When I bought back and resurrected Bertha—the ’75 2002 I’d moved here from Austin in 1984, turned into a track rat and sold to my friend Alex in 1988, which got stolen (twice), vandalized, and sat in Alex’s neighbor’s garage for 26 years—I was surprised by the transmission—not that it was a five-speed; I remembered that part clearly. When I owned the car, I’d installed a bulletproof Metric Mechanic four-speed, but after I sold the car to Alex and it was stolen the first time and recovered, he really wanted a five-speed.
He found and purchased the Getrag 245, probably paying a few hundred bucks for it, as back in those days the wrecked or rotted E21 320i’s they were pulled from were ubiquitous in junkyards. I called up Jim Rowe at Metric and said, “Send me everything I need for a 2002 five-speed conversion,” and did the swap for Alex as a birthday present. To this day, the car still has that transmission and those parts, including the Metric Mechanic shift kit and their über-rare five-speed support bracket that doesn’t require relocating the tabs on the inside of the transmission tunnel.
Ah, youth, friendship, and disposable income.
What was surprising to me was that when I got the car running two years ago and began driving it around, I found that the fourth-gear synchro was so badly munched that I could upshift into fourth but not downshift, even with double-clutching and rev-matching. Neither I nor Alex had any memory of the car having transmission issues prior to its long layup.
At first, it wasn’t a big deal; I just wouldn’t slide the shifter into fifth on the highway until I was going 70 and still accelerating. But when I took the car to the Vintage last year, with the elevation changes on I-81 as it crisscrosses the backbone of the Appalachians, and then especially on the section of I-26 through the Cherokee National Forest leading into Asheville, it was a pain; when I slowed on an uphill, I had to either shift into third and then fourth or risk a crunch that sounded like it was going to tear the gearbox apart.
The other related thing about Bertha is the paint-can-size hole in the floor, which can be clearly seen on the left side in the photo above. Rust in this location is common on 2002s due to a combination of water intrusion and clutch/brake fluid leaking into the pedal bucket and leaching back. Just so there’s something for the accelerator pedal ball mounts to bolt into, I bent a license plate and laid it under the rug. You can’t quite see it in the photo, but the rust also comes alarmingly close to the left transmission-bracket mounting tab.
I bought a welder a few years back, a MillerMatic 141, but I’ve still yet to walk up the learning curve required to use it properly; I’ve really only used it for non-bodywork applications like welding nuts onto stuck or broken studs to be able to extract them (incredibly useful, by the way). I thought that fixing this hole in Bertha’s floor would be a perfect first welding job for me, since (a) the repair would be somewhere you can’t see, and (b) even if someone jacks it up and photographs it, it’s not like Bertha is ever going to be worth anything anyway.
However, in order to weld it up, both the transmission and the pedal bucket itself will need to come out. For this reason, in my mind, I’ve rolled these two repairs together—replacing the transmission and welding up this hole—and slated them as the winter project that will probably never happen.
I mean, I can use the car indefinitely the way it is, and it’s not like it’s easy to swap a synchro in the five-speed. I have done one and only one transmission rebuild; it was in 1982, and it was literally the first repair I ever did on a 2002, as I had no money, no fear, and no knowledge of the fact that the innards of the transmission are basically suspended from the end cover and special tools are required to pull the thing apart. As I got into it and over my head, I borrowed the tools from Terry Sayther. (In fact, I put the transmission in my wife Maire Anne’s VW bus, parked it outside Terry’s old shop—Phoenix Motor Works in Austin—did portions of the rebuild inside the bus, and ran in and out of the shop to borrow and return tools. Terry and I still joke about my hubris.). But three months later the synchro was munching again, as the job requires measurement and shimming that I wasn’t doing.
So fixing Bertha’s balky five-speed would mean finding another one, and the days of $300 Getrag 245s have receded in the rear-view mirror along with $3,000 tii’s, $8,500 E30 M3s, and $12,000 E9s. Pretty much all the junkyard E21 320is are gone.
A few years ago, garage-hoarded 245s in unknown condition were $800, and ones where the seller drove the car before pulling the box and thus could vouch for its rumble-and-munch-free nature were $1,200. But a quick perusal this morning on eBay, Craigslist, and Facebook Marketplace shows folks asking $1,300 to $1,500 for I-know-what-I’ve-got-but-not-what-condition-it’s-in-and-no-it’s-not-returnable 245 gearboxes. Yeesh.
And then something funny happened. As part of the Great Parts Unloading Of 2020, I was getting rid of all manner of body panels and bumpers I’ve had lying around for years when I uncovered a 245 that had been sitting under my back porch. I had to remind myself where it even came from.
Slowly it came back to me. When my garage finally got built in 2005, I suddenly had space, and the rate at which I began buying cars sharply increased. The sheetrock literally wasn’t even up on the walls when I bought a ’73 tii that the seller had commissioned a repaint for; he got into a dispute with the body shop over paint drips and yanked it out of the shop, and then it sat partially disassembled in his garage.
After I finished reassembling the car, I found a five-speed and most of the parts needed for the conversion—shortened driveshaft, shortened shift platform—being sold by a guy who ran a small leather shop in Weymouth, Massachusetts. It turned out that he’d been a CCA member back in the day and had known club founder Michel Potheau. The 2002 in which the five-speed had been installed had long returned to dust, and the pulled five-speed parts were just sitting out in the elements in the backyard, but the seller looked me in the eye and swore to me that the transmission had been fine when he removed it. We did the we-both-knew-Michel-Potheau secret handshake; I think I gave him $400 for everything and loaded my prized pieces into what was then probably the back hatch of the 318ti, and drove home.
I then dug into the tii. Back in my misspent automotive youth, I wouldn’t think twice about dropping and installing a gearbox. I remember Jim Rowe perfectly describing “the position,” where you’d lie on the creeper with the gearbox on your stomach, roll under the car, balance the box on your knees and your toes, then push it into position with your feet and hands, suspend the back in the air with one hand and a locked elbow, and reach up with the other hand and affix one securing bolt at the top of the bell housing.
But even just fifteen years ago when I was 47, I didn’t have the strength I did in my 30s, and I didn’t (and still don’t) have a post lift to make it easy. After the garage was built, I did buy a mid-rise scissor lift, and figured out a convoluted series of steps to allow installation of a transmission even though the body of the scissor lift is in the way, but it’s almost not worth it. (There’s a lengthy post about this on my blog that can be seen here. The green 2002 shown at the start of the post is in fact this very car and this very transmission.)
But I got the newly-purchased five-speed with friend-of-Michel provenance into the tii, buttoned things up, and took it for a drive. To my astonishment, after driving maybe 60 feet down the street, the transmission munched, banged, and then the rear wheels locked up, causing the car to die. I put it into neutral, rolled the car backward and into the garage, and put it back up on the lift. I assumed that I’d see something like a bolt on the giubo jammed up against something, but I could find no signs of interference. I ran the car in gear on the lift without any problems.
So I tried driving it again, and the same thing happened.
I posted the problem to the brain trust at www.bmw2002faq.com, and there was no definitive, “Oh, yeah, it’s THIS” answer to why the transmission appeared to lock up. I recall that there were a few suggestions that I ran to ground and found nothing. So I removed the five-speed, spun the risk wheel again, bought another zero-provenance $300 Getrag 245 on eBay, and installed it—and that one worked fine. I dragged the problem-child 245 box under my back porch.
At some point, maybe ten years ago, I advertised the transmission on eBay as for parts or repair. I recall accurately describing the lock-up problem, and using a starting bid of $250 plus actual shipping costs. I had zero takers. So it sat under my porch for nearly fifteen years, and got covered with layers of under-porch crap. It was literally out of sight and out of mind.
Now, I’m not saying that I’m going to start sourcing bearing pullers for Getrag transmissions and reading up on rebuild procedures. But as we’re turning the season’s corner into fall, and as it’s potentially only six weeks from there until the first snows of November, it’s good to at least think about what a winter project might be so that the cars can be put in position. I’ve got not one but two Getrag 245s, hobbled in different ways. I should be able to figure something out.
And I’ll make sure to keep the welder accessible in case I want to have a go at that hole in the floor.—Rob Siegel
Rob’s new book, The Lotus Chronicles, is now available for pre-order at www.robsiegel.com.