Since I own eleven vehicles, it’s not my imagination that one of them always needs an inspection sticker. Statistically, that’s pretty likely to happen almost every month.
As I’ve written before, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is second only to California in motor-vehicle inspection that is stringent to the point of being a pain in the patootie: All cars, no matter their age, must undergo annual inspection. In addition to the usual lights-wipers-horn check, no rust holes are permitted in the body of the car or in the exhaust system, and the nose of the car is jacked up to check for front-end play. There’s a tailpipe smog check for cars newer than fifteen years old, and having the check-engine light on on any post-1995 OBD-II car is an automatic fail. Plus, three years ago, the state required all inspection stations to install cameras to record the inspection process in order to help eliminate “friend of the station” leniency.
In addition to all that, all cars are still supposed to wear the emission-control systems that were on the car when new, although it’s not remotely as bad as in California, where model-specific pieces of hardware are actually checked; here, it’s more a situation where if a post-OBD-II car has an impossibly loud exhaust, and they see that the catalytic converters have been replaced with straight pipes, they can fail it.
Cameras notwithstanding, there are a still few gray areas. My former 1999 Z3, now owned by my neighbor, recently failed inspection because the front air dam had a crack, and an over-zealous inspector rigorously applied a rule about body damage and parts needing to be “secured.” So you can understand why, when I bring Bertha, my patina-laden ’75 2002, in for inspection, the inspector typically casts an eye at it—and me—as if to say, “This? You want me to inspect this?”
Despite Bertha’s appearance, however, I’ve been confident that as long as the things that have to work actually work, and as long as the inspector doesn’t crawl under the car and see the shoe-sized hole in the floor behind the pedal bucket, I’ll emerge with a sticker.
Last weekend I drove out to central Massachusetts, where I keep four of the cars garaged, in order to have Bertha inspected. There is a hole-in-the-wall inspection station I’ve used for several years that’s about a mile from my rented garages; its value lies in its close proximity, and not that it’s in any way shady, since, as I said, they have very little leeway if they actually find something wrong.
First I did an inspection check on Bertha in my rented garage: Wipers, horn, headlamps, and turn signals all worked fine. In the dark window-less garage bay, it’s easy to check brake lights, as I can look behind me and see their illumination on the back wall. But when I put the transmission in reverse to check the back-up lights, I was surprised to find that they didn’t work.
The fuse and bulbs checked out, so that left only the wiring or the switch, both of which are located on the Getrag 245 five-speed transmission, and are thus only accessible by jacking up the car. I’ve thought about leaving a small floor jack and stands out at the rented garage for situations like this (I leave a set of jumper cables out there, as well as a cigarette-lighter plug-in air compressor for tire inflation), but have never pulled the trigger on it because it sets up a slippery slope: If I start doing a wheels-up repairs out there, I’m likely to find that I also need more tools, parts, fluids, wires, etc, than I typically carry in the trunk.
Faced with driving the car with the now-expired inspection sticker the 50 miles back to my house in order to troubleshoot the back-up lights, I opted to take it in for inspection anyway. In Massachusetts, if a car fails inspection, they give you a rejection sticker, which gives you another 60 days to fix the problem. Actually, that’s not quite true: If the rejection is emissions-related, they give you a sticker with a black “R,” which does give you a 60-day grace period, but if they reject you for something “safety-related,” the sticker has a red “R,” for which there is no grace period—meaning that police officers can repeatedly pull you over and ticket you. However, in practice, anecdotal evidence seems to be that getting stopped with a red R, particularly if you really are driving the car back to your garage to fix it, is better than being stopped while driving on an expired sticker. Plus, I thought, who knows? Maybe I’d get lucky and they wouldn’t check the back-up lights.
So off I went.
The dark and cluttered little two-bay gas/repair/inspection station is the kind of place I feel right at home. The inspection tech drove Bertha into the inspection bay, and I found a small patch of shade outside in which to hang out while I awaited Bertha’s fate. About ten minutes later, the mechanic came out—not the tech who drove it in—and walked up to me. “Is that your BMW?” he asked.
I nodded. “I opened up the hood because I’ve always liked these cars and I wanted to see the engine. You have a problem.”
Uh-oh. My immediate thought was that however unlikely it was, Bertha’s highly non-stock de-smogged engine and dual Webers had rung alarm bells. After all, 1975 is the year that 2002s originally had thermal reactors, and those and every other bit of emission controls are decades gone.
But that wasn’t it at all. He motioned me into the inspection bay and indicated the right side of the engine compartment. “It’s leaking gas out of your fuel-pressure regulator,” he said, pointing to the one-in-two-out Holley unit I’d installed along with the Weber 40DOEs nearly 35 years ago, which reduces the approximately four PSI from the electric fuel pump to about 2.5 PSI so that it doesn’t push fuel past the needle valves in the Webers. He started the engine and, sure enough, I could see a little gas dribbling out of the adjustment screw at the top of the regulator. I was surprised, sincefuel leaks in the engine compartment are usually pretty fragrant, and I hadn’t smelled anything on the drive over.
“Problem is,” the mechanic said, “occasionally the dribble changes to a spurt. It could be dangerous if it crosses over the engine and lands on the hot exhaust manifold.” As if on cue, a little gas geyser—a spirit spout for you Moby Dick fans—shot straight up about four inches.
Well, I thought, you’re not driving this back to Newton. Then, the mechanic said the last thing I ever expected to hear: “Don’t worry about this affecting the inspection,” he said. “This isn’t something we check for.”
Wait, what? I was stunned, and not sure if I was relieved or angry. After all, once they’re done checking to make sure your horn works, they wouldn’t want to give you a sticker and let you back on the road if your car was, you know, unsafe or anything.
I went back outside to wait in the shade. About ten minutes later, the tech backed the car out of the inspection bay and turned it toward where I was sitting. I saw neither a red R on the sticker nor a black one, just a valid 2021 inspection sticker—meaning they hadn’t checked the reverse lights. I guess I was lucky—but I didn’t feel lucky, since my lucking out on the sticker would be little solace if the car burned up on the one-mile drive back to the rented garage.
My luck, however, seemed to continue; the fire extinguisher I’d put in the car for last year’s trip down to the Vintage was still in the trunk. With that at the ready, I ran the engine for a bit in the parking lot, fiddled with the lock nut at the top of the regulator to see if it would make any difference (it didn’t), revved the engine up and down, and watched the leak. The spurt recurred once, but it was small. I made a judgment call, put the fire extinguisher on the passenger seat, and hastily beat it the mile back to my rented garage, ready to stop at the first obvious smell of gas. I made it without incident, wiped off the wet regulator, disconnected the battery, and put the car away.
When I got home, I immediately jumped online and ordered a replacement regulator. It has since arrived, and the next time I’m out at the rented garage, I’ll install it.
So,I thank the mechanic at the inspection station for indulging his BMW 2002 curiosity and opening the hood, because if he hadn’t, I probably would’ve driven the car 50 miles home without knowing about the gas leak. But I’m not sure what to make of a state inspection policy that failed the Z3 due to a cracked front air dam, but passed Bertha while she was actively leaking gas.—Rob Siegel
Rob’s latest book, The Lotus Chronicles: One man’s sordid tale of passion and madness resurrecting a 40-year-dead Lotus Europa Twin Cam Special, is now available here on Amazon. Signed copies can also be ordered directly from Rob here.