Dragging Back Hampton (Part I)

As car nuts, we all want to be where lightning strikes—to have the intel no one else has, giving us the chance to buy an exceptional or unusual car at a good but fair price without there being 5,000 other eyeballs on it and getting into a bidding war with a deep-pocketed collector at the other end of the country.

This is such a story.

The initial contact came last spring in the form of an e-mail from a gentleman named Jody. He told me an unusual story: He and his sister had several motor vehicles in a storage area in New York for decades. While there wasn’t a hard deadline, the time had come to deal with them. He had a couple of motorcycles in there that he’d since disposed of, but his sister still had two cars—a 1973 Jaguar XJ6 and a 1973 BMW 2002—both with low mileage, neither of which had moved since about 2008. He’d found me online as someone with a reputation for knowing about 2002s and helping their owners, and asked the kind of questions you might imagine: Could you help my sister? What does it take to get the car running after sitting for a decade? What do you think it might be worth? Would you be interested in having a look at it—maybe even buying it?

For some reason, I thought that the storage area was in upstate New York near Saratoga Springs (I’ll get back to that). I thought, Sure, sounds like an interesting story; three hours out, three hours back, maybe I can help his sister as well as get content for another article. However, like any number of things, this got back-burnered.

In July, I was contacted by Jody’s sister, Eileen. We swapped a few e-mails, then spoke on the phone. She said that the 2002 was in “like-new” condition and had “no rust.” I explained that in these sorts of interactions, I often wear two different hats—unbiased adviser and potential buyer—and that I sometimes advise people on what their 2002 might be worth if they did X, Y, and Z to it, then have them say, “But I don’t want to go to the trouble to do X, Y, and Z; I just want to sell the car,” and wind up buying it myself; I don’t consider this a conflict of interest as long as I’m unrelentingly honest about everything I say, even if it undercuts my own bargaining position.

As part of this early conversation with Eileen, I said something flippant, like, “If you need the car gone immediately because you’re being thrown out of the storage area, and would take three grand for it, I’d be down there with a truck and a trailer tomorrow—but if it’s as described, I’m sure you can get more for it than that.” She said that she wasn’t really being thrown out; it was just time to deal with the cars. I told her that for me to further advise her on what to do, I’d first need to see photos; then I would really need to see the car in person.

Eileen said that she and her brother had gone out to the storage space in July, which was a pain for both of them because she lived in the city and he was in southern New Jersey. He took some photos of the 2002, but they turned out to not be very good. I asked how long a drive it was to get from either the city or Jersey to upstate New York.

She said, “Upstate? Who said anything about upstate? The car is in Bridgehampton.”

I don’t know how I had gotten this wrong, but to someone who was born and raised on Long Island, suddenly things came a bit more into focus. Bridgehampton is one of the Hamptons, the moneyed resort area at the eastern tip of Long Island, out near Montauk Point. It’s not a three-hour drive each way from Boston, as I was imagining; it’s more like six. In the language of my people, Oy, it’s a schlep. So the whole idea of a Gilligan’s Island-like “three-hour tour,” a quick viewing of the car, maybe helping her if I could, and at least getting an article out of it, suddenly collapsed.

I explained this to Eileen, and she was disappointed that my offer of help appeared to be evaporating. I said, “Let’s start with the photos. Send me what you have. I’ll help you if I can.”

Many of the pics were out of focus, certainly not useful for a Bring A Trailer (BaT) posting, but what they showed was promising: The car appeared to be a tidy-looking ’73 2002, Chamonix (white) with a Navy interior. The outer body looked intact except for a bunch of dings and a few small dents. The interior was beautiful, with the original Blaupunkt radio and uncut door panels, although it had a little discoloration on the seats. The shock towers, rocker panels, and what her brother had photographed of the floor and wheel wells all looked fine. The engine compartment, though, looked like hell, but I could see that the EGR plumbing was still in place; perhaps this really was a 48,000-mile car. I was intrigued, but not lust-filled. After all, color-wise, it was identical to my ’72 2002tii, Kugel.

Promising, right? And no worries—the flag is just a towel.

The interior DID look yummy in the photo.

“Like new?” I think not.

More than a ding, practically a dent.

The seller and I began speaking, e-mailing, and texting often enough that Maire Anne raised an eyebrow. I told Eileen that from the photos, my $3,000 sight-unseen, make-it-go-away-tomorrow number was clearly too low, but that if I raised it to a more reasonable number like five or six thousand dollars, I might have to retract it if when I saw the car, I found something like a rotted-through frame rail.

However, I told her, the bigger question was this: Given the choice of getting the car running and keeping it, selling it as quickly as possible to someone like me, and maximizing its value, which option did she think best fit her goals? She said that, living in the city, she couldn’t keep the car. She loved it and would like it to go to a good home, but wanted to get a fair value for it. So her desires were somewhere between the second and third options.

I explained, in my traditional gross and gory detail, what the pros and cons were for selling cars on Craigslist, eBay, or BaT, and offered that this was probably a good candidate for BaT, but told her that her definition of “like new” wasn’t the same as how it is used in the car world. From the photos showing the dirty engine compartment and the dings in the body, “very good” was a more accurate overall condition assessment. I explained that the cars that bring all the money on BaT are the ones that present themselves as a unified whole, and that hers was currently a dead garage-find survivor, not even a driver, and certainly not “like new.”

She said that if I saw the car, I’d probably come around to her view.

Regarding the mileage, I explained that you don’t just say that a car has 48,000 original miles; you have to prove the provenance via presentation of a trail of repair records or other documents that show advancing mileage over a period of years. “Well,” she said, “I have repair records, and the original window sticker.”

“Having the window sticker is unusual,” I said, “But the repair records are more important for the mileage. How did you wind up with the window sticker, anyway?”

“I’m the original owner.”

That stopped me right in my tracks. This was not only a 48,000-mile car, but an original-owner 48,000-mile car. Typically, I don’t really care about such things, but then, they don’t fall into my lap in such a way that I’m the only one who knows of their existence in a garage in the Hamptons, either.

I looked at completed auctions on both BaT and eBay to determine what a 2002 like this (original owner, low mileage, very good condition, purportedly rust-free, dormant for ten years, not currently running) might be worth. There were no directly applicable examples. I explained to Eileen the hierarchy of functionality (dead and stored badly, dead and stored well, dead and engine verified not to be seized, starts and runs, starts and moves, starts and drives, well-sorted). I said that just as real estate is “location location location,” car value is “condition condition condition,” and that her car potentially had the condition issue on its side (of course, I hadn’t seen it), but that dead cars are riskier for the buyer, and are troublesome from a shipping standpoint since they can’t simply be driven onto a trailer or car carrier. I sent her links on BaT and eBay to the closest things I could find, and gave her broad brackets of what I thought the car could fetch on BaT in a few different dead-versus-running scenarios (maybe $6,000 to $12,000 as-is, perhaps $12,000 to $18,000 cleaned up and running, possibly more if the car was certified rust-free, dents were removed, the engine compartment was detailed, and the car was not only running but well-sorted).

Then she raised a complicating issue. “When my brother and I went to the garage to photograph the car,” she said, “we thought we’d roll it outside, but it wouldn’t move. We looked inside the car and found that I’d left the handbrake on. We disengaged it, but it still seemed stuck.”

I explained how common this was, that I’d just gone through this with Bertha, the ’75 2002 I’d sold to my friend Alex 30 years ago and he’d put in a neighbor’s garage for 26 years. I told her that the remedy is to jack up the back of the car, pull off the rear wheels, and smack the drums with a hammer to free up the brake shoes, and how, if this doesn’t work, she really has a problem, and might have to pay someone to flatbed the car to a repair shop for more extreme measures. I put out a call on Facebook to see if there was anyone in the Bridgehampton area who might be able to jack-and-smack the car for her, but I came up empty.

After thinking it through carefully, I came up with a proposal. Although I’d said to Eileen that I had previously brokered cars for other people, handling the entire sale including shipping, I decided that I wasn’t willing to do that here, as the car wasn’t local, and I simply wasn’t willing to subject my body to the wear and tear of dragging a dead car out of a storage area in Bridgehampton, onto a trailer, home to Newton, and brokering it, and was leery of the liability and risk involved in doing so.

Besides, I had nowhere in Newton to put it; my garage and rented storage area are all full.

She again said that if I saw the car, I’d want to buy it myself, and floated a number somewhere between what I’d offered and what the BaT value might be. I told her that it was almost a moot point; I didn’t have the money she was asking, and I certainly didn’t have the garage space. So I proposed that instead, I’d drive down in my own car (no truck and trailer) just to get there and back quickly, meet her at the storage space, see if I could unstick the brakes for her, and verify that the engine wasn’t seized. I’d then decide if I was interested in the car. If I was, we’d negotiate. If we came to an agreement (which I felt was unlikely, since I simply didn’t have the cash), the car would be mine, and I’d have to figure out how to transport it back at a later date.

But if I didn’t buy it, then I’d switch hats and be working for her, and for a flat fee of $1,000 plus expenses, I’d assess the rest of the car’s condition, photograph it, document it, take whatever records she had, go home, put together a BaT auction, represent it for her using my screen name and reputation, and answer any questions. Once the car was up on BaT, she’d need to coordinate with anyone who wanted to see it, as well as meet the shipper. If I couldn’t get the rear brakes unstuck, we’d cross that bridge when we came to it. We put a date on the calendar of Saturday September 14 for the visit.

As the September 14 date neared, a few things happened. Eileen called and said, “I just spoke with my brother, and he said you could probably just show up with a gas can and battery and start the car.” I privately rolled my eyes and explained why that could be damaging to the engine. I cued up my monologue on how, with a long-dormant car you care about, a careful re-start needs to be performed. I ran down the litany of squirting oil into the cylinders, rotating the engine to get the oil on the cylinder walls, changing the oil and filter, checking that the air cleaner isn’t loaded with acorns, and verifying that the float bowl and gas tank aren’t full of varnished-up old gas. I said that doing all this and getting the car running was a very tall expectation for a one-day visit bracketed by two six-hour drives, but that if there was time, trying it wasn’t completely out of the question.

The other thing was that my financial situation improved just enough that I could now entertain the possibility of buying the car without jeopardizing the family budget. I began thinking that the drive down to Bridgehampton was long enough that if I was going down there anyway, I might as well bring a truck and trailer to enable the possibility of hauling the car back. After all, the website is called “Bring a Trailer” because you need a trailer to haul off a car that’s either non-functional or too valuable to risk driving, and nothing says “I am a credible buyer who can make your car go away” like showing up with a truck and trailer.

These things did alter the scenario somewhat. I told Eileen that if I was interested in the car, I would not try to start it, because getting it running would drive its value up (I’d rather take the risk and buy it dead and cheaper), but if I declined to buy the car and I was wearing the hat where she was paying me to represent it for her, if she wanted me to get it running, time permitting, I’d try. (I freely agree that this was all complicated, but it’s what seemed necessary to me to avoid a conflict of interest.)

Unfortunately, I no longer own a vehicle that can tow, but I do have access to a truck from my old job; I keep it inspected for them, and quid pro quo, they let me borrow it. I reserved an auto transporter (trailer) at U-Haul in Bridgehampton, so if I decided to buy the 2002, I could pick up the trailer and then load up the car. I made it clear to Eileen that even though I was coming down with a trailer, I was absolutely not committing to taking the car away and handling the entire sale and shipping for her, due to liability issues.

As I drove up to Woburn (the location of my old geophysics job) to borrow the truck, my cell phone rang. I always answer my cell, even though most of the time it’s someone asking, “Is the head of the household in?” (Yes, incredibly, telemarketers still stay that in 2019). It was U-Haul in Bridgehampton informing me that they did not have the trailer I’d reserved, and only had a tow dolly. I was about to go full Seinfeld on them and explain the difference between “taking the reservation” and “holding the reservation,” but these things happen. I nearly turned around and bailed on the whole truck/trailer idea, but instead I pressed on and grabbed the truck.

I got home and immediately began calling U-Haul dealers to find a trailer, assuming that I’d need to rent in Boston and haul it both ways. One dealer gave me the number of U-Haul central dispatch for the Boston area, who reportedly sees all equipment coming in and out of the city. I learned that there were, unfortunately, no trailers available for either Saturday or Sunday: damn. I put out a post on Facebook asking if any of my car peeps had a trailer I could borrow.

In the meantime, I looked closer at the drive. Google Maps estimated that it was five to seven hours from Newton to Bridgehampton. Obviously, in a truck towing a trailer, it would be the longer estimate. There is a ferry that runs from New London to Orient Point on the eastern tip of Long Island, thus letting you avoid the trek through the New York City, and then two smaller ferries on and off Shelter island, but for a commercial vehicle towing a trailer, the total ferry cost would be about $450. Again, I nearly just said, “The hell with it; I’ll just drive my own car.” But then I realized that the crucial issue was trying to squeeze the trip into one day. If I stretched it into two days, it was all doable. I just needed a place to stay Saturday night.

In the meantime, my Facebook call for a trailer was answered by Nor’East 02er and all-around good guy Wink Cleary. The only issue was that Wink lives up in West Newbury, 50 miles north of me. Beggars, however, can’t be choosers, and I was incredibly grateful for his offer.

I was about to shoot up to West Newbury when Maire Anne reminded me that she and I had lunch plans that afternoon with my son Kyle’s in-laws, Mike and Jane, at a restaurant which, by utter chance, was directly on the way to West Newbury. I took the truck, she drove her car. At lunch, I explained all this to Mike, who is also a dyed-in-the-wool car guy, and he said that his sister and her husband live in Southampton, just one town over from Bridgehampton, and was certain that if they were around, I could spend the next night there. A few e-mails and texts later, and the whole thing was set up. As George Peppard used to say on The A-Team, “I love it when a plan comes together.”

After lunch, I continued north to West Newbury and met Wink. After an hour of shooting the breeze, my borrowed work truck was hooked to a 20-foot construction trailer capable of hauling a bulldozer. I was a little concerned that the trailer had no D-rings integrated into the bed, as I’m used to, but I thought I could figure out how to safely strap the car onto it when and if the time came.

It took several days to procure them, but the borrowed truck and trailer were now sitting in front of my house. Well, my neighbor’s house. I don’t own a white castle.

So: It had taken two days of finagling, but I finally had a truck, a trailer, and a place to crash. Now I just needed to deal with fourteen hours of driving. A 48,000-mile, single-owner, potentially rust-free ’73 2002 that no one else knows about for potentially a good price: Wouldn’t you jump through those hoops?—Rob Siegel

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Rob’s new book, Resurrecting Bertha: Buying Back Our Wedding Car After 26 Years In Storage, was just released and is available on Amazon here. His other books, including his recent Just Needs a Recharge: The Hack MechanicTM Guide to Vintage Air Conditioning, are available here on Amazon. Or you can order personally-inscribed copies of all of his books through Rob’s website: www.robsiegel.com.

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