Resurrecting Bertha: The Vintage Goes Bananas

In last week’s piece, Bertha—my rust-blistered resurrected 2002—and I had successfully knocked off the 900 miles from Boston down to the Vintage. Since I’m writing a Roundel magazine article about the Vintage, and since David Rose just posted an excellent Vintage piece here on BimmerLife, I’ll steer clear of the center of the event and instead aim for some of the madness around the periphery.

It began with the banana.

You have to understand that there’s a five-year history of my friend Paul Wegweiser playing pranks on me at the Vintage. In particular, four years ago, Paul inundated my Bavaria with yellow feathers and Mardi Gras-themed swag (the video of the aftermath can be seen here). I’m still pulling feathers out of the car’s crevices.

Two years ago, I caught Paul red-handed installing a license-plate surround on Louie, my Agave ’72 tii, that claimed certain provocative things about the relationship between my income and my, uh, manhood. Why does Paul do these things? I have no idea (seriously, I really don’t) but it’s become part of the event. Some Vintage attendees regard it as performance art; to our Facebook friends, it’s a spectator sport.

Last year, as many of you know, Paul had cancer, and missed the Vintage. I drove down in my Euro ’79 635CSi. Nothing Wegweiser happened to the car—that is, until after I arrived home. When I went back to the garage to unpack the car, I noticed a single yellow feather under the accelerator pedal.

I went inside and bellowed at Maire Anne and Ethan, “WHICH ONE OF YOU IS RESPONSIBLE FOR THIS?” They both claimed innocence. I believed them, because I’m a trusting idiot. My wife never lies to me, though my son I’m not sure about. At the time, I shrugged and assumed that a feather must’ve drifted out of something I’d packed (there are, after all, still feathers that I’ve never had the heart to remove in the back of the multimeter).

It was only during the writing of this piece, a year later, that my dear sweet wife admitted that she had been less than truthful with me, and that Paul had put her up to it. Yes: I was remotely Wegweisered—by my wife. With friends like that, who needs a lying spouse?

Last year, Paul had his evil minions taunt me remotely. I only just now learned that the minion in question was my wife.

Wegweiser has since recovered, and he confided in me before the trip that this meant that he’d had two years to think about how he was going to get me. It was clear that Bertha and I were in for a first-rate, full-on Wegweisering.

So, during the morning after my first night’s stay at the Clarion Inn (the event hotel), I came out to my car to find this, I knew that it had begun.

The Wegweiser equivalent of putting the horse head in the bed.

When these things happen, I’ve learned to channel my best Animal House Dean Wormer, shake my fist at the sky, and scream, with increasing pitch, “WEGWEISER!” But I had no clue what the banana meant, or that it had portent in terms of a bigger prank.

Jim and Susan Strickland drove the Lama!

The next day, unbeknownst to me, Paul conspired with mutual friends, giving many of them bananas and asking them to nonchalantly eat them while walking or driving past me. I was in the parking lot of the BMW CCA Foundation at the “Passion” exhibit with Jim and Susan Strickland, the couple that bought my E28 535i (aka “the Lama;” they actually drove it to the Vintage!) when Vintage organizers Brad Day and his wife, Anne Marie Vincent, drove slowly past me in their Turkis 2002. Susan gently said, “Uh, Rob,” and pointed.

I looked up in time to catch Anne Marie doing a slow-motion drive-by banana eating. It may have been the single funniest food-related thing I have ever seen—but again, I had no idea what it meant.

On the drive back from the Foundation, the weather was swelteringly hot, and Bertha’s passenger cabin began to absolutely stink of fuel. I thought that the plastic fuel line that runs inside the car (which I’d just pressed into service prior to this trip) had split, so that evening I went out to the parking lot to see if I could address the fuel smell. I noticed that Wegweiser had parked practically next to Bertha, but didn’t think anything of it (I can be focused to the point of stupidity). I took the car for a one-exit romp on the highway and didn’t smell anything, making the split-plastic-line theory unlikely.

When I got back, Paul and I pondered the problem, and he noticed that there was no vent line on the gas-tank filler neck, just an unplugged hole. “Yeah,” I said, “I meant to run a vent line for that. But I doubt that’s the source of the smell; I drove all the way down that way and it was fine.”

“But it was bitchin’ hot today,” Paul said. “There must’ve been a lot more vapor in the tank. That was probably the difference.” I decided that he probably was right. I found a length of line, ran it from the port to outside the car to vent the tank, and thanked Paul for his expertise.

Then it was immediately back to monkey business. “Don’t even bother to lock it,” Paul suddenly said. “I’ve got, like, twenty 2002 keys with me. One of them will fit. And if not, I’ll be inside it with a coat hanger in thirty seconds.”

I locked the car.

It didn’t matter.

The next morning I ran into my friend Clay Weiland at breakfast. It turned out that on the drive back from the Foundation, he had experienced overheating problems in his E3 2800 due to the brakes binding up. He’d managed to get his hands on some caliper-rebuild kits and was about to go out and put things back together. I offered my help, and he accepted.

I went out to Bertha to swing her next to Clay’s car, and encountered my Wegweiser-related fate. I deeply regret that in my haste to help Clay, I didn’t capture the scene with a walk-around video, the way I did with the Bavaria episode, but here are some stills. Note how my antenna has been turned into, I don’t know what—perhaps a net for catching very small gorillas.

This photo doesn’t fully convey the number of bananas that were on or around my car.

A roundel with hand-painted banana. I actually really like this bit of detail on Bertha.

Because who DOESN’T want fake hibiscus hanging from their sunroof crank?

If you can’t make this lettering out, it says “Party ape wagon-o-rama.”

Yes, Bertha’s right side window reads, “Apelovin’ get freaky.”

The pièce de résistance.

I cleared enough of the freaky ape-lovin-party-o-rama-related swag away to be able to drive the car over next to Clay’s, and spent the next hour and a half helping him reinstall the brakes in his E3. Unfortunately, we were not able to successfully bleed the system; it appeared that one channel of the master cylinder had become non-functional. As the clock swung past 10:15 am, I told Clay that, since I was on the hook to cover the Vintage for Roundel, I needed to, you know, actually be there, and left him in the hands of other capable help, including professional mechanic Le Tran.

Clay Weiland tries to dig himself out from under his E3’s brake problems.

Since I left late for Hot Springs (where the actual Saturday Vintage event is held, about an hour north of the Clarion hotel), I missed much of the BMW traffic and largely had the twisty roads to myself, which was great. But during the entire drive, the gorilla mask, which was sitting between the shift lever and the glove box, kept glowering up at me.

As I approached the turnoff to the Hot Springs event field, I realized that I had to drive into the event wearing the mask. I had no choice; it was my destiny. I came to a full stop in traffic, put my foot firmly on the brake so I wouldn’t rear-end the E30 in front of me, and tried to don the mask. It was a very snug fit, and immediately jabbed me in the eye. I pulled it off and closed the gap that had opened up in traffic in front of me. I tried a second time, and the same thing happened.

If this was my destiny, it wasn’t going well.

By this time, I was perhaps one car length from the turn-in. I tried one last time—and this time the mask’s eye sockets aligned perfectly with mine. I thought, okay, we’re totally doing this, and made a right turn into the event field.

By utter chance, event festmeister Scott Sturdy was at the head of the driveway. As he looked at me, I turned my head directly toward him, did my best New Jersey “What?” and drove in.

Wegweiser started it. I was just finishing it.

I wasn’t at the event ten minutes when someone told me that my hack wrenching services were required. I was introduced to Jeff Rose, who had driven his mint-green 2002 down from Delaware for his first Vintage. Jeff said that about fifteen miles from Hot Springs, he heard a loud BANG! and saw pieces fly out behind the car. He said that after that the shifter was very loose, and he heard a lot of metallic noise from the transmission. (I later asked Jeff how he knew to hunt me down. He said, “Well, I went to the BMW CCA tent, described what had happened, and they said, ‘Find either Rob Siegel or Paul Wegweiser. One of them will help you.'” Our destinies are written in ways we do not understand.)

I tried to crawl under Jeff’s car, but it was too low. I could, however, reach up with my arm. I was able to move the shift platform left and right by several inches; it appeared likely that one of the platform bushings was detached from the back of the transmission.

But after I extricated myself, pro Reggie Stewart suggested that perhaps the transmission noise might be a bad giubo. I again put my shoulder and arm under as far as I could, reached up to lay my hand on the giubo, and was astonished at what I felt: The giubo appeared to have completely disintegrated! All I felt were the flanges, bolts, and nuts—no rubber guibo pieces at all.

I advised Jeff that he couldn’t drive it the 50-ish miles back to Asheville, much less back to Delaware, without risking damaging the transmission and driveshaft flanges. I said that I had a spare giubo and a small floor jack in Bertha, but unfortunately, as I said last week, this was the first Vintage trip I’d taken without bringing jack stands. So I offered that if we found jack stands and a solid surface on which to set the car, I’d fix it for him after the event was over.

Jeff said that he’d met a guy, a fellow who was selling a ratty rusty white ’68 2002 at the vendor area, who said that he lived nearby and had a space where we could work. I found the gentleman, an interesting Porsche guy in his early 70s named Nort Northton. He confirmed that he lived just a stone’s throw away, and had a small barn with a cement floor. Unfortunately, he had no jack stands, but a hard floor and being out of the sun sounded great, as it was beastly hot on the Hot Springs field.

For the rest of the day at the Vintage, I alternated between doing my Roundel duties and asking people if they had jack stands. To my surprise, I came up empty-handed. While I was out making these excursions, Susan and Jim Strickland hung out at my car, rewarding people with beer if they bought my books. After the third sortie, I came back empty-handed and obviously disappointed. “What are you looking for again?” Jim Strickland asked me.

“Jack stands,” I said. “I can’t fix Jeff’s car without them.”

That’s what you’re looking for?” Jim laughed. “I have a set in the trunk of the Lama.”

“You… have… jack… stands… in… the… Lama?

“Yes,” Jim said. “You told me to buy them as part of your road-trip recommendations.”

Well, then.

When the event ended a bit after five, we limped Jeff’s car over to Nort’s barn. It was easy to find, as the ratty white 2002 we’d seen for sale was in the driveway. Jeff backed his car in, I jacked it up with my little floor jack, set it on the stands, and had at it.

Jeff’s mint green 2002 in Nort Northam’s barn, with Bertha’s trunk disgorging tools.

My little floor jack was just enough to set the car on the newly-procured jack stands.

When I crawled under the car and looked at the giubo, I was astonished a second time: It appeared to be present and intact. A few of the bolts were loose, but I had no idea what I’d laid my hands on when I’d reach under that made me think the entire giubo was missing. It was bizarre.

So I set about repairing the loose shift platform. Jeff had found someone selling the bushings and Allen-head bolts. The bushings were fine, but the platform was loose because one of the bolts had fallen out. I installed the one Jeff had bought, and made sure the other one was tight.

That just left tightening up the giubo bolts. To reach them all, I needed to jack up the back of the car so that I could rotate the driveshaft, and with it, the giubo. As I spun the giubo around, I had my third giubo-related surprise: I saw that the entire top quarter was completely missing! This was how I’d gotten it wrong: Apparently, by chance, when I’d reached up under the car to feel the giubo, I’d put my hand into the area where the chunk was missing, and laid it on a bare bolt. It was possible that the platform bolt came out, got lodged in the rotating giubo, and tore it up. Jeff was lucky that it hadn’t broken the transmission flange.

I’ve seen worse.

Replacing a giubo isn’t a big deal: Separate the exhaust resonator from the headpipe, undo the two nuts holding on the center support bearing, remove four of the giubo bolts, lower the front of the driveshaft, undo the other four giubo bolts, install the new part, reassemble. But after being in the hot sun all day, I was burned, dehydrated, and tired, and it was all I could do to finish the job. But no bolts were rusty or seized, and the work went along quickly enough.

When I finished, Jeff was incredibly grateful, and talked about paying me, but I demurred. I was about to launch into a lengthy explanation about how often I’ve been the recipient of grace and generosity, but just then, Nort interrupted me and simply said, “It’s called pay-it-forward. It’s just how we do it. Next time, you help someone.” It was concise, true, and beautiful.

Yours truly, Jeff Rose, and Nort Northam.

Jeff and I later swapped messages in which I asked him exactly how he’d connected with Nort. “He found me,” Jeff said. “He was walking around the field, saw my car, said that his first 911 was the same color mint green, we started talking, I told him about the problem, and he offered his space.” Unbelievable.

The drive back to the hotel, and then the two-day drive home, both occurred without incident—well, almost. My air-conditioning blower fan switched on and off several times, then failed altogether. When I checked the fuses, I found that one of them had melted. If you look carefully, you can see that the metal part of the fuse is actually intact, but the fuse is a cheap plastic aftermarket replacement, not one of the original ceramic fuses, and the plastic melted. I replaced it with a ceramic fuse and had no trouble on the rest of the trip. I posted the photo on Facebook, and got the usual sarcastic comments about substituting a gum wrapper, a penny, or a .22 caliber shell casing.

One of these things is not like the other.

When I got home, I was about to take a single-edge razor blade and scrape the party-ape-wagon lettering off Bertha’s side windows (I can’t really drive that way around the tony confines of West Newton), but I just couldn’t do it. I packed all of the ape-related accouterments in a plastic bag and placed it reverently in the trunk. Well, nearly all; I left the roundel with the hand-painted banana in the middle of the speedometer. It’s Bertha’s Vintage tattoo. It’ll live there forever.

So 1,966 miles, one exhaust rattle, one unplugged vent line, and one melted fuse. A per-tank high of 27.5 mpg, and a low of 17.2, which was when I was nailing and wailing through the twisties on the way back and forth to Hot Springs; the overall average was 24.1. From a 300-degree reground cam and Weber 40DCOEs that were jetted in 1985. Incredible.

Yes, they’re just cars, but buying back Bertha—the car Maire Anne and I drove off from our wedding in 1984—last June, resurrecting it, taking it on a trip like this, having it welcomed into the Vintage fold in this, um, special intimate way, and having it behave so magnificently, made for an amazing year. Even though both the car and I were dead-tired from the trip, we were both grinning like idiots.

I then received a message from Paul Wegweiser regarding the burned-out fuse. “You know, when I was putting bananas in your car, I thought I smelled burned insulation up under the dash. Better check carefully.” I did, and was horrified when I found that several wires that had burned clear through their insulation.

Toasty wires. Not good.

Jeez, I thought; I guess that fuse incident really did do some damage. However, upon closer examination, I found that none of the wires went anywhere; they were simply held in place by a zip tie.

WEGWEISER!!!—Rob Siegel

This guy.

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.

[Photos courtesy Rob Siegel, Brian Ach, Brad Day, Jeff Rose.]

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