Getting Louie Home (Again): Part I

BMW 2002 Icon Exhibit BMW CCA Foundation

Louie, the sort-of-survivor 1972 2002tii that I bought sight-unseen in Louisville almost exactly two years ago, has spent the last eleven months at the BMW CCA Foundation as part of their “Icon” exhibit. With the exhibit closing the weekend of January 19, I knew that I was going to need to make arrangements to get the car back home.

As it happened, those arrangements fell neatly into place all by themselves—or so I thought. Although I drove Louie down from Boston to the Foundation in Greer, South Carolina, in late February last year, I entertained the possibility of shipping him back and saving myself the travel. But then Foundation executive director Scott Dishman called me, said they were planning a closing celebration for the Icon exhibit, and asked me to speak, along with my Roundel colleague (and author of the Icon book) Jackie Jouret. A day later, my good friend Andrew Wilson said he was driving down to attend the closing, and asked me if I wanted to ride shotgun.

Just like that, I thought, Well, that seals it; I guess I’m driving down with Andrew and driving Louie back.

Of course, weather was a wild card, as it always is. When I bought Louie, he’d been dead for a decade, and I very much wanted to have the adventure of going down to Louisville, getting him running, and road-tripping him home—so I did exactly that. One of the problems I encountered was that the heater box was leaking; at the time, I addressed the problem by bypassing the heater box, which was fine, as long as temperatures didn’t plummet. And they didn’t; as it happened, I did the thousand-mile drive home during an unseasonably warm spell in the winter of 2017, during which I hit rain, but no snow.

Similarly, when I drove Louie down to the Foundation last year, although I’d taken great pains to rebuild the car’s leaking heater box so that I’d have heat, by the time I reached Greer, it was so warm outside that I was in a T-shirt and sweating.

However, for both of those trips, I was able, at least to some extent, to determine my departure date, and did in fact slot them in when temperatures were forecast to be above-average for the drives. In contrast, the Icon’s closing celebration was set for a specific weekend, and I didn’t really have a Plan B. I knew that I’d be safe and secure driving down with Andrew in his snow-tire-shod 2007 X3, but if the weather turned bad on the return drive, I didn’t relish taking Louie and his rust-free floorboards and frame rails and summer Kumhos into the howling maw of a Nor’Easter or its immediate aftermath, considering the amount of road salt that was likely to be dumped.

I floated that concern on Facebook, and because because this is such a wonderful club, I was showered with not one but two separate offers to store the car in or near Greer if need be. In addition, Jake Metz, in whose pole barn in Louisville Louie was resurrected, offered that I could use him as a bail-out: Head to Louisville, drop the car off in the pole barn, and fly home from there.

I was incredibly grateful for such generosity. It’s also good to have options.

The plan was for Andrew to pick me up on Thursday, so the day before, I did some packing. It felt a little odd, packing for a trip in a car that wasn’t even at my house, but I had a pretty good handle on what I needed. When I drove Louie down to the Foundation last March, I’d packed an aluminum floor jack, aluminum jack stands, and a decent tool kit in the trunk, so I didn’t need any of those items. What I wanted was the stuff I’d shipped home last year, which included cooling-system stuff, ignition and injection-system stuff, and electrical troubleshooting stuff, each in its own USPS flat-rate box. In the perpetual chaos that is my garage, I was relieved to find these boxes sitting largely untouched on the shelf.

This photo Michael Mitchell sent me showed that the fluid level was above the hose to the clutch on the left, so low fluid wasn’t the problem.

One complicating factor was the fact that Foundation curator Michael Mitchell had told me that Louie’s clutch hadn’t worked in a couple of months. The symptom was that the transmission appeared to shift fine with the engine off, but with the engine running, the car couldn’t be put into any gear. When I sorted out Louie enough to drive him home nearly two years ago, I’d replaced both the clutch slave and master cylinder, so I thought it unlikely that either of those components was the culprit, but whenever I say, “Well, it can’t be X,” I try to realize that X is a blind spot I should see past.

I asked Michael to check the brake-fluid reservoir that feeds the clutch. He photographed it for me, and it looked fairly full, so the problem didn’t appear to be lack of fluid. That left air in the line, a stuck clutch disc, or hydraulic failure as potential culprits. Since I wouldn’t know what the problem was until I laid eyes and hands on the car, and since the odds of obtaining a clutch master and slave in Greer on a Sunday morning are probably zero, I looked online, found the two parts for a total of $110, and had them shipped directly to the Foundation. I hope that I’m wrong and don’t need to install them on Louie, in which case I can just keep them in inventory in my garage for the next 2002 that needs them.

 

What, doesn’t EVERYONE travel with spare wiper arms?

There were a few other tasks, such as pulling the wiper arms and blades off my other tii, Kugel, so that I could use them to replace Louie’s. (Louie has hisoriginal wiper arms that only accept the original 13″ rubber inserts, whereas Kugel’s are the newer style on which commercially-available snap-on wiper blade assemblies will fit.) And I needed to remember to take the new set of ignition wires I’d purchased to replace the 47-year-old wires on Louie, one of which suffered a broken plug connector 100 miles from Greer last year. After that, it was just the standard stuff of clothing, computer, cables, chargers, and bags of road food.

Andrew picked me up at around 7:00 a.m. on Thursday morning in his X3, and we headed south under blue skies. It’s been an unusually snow-free winter thus far in Massachusetts, with only one snowfall back before Thanksgiving. But as we headed south through New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and into West Virginia, we began to see snow on the ground and substantial amounts of salt on the roads from a snowstorm that had occurred last week.

When we crossed into Virginia late in the afternoon, it began snowing. At first it was light flurries, but by the time we arrived at that evening’s hotel in Staunton, there was starting to be some actual accumulation. This was quite surprising, as the weather predictions we’d both seen appeared to show no snow on Thursday, and snow moving into New England only when we’d be far south of it.

The evening’s snow in Staunton was just the beginning.

As all of this was happening, I began to play two weather-related games. First, as we headed south, I’d check the weather app on my phone and see what the predicted weather was for the return trip. From Boston down nearly to the North Carolina line, it showed snow on Saturday and/or Sunday, followed by plummeting temperatures (like 15 degrees) on Monday.

Not good.

The second was the “At what point in deteriorating weather would I quit driving Louie and find a hotel room?” game. I decided that, although obviously I’d prefer not to drive over any salted roads whatsoever, I did have to get the car home; sometimes you need to play the hand you’re dealt, and as long as the salt was dry, I figured I’d pilot Louie over salted roads, even if I cringed while doing it. And I resolved that I wouldn’t have a cow over a few isolated flurries.

But by the time we arrived at the hotel and snow was actually accumulating on the roads, I turned to Andrew and said, “I wouldn’t be driving Louie in this; I would’ve already have bailed out.” Once we checked into the hotel, I looked at the weather forecast for New England. They were predicting fairly significant snowfall for the weekend, four to eight inches if not more, followed by frigid temperatures.

Michael Mitchell clued me into the fact that my friend Mario Langsten, owner of VSR1 Racing in Portsmouth New Hampshire, was driving a trailer down with Scott Hughes’ Miller and Norburn 2002 race car in it, and thus there might be room in the trailer on the way back. On Thursday evening, I spoke with Mario at some length and learned that, unfortunately for me, he’d already committed to picking up a car and a bunch of engines, so the trailer was full for the return trip.

But while we were on the phone, Mario gave me some advice from the perspective of an expert body man: The advice was, simply, don’t. Don’t risk exposing a beloved largely rust-free survivor car to a combination of salt and snow. It’ll work its way into any surface corrosion and into unsealed seams in places you can’t see, and you’ll never get it all out by simply power-washing the undercarriage.

Mario’s candid advice was that if I had the possibility of storage in or near Greer and could put off the return trip, I wouldn’t regret it. One always appreciates the advice of an expert with deep knowledge in a particular area, especially when he could’ve said, “Oh, hell, just drive it home; if it rusts, I’ll fix it for you.”

Another odd thought occurred to me. My garage is currently occupied with Kugel, the Lama, and the ever-dead Lotus. I was expecting to have to pull the Lama out and put it into the driveway in order to make room for the garage to receive Louie. But I wasn’t even thinking about the possibility that when I got home, the driveway would be covered in snow, or that I wouldn’t be able to get the garage door open—and the weather forecast seemed to show that this was looking increasingly likely.

So, as I write this, I’m thinking that the story of Louie’s return home is less likely to be a road-trip story and more likely to be a deferment. I am preparing to engage the two people who made generous offers of space for Louie and see if that is feasible. I’ll let you know next week.—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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