It was back in the late 1980s. Maire Anne and I were still living at my mother’s house in Brighton. I had the run of her two-car garage because, well, she loves me, and I have a lifelong habit of occupying all available horizontal space. I’d just had my ’73 3.0CSi repainted, color-changed from Polaris Silver to Signal Red (and spare me the pearl clutching; my car, my choice, and I don’t regret it for a moment). It looked spectacular, but two things bothered me.
First, the car was still wearing its original worn Navy velour interior, which was an odd color against the red, and it looked both old and out of place. I began thinking how good tan leather would look against the new red paint. Second, it wasn’t air conditioned. I wasn’t yet the self-styled air conditioning god I pretend to be now; I eventually retrofitted a/c, but that was over a decade later.
By utter chance, the universe both answered my prayers and presented me with a conundrum. This was in those pre-Internet days when, every Wednesday at lunch, you’d run out to buy a copy of The WantAdvertiser (the local weekly printed mini-magazine of ads) as soon as it hit the stand, and plow through it to see if there was anything you needed to drop everything for and buy. And, that Wednesday, indeed there was; I saw an ad for a purportedly rust-free, running, and intact 1975 BMW 3.0CS for $4,800. Yeah, right, I thought, but you never know unless you look, and the car was only in Cambridge, so I shot right over.
Incredibly, the ad was accurate. It was a car that had been imported from Saudi Arabia, so even though it was a ’75, it had small bumpers. The color was originally Sienna Braun metallic, but it had been repainted white, I assume because of the Saudi Arabian heat. And it had a tan leather interior with working air conditioning. Once I saw it, I burned rubber to the bank and handed the seller cash before he talked himself out of selling it for what was then half of market value.
Then, the question was what to do with it. I’d just dropped a fair chunk of change on the CSi’s new paint, chrome, and rubber (the only time in 35 years I’ve ever had an outer body restoration performed on a car). Yet despite its appearance, my beautiful red CSi was, sadly, a rattlebucket, something that took me decades to resolve. The white CS was solid and quiet. And cold. Tough choice.
Enter into this picture another ad in The WantAdvertiser for not one but two more E9 coupes. Just north of Boston, in Everett, a guy claimed to have a running but rusty 2800CS and a wrecked rotted parts car which had a good black leather interior. I ran over and looked at them. The “good” car was little more than a running parts car with a dead battery and shredded seats, but once jumped, it did run, albeit with a deafeningly loud exhaust. I bought the pair for, if memory serves correctly, five hundred bucks.
So, for a very short period of time, I technically owned a total of four E9s.
I had no space in Brighton for the wrecked car, so I made a deal with the seller that I’d pick its bones where it sat and he’d dispose of it. I spent a day in Everett pulling out the interior and anything else I easily could (differential yes, engine and transmission no).
Then I needed to get the running car home. This was back in my young and stupid days before I was a risk-averse homeowner. I’d think nothing of slapping a spare expired plate on a car and driving it, legality be damned. One evening after work, Maire Anne drove me over to Everett in her Volvo 245GLT wagon. The battery in the 2800CS was still dead, but I jumped it with the Volvo, and, again, it started. (Nowadays I’d bring a fully-charged battery, but then again, nowadays I’d probably pay for a tow rather than drive such a barely-running flagrantly-illegal car.)
I carefully piloted the ratty 2800CS, which was anything but inconspicuous with its hand-sized rust blisters and its NASCAR-loud exhaust, home through post-rush-hour traffic. Then, at the intersection of Storrow Drive and Rt 28, one of the major interchanges along the north side of the Charles River, the car stalled. I tried to re-start it, but the ancient battery was not recharged by the short drive. It was the nightmare scenario that anyone who has ever done this sort of thing fears.
There was no way Maire Anne could safely position the Volvo nose-to-nose with the E9 in the middle of the intersection, so I motioned her over to the side, opened up the Volvo’s hood, and, with the engine running, pulled out the car’s battery. (Note that you should never do this, as it’s likely to pop diodes in the alternator, but I had few choices. ) I wrapped the positive battery cable in a rubber glove so it wouldn’t short out against the body, closed the hood, said to Maire Anne, “Whatever you do, don’t stall,” and ran with the battery to the dead E9 in the middle of the intersection. I hastily used the battery and jumper cables to start the car, and got it out of the sticky high-visibility situation as quickly as I could. We made it home. 30 years later, Maire Anne still tells the, “Have you ever had your husband snatch your battery from you running car and tell you DON’T STALL!” story. We never know what foolishness of ours will pass into legend. Hey, with any luck, I could be bloody Agamemnon.
I now had three E9s and a mound of parts over in Brighton. I temporarily parked the Rat, as Maire Anne and I began calling it, illegally (meaning that it was wearing an old expired plate and had no resident parking sticker) on the street. I did a four-way interior swap. The tan leather interior I craved from the white Saudi Arabian CS went into my freshly-repainted red CSi, where it still holds court (and my butt). The black leather interior from the parted-out car went into the white car. The blue velour interior from my red car replaced the ripped-up one in the Rat.
But with the red and white E9s in the garage, I didn’t have room for the 2800CS, so I parked the ratty-looking still-illegal car, with swapped plates and no parking sticker, on the street. It didn’t take long for the city of Boston to flag it and plaster one of those giant orange stickers on the windshield, warning that, if the car wasn’t off the street in 24 hours, it would be towed and crushed. I peeled off the sticker and spent a few weeks jockeying the three coupes in and out of the garage. I simply should have registered the Rat, but I was young and living in Boston. Insurance was expensive. I already had what was then a nosebleed-high number of cars insured (the two nice E9s, plus my and Maire Anne’s daily drivers).
Over the next few weeks, I advertised and sold the white 3.0CS for about twice what I’d paid for it. It was the only time I’ve ever made what might be considered windfall money on a car. That freed up one of the two spaces in the garage, so I pulled in the Rat and began readying it for use as a winter beater (or, as we say in Boston, a “wintah beatah”), the idea of which was so sacrilegious that I loved it. I replaced the exhaust, did some light sorting out of the car, and put four studded snow tires on it. It looked like it had escaped from the set of a Mad Max movie. I figured that, when winter came, I’d pull one of the other cars off the road and legally transfer the plates onto the Rat.
I can’t remember what dislodged the 2800 from the garage. It may have simply been that my daily driver (then an E28 533i) or Maire Anne’s Volvo wagon needed some attention. But it needed to go back out on the street overnight, so I tempted fate.
And lost. In the morning, the car was gone. I assumed what had happened, so I called up the Boston City Hall’s parking phone number, did the mea culpa, and asked where the car was impounded and what I needed to do to pick it up.
“It’s been crushed,” the man at the other end of the phone deadpanned.
“Come on,” I said, “Nothing moves that quickly in the city of Boston.”
“Sir,” he retorted, “Our records show that you were warned about this car, and you disobeyed the warnings. It’s been crushed.”
And that was that.
At the time, I was philosophical. I thought, well, I’d just made far more from the sale of the Saudi Arabian car than I’d lost on the purchase and repair of the Rat, I’d gotten the black interior out of the deal, and it was little more than a running parts car anyway. Really, I was most miffed about the fact that I’d just paid several hundred bucks for the new exhaust (I’d even bought a 3.0 exhaust instead of 2800 parts in case, when the car reached the end of its useful life, I needed to pull the exhaust and put it on my CSi).
But as the years passed, the Rat’s fate increasingly bothered me. The life of cars should have a natural rhythm to it. I take pride in extending that life, being the one to resurrect dead or long-dormant cars and let them continue to run, even if it’s in a niche existence. Over the years, I’ve repeatedly referred to Neil Young’s song “Long May You Run,” which is about his 1948 Buick hearse. At the end of the song, he wonders if the car is ferrying surfers down to the beach. I really hate the idea that I can’t wonder what happened to the Rat, or even entertain what other cars its parts may be keeping alive. Obviously it’s easier now that I have a garage, outlying storage spaces, a long driveway, and a Hagerty policy, but the violent end of the Rat is like a burr in my shoe, reminding me of my youthful overreach.
However, in an odd twist, when I was cleaning out parts from under my mother’s porch few years ago, I found a side-loader differential. I had to scratch my head to figure out where it came from, but I realized it must’ve been from the Rat’s whacked and rotted sister that I scavenged over in Everett. That diff is now in my Euro ’79 635CSi, whose transmission swap (a previous owner removed the dogleg close-ratio box and replaced it with an overdrive unit) and original 3.07 diff made it ridiculously long-legged. The crusty old 3.45 unit was precisely what the doctor ordered.
I guess that counts for something.—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.