First, let’s get the context of this straight: I’ve had “flu lite” (body aches, chills, but no fever) for a week. It’s drained me of all energy. I went out to the garage just once during the past week, did fifteen minutes of work, and then collapsed on the sofa for three hours. And even without the fever, I’ve had the odd flu-like sleep wherein the dreams are vivid and nonsensical. There’s only so much television I can consume. At some point, for diversion, one simply has to turn to looking at cars to bring one’s mind back to something hopeful and productive—and at least partially grounded in reality.
Next, I must digress for a moment to talk about Facebook Marketplace. While it’s horrible, it has emerged for me as an equal to Craigslist as a hunting ground for cars, guitars, and the other stupid stuff I don’t really need. Like Craigslist, it’s free and local (they make you jump through hoops to search far outside your zip code). But its awfulness lies in the fact that, unlike Craigslist, the most basic of search capabilities seem to elude FBM. Type in “BMW wagon” and the things that show up may or may not be either BMWs or wagons. Enclose the terms in quotes and it doesn’t make much difference. And the vertical bars to do an “or” search, and the hyphens you’re used to using to exclude search terms (e.g., “BMW wagon|touring -automatic”)? Ignored. Seriously. It’s absolutely horrible.
But once you use Facebook Marketplace a few times to search for BMWs or Lotuses or Guild guitars, it does learn, Facebook-style, what you’re interested in, and the next time you call it up, it has “top picks” waiting for you—and sometimes they’re surprisingly spot-on. What’s more, it’ll often ignore its own mileage restriction and show you items that are hundreds of miles outside the search radius, which actually is what you want it to do.
So I suppose that it was inevitable that, flu-ish, exhausted, and wondering if I was hallucinating, I came face-to-face with this:
Yes, that’s an injected BMW M10 engine, and yes, those seats appear to be green plastic lawn furniture.
Come on: You have to click on that, right? It would only be a more perfect “perhaps you’d like THIS” for the flu-addled brain if a sunburst rosewood Guild guitar was balanced precariously on those seats.
The ad read, “Lotus Super 7 replica project. Runs great, DOES NOT drive. It has something to do with the clutch. Transmission and engine are good. The price does reflect the current condition. To have a frame built alone will run you around $3,000. Uses a 1.8-liter inline 4 engine and drivetrain out of a 1975 BMW. Florida title. Doesn’t have a nose cone or hood. Extra set of wheels. Fully registered and insured. Clean title in hand. $2,000, serious buyers only. No I will not take $1,000. Read listing carefully.”
Now, if you don’t know, the Lotus Seven was a simple, lightweight (like 1,067-pound) sort-of kit car sold by Lotus from 1957 through 1972. Many people recognize it as the car Patrick McGoohan drove in the opening title sequence of The Prisoner. The rights to the car were then bought by Caterham, which still produces kits and fully-assembled cars. Like the Cobra, kits and replicas of the Seven are available from dozens of sources. But in addition, there’s a strong roll-your-own movement that’s loosely amalgamated under the term “Locost.” There’s a good forum where plans are available for several different styles of the tubular frame, and where you can learn the ins and outs of using different drivetrains and suspensions.
So that’s what this car is: a home-built “Locost.” If you look at the engine and intake manifold, clearly the “1975 BMW” part is half right—it’s a 1.8-liter M10 from a 1980 through 1983 E21 320i.
I messaged the seller (I mean, how could I not?) and learned that in addition to the engine, the car has the 320i five-speed, driveshaft, differential, and rear subframe. Looking further at the photos, it also clearly has the 320i’s dashboard.
It was my friend Paul Wegweiser who noticed that on the car’s Federal-spec 85-mph speedometer, the 90 and 100 numbers had been hand-painted. I’d actually give the car the benefit of the doubt on this one and wonder if that might’ve originated when the speedo was still installed in the 320i.
It’s a small Internet-connected world, and it didn’t take much more than a web search for “Locost 320i” to find that the car had previously been owned by a gentleman in Ohio with a Flikr account full of hot rods. I then found a lengthy build sheet on www.locost.com for a 320i-based car using a 320i instrument cluster, but on closer observation, it was a different car.
Now, my flu-weakened knee-jerk first reaction was that it was simply my destiny to buy this car. It’s only in southern New Jersey, I now own the X5, it’s got the tow hitch, I could get down there and drag its ridiculous ass home and have three months to do whatever is necessary to drive it down to the Vintage and back. I mean, how could I not? Part of the appeal of the Vintage is bragging rights for showing up in the most ridiculous ride around, and this would surely take the cake. Plus, for the six years I was rebuilding the engine in my Lotus Europa, Vintage event organizer Scott Sturdy had offered that if I instead transplanted the spare tii engine that’d been sitting under my porch, he’d let the car in, so precedent has been established for a transmogrified Lotus.
But then my patented left-brain keep-Siegel-out-of-trouble mechanism engaged and began asking reasonable questions: How would you even title, register, and insure it? You did register the Lotus Europa in Vermont, mostly because it still has a cracked windshield and you were looking to drive it and avoid Massachusetts state inspection, but this one is barely a whole intact car. And, legality notwithstanding, would you really want to drive it the 2,000 miles round-trip to the Vintage and back? Even assuming you’d put real seats and belts in it, do you really want to be dicing with truck traffic on I-81 in a car that basically has no body or even a windshield?
And once you got it home, where would you put it? In your world of limited garage space, are you really going to give up a garage bay to this? Of course, you could just let it sit outside in the elements; I mean, it’s not like there’s much of value there to worry about getting damaged…
Then I saw a decent-looking 2002 Z3 2.5 for the same two grand asking price, and thought, “Given the choice between these two, which would you actually enjoy owning, and which would make you think oh dear god what did I just do?”
I messaged a couple of my friends who are hot-rod people. They explained that the aphorism “When you buy a used car, you’re buying all of the decisions of all of the previous owners” is even more true when buying a rod. Without knowing what it was and how it was built, you really have no idea whatsoever what you’re buying; it could be a well-executed set of vetted plans, someone’s personal never-welded-before project, or something in between. Even knowing what the replacement tie rods are can become a nightmare.
As I’ve often said, a car has to be for something. If it’s not, it just sits. From reading the posts on locost.com, most of the enthusiasts seemed to be hod-rod people who’d always wanted to do a ground-up build, or autocrossers interested in an inexpensive thousand-pound vehicle, or both.
But I am neither.
All that this car would be for would be one round trip to the Vintage and back—because it would be funny. Well, that and seeing if I could heat my house for a month from the energy generated by the Facebook chatter over it. Neither was a good enough reason. (Although I was touched that one gentleman offered to start a GoFundMe for the project. I told him that I was perfectly capable of executing stupid decisions on my own.)
And that was pretty much that. So no, I’m not driving the X5 down to New Jersey and dragging back the BMW-Lotus mashup that it seems I was born to inherit. Because I am a man in control of his destiny. However, the link Paul Wegweiser sent me to the ad for the Saab Sonett with the V8 and sidepipes the size of my leg looks pretty cool. (Those of you on Facebook can find the ad here.)—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.
[Photos courtesy Ryan Lucas.]