Full-On Into The Rites Of Spring

I tend to go full-on in all things. For a glorious week 27 months ago, I was full-on resurrecting Louie from his decade-long snooze. Last summer, for nearly three months I went full-on resurrecting Bertha after she’d been sitting for 26 years. My gaze then turned to the Lama, which I bought sight-unseen, not knowing it had a cracked head. Returning it to functionality fully occupied me—full-on—through last fall.

But ever since Christmas, I’ve not only been full-on in regard to my ’74 Lotus Europa Twin Cam Special, my focus has been positively laser-like. As I’ve written, I bought the car, with a seized-from-sitting-since-1979 engine, in June 2013. I promptly tore out its drivetrain, which rendered the car immobile in my garage. Although there were short bursts of activity, for most of the past six years, the car has just sat.

With a stalled project, there often comes a reckoning when you realize that you either need to dig yourself out from under it or dump it—and the Lotus had reached that point.

My post-Christmas push was due to my coming down on the “dig” side of that decision, coupled with the availability of some long out-of-stock parts. But although the mood in my garage has been utterly dominated by the Lotus since Christmas, it hasn’t been the only car in there. As I’ve explained, the garage can hold up to four small cars in two rows if you put Car #3 on roller dollies, slide it sideways, and pull in Car #4, but it’s been years since I’ve been able to do that due to the fact that a partially disassembled Lotus (or any car) takes up far more space than an assembled one.

When I sold the Lama in January, it freed up that #3 garage space nearest the door. The space would normally have been immediately reclaimed by Louie, but if you recall, due to weather, Louie never made it home from his year-long stay at the BMW CCA Foundation’s “Icon” exhibit; the car instead became the guest of Lance White down in Cincinnati. It’s still there—and, since I was still in full-on Lotus-engine-rebuild mode, the garage space naturally got eaten up by the Lotus engine, stand, transaxle, and related parts that spilled out from the car like an overflowing hot-fudge sundae, one in which the whipped cream, nuts, and cherry are all weird, British, expensive, and profoundly annoying.

Kugel is shown hovering patiently in the background of many of the Lotus motor’s assembly photos.

So, since about New Years, the only other car in the garage has been Kugel, my Chamonix ’72 tii. I’d driven Bertha out to Fitchburg and swapped her for Kugel back in December, the rationale being that I might want to sell Kugel in the spring, but he first needed some of my time. In early January, I replaced his dying starter motor and solved a long-standing cold-start issue (traced to my own stupidity of wiring the cold-start valve to the accessory switch, which caused it to shut off fuel flow while cranking the engine, which was exactly when you need it to be on). I did a few other tasks, such as the steering-wheel swap described last week, performed a little engine-compartment clean-up, and washed and vacuumed the car—but then I got sucked into Lotus Land for four-and-a-half solid months, and Kugel just sat on the mid-rise lift, better for the attention, but not quite fully gussied-up for sale. There was so much LRC (Lotus-related crap) in the way that I couldn’t even take the car down off the lift without first moving a mound of tools and parts.

My new plan was that as soon as it was clear that March really had gone out like a lamb, I’d swap Kugel for Bertha and begin readying Bertha for the 3,000-mile round trip to MidAmerica 02Fest in Eureka Springs, Arkansas.

But unfortunately, unrelated events in my personal life took that off the table.

In the meantime, work continued feverishly on the Lotus. I brought the car right up to the water’s edge of revival. The drivetrain went back in. The rear suspension went back on. New cooling hoses were installed. I had oil pressure. I had fuel. I had spark. But early this week, a valve-adjustment issue (this is a shimmed DOHC engine like an S14) made me stop until I was dead certain that I wasn’t going to damage anything if I tried to start it.

As I said, prior to my focus on the Lotus, there were always two other fun vintage BMWs in the garage at any time, so on many weekends when the weather’s good, I’ll typically spend a few satisfying hours jockeying one of them out to Fitchburg or Woburn to swap it for one of the five other cool cars, immensely enjoying the drive. But instead of living that dream, here I was, obsessively trying to drag this damn Lotus across the finish line so that I could make it a movable—dare-I-dream-it? Even drivable!—motoring object instead of simply a life-size piece of Matchbox garage art occupying precious real estate in my garage. I left the washed-and-vacuumed Kugel marooned up on the lift so that I could resume readying him for a potential sale at a later date.

So instead of being able to fire up one of the nine cool cars—eight if you count only the running ones—to run to Trader Joe’s for milk and cereal on a Sunday morning, and embarking on an epic drive to MidAmerica 02Fest in Bertha, who hasn’t seen a road trip since she was put away in the early 1990s, on the fourth week of March, I wasn’t driving anything. My car-guyness had degenerated into little more than punch lists and stress. And thus I entered late March with a very uncharacteristic feeling: I’m not enjoying this.

So what do you do? To quote the legendary Denise McCluggage, “Drive, she said.”

As if on cue, a most surprising thing happened. I received an e-mail from a gentleman in Wellesley—one town over—saying that he has a 1968 BMW 1600 Voll (full) cabriolet; he wanted to know if I’d be interested in meeting him and the car. I could see the rare car, and he could use me as a sounding board for some potential repair and restoration work. He left me a phone number. I called him up, we chatted, and agreed to connect at noon in the parking lot of a Marriott halfway between our homes.

It was a gorgeous spring day. I thought, This is perfect. I’ll shake off some dust and demons and take Kugel to meet this fellow and his 1600 cabriolet. I realized how silly it was that I was hesitant to drive Kugel simply because it was up on the lift, Lotus parts were blocking it both from moving down and rolling forward, and I didn’t want to get it dirty lest I have to wash and vacuum it again. In less than an hour, I moved the crap, returned the car to zero elevation, twisted the negative battery cable back onto its terminal, and smiled when I cracked the key, hit the cold-start push button, and the car started easily.

I pulled Kugel out of the garage and into the sunshine for the first time since December. He looked good.

Kugel looked sharp at the top of the driveway.

And then I thought… Registration! I checked the rear plate, and sure enough, the tag read “18.” The registration had had expired over the winter. I was virtually certain that I’d renewed it, but I still needed to put the new sticker on the plate. I went into the house and tore the place apart, but could not find the registration. I checked online and confirmed that I had in fact renewed it. Where could it be?

Then I had an epiphany: I probably put it in the car. Sure enough, I found it in the glovebox. I peeled the “19” sticker off the wax paper in the envelope, and stuck it on the plate. Okay, legal. Check.

About an hour later, when the time came to leave to meet the fellow with the cabriolet, I hopped in the tii, ready to soak up the spring sun and the vintage BMW vibe I so clearly needed. I turned the key, and… click.

What is this, I thought, a cruel joke?

Leaving a battery with the negative terminal disconnected and putting it back on by hand without tightening it with a wrench makes it possible that the connection is poor. If you’ve done this and the click thing happens, often all it takes is a twist to better seat the connector. I tried that three times, and no dice. I did the same thing on the positive side. Nope.

I rolled my eyes, opened the garage back up, got a 10- and a 13-mm wrench and a battery-terminal brush, gave everything a proper cleaning and tightening, turned the key, and electrical order was restored to my tii-related universe.

I drove the two miles in Kugel through bright spring sunshine over to the Auburndale Marriott, and there in the parking lot was a pretty little white 1600 Voll cabriolet. I spent a delightful 45 minutes with the owner, who’s had the car since 1980. I donned the Tyvek and crawled around and under it. There was rust at the bottom of the left front fender that continued into the rocker, and a little rust splitting of the right rear floor pan, and the right side of the rear clip was pushed in very slightly, but other than that, the car was in beautiful unrestored survivor condition, not unlike Kugel.

The owner let me take the 1600 cab for a drive. Obviously, I love 2002s, having owned three dozen since 1982. And I have a weakness for convertibles, particularly in the first flush of spring. But I’d never experienced those passions combined in the form of an E114 cabriolet. The effect was immediate and dramatic; I mean, here was the 2002 dashboard, so familiar to me that it’s nearly imprinted on my retinas. Here was the whole spate of familiar 2002-related sensations. But added onto that was that whole body-relaxation response that comes from driving a full convertible—so much more visceral than cranking open a sunroof. The combination of lifelong familiarity and “What’s this? Sun on my face and wind in my hair while driving an E114?” was absolutely glorious.

The 1600 Voll cabriolet was unrestored and lovely.

The 1600 cab lacked the pep and braking of my tii, but other than the shift lever having the play of a canoe paddle, there wasn’t much wrong with it. The owner talked about his goals for the car. Basically, he wanted the rust addressed and the car prettied up (I mean, who doesn’t?). I gave him my lecture on why even the most minor bodywork and paint isn’t cheap, and recommended that he talk with Mario Langston at VSR1 in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. He smiled and pulled out an estimate that Mario had done on the car. I told him that I certainly wasn’t going to second-guess Mario!

I was about to line up the two white survivor E114s and take a family photo when my phone rang, my personal life intervened, and I had to cut nirvana short. But I headed back home in Kugel feeling refreshed, energized, and in love with cars again.

So: two quick drives in two lovely white E114-chassis cars was all it took to set my automotive world right, at least for a while. Imagine how much righter it’ll be once I’m not so full-on with the Lotus and I’m enjoying having access to—and driving—all of my vintage BMWs again.

Breathe. Drive. This isn’t hard. We just forget sometimes. At least I do.—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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