2018: A Year In BMWs

BMW E28 535i 2002 Lama Bertha

Two weeks ago, I wrote about how the combination of my steadily-increasing number of cars and the uncertainty regarding the availability and cost of the garage spaces I rent out in Fitchburg was causing problems. At the end of the piece, the problems had been resolved, at least temporarily, and I put Bertha into one of the spaces out in Fitchburg for the winter.

But even as I was writing it, this seemed like a myopic ending to the year in general—and to Bertha’s story in particular. So in these final days of 2018, I’d like to take a longer view of what has been a pretty remarkable year for me and my cars.

BMW CCA Foundation curator Michael Mitchel takes possession of Louie.

The year began with getting Louie, my Agave ’72 tii, down to the Icon exhibit at the BMW CCA Foundation in Greer, South Carolina. I was quite surprised that the car had even been accepted to be part of such a rarefied contingent, but the story of how the car’s resurrection was enabled by the kindness of strangers, or near-strangers—most of whom happened to be BMW CCA members—is a compelling one.

Louie was not the only car that was driven under its own power to the exhibit—most were trailered there—but he was certainly the only one that was driven 1,200 miles to get there. The drive down was almost the perfect road trip; the only thing that went wrong (a broken 45-year-old connector at the end of a spark plug wire) was both easily diagnosed and easily fixed.

I dropped Louie off in the capable of hands of BMW CCA Foundation curator Michael Mitchell. He explained that the plan was to put Louie next to former Roundel editor Yale Rachlin’s Alpine White 2002tii, license plate YALE R, as part of a grouping of cars that embodied the way that these boxy little sedans connect CCA members. When I went down to Greer for the opening of the exhibit and saw Louie and YALE R together, I was nearly moved to tears.

Louie sat next to YALE R at the Icon exhibit.

This wasn’t good.

Next was my annual run down to the Vintage in Asheville. The 2002 was the featured model at the Vintage (no surprise, this year being the 50th anniversary of the 2002), but rather than drive my other ’72 tii (Kugel), I decided to be a contrarian and take my ’79 Euro 635CSi.

Part of my reasoning was that I’d just completed retrofit of an air-conditioning system into the Six and wanted to see how well it worked on a long road trip. On the waydown, both the car and its newly-installed a/c behaved perfectly, but during a routine stop on the drive back, I lifted the hood to check the oil and found that the cooling fan had self-destructed and the fan clutch was free-wheeling. I yanked out the fan and its clutch (which required pulling the radiator), but I thought that as long as I was running on the highway and didn’t hit traffic, I’d probably be fine.

Then I snapped out of that fantasy and admitted to myself that the odds of my not hitting traffic on the remaining 700 miles of the drive were essentially zero, and put out the call for help.

An additional problem was that my car still had the early-style fan clutch and water pump, a setup in which the fan clutch is bolted to a nose piece on the front of the pulley. Most early cars with M30 engines like my 635CSi have had the water pump and fan clutch updated to the later style, which has no nose piece; the clutch has a nut that simply spins onto a threaded boss on the front of the water pump. Thus, the odds of finding someone along the route home who had early-style parts were slim.

CCA service adviser Paul Muskopf advised me to consider converting the water pump, fan clutch, and pulley to the newer style, and put me in touch with Luther Brefo in northern Virginia. By the time I got to Brefo’s shop, he had all the parts laid out for me, and let me do the work in the driveway. It was yet another one of those times when I was very thankful for the network of kind souls that I know through the CCA.

Luther Brefo (second from right) saved my bacon on the way home from the Vintage.

There was also a small event that happened on the way to the Vintage. It seemed minor at the time, but like the idea that your world isn’t real in the movie Inception, it grew to preoccupy me. While I was driving down to Asheville, I received a phone call from BMW CCA member Daniel Sherron; he had just bought back the highly-modified 2002 he’d sold to a friend of his 26 years ago. It had been sitting for years.

Daniel called ostensibly to ask me about the process of re-starting the engine, but his car’s list of modifications—high-compression pistons, Webers, hot cam, five-speed, stiff suspension—read like the mods I’d done decades ago to Bertha, the ’75 2002 in which Maire Anne and I had driven off from our wedding. I’d owned Bertha from 1984 to 1990, then sold it to my friend Alex. Not long after that, Bertha was stolen, and had engine damage when she was was recovered, so Alex rolled the car into the garage behind his neighbor’s house. It sat there for 26 years.

I’d spoken with Alex regularly about Bertha, but my conversation with Daniel was the triggering event that got me thinking about buying Bertha back. When I returned home, I broached the subject with Alex; one thing led to another, and before I knew what had happened—or fully understood its consequences—the deal was done: Bertha was coming home.

However, the car was not only in absolutely horrible condition, it was in a garage that no longer had a driveway leading to it.

Would YOU buy this back and resurrect it? I didn’t think so.

Extricating Bertha from her backyard-facing tomb without a driveway was far from trivial.

The process of getting Bertha mobile so that I could drive her out of her landlocked location and up onto the street took about a week; the larger sort-out took months.

There was a brief window during which it looked like it was within the envelope of possibility to drive Bertha to BMW CCA Oktoberfest in Pittsburgh. I gave it my best shot, but despite folks on Facebook mercilessly egging me on, it just wasn’t in the cards; Louie had been a willing participant in his own resurrection, acting like a faithful dog that really wants you to take it for walk, but Bertha was like a cranky grandparent awoken too soon from a nap.

So I drove Kugel to O’Fest. Kugel is a well-sorted tii with a/c capable of producing 32ºF vent temperatures, so this was about as far from hardship as it could be. And pulling up to the hotel in Kugel and seeing three 507s parked in front is something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.

When attending Oktoberfest, this is how you know you’re at the right hotel.

Parking Kugel at the concours along the river at Heinz Field, with part of the Pittsburgh skyline in the background, was a gas.

Upon returning from Oktoberfest, I dived back into Bertha’s resurrection. The car allowed itself to be slowly dragged across the threshold of viability: There was one glorious moment when I nailed the car on an entrance ramp and experienced, for the first time in nearly 30 years, the Webers opening up and the engine coming on the cam, but in general, the sort-out process was a highly incremental procedure.

Still, by the end of the summer, Bertha reached the point where I could simply hop in, twist the key, and go. The car’s snappy engine and go-Kart-like suspension made it an absolute hot-rod hoot to drive, and in a stable of twelvecars, Bertha became the one I’d hop into in order to bust some stress.

By the fall, Bertha was looking good (at least to me) and driving even better.

In writing nearly three months of weekly pieces on Bertha, it was perhaps easy for me to miss the forest for the trees, to not see exactly how unlikely and amazing this all was. So let me convey it here. The circum-stances under which I bought back Bertha were unusual. Yeah, it was the car Maire Anne and I drove off from our wedding in, and that gave the idea of buying it back some unique emotional pull, but I never pined for Bertha. It wasn’t like I spent 30 years thinking, “I never should’ve sold that car.” The primary reason I’d sold it years back was that we’d just bought the house in Newton, it had only a one-car garage, and that garage needed to hold my 3.0CSi.

But the secondary reason I’d sold it was that I’d built Bertha when I still used to do high-performance driving events, and for an around-town car, it had become over-modified: too stiff. Too raspy-sounding. Awful gas mileage. In buying it back and resurrecting it, I had no idea whether I could rejuvenate the car’s go-Kart characteristics, and if I did, I didn’t know whether or not I’d like them. The closely-coupled facts that Bertha drove loud, fast, snotty, and proud, and that I liked it, were quite remarkable.

Finding that the Lama had a broken rocker arm was certainly one of the low points of the automotive year.

Then, in September, I began the Lama adventure: I pulled the trigger on a sight-unseen purchase of a 1987 E28 535i with a Lama-colored interior that I found on Craigslist in Tampa, Florida. I thought that all of the risk was baked into the low ($1,400) price and the description that the car started, ran, drove, and stopped. I nearly flew down to Tampa to do Ran When Parked II and drive it back, but when I estimated the minimum cost to do so at $650 and got a $700 shipping quote, I figured I’d be an idiot not to ship it.

Good thing, too, as the car turned out to have a broken rocker arm.

When I discovered the broken rocker, I tried to bail out of the car for what I had in it, but I had no takers, so I reluctantly went down the rabbit hole of pulling and rebuilding the head. Once I had the head back on and the car running, I again tried to dump the Lama, and again found little interest, so I stopped focusing on the dollars and instead knocked through the punch list of items needed to get the car inspected and sorted.

As fall turned to winter, there was a brief period during which both Bertha and the Lama were equally drivable, but the short-term punch list for Bertha had nearly reached its end, and I still had things to do on the Lama. Although I badly wanted to cap Bertha’s story with a road trip, I had to admit that I was out of time; with a sad heart, I drove Bertha out to Fitchburg and put her away for the winter. As I did so, I wondered if Bertha felt like Jessie in the movie Toy Story: loved by an owner, abandoned and put into storage for many years, only to be rescued and face storage yet again.

The long-term fate of Bertha isn’t exactly clear. That’s not to say that  I’m going to turn around and sell it; no worries there. I enjoy driving the car far too much to entertain that. I’m referring more to how the car is likely to be used. With its dinner-plate-sized rust blisters, it’s tempting to think that I don’t care about what happens to the car and will thus drive it in any and all weather. This would likely run it into the ground, to quickly turn surface rust into rampant rust-through. I am not going to take a car that survived for the last 26 years because it was stored in a garage and, after spending months resurrecting it, rot it out in short order through careless use.

On the other hand, the idea that I resurrected it only to have it become one of a number of little-used cars doesn’t feel right, either. 2018 will, unfortunately, end with this as an unresolved question.

What becomes of the Lama isn’t clear, either. I bought it thinking that I could make a little money off it, but that possibility pretty much flew out the window when I discovered the broken rocker arm. Unlike Bertha, whose sort-out was an almost agonizingly incremental process, the Lama made a quantum leap from just-around-the-block driving to a 20-mile Interstate run. The more I drive it, the more I, who am not really an E28 person, understand the appeal. After I’d put Bertha away for the winter, I loved having the Lama at the house as the knock-around vintage BMW.

The day before Christmas, the Lama got a thumbs-up from a guy in an E46 M3 in the Home Depot parking lot. It made my whole day.

So I’ll always think of 2018 as the year of Bertha and the Lama. Their friendly rivalry will probably continue into 2019. On the one hand, after her long slumber, Bertha deserves a proper road trip and coming-out party at the Vintage. On the other hand, the featured model for the Vintage 2019 is the 5 Series, and E28s will likely be out in force….

… so maybe I should hold onto the Lama and drive it to the Vintage, and take Bertha to Oktoberfest 2019 in Greer.

It is a happy problem to have. Onward into 2019! May your cars not slumber too long, and may your rocker arms remain unbroken.—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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