This is a story about one 2002 finally getting the new shoes it wanted for 35 years, and the other getting its prettier hand-me-downs. And about me being totally wrong about what I said at the end of last week’s piece: “The Kumho Solus 185/70-13 tires I ordered from the Tire Rack in order to get the car home from Louisville during its in-place resurrection are fine for highway driving, but squeal horribly when pushed even just a little.”
The statement “There’s no accounting for taste” applies to everything—cars, clothing, music, soulmates, how you like your steak cooked—but in the car world, there is nothing as subjective as wheel choices, particularly on the cars you actually own. I like to say that above all things, I think of myself as a resolutely practical and rational person, but I can be as opinionated about wheels as the next enthusiast.
In November 1989, I wrote a Roundel article titled “2002 Modifications.” In it, I detailed everything I’d done to Bertha, the ’75 2002 I’d bought in Austin in 1984, moved up to Boston, used as a daily driver for six years, and turned into a track rat, changing nearly every part of the drivetrain and suspension. I sold the car to my friend Alex in 1990 when we moved to Newton, as I only had garage space for the 3.0CSi.
Bertha sat in Alex’s neighbor’s garage for 26 years until I bought it back from him two years ago. It still had nearly all of the modifications I’d showered on it in the 1980s, such as the red-and-orange-striped Recaro seats, the Wink panoramic mirror, and the Cibié Oscar driving lights. Wheel-wise, however, I was surprised that the car was still wearing its original 13×5″ slotted steel wheels, shod with the Yokohama A008 tires I last went to the track on, and I struggled to recall exactly why that was.
During the mid-’80s, enthusiasts discovered that the fourteen-by-six-inch bottlecap alloy wheels from the just-released E30 318i (and then the 325e) had the perfect offset to fit flawlessly on a 2002 without rubbing. However, owing to the E30’s newness, for years, used sets of bottlecaps ranged in price from $300 to $500. And you didn’t often see the later and far prettier E30 basketweave alloys on 2002s until the 1990s, since when they were still on new E30s, they were just too fresh and expensive.
Now, of course, you can hardly give away bottlecaps (although I think they look good on big-bumper 2002s; the big straight bumper and the gear-resembling bottlecap evoke a giant rack and pinion), and decent sets of basketweaves can now often be found in the $200–$300 range, or less if they have curb rash.
But one of the things that I wrote in the “2002 Modifications” article was, “The nice surprise is that 3 Series factory 14×5-1/2” steel wheels [intended as E30 winter wheels] also bolt directly on, have no offset problems, keep the speedometer correct, are less likely to get stolen or bent, are available through Roundel advertisers, and cost only marginally more than 2002 steel wheels.” I’d always planned to practice what I preached and buy E30 steelies for Bertha, but that got cut short when I sold the car to Alex. So, as part of resurrecting Bertha and keeping her true to the way I’d built her in the 1980s, I wanted to score her those E30 steelies; thus for two years I’d been on the lookout for a set of E30 steelies with the same weathered patina as Bertha.
There was a problem, though.
Back in the day, E30 steelies were silver. Then they became available in black. Eventually, silver was discontinued, and black was the only available finish. I know that wheels are all about the expression of personal taste, but I loathe black wheels, and despite a year of looking, the only silver ones I found were one single original perfectly-patinaed silver wheel in the spare-tire well of a parts car I bought.
Yes, I could buy black E30 steelies and paint them silver, but I didn’t want something pretty and shiny; I wanted something that matched Bertha’s patina.
I answered a Craigslist ad in Connecticut for two original silver steelies, PayPalled $50 to reserve the pair , and picked them up on the way home from the Vintage, but later discovered that they were similar but not identical winter wheels for a Volkswagen, and had a 38-mm offset instead of the E30 steelies’ ET35.
And now, the other set of shoes: gold basketweaves.
About ten years ago, I bought a ratty Agave (green) ’73 2002 that had been sitting dead under a pine tree. Once I washed all the tar off it, it had great patina. I revived that car and used it as a knock-around, don’t-care-where-I-park-it 2002. Then I happened upon a set of wheels for it that I didn’t know even existed: a set of factory gold 14×6.5″ BBS basketweaves that came only on, I believe, 1991 and 1992 E30 convertibles.
The finish on the wheels was far from perfect, and one had been repainted a much brighter and more sparkly gold, but they were so unusual that I bought them. I bought a set of 195/60-14 General Altimax tires for them and put them on the car. They looked great against the car’s mottled Agave paint.
Unfortunately, when the warehouse I worked in closed abruptly in 2012 and I had to sell three of the cars I kept in it, the ’73 2002 had to go. Kugel, my Chamonix (white) ’72 tii, still had the set of 14″ MSW basketweaves that were on it when I bought it. They were never really my style, so before I sold the ’73, I swapped wheels with Kugel. I was never bowled over at the way the gold ‘weaves looked against Kugel’s Chamonix paint as I was with the Agave car, but it certainly gave the car personality, and hey, the tires were still new.
Kugel wore the gold basketweaves for the next six years. As you can see in the photo below, I do have the rare gold center caps, but they don’t lock securely. When Ben Thongsai was following me through St. Louis on the way home from MidAmerica 02Fest in 2014, I hit an expansion joint on a bridge, and he reported watching two of the gold center caps fly off simultaneously like ninja throwing stars. I found another two gold caps on eBay, but after the auto-Frisbee incident, I only put them on when the car was parked at an event.
Two years ago, when Bertha’s resurrection reached the point where I began driving it farther than around the block, and the 35-year-old Yoko A008s threatened to kill me, I needed to do something for wheels and tires. My friend Bob Sawtelle said that he had a set of E30 silver basketweaves with good rubber on them which he could loan me; he’d pulled them off his ’76 2002 when he upgraded to Panasports. When I drove down to pick them up, and he rolled them out of a shed in the backyard, Bob’s wife gently informed him that it would be good if the “loan” was forgiven and the wheels never returned to their domicile (I still owe Bob a favor for this :^). I mounted the silver ‘weaves on Bertha, and was surprised by how much I liked the way they looked. They blended really well with the car’s battleship gray paint.
Last year, for a number of reasons, I decided it was time to sell Kugel. After all, I also had Louie, the Agave ’72 tii, and I didn’t really need two ’72 tii’s. Since whether you like gold basketweaves is a question of taste, whereas the silver ‘weaves are almost universally-accepted as looking good on any 2002, I swapped wheels, putting the non-controversial silver ‘weaves on Kugel and the somewhat blingy gold BBS on Bertha.
Now, having gone to the Vintage for ten years, I’ve seen my share of beat-up, heavily-patinaed 2002s with oversized fifteen-hundred-dollar wheels stuffed into the wells. It’s not my personal taste, and the gold basketweaves on Bertha were edging in that direction, stopping short of full-on bling due to their small (by modern standards) fourteen-inch size and their uneven finish. I drove Bertha to the Vintage that way in 2019. Many people liked the look, but I never wanted it as a “look.” My putting them on Bertha was really little more than a practical choice for me—they were an available set of dead-nuts-straight wheels with good rubber on them. These were completely out of ’80s period-correct character. I still wanted the silver steelies that should’ve gone on the car when I first owned it.
Back in March, shortly after the pandemic hit, my Facebook friend Kyle Duquette sent me a link of a Facebook Marketplace ad for someone local to me selling what appeared to be the hallowed set of silver E30 steelies. I masked up and drove to see them, and was disappointed to find that they were, in fact, black wheels whose faces had been spray-painted silver. Still, I was there, they were a complete and un-dented set, they looked nice (nicer than I actually wanted), they were the only set of silver steelies I’d seen, painted or not, and I was tired of looking. I thought, “Well, are you going to buy these things you’ve been wanting for years or not?” and handed over $200.
For steel wheels. Yeah, I know. We all make odd choices.
Five days later, I saw an ad on Facebook Marketplace for a free set of heavily-patinaed E30 steel wheels, with rusty scratches and everything. They looked absolutely perfect for Bertha. The only problem was that they were out in Rochester, New York, nearly 400 miles each way.
I contacted the guy and asked if he ever came to Boston. In retrospect, I probably should’ve offered him whatever was necessary to strip the tires and ship them, but someone else grabbed them. Bad timing. It was the silver-E30-steel-wheel equivalent of Hugh Grant in Four Weddings and a Funeral.
For three months, the silver-painted E30 steelies sat in my driveway. I thought that I’d made a foolish decision buying them and resented their presence, but at least if they sat outside, I thought they’d get a little patina on them. Of course, in this case, “patina” means the silver paint wearing off and exposing the black underneath, which is the last thing I want.
Which brings us up to my article last week, in which I described finishing the suspension refresh in Louie, installing a set of H&R progressive-rate lowering springs, used Bilstein HD shocks, and used Suspension Techniques sway bars, driving the car on its original 13×5″ tii steel wheels and the Kumho 185/70-13 tires I’d had installed in Louisville, and being surprised how much they squealed at even slightly aggressive cornering or turning-in.
What I thought was happening was that, with Louie’s new much-firmer suspension, I was driving the car harder than I did when it was floaty and boaty because it was still wearing its 48-year-old shocks and springs. And I coupled that with the fact that my Bavaria, which is also wearing Kumho Soluses, does the same squealy thing. Obvious conclusion? It’s the Kumhos.
It wasn’t. But I thought it was, so the logic pushed me to thinking that I should temporarily retire Louie’s original (and rare) 13×5″ tii-specific steel wheels and put on something more in fitting with the corner-carving nature of the new suspension. And the logical path for doing that was to shoe the silver-painted E30 wheels I’d bought for Bertha with fresh rubber, pull off the gold ‘weaves off Bertha, put those on Louie, and finally give Bertha her silver steelies.
Then I paused and wondered if maybe my gold basketweave period had passed.
I had another set of silver basketweaves sitting in the driveway I’d picked up cheaply on Craigslist years back. They weren’t in great shape—one of them had curb rash so bad that it looked like it had lost a fight with a can opener—but I already owned them. I have a guy who only charges me $20 bucks a wheel—$80 a set—to mount and balance tires. Maybe, I thought, I should just retire the gold ‘weaves and swap the Altimaxes onto the silver ones.
Then the practical side overruled me. “Just put the gold wheels on Louie,” my left brain said. “See how the car handles with tires with shorter sidewalls, and see if you like how they look.”
So I did. I put Bertha up on the mid-rise lift, pulled the gold basketweaves off, and put them on Louie. While Bertha was up in the air, I ordered a set of Ohtsu 195/60-14 tires for the E30 steelies for Bertha. I then gleefully took Louie for his first drive on the gold fourteens, whose Altimaxes had silently and adroitly carved many a corner when they were on Kugel.
Squealing—immediately. Even when I was gingerly negotiating an entrance ramp. What the hell was going on?
I thought, “It has to be the tires, not the car,” but to be certain, I took the 13×5 tii steel wheels and Kumhos that had been on Louie, threw them on Bertha, went for a drive, and booted through the first onramp to I-95.
Silent as a politician caught on the wrong side of town.
So the problem didn’t move with the wheels and tires; it stayed with the car. Had I screwed something up on Louie when I installed the new suspension?
Then I remembered that a few weeks before the suspension installation, I’d realigned Louie. I know, that sounds weird, but the car felt twitchy to me.
A while back I wrote a piece for our friends at Hagerty about performing a do-it-yourself alignment, and how I use a toe-in gauge to measure the distances between the front and back edges of the front tires, set the toe close to zero, then dial the alignment in by feel, pulling in the toe until the car no longer wanders, finding the point where you can feel it starting to scrub, and then backing it off. Although I first assumed that it was my harder driving on Kugel’s new suspension that exposed the squealing problem, I wondered if the problem only started after I’d realigned the car. Could the squealing be an alignment issue? Had I gotten the alignment wrong?
I deployed the toe-in gauge, put it across the front edges of the tires, zeroed the reading, and checked the back edges.
It was so far off that it barely registered on the gauge.
I reset the alignment to about an eighth of an inch of toe and drove the car. The squealing was gone. Live and learn. So much for my aligning by “feel.”
With the technical issue solved, I could turn my attention to aesthetics. I looked at the gold basketweaves against Louie’s lightly-distressed finish. I like the look—a lot. Just like I did on that ratty Agave ’73.
And what about Bertha, now finally wearing her sort-of silver E30 steelies after decades of waiting? I’m not so sure. Some of it is that the painted silver wheels simply look too new, clean, and bright to me. I may warm to them. But I look at the photo above of the silver ‘weaves on the car, and I like them better.
Ironically, and by utter coincidence, a guy was at my house yesterday buying a bunch of parts. He saw the silver basketweaves in the driveway, asked about them, and I sold them. I figured that I’d had them for nearly a decade, I’d never had tires mounted on them and put them on a car, I’d just decided not to do so now: decision made, let them go.
Now I wonder if I screwed up. But hell, they’re only wheels, and common ones at that.
Stepping back a bit from the minutiae of wheel aesthetics, the entire episode made me think about the roles our cars play. The subtitle of that 1989 Roundel article about “2002 Modifications” I reference above was, “Why the car of your dreams might not be exactly what you had in mind.” What I hinted at in the article was that 30 years ago, I’d over-modified Bertha. Its Koni suspension is very stiff. Its cam and Weber 40DCOEs are very throaty. It was a fun track rat back in the day, but I stopped doing track days, the car was a poor daily driver, and that was as much a reason why I sold it as lack of garage space.
Since then, I’ve been very careful not to over-modify my cars. Now, of course, having Bertha back decades later, it doesn’t have to be a daily driver, and I’m thrilled to have one 2002 in the stable that’s an unabashed snotty hot rod.
When I bought Louie four years ago, part of his appeal was that this was a 100% bone-stock ’72 tii, as opposed to the other ’72 tii, Kugel, which had Recaros, a stiff suspension, fourteen-inch wheels, a five-speed, and other things. I loved that Louie felt exactly the way a ’72 tii should feel, even if part of that feel was an old worn-out suspension. I was so enamored of Louie’s vibe that I sold Kugel.
In doing the suspension update on Louie, I was very concerned that it would alter that feel—that it would sound different and vibrate differently—and break the connection I had with the car. Fortunately, it didn’t. I love the new precise feel. I even swapped in a Konig seat to keep my butt planted for the enthusiastic driving that’s to come.
The point in all this is that we don’t need to feel trapped by what we think our cars are; these things can evolve. And if you don’t like where it leads, many changes can be undone easily. Few things are as trivial as reversing a wheel choice. It doesn’t even qualify as a repair. Hitting “undo” on a suspension swap is a bit more involved, but if you find that your choice of springs is too stiff, it’s hardly the end of the world.
So the gold E30 basketweaves are now on my fourth 2002. I don’t think that I’ve ever had such a well-traveled part. At some point, I’ll probably tire of them (groan), but for now, they’re makin’ Louie look like a sharp-dressed man.—Rob Siegel
Rob’s most recent book, Resurrecting Bertha: Buying Back Our Wedding Car After 26 Years In Storage, is available on Amazon here. His other books, including 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. His new book, The Lotus Chronicles, will be available in the fall.