some people say about that horseshoe being uncomfortable in certain parts of your anatomy.

I carefully picked up the plug connector with a folded paper towel, figuring I’d reseat it on the tip of the spark plug, pat myself and Louie on the back, and be on my way. I then experienced a bit of a conceptual disconnect as the connector wouldn’t slide over the tip of the plug. I looked inside the end of the connector and immediately saw why: The metal part of the connector that’s supposed to slide over the tip of the plug was missing. It had broken out of the 46-year-old Bakelite spark-plug connector. It was doubtless still sitting on the tip of the spark plug.

I must explain that there’s a reason why I’m running on 46-year-old plug wires and connectors—not a good reason on a drive this long, but a reason. Part of Louie’s survivor/driver mojo is that he has some surprising bits of originality. While all 1972 and later 2002s had a diagnostic plug on the left inner fender wall, only ’72 and ’73 cars had a second plug on the lower left corner of the valve cover, connected to a inductive pick-up “wart” on the wire between the ignition coil and the center of the distributor cap. This was so the ignition could be connected to the engine analyzer at BMW dealers. The wart wire and connector were typically thrown in the trash the first time the plug wires were changed. The fact that Louie still has them, along with other original engine-compartment bits, is a small treasure to me.

The problem is that originality and reliability are often at odds. I’d forgotten that for both of Louie’s two previous long trips—the drive home last year, and the run to and from the Vintage in the spring—I’d replaced the original wires with a modern plug-wire set for the drive. For this trip, I’d forgotten to do that—but by chance, one of the last things I’d thrown into the “ignition box” in the trunk (spare coil, plugs, cap, rotor, points, and condenser) was a couple of old loose plug wires that I had lying around. They had the same Bakelite connectors that simply screw into the ends of the plug wires. I replaced the broken Bakelite connector, pulled out the spark plug, pulled the metal connector off its tip, and put everything back together.

And with that, the problem was fixed, and Louie’s reputation remained intact. I made it back to my hotel without incident. It was, in fact, the perfect thing to have gone wrong: The car didn’t actually die, the problem was trivial to diagnose and easy to fix because I had a spare part with me. Much better than the broken odometer.

The next morning, curator Michael Mitchell met me at the Foundation and gave me a quick tour of the 2002s that had already arrived. I washed Louie, cleaned the interior, dealt with my boxes, and then drove him inside. With the weight out of the trunk, the fuel pump was quieter, so Paul Wegweiser may well have been right that the source of the noise may just have been pressure on the rubber line.

I never used to be able to understand how someone could be without one of their favorite cars for the period of a museum display, but now I get it. While, as someone joked on Facebook, there must be easier ways to get free storage for a year, I am honored that Louie will be in such august company. The plan is to park Louie next to YALE R. I wondered on Facebook if YALE R might try to get his sheepskin back. Someone else chimed in an idea that I found absolutely irresistible—that when everyone’s gone and the lights are out, the cars swap stories. Wouldn’t you love to be a fly on the wall for that?!

So: About 1,250 miles in two days—with a cracked head. In fact, I now realize that I’ve been driving the car this way since I bought it. That means not only this trip, but about a thousand miles from Louisville up to Boston, and about another two thousand down to the Vintage and back. As I said after arriving home last year, these little cars are tough as damn nails, and deserve every inch of their legend.

Big thanks to Michael, Scott Dishman, and others at the Foundation for putting on this exhibit. Louie, I’ll swing by when I’m down for the Vintage. See you in a few months. Keep YALE R company. If he wants his sheepskin back, make him tell you the story about the time Yale put him on his roof at Bryar.—Rob Siegel

Got a question for Rob Siegel, the Hack Mechanic? You can find him in the BMW CCA Forums here!

Rob’s new book, Ran When Parked: How I Resurrected a Decade-Dead 1972 BMW 2002tii and Road-Tripped it a Thousand Miles Back Home, and How You Can, Too, is now available on Amazon. Or you can order personally inscribed copies through Rob’s website: www.robsiegel.com. His new book, Just Needs a Recharge: The Hack MechanicTM Guide to Vintage Air Conditioning, will be out in the spring.

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