A Winter Drive In A Summer Car

It’s been a strange winter up here in Boston. We had a blast of snow in early December that was heavy and wet enough that it caused me to sell my aging little Honda single-stage snow-thrower and buy something bigger and beefier, but then that was it for nearly six weeks. (I replaced the Honda, by the way, with a 40-year-old MTD that had been rebuilt by a 75-year-old guy who has a side business refurbishing old snow-blowers and lawn tractors. His website talked with a great deal of passion about how they don’t make ’em like these vintage machines anymore. I went over to his house and saw that his yard was full of machines awaiting refurbishment. My kind of eccentric.)

I’ve made mention before of the fact that in addition to readying Hampton, the 48,000-mile 2002, for sale in the spring, my main winter project has been refurbishing the front end of my ’74 Lotus Europa Twin-Cam Special. I finally have the thing back together with new adjustable shocks, front lowering springs to settle the nose down from the altitude of its U.S.-spec headlight height, and new ball joints and tie rods. I performed a do-it-yourself, get-it-in-the-ball-park front-end alignment. The next task was to drive it, settle the suspension and bushings, and tweak the toe-in.

However, in order to do that, I had to get it out of the garage.

The Lotus has been sitting for months on the mid-rise lift in the spot in the rear. The car blocking it in is the most precious of my automotive possessions, the jewel in the crown: the 1973 E9 3.0CSi that I’ve owned for 34 years.

That’s the E9 under the cover on the right, Hampton on the left.

Usually, it’s not a big deal to uncover one car, reconnect the battery, start it up, back it out into the driveway, and pull out the car behind it, even if there is still a little snow and salt on the roads, and even if the car is a legendary rust magnet like the E9 that oxidizes if you sneeze within twenty feet of it. It was more the totality of crap that had crept in around and under both cars. But it needed to be done, so I took half an hour and straightened things up. Tools were put away, old parts were thrown out, boxes were recycled. It really wasn’t all that bad.

That night, I read a Facebook post with a link to a niece piece that my friend Keith Martin put up on his blog on Sports Car Market. It was about treating yourself to a winter drive in a precious car. It must have started something percolating; the next day, unseasonably warm weather moved into Boston. The temperature outside was in the mid-60s. I ran an errand with my wife, taking the X5 for maybe an hour’s round trip. We were home by mid-afternoon. But while we were out driving around, I noticed that the roads were clear. There was still a faint salt haze on I-95, but the secondary roads appeared both bone-dry and salt-free.

When I got home, I thought that even with the short winter afternoon, there was probably enough time to get the Lotus down off the lift, warm it up, run it around the block a few times, and see if the alignment felt like the wheels were obviously toed out like Marty Feldman’s eyeballs, or were badly scrubbing. I had the steps outlined in my mind: I’d stage the alignment jig, the Vise Grips, and the Tyvek suit at the top of the driveway, run the car around, and back it in so that with the little step from the transition from the sidewalk to the driveway’s downward slope, I’d gain the needed few inches of clearance to be able to access the tie rods. \

But first I needed to pull out the E9.

I shook the dust off the cover, folded it the long way down the middle, rolled it front to back as I always do, put it in the trunk, reconnected the battery, and cracked the key. I’d retrofitted an L-Jetronic injection system from an E12 528i into the car almost twenty years ago; the result of that has been that it starts instantly and idles well, even after sitting for months. True to form, the big old M30 engine bolted to attention. I let it warm up for about 30 seconds, then backed it up the driveway and put it off to the right so I could get the Lotus out.

Kind of gives new meaning to “center fold.”

It’s always good to open the hood and see that big L-Jetronic M30 and its Brontosaurus-rib intake manifold.

So there I was, sitting in my driveway in a gorgeous red running 1973 3.0CSi on a 65-degree day in January, having just completed on-the-ground reconnaissance that the roads were clear. Suddenly, tweaking the alignment on the Lotus was the last thing I wanted to do; it seemed as poor a choice as sitting in a beach chair reading The New York Times when you could be having a picnic with Claudia Schiffer, then holding hands and searching for shells.

Well, what would you do?

I succumbed to the siren’s song. I aired up the E9’s tires and checked the fluids, and off we went.

The fairest of them all sees some afternoon December sun on her face.

If I’m not running cars back and forth to the storage spaces I rent in Fitchburg, I have a lap that I often do when I go out for a pleasure drive. It takes me up through the pricey rural suburbs of Weston and Lincoln along beautiful tree-lined twisty roads. The tree cover does create areas where snow lingers, and the resulting runoff sometimes freezes over, resulting in the town’s spot-salting these areas, but all I saw were a few damp patches, nothing that made me feel like Bennie the Cab driving through “dip” in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? My regular lap then takes me onto the highway, but since earlier in the day that seemed a little salt-dusty, instead I cut back around and took another set of local roads. Even if it had been cold out, it would’ve been great, but with the warm weather, it was absolutely glorious.

I may be getting old, but this beauty never ages.

Now, from a purely practical standpoint, if the roads are clear, running vintage cars around in winter is good practice. It exercises the seals, helps prevent flat spots from forming on the tires, evaporates moisture in the exhaust, and frightens the rodents. But this wasn’t me being practical; this was me sticking a thumb in the eye of wintry death. It’s January and I’m in shirtsleeves, with the window open, driving the drop-dead-gorgeous car I’ve owned and loved since the Iran-Contra scandal. Suck on that, wintery death!

Of course, I was not the only one with this idea. I traded thumbs-ups with people in a top-down M roadster, a ’63 split-window Corvette, a vintage Camaro, and a Ford Model A.

The E9 framed by a fence post. What you don’t see is that I’m standing an inch from a giant mud puddle.

Both the sun and the temperature were dropping fast as I approached my house. The window went back up. The E9 was put away and covered. I never got the Lotus out to align it, and didn’t regret it for an instant.

The next day, temperatures dropped below freezing. A few days after that, six inches of snow fell, and the Massachusetts DOT countered with an equal depth of salt, making the roads again look like a scene from Scarface.

I wondered if, had I thought things through in the fall, I might have arranged the cars differently—that is, the position in the garage immediately behind the roll-up door is the one from which a car can easily be launched and put away. Perhaps if the car in that position wasn’t the most rust-prone and valuable car I own, but was instead, say, Bertha, the ratty ’75 2002, or even Louie, the patinated ’72 tii, I’d be more likely to steal time from the fates of winter on less-than-squeaky-clean roads.

But then I remembered that I had, in fact, considered all of this, and decided that in order to fit things in the garage, Louie and Hampton had to go nose-to-nose on the left (from where they won’t move until spring), and the Lotus and the E9 had to go on the right. The Lotus had to be on the lift owing to the winter work that needed to be done. The other choice is running the E9 out to Fitchburg for the winter and moving, say, Bertha into the garage, but as the value of the E9 has crept up, I sleep better at night knowing it’s 50 feet away and not 50 miles.

Some moments are special precisely because they are so fleeting.

But the next time the roads look clear, I’m totally doing it again.—Rob Siegel


Rob’s new book, Resurrecting Bertha: Buying Back Our Wedding Car After 26 Years In Storage, 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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