Two weeks ago, I described resurrecting the Black Shark—a black-on-black 1985 635CSi five-speed I got for free from my son’s girlfriend’s father—and selling the running but unsorted car for a great price to Jordan Berube (aka the Kid. I call him the Kid because he is a kid, but a kid with no small amount of experience; he worked as a service adviser at Ultimate Bimmer Services in Nashua New Hampshire, and owns an E46, an E30, and an E39 he’s swapping an S52 motor into).
After buying the Black Shark from me on a Saturday, Jordan immediately—literally on Sunday—began taking the car to local Cars-and-Coffee events and other small shows in Nashua, and making Facebook posts that were practically dripping with pride and enthusiasm, saying how cool the car was and how much he was enjoying owning, driving, and showing it.
I, of course, supportive father figure and elder statesman that I am, responded as follows:
If you had balls, you’d drive it with us to the Vintage on Wednesday morning.
(seriously, just kidding.)
(OR AM I?)
A few days later (Tuesday), the day before I was scheduled to leave for the Vintage, I was shopping for road food at Trader Joe’s, and my phone rang. It was the Kid. “Well,” he said, “I’m going. I got a ticket.”
“To the Vintage,” he said. “It was sold out, but I got in on a cancellation.”
My open jaw practically hit the floor of the snacks isle at the West Newton Trader Joe’s. “Jordan,” I said, “just to be clear, you do know that I was kidding when I was ribbing you about driving the Black Shark to the Vintage, right?”
“I know. It’s my choice. You didn’t shame me into anything. I really want to do it. I saw the Facebook post about you, Andrew Wilson, and some other folks caravanning down and meeting at the Charlton Service Plaza on the Mass Pike tomorrow morning. Can I run with you guys?”
“Thanks, that’d be great.”
I paused and thought carefully before I replied. “Jordan, you understand that the Black Shark is not a fully sorted-out car, and that it’s a 2,000-mile round trip to the Vintage, right? I got the car up and running and ran it around the block maybe ten times before I sold it to you. I never even drove it on the highway. Your trip up to Nashua was really its maiden voyage since its resurrection.”
“I completely understand that,” he answered. “I have a full set of tools, and I’ve started to buy some spare parts. And even if I’m running with you, you’re in no way responsible for me or the car. And don’t worry; once we’re at the Vintage, I’m not going to follow you around like a puppy.”
I thought—but did not say—“Yeah, well, I’m totally going to feel responsible for both you and the car anyway.”
As the Kid and I talked, in spite of my warnings, I found myself giving him some reassuring perspective. I’d successfully driven my Bavaria to the Vintage in 2014, and my 1979 Euro 635CSi to Sharkfest in 2016, with not much more sorting out than the Black Shark had had, and with only minor problems along the way. And unlike many of the cars that I buy, the Black Shark hadn’t had a decade of dormancy; it had only been sitting since last fall, when it died one time too many and my son’s girlfriend’s father got tired of throwing money at his mechanic and gave the car to me. It hadn’t taken all that much to resurrect it. The fact that it had recently been a running, well-cared-for car was in its favor in terms of a long drive.
I reminded the Kid about the fact that the Black Shark’s fan belt had a tension-adjustment issue; the alternator’s toothed adjustment track appeared to be boogered up, as frequently happens. The toothed adjustment nut was missing entirely, and the carriage bolt was catching on the track’s teeth, making it difficult to tighten the belt, which was slightly slack and appeared to be near the end of adjustability on the track, probably due to belt stretch. I’d pointed this out to the Kid when I’d sold him the car—but running it home to Nashua was a much different thing than surviving a 2,000-mile round trip to the Vintage.
The Kid asked me which parts I thought he needed to fix the fan-belt-adjustment track. I said he’d need to pull the bracket off and inspect it to see if its teeth were damaged, and look on realoem.com and take an inventory of what was missing. He later said that he tried to take my advice, but couldn’t get parts with such a short lead time, and settled for tightening the belt as best as he could.
At 7:30 the following morning (Wednesday), five stalwart New England vintage-BMW owners met at the Charlton Service Plaza on the Massachusetts Turnpike to begin the trek to Vintage 2018 in Asheville, North Carolina. It was me and Sharkey (my ’79 Euro 635CSi); my good friend Andrew Wilson driving his gorgeous ’73 3.0CSi; Jose Rosario, who, in his small-bumpered ’76 2002, has been my traveling companion for the last few Vintages; the Kid and the Black Shark; and Bob Sawtelle, a relatively recent 2002 owner with his newly-acquired ’76.
In terms of age, BMW experience, and the number of Vintages under the belt, it was a diverse group. Andrew and I had both been going since 2011, Jose since 2015. The two Vintage virgins, Bob and tthe Kid, shared the newbie excitement, but were very different in age: Bob was a retired police officer, and the Kid was, well, a kid.
We planned to break the thousand-mile trip into two days, aiming to get to northern Virginia Wednesday night and Asheville on Thursday. The main concern was weather, as rain was forecast for both days of the drive, as well as for the event itself. Having survived The Great Drenching Event Of 2013, when I drove my 3.0CSi the 800-ish miles to the Vintage in Winston-Salem—it rained for 700 miles, 500 of which were nearly biblical downpours—I have some amount of anxiety regarding long drives through heavy rain in old cars. Braking, visibility, and ventilation are typically poorer than in late-model cars, and of course in a ’70s-era BMW, you swear that you can hear your precious valuable ride rust. Fortunately, Sharkey’s window sealing, windshield wipers, and defrost are a generation newer than those in my E9; its value is probably an order of magnitude less, and most important, this year the weather wasn’t actually all that bad, with only short intermittent periods of heavy rain.
Wilson had targeted a Comfort Inn in Winchester Virginia as the destination, and that night we arrived without incident. Rosario and I initially had some jitters about it, as a Comfort Inn in Winchester was the site of what has become known as “l’affaire Brian Ach,” where four years ago, Brian’s 2002tii began running so poorly that he had to abort his trip to the Vintage despite Jose’s and my trying for four hours to troubleshoot it in the hot parking lot. I joked with Jose, “There’s bad juju in that place,” but fortunately that was a different Comfort inn.
It was that evening that I learned how much of a kid the Kid really was. We all went to dinner at a nearby restaurant, and several of us ordered beer. When it was Jordan’s turn, he ordered a ginger ale. “No suds after that hot drive?” I asked.
“I’m twenty,” he replied, neither sheepishly nor apologetically, just stating the fact. Twenty. Sheesh. Get off my lawn.
The next day, we had some excitement when Andrew Wilson’s wipers died. I trouble-shot the problem and found that there was voltage at the connector to the wiper motor, and that when the motor was directly wired to the battery, it still didn’t spin, pretty much proving that the motor itself was at fault. Both Andrew and I put out feelers for a spare motor, and he soon had one lined up for Saturday at the Vintage; we just needed to get there through the intermittent rain.
Andrew was remarkably calm about it. His windshield was well-Rain-Xed, and he found that, in general, when the skies opened, pressing on and keeping the speed up helped to sheet the rain off. (My inner lawyer says: Please don’t take that as direction or approval. If it had been me, I would’ve been stopping and waiting for heavy rain to pass.)
All was well until we were about a hundred miles north of Asheville and the Kid texted me (using voice dictation; everybody back off) that Black Shark was running hot, swinging toward the red. We immediately took the next exit and found ourselves in the parking lot of a small church. The Kid sheepishly admitted that the coolant temperature had been fine until the heat in the black car with the black interior began to get to him and he turned on the air-conditioning, which I’d told him functioned but blew barely cold. (Because of my new a/c book, I can’t say “it just needed a recharge” anymore with a straight face.) When he did that, the coolant temperature almost immediately began rising and headed for the red. He tried to turn the a/c off, but the switch initially stuck in the pressed-in position. Jordan said that he then turned the heat on, using the heater core as an extra radiator to dissipate heat and try to cool the engine, but a strong sweet smell of antifreeze quickly permeated the cabin.
I did the usual things one does on an overheating car: I checked that the fan belt was still present and the mechanical fan was intact. I looked in and under the engine compartment to see if coolant was leaking. I visually verified the presence of coolant in the plastic expansion tank. I confirmed that the thermostat was opening by putting my hand briefly on the lower radiator hose and verifying that it was hot.
It wasn’t immediately clear what was going on.
I looked a bit closer at the belt adjustment. The fan belt was a little loose, as it was when I’d sold Jordan the car, but it wasn’t floppy loose—at least I didn’t think it was. I tried to tighten it, as I’d done a week before, but the belt seemed to be as tight as it would go, with the alternator hitting the end of the adjustment slot. The a/c appeared to be off (the switch wasn’t depressed), but I unplugged the compressor just to be certain that there was no extra load on the engine. I shut off the heat, advising Jordan that if he smelled coolant in the car when he turned it on, there could be a leak in the heater core, which would mean that the cooling system was losing pressure, and that the system needed to be leak-free and pressurized in order to work properly.
I jumped a wire across one of the temperature sensors to get the electric auxiliary fan in front of the a/c condenser and radiator to turn it on. It ran, but then, oddly enough, the fan wouldn’t shut off. I wasn’t sure what was up with that—it could just have been the temperature sensor kicking the fan on as it’s supposed to —but I let it be, as the electric fan being on was a good thing.
After we let the Black shark cool down, Jordan ran it around the parking lot, and the temperature appeared to be okay. Although I hadn’t really fixed anything, we got back on the highway. A very short time later, I got another text saying that the car was heading for the red again. I took the next exit, found a gas station with a decent-sized parking lot, and advised Jordan to limp the car there.
This time I watched the fan belt as the engine ran; the belt was jumping around a lot. This rang a bell: When I was sorting out Louie, my ’72 2002tii that’s now in the BMW CCA Foundation Museum, for its maiden voyage from Louisville to Boston sixteen months ago, it had an almost explosive amount of churning in the coolant in the radiator, the root cause of which turned out to be that the fan belt wasn’t tight because the alternator bushings were bad. This caused the belt to alternately slip and grab on the water-pump pulley, even though I couldn’t see it happening. I wondered if the same thing could be happening to the Black Shark. I thought that the thing to do was , by hook or by crook, to get the belt tight, and then see if the cooling problem went away.
There were two ways to do this: One was to install a shorter belt. One complication, though, was that on an M30 engine, the power-steering-pump belt is in front of the fan belt, so that belt must come off first in order to change the fan belt. Loosening the tension on the power-steering belt is easiest done from under the car. Unfortunately, because the Black Shark has a low front air dam, it’s challenging to get a floor jack under it and get the nose in the air. Plus, we didn’t have a shorter fan belt with us anyway.
The other thing to try was a little hack engineering.
The slot in the fan-belt-adjustment bracket can be lengthened with a file. This allows the alternator to be swung farther over on the track, which in turn allows the belt to be tightened. It’s a trick I’ve employed a few times. Unfortunately, to do this, you need a rat-tail file, and although I would’ve sworn I’d packed one, I couldn’t find it.
I was about to drive to a nearby hardware store and buy a file when caravan member Bob Sawtelle noticed that there was a motorcycle shop right across the parking lot from the gas station. I removed the alternator bracket from the car and sent the Kid into the motorcycle shop with it, and sure enough, out he came with a borrowed rat-tail file. I couldn’t help but think of the scene in Mad Max: Thunder Road where Charlize Theron hands Tom Hardy a file and says, “You want to get that thing off your face?”
I have to admit, it was a joy to have reached the point in age and experience where I could diagnose the problem, remove the bracket, say to the Kid, “Okay, now file that slot and make it as long as you can without cutting through the end of the bracket,” and then just sit in the shade while his young strong self worked at it. My role was to buy him a can of cold iced tea so he didn’t heat-stroke himself doing it. (I think I handed him the iced tea and said, “This is me not feeling responsible for you.”)
About twenty minutes later, the slot had been elongated by about three-eighths of an inch. I reinstalled the bracket, got the fan belt good and tight, and ran the engine. The jumpiness was gone; the fan belt now looked rock-solid. The Kid drove the car up and down a local road, and came back reporting that nothing looked amiss. The convoy gently eased back onto the highway, hugging the right lane in case another hasty exit was necessary.
I waited for the report, and soon had it: “It’s good!” The Kid must’ve voice-dictated me three texts in the remaining hundred miles thanking me for solving the problem.
With the Black Shark’s cooling-system excitement apparently behind us, we relaxed and knocked off the last hundred miles, which included some spectacular vistas and long sweepers as we approached Asheville.
Not long after that, we rolled into the parking lot of the event hotel for the Vintage, the Clarion in Fletcher, near the Asheville airport. One loose fan belt causing one near-overheating episode, and one errant wiper motor: not a bad thousand miles with five 40-to-45-year-old cars.
At dinner that night at the hotel, Jordan probably thanked me three more times. Very gracious. I kid him about being the Kid only for dramatic effect. He’s a good kid.
I do have a theory about why the trigger event for the Black Shark’s ascent into the red appeared to be Jordan’s turning on the air-conditioning. When you click on the air, two electric fans begin spinning: the aux fan in front of the radiator, and the blower fan inside the evaporator housing under the dash. That’s a non-trivial electrical load. The alternator has to produce that extra amperage, which makes it harder for the engine to spin it. It’s possible that the extra load from the alternator caused the already-on-the-edge belt to slip. Once a belt starts slipping, it can become glazed, which makes it slip even more. Hey, that’s my theory, and I’m sticking to it. (Can I flash my Monty Python geek cred and say that I have a theory about the brontosaurus?)
Stepping back a bit, I’ve nearly made a career out of talking about “The Big Six Things” that are most likely to strand you during a road trip in a vintage car (fuel delivery, ignition, cooling system, charging system, belts, and ball joints—the Big Seven if you want to add the clutch hydraulics that might have stranded me if I hadn’t noticed my failing clutch master cylinder in Sharkey before leaving). The fan belt is both its own belt issue as well as being a cooling-system and a charging-system issue. In this instance, the Kid was stopped by a belt that hadn’t even broken; it dragged a trip to a halt simply because it was too loose and couldn’t easily be tightened further.
I joke that if I’m 80% of what I sometimes pretend to be, it’s a good day. This was a very good day.
It was on the trip home that things went to hell.—Rob Siegel
Rob’s new recent book, Just Needs a Recharge: The Hack MechanicTM Guide to Vintage Air Conditioning, is available here on Amazon. Or you can order personally inscribed copies through Rob’s website: www.robsiegel.com.