Resurrecting Bertha: Adding Up The Costs

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Looking at this lengthy series on Bertha, and comparing it with the ongoing articles on my recent purchase of the Lama (the worse-than-expected 1987 E28 535i), I feel like Sylvester Stallone in the 1980s, spinning a wheel to choose between making another Rocky or Rambo film. But since last week I wrote about the highly non-essential matter of installing Bertha’s new smaller bumpers, and since we’re already getting fall’s first frost and Bertha will soon be put away for the winter, it feels like a major chapter is closing.

It’s time to add up the costs.

When I agreed to buy back Bertha from my friend Alex back in June, I wrote, in the first article in this series, that there is no universe in which the purchase makes any financial sense whatsoever, and that I was buying her back because there is only one car in which Maire Anne drove off from our wedding, and it’s this one. But with my modest income as a writer, I wanted to be careful not to dump stupid money into the car.

Bertha’s appearance is certainly, um, how to put it? Striking. You can’t possibly miss the hood that looks like lava has flowed over it, and the driver’s door that’s been in primer for 34 years. And if you look more closely, you can see dents and small bits of surface rust on every body panel. In addition, there is rust blistering on the right front fender that is transitioning into a rust hole, and some softness on one rocker.

And there is that massive cereal-bowl-size hole in the floor behind the pedal bucket.

People often ask if I’m going to paint the car, and are surprised when I answer in the negative. Most people don’t understand the cost involved; you don’t paint a car without, at a minimum, addressing surface rust, visible rust holes, and dents. It would be like painting a house that a tree hit without first repairing the damage. I can’t imagine that an outer-body restoration like that wouldn’t immediately zoom to the five-figure mark, even hunting for a bargain price. Plus, to me, Bertha is all about the story, and her distressed paint, the rust-scarred hood, and especially the door in primer, are all inextricable parts of that story.

After all, as we get older, we wear our scars. Why shouldn’t Bertha? So, no, she is not going to be painted.

I just saved myself twenty grand. Woo-hoo!

I joke, but the math was always simple. Paint Bertha? It doesn’t make sense. Don’t paint Bertha? Well, I already said that there’s not a universe in which it makes sense.

Although I don’t save pieces of papers in folders to the same degree that I used to, I will typically keep careful track of car expenses in a spreadsheet. If I bought a car with resale in mind, at some point I’ll add the expenses up so that I know what kind of headroom I have. But for a car like Louie or Bertha that I have no intention of selling, I’ll track the expenses—but not add them up. because, well, it’s just depressing if I do.

Still, with Bertha, I needed to know exactly how stupid I’d been; I needed to know how much it had cost me to buy back and resurrect the car that I sold 30 years ago because I’d turned it into an over-modified hot rod, I no longer had the space to keep both it and the 3.0CSi, and, to be perfectly candid, the drove-off-from-my-wedding-in-it thing notwithstanding, I had never really lain awake pining to have it back in the first place.

Here’s how the costs shake out.

Below are the non-discretionary costs to purchase, register, and inspect the car. (Well, the purchase was certainly discretionary, but you know what I mean.) I was enormously fortunate that, as I wrote about previously, I did not have to pay sales tax to the state of Massachusetts since I never technically relinquished ownership of the car (Alex had never legally registered it). In addition, Hagerty calculated that there was no additional incremental cost to adding it to my insurance policy.

purchase $1,500
registration $135
inspection $35
subtotal $1,670

Below is a list of all the parts I purchased while sorting out the car and getting it to the point where it was inspectable, then reliable. As anticipated, these total more than the costs to purchase the car and put it on the road, but not by much. It’s also a very handy summary of what was involved in Bertha’s resurrection.  I’d again like to thank my friend Bob Sawtelle, who gave me a set of his unused E30 basketweaves and correct-size 195/60-14 tires on long-term loan, freeing me from having to buy wheels and rubber.

exhaust resonator and brake rotors $161
rear brakes and front pads $142
head-gasket set $60
center support bearing $24
calipers $68
flexible lines $80
misc. nuts, bolts, clamps, bushings $66
machine-shop valve job $300
intake and exhaust valves $47
correct intake valve $37
valve guide $23
correct valve guide $28
clutch slave $18
heater box fan $62
fan belt $8
spare water pump $36
battery $58
misc.: antifreeze, oil, headlights $100
exhaust hangers $10
speedometer cable $40
Red Line MTL $39
sway-bar bushings $15
windshield gasket $130
windshield-frame repair supplies $35
POR15 seam sealer $15
sandpaper $12
second windshield $100
fasteners $7
horn spring and plunger $20
dust caps for basketweaves $20
alternator $86
tighter belt $10
Swepco $76
spare fuel pump $14
Hotspark ignition module $40
clutch master cylinder $60
gas-tank-level sensor O-ring $6
metal clutchline $5
subtotal $2,058

Below are the handful of items that were not strictly needed for sort-out, and were instead comfort or appearance-related.

Recaro seat webbing $33
bumper-bracket kit $260
rear bumper $75
subtotal $368

Below are air-conditioning-specific items.

condenser $35
fan $86
expansion valve $30
a/c hoses, fittings, adapters $103
compressor head $25
compressor gasket set $11
flush $10
ester oil $13
two cans R134a $15
subtotal $328

If you add it all up, it comes to… a little under $4,500—$4,424, to be precise. Or $3,728 to buy her back and get her legal and running reliably, plus about another $800 for the non-essentials of working a/c and small bumpers.

Holy crap! If I saw Bertha advertised on Craigslist for that price, I’d be burning rubber to be the first in line with a pocket full of cash. No? Not you? Just me? At that price, do you scratch your head and think, “Gee, that drove-off-from-my-wedding-in-it drug must be wicked strong in New England”? That’s fine.

I am not a wealthy man; I’m a person who makes choices. There are many things I could spend $4,424 on. But this one has brought me a lot of happiness.

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They say never to photograph a car with a tree growing through its roof—except when the tree is October-awesome and the car is Bertha.

I tend to go full-on things. I was full-on Bertha for about four and a half months. After the Lama rolled in, and I began to deal with the fact that it was far needier than I expected (including having a broken rocker arm), I went full-on for that. In the meantime, Bertha sat for two weeks, sporting her new bumpers but not going anywhere wearing them.

So a few evenings ago, I took her for a nice crisp October-evening spin. I first ripped off the packing tape that was closing off the flow of air from the heater box into the cabin. Part of the tape’s purpose was to keep hot ambient air out during the summer, and part was because I was afraid the thing was going to bloody stink of dead rodent from Bertha’s 26-year incarceration.

It’s fine. The heat is strong and clean-smelling.

I did about twenty miles, just up I-95 a few exits and back down, nailing and wailing each time I came up the ramp. Bertha is running great. The myriad big and small things that I’ve fixed add up to a damn fun car.

But then, as I got off the exit, I realized that I hadn’t brought a single tool with me. No green-handled reversible slotted and Phillips screwdriver. No 10 and 13-mm combination wrench. Nothing. Crikey, not even a voltmeter!

Bertha has made it. There is a universe in which her resurrection makes sense. As it happens, it’s the one in which I live.—Rob Siegel

Rob’s new book, Just Needs a Recharge: The Hack MechanicTM Guide to Vintage Air Conditioning, is available here on Amazon. His previous book Ran When Parked is available here. Or you can order personally inscribed copies of all of his books through Rob’s website: www.robsiegel.com.

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