The Great Winter 2018 Garage-Space Crunch

Although I spent the summer and fall cheerfully dealing with Bertha and the Lama, there’s been a cloud hanging over my head. I am relieved to report that the cloud appears to be dissipating.

Over the years, I’ve referred often to the number of cars I own, which seems to hover between seven and thirteen, and to the fact that they’re stored in multiple places. Last week, BMW CCA member Greg Menounos sent me a link to a PBS Nature piece on the squirrel, describing it as a “scatter hoarder.” Greg thought that I’d see some of myself in the furry little critter.

Well played, Greg; well played.

Initially, I was a single-location hoarder. I can easily fit three cars in the garage at my house. To squeeze more, I used to put one car on wheel dollies and slide it sideways, allowing a fourth car to be pulled in, but for the past several years, the floor of the garage has been so overrun with boxes of parts that this is no longer possible. The sliding door on the garage’s left wall accesses another carport-like space under the deck, but that long ago got filled by the lawnmower, snow blower, Lotus parts, and other detritus of life.

I began to store cars in the industrial space associated with my old geophysics job as part of a quid pro quo of my keeping a little-used work truck registered and inspected for them, but as the car numbers crept up, even that wasn’t enough.

It’s been years since my garage has been clean enough to pack in more than three cars.

So, about five years ago, I began searching for additional garage space. I looked in the suburban Boston area where I live, and found that renting half of someone’s two-car garage costs $250 to $350 a month, and even paying that amount of money, they don’t want you in and out of of the space; they want you to roll the car in after Thanksgiving and take it out on Memorial Day.

I saw, however, that farther from Boston, rents dropped off substantially. I read an ad for a $50-a-month garage space in Fitchburg, a little over 40 miles west of me, and drove out to see the space and meet the owner (Eddie). There were five spaces, each with its own roll-up door, in front of a house he was refurbishing. The spaces were small, but so are my cars. The pluses were the low cost and 24-hour access, but the minuses were the distance from my house, the lack of electricity or heat, and some amount of dampness in the spaces. “Is only one of these spaces available?” I asked.

“Right now, yes,” replied Eddie.

“Contact me,” I said, “when other spaces open up, because at that price, I will rent all five.

Eddie and I developed a rapport, and learned that we were both people who were true to our word. He’d call me as spaces became available, I’d say, “Yes, I want them,” and within eighteen months I was renting four of the five spaces for a total of $200 a month. This worked out incredibly well. Along with Hagerty’s almost laughably low insurance rates on my sub-$10,000 cars, Fitchburg has been a major enabling factor allowing the number of cars to hover around the average age of audience members at a Taylor Swift concert.

Although I’d prefer for all of the cars to be on my property or close by, that’s simply not possible. And it certainly isn’t hardship for me to jump in a vintage BMW on a Sunday morning, drive 50 minutes out to Fitchburg, and swap the car for a different one.

As winter approached, I’d typically fill the gas tanks, leave the windows cracked open to allow some air circulation, disconnect the batteries, throw covers over the cars, and kiss them goodnight until spring. When it rained heavily, Space #1, the one farthest on the left, had a little bit of leakage from the ceiling, but it wasn’t a big deal; I’d simply throw a tarp over the cover of whichever car was in that space.

Exactly which cars are in the four spaces I rent in Fitchburg varies. It’s usually anything except the 3.0CSi.

Everything was fine until this year, when we had a particularly rainy summer and fall. Eddie called me and said that the woman who rents the middle space reported that the stuff she stores in there was getting wet. I drove out there a day after there had been a lot of rain to have a look.

I was alarmed by what I saw.

I rent spaces 1, 2, 4, and 5. Number 5, the right-most space, was completely dry, but the water incursion into the spaces increased as I moved left, with #1 having water actively dripping from several places in the roof onto the car. To compound matters, the previous tenant of #1—the last space I’d rented—had put a rug down over the cement floor. I’d never removed it, and now, with the increased roof leakage, the rug was holding moisture like a giant sponge, creating a dank, humid environment in the space.

And unfortunately, by chance, the car that had been sitting in #1 was my Z3 roadster.

Even though I’d stashed the Z3 under both a cover and a tarp, due to the combination of the dripping, the rug, the Z3’s windows being cracked open, and the canvas top allowing humid air in, when I pulled off the covers, I found the Z3’s interior coated in mold. I quickly checked the Bavaria in spot #2 and the Euro 635CSi in #4; they didn’t have nearly the same invasive level of mold as the Z3, but both had some mold on their rug. Only the Z3 M coupe in space #5 was free of mold.

My poor Z3 was definitely the worse for the moisture exposure.

Obviously, this was not good. I loved the cost-effectiveness of the space, but the low cost wasn’t worth it if it was destroying my cars.

I ran down to an auto-parts store, bought some cleaning wipes, wiped the gag-inducing mold off the vinyl surfaces of the Z3, then took all four cars round-robin to a nearby car wash to vacuum the mold out of the rugs, being sure to drive them all with the windows down to air them out.

There’s no electricity in the spaces, so I couldn’t run fans. I couldn’t find DampRid or any similar dedicated moisture-absorbing desiccant product (used in RVs and trailers) in the local stores, so I simply bought a few bags of charcoal, put an open bag in each of the cars’ back seats, and left the cars closed instead of with the windows cracked open as I’d previously done.

I drove the Z3 home, and by chance, never put it back in Fitchburg again. I left Space #1 empty for months, and hoped for the best on the other three.

Over the next few weeks, Eddie and I talked several times about the problem. He said that of course he’d get the roof repaired, but that due to the expense, he’d need to raise my rent after my lease ran out in January. In addition, while the roof was being fixed, my cars would need to vacate the spaces.

I assumed that I’d need to head out there with four other drivers to ferry four cars back to Newton for a week. On the one hand, I was concerned for my cars, so I really hoped that this all could be done before the snow fell; but at the same time, if the rent went up substantially, I wouldn’t be able to afford the spaces. Suddenly, Fitchburg wasn’t my space savior but was instead a source of uncertainty and stress.

Around this time, there were also rumblings that the space associated with my old geophysics job might be closed. A former colleague of mine who still works in the facility told me that some higher-ups were coming by for a “tour.” The last time this happened was when we were in a much larger 12,000-square-foot facility in which I was keeping my 911SC, a 635CSi, and a 2002. After that “tour,” they closed it with 30 days notice, and I needed to get rid of those cars.

So, suddenly, both of my outlying storage areas seemed threatened at exactly the time that the number of cars was increasing. After all, in June, I’d bought back Bertha, and in September, I’d purchased the Lama. And breathing down my neck was the fact that Louie, my Agave ’72 tii, is slated to return home in January from its ten-month sojourn at the BMW CCA Foundation museum’s “Icon” exhibit.

Something had to give.

I had nearly three months of lead time until my Fitchburg lease came up for renewal. If, come January, I found myself with cars sitting out in the snow, I’d be an idiot. I try really hard not to be an idiot.

I made a tough decision and sold the Z3, as this was the car that was the most susceptible to moisture damage, as evidenced by the mold episode in Space #1. My friend and neighbor Kim, who used to frequently borrow the car for its top-down stress-reduction value, bought it, so it lives just around the corner from me. This knocked the number of cars down to twelve.

I tried—twice—to sell the Lama, to bail out of it for what I had in it, but both times there were no takers. This turned out to be a good thing, because now that I’ve gotten the car over the sort-out hump, I’m really enjoying driving it.

But for much of the fall, I waited for the other shoe to drop. I tried to get intel on the tour of my old job’s space. Eddie pulsed me for what my sensitivity to rent increases would be. I responded that I’d probably adjust the number of spaces I rented to keep the monthly payment about the same; that is, if he raised the rent from $50 to $100 per space, I’d probably rent two spaces instead of four.

After a few weeks, Eddie called again, saying that he’d scheduled the roof to be repaired in early December. The good news was that the rubber roof could probably be replaced in a day, so I probably didn’t need to ferry four cars to Newton and could instead just park them elsewhere on the property—but the bad news was that the quotes were higher than he expected, and this would almost certainly affect the rent increase.

Due to all of this uncertainty, I really didn’t know how many spaces I’d have come winter, or when I might get thrown out of them. I began readying my Chamonix ’72 tii and my Z3 M coupe in case I needed to put one or both up for sale.

And then it all calmed down.

The tour of the industrial space associated with my old job appeared to be pro forma, not a precursor to closure. And, for a number of reasons, the roof in Fitchburg didn’t get done. I went out there last week with the goal of checking on the cars and seeing if, with some work, I could put Bertha in #1 for the winter. The rug in #1 was soaked, and the covers of the cars in #2 and #4 did have damp spots, indicating that water had been dripping on them, but I was overjoyed to find that leaving the cars closed up (instead of with the windows cracked) and with a bag of charcoal in each one appeared to do the trick; there was no mildew in any of them. If I threw out the rug and simply put a tarp over each car cover, I felt that it would be manageable. It was sure a hell of a lot better than having cars sit outside.

This disgusting water-retaining rug had to go.

I attacked Space #1, which hadn’t held a car since I pulled the Z3 out of it in September. I cut up the disgusting rug, rolled the pieces up, and put them out on the curb. Since this was the wettest space, I hung a tarp from the ceiling, angled like a shed roof to sheet dripping water away, and put Bertha away in the space for the winter.

Bertha’s patina is all the more reason to keep her dry.

Coincidentally, while I was doing this, Eddie showed up at the property. He apologized for the delay in getting the roof done. I said that, obviously, it was his property, he could do what he wanted, but that given the choice between doing the roof after the snow began falling and my potentially having to move my cars out into the snow with very little notice, versus waiting until spring, I’d opt for the latter. After some back and forth, we made a handshake agreement that the per-space rent would go up to a manageable $75 a month and that I would continue to rent four spaces, but that the rent increase wouldn’t start until after the roof was done, which likely wouldn’t occur until spring.

All the baby Bimmers are snug as bugs in rugs. Wait; I threw OUT the rug…

And with that, the space situation appeared to stabilize, at least for a few months. I can breathe easier. The right number of cars are now safely squirreled away in the right number of spaces.

Wait a minute. Squirreled? Squirreled? Oh my god, I am a scatter hoarder!—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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