I gave a talk in Huntsville Alabama last weekend at the Heart of Dixie chapter’s annual kick-off party. In the talk, I described the twelve cars I currently own and where they’re garaged. I made note of the fact that it was actually a good thing I didn’t drive Louie home from the BMW CCA Foundation the prior weekend because, even ignoring the whole issue of the weather, I had one too few garage spaces, and to make room for Louie, I would’ve needed to pull the Lama out of the garage and park it in the driveway, leaving the Lama exposed to the winter elements.
As soon as I said it, I realized the linguistic and automotive back-flip I’d just performed. I joked at how I’d just said “I have one too few garage spaces” and not “I own one too many cars.” I also noted that I’m better at accumulating cars than at selling them. It reminded me of the interview with the Wall Street cocaine addict in the 1980’s who said that he thought he had a cash-flow problem, not a drug problem.
When I left my engineering job four years ago to work for Bentley Publishers, my salary dropped by more than half. When I lost the job at Bentley and became a self-employed writer two years ago, income was not quite halved again, and with no benefits. Between the writing income and Maire Anne’s insect-related business (long story), we make enough to keep the creditors at bay, but, even the space constraints notwithstanding, there’s not the kind of money for me to keep mindlessly buying cars without selling some of them.
And yet, I’ve been continuing to do exactly that. Last June, I bought back Bertha, and over the months, dropped about $4,500 into the car. Then I bought the Lama, thinking it was a flip I’d make some coin on, only to find that the car had a broken rocker arm. I dropped about the same amount into it as Bertha. And then I decided that, by gum, this will be the winter of the Lotus—I will get the engine in my ’74 Europa Twin-Cam Special reassembled. That, I assure you, does not come cheap. And once you’re committed, the faucet keeps running. What am I supposed to do, install a timing chain that last spun 40 years ago instead of spending the seventy bucks to replace it? And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Then, other expenses piled on. A few plane trips for both Maire Anne and I. Health insurance. The bill for the next six months of garage rental in Fitchburg. I’m not really a guy who budgets, but I watch the bank balance like a hawk, I hear the big financial sucking sound, and I certainly see when something has to give.
Now, this isn’t new. I came to the same reckoning two years ago when I sold my ’87 E30 325is. It was a beautiful original unmolested car with 144,000 miles on it and pretty shiny red paint. I bought it for four grand, kept it for two years, did a bit of maintenance on it, and sold it for what was then the eye-popping sum of $8,000. Now, no one bats an eyelash at that number. Still, I don’t really regret it, as a) I needed the money, and b) it’s what enabled me to buy Louie two years ago.
Then, in the summer of 2017, I reluctantly sold Old Blue, a heavily-patina’d decade-dead ’73 2002tii into which someone had dropped a hot injected motor with a reground cam. After I resurrected it, the car positively screamed. I hated to let it go, but I needed the eleven grand more than I needed three tiis.
Then, this past fall, I culled the Z3 (a.k.a. “Zelda the therapy car”) from the herd. It was an easy decision. I had no room for it, it couldn’t sit outside without getting mildewed to death, and I could buy another one in a heartbeat if I wanted to. In fact, since I sold it to a neighbor/friend, I could probably buy this one back in a heartbeat if I wanted to.
I show the E30, Old Blue, and Zelda to remind myself that, all joking aside, I do sell cars when I need to.
So really, it was natural that the Lama was next under the magnifying glass. E28s are cool, but they aren’t really passion cars for me; as I said, I’d really bought the car to flip. Perhaps I was karmically smacked precisely for such hubris, but hey, it had worked out pretty well with the E30. When I discovered the broken rocker in September, I tried to dump the car. but not surprisingly I had no takers. Then, once the head was rebuilt, I again floated the still-unregistered car for sale, and again got no real interest. So, in mid-November, I made the car legal and ponied up for registration, title, inspection, taxes, and insurance, knowing that it would be four to six weeks before the state of Massachusetts sent me a new title. During that period of late fall and early winter, I drove the car often, crossing small items off the punch list. While my appreciation for the car grew tremendously, and while I entertained holding onto it and driving it to the Vintage (where the featured model this year is the 5 Series) in the spring, I always knew that the Lama was sojourning at the house. It was never brought in for the long-term; I was really just a foster parent.
Even though the fact that I hadn’t come home with Louie the weekend before last was unexpected, the issue of having to put the Lama outside to get Louie inside, and how perhaps it might be better to sell the Lama than have it exposed for the winter, had been percolating through my brain for weeks.
So when I got home from the Huntsville talk, I updated the text of the Craigslist ad that no one had bitten on in November. I write my ads in warts-and-all fashion, so it was extremely satisfying to see how many small repairs I’d done since the fall. I no longer needed to apologize for the non-functional heater blower motor, the bad SI board, the dead fuel sender, and the fact that it was unregistered (plus, the title had arrived over the holidays). I put the updated ad on Craigslist with a $4,250 asking price, then linked to it on my Facebook page and shared it on the Vintage and E28 pages with a short no-BS preamble saying that four grand would buy the car, and for any less I’d probably just keep it through the spring and drive it to the Vintage.
A few hours later, I got a message from Jim Strickland. I’ve never met Jim, but we’ve been Facebook friends since this summer. He has a 2002 he’s trying to get ready to drive to the Vintage this spring. His wife Susan (who owns a Triumph Stag; instant cred there, right?) had bought him one of my books for his birthday, and I’d swapped a couple of messages with both of them that made me instantly like them. Jim and Susan live in Birmingham. They already had messaged me saying how sorry they were that they couldn’t hear me talk in Huntsville (they both work in health care and were both on duty), but this message was different.
“Okay, Rob, I’m here at work, still sad over missing meeting you in Huntsville. Then your FB ad for the Lama pops up. My wonderful wife Susan has given me the OK to make a $4000 offer for the Lama. We would fly to Boston and drive it home to Alabama if it’s okay with you.”
Jim and I then spoke for nearly half an hour. I like to be a bit of a Boy Scout about these things. I hate the idea that someone might buy a car from me sight-unseen because they trust that guy whose articles they read, only to be disappointed. Everything on the Lama I’m aware of was disclosed in the ad, but I sent Jim additional photos of the rust spots on the car. I also said that, although I wasn’t aware of anything that would prevent the car from being driven the 1200 miles from Boston to Birmingham, there was risk in such a venture, particularly during winter in a rear-wheel-drive car with summer tires on it. Finally, I recommended that, before he pull the trigger on the Lama, he should use Searchtempest to look in, say, a 500 mile radius of Birmingham and see if there were other E28s closer to home that lit his fire. (This is the sort of thing that causes Maire Anne to accuse me of actively trying to frighten off buyers.)
The next day, I received this message from Jim:”Okay, Rob, we didn’t see anything reasonable within 500 miles on Searchtempest. We have changed our offer to $4250, and we will arrange to ship the Lama. Your advice is good not to add long trip at first.” I then went into turbo Boy Scout mode, expressing concern that owning the Lama might pull time away from him readying his 2002 for the Vintage, which his where is energy really seemed to be, but saying that, for that price, if he bought a new power antenna and new injectors, I’d install them, and would put a gauge set on the air conditioning to suss out its status (I haven’t even turned it on). Jim said he’d mail me a check in the morning.
So that’s where we are. The check, when it arrives, will help stanch the bleeding in my bank account. Having one more garage space will enable me to get Louie home, whenever that happens, and put all the rust-prone children to bed inside. And having one fewer car will lesson the total automotive-related maintenance expenses. (As I write in my upcoming book, Resurrecting Bertha, “Let’s be candid, the biggest expense isn’t really “maintenance,” it’s that you keep screwing with the car. You decide it needs the correct original alloy wheels, or that it’s showing too much wheel well and it needs lowering springs to settle it down an inch and a half. If the car is within mechanical groping range, you’re going to keep doing this, and it’s going to keep sucking money.”)
As soon as the frigid weather caused by the polar vortex dissipates, and I can do the work I promised for Jim on the Lama without risking having my fingers be like the kid’s tongue in A Christmas Carol, I’ll get right on it.—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.