If I had unlimited garage and property space, I’d be one of those people with a hundred cars—you know, the guy who dies leaving his family to deal with the sprawling mess. But I don’t have unlimited anything, so a lot of thought goes into what occupies the available garage space over the winter.
While nature abhors a vacuum, my garage really abhors an open space. And it was that open space that triggered an overdue decision.
As I wrote a few weeks ago, my friend Mike asked me to sell his 1973 2002tii for him. Rather than get a commission or a flat fee, I bartered two over-the-winter spaces in his garage, immediately driving over in my 3.0CSi, dropping it off, and retrieving his tii. (My M coupe will soon go into the second space). I photographed the tii and put it on Bring a Trailer for him. The car eventually sold for $38,250, so it worked out well, but the process was lengthy; from the date the car was accepted by BaT until it was listed took a full six weeks. Add one week for the auction itself and another week for shipping arrangements to be complete, and the little Colorado tii was in my garage for eight weeks.
But because I knew the car would be gone, my brain was constantly thinking about what would next occupy that space in the garage—and whether it would stay there over the winter.
The right rear garage space is the one where the mid-rise lift resides, so this is where active projects tend to live. The Lotus had been on it while I was tweaking the rear alignment, but other cars were queueing up for the lift—at least they were in my mind. This past spring, the clutch on Maire Anne’s little 2013 Honda Fit had begun slipping. Of course, like many people, we’re barely driving these days, but I thought that rather than pay someone a thousand bucks to replace it, I should dive in myself and be done with it, even though clutches in front-wheel-drive vehicles are a pain, since the axles have to come off in order to pull the transaxle.
The other candidate, of course, was Zelda, my former 1999 Z3 2.3i that was now owned by my friend and neighbor Kim. As I recently wrote, her son had crashed the car into a median strip, the insurance company almost certainly would’ve totaled it, and I’d repaired it by replacing the pretzeled lower control arms and bent wheels and muscling the air dam back into position. But it still needed other buttoning up, and—completely unrelated to the accident—a clutch. Kim and I talked about my buying the car back, but convertibles need to be garaged, and I was hesitant to allocate garage space that I didn’t even have yet to Zelda.
But it’s funny how logjams break. Mike’s tii finally got shipped to its buyer, although not without some drama. The truck driver called me, saying that his rig was too big to come into my neighborhood. I live on a very small street, so when I ship a car, I have them meet me around the corner; no driver picking up or delivering a car to me has ever had a problem at that location, but this driver said that he had an 85-foot double-trailer and was concerned about his ability to navigate tight turns and get back to the Interstate. He requested that I meet him at a service plaza on I-95 about four miles from my house.
I was willing to do that, as long as I wasn’t putting the vehicle at risk. Not surprisingly, Mike had cancelled the registration and insurance after the sale had gone through, and it turned out, somewhat surprisingly, that the buyer hadn’t insured the car yet. After a round of phone calls between me, the buyer, his insurance company, the shipper, and the driver, it all got straightened out, and I said goodbye to the pretty Colorado tii under threatening skies.
When I got back home and saw the empty space in the garage, I decided that I’d dive into the Honda Fit’s clutch. I was about to order the parts I’d researched (Exedy disc and plate with an OE Honda release bearing) to get them on the way, but then I thought that first I’d take the car for a short test drive, and then put it into the garage and onto the lift.
But to my surprise, on the drive, I could not detect any clutch slippage. Maybe just a tiny amount when floored in first gear.
I thought about it and realized that if the Fit was laid up for the clutch replacement, Maire Anne would have to drive my E39 sedan. It’s a great car, but ever since I’ve owned it, when the weather’s cold, the steering has been very heavy for the first few turns. I keep meaning to flush the steering fluid and see if that fixes it, but I haven’t gotten around to it. I thought that if the Fit really didn’t have a crying need for a clutch, it was better to wait till spring—and just like that, the Fit clutch job that I’d been obsessing about for weeks was off the table.
Regarding those threatening skies over Mike’s tii: Just after the tii left, Kim called me, saying that since it was about to rain cats and dogs and blow up a storm, she wanted to run to AutoZone and buy a cover for Zelda. I offered that this probably sounded like a better solution than it actually was; I told her that lightweight, ill-fitting covers blow off even when they’re strapped down, that the $150-ish genuine BMW cover might be worth buying if the car really was going to sit outside all winter, and that, for just overnight, I’d be happy to run over with a generic cover I had and strap it on. I couldn’t find any ratchet straps to hold it, though, so I asked Kim to run down to the hardware store to buy a pair.
I dashed around the corner, threw the cover on Zelda, and secured it with its flimsy click-lock straps just before the rain started. Kim reported later that she and her son Tyler ratchet-strapped it in place over the hood and trunk.
Oddly, the simple issue of the cover, combined with the open space in my garage, brought the question of whether or not I was going to buy back Zelda sharply into focus. Kim and I had left this issue unresolved, since there had been nothing pushing either of us to resolve it. When I’d sold her the car two years ago, I cautioned her that all convertibles leak, that covers aren’t really a viable over-winter solution, and that unless she had garage space, the exposure would kill it. At the time, she wrangled unused garage space from a neighbor, but that was no longer available. If she continued to own the car, the mildew storm that was certain to follow was her problem, not mine.
But if I bought the car back, it would be my problem—which meant garaging the car. A gear in my head clicked, and put me into the mode where I felt that the time to think the issue through and resolve it was right now.
Garaging notwithstanding, the first question was whether there was a price at which I even wanted the car back (Kim had actually offered it to me for free, but that didn’t seem fair). In addition to the still-unrepaired accident damage (cracked air dam, missing plastic shrouding, torn electrical connectors, damaged a/c-compressor bracket, condenser, and fan), the car had a screeching clutch-release bearing. I’d done the clutch on Zelda’s big brother, my 1999 M coupe, ten years ago, and remembered it being a colossal pain in the butt due to rusted exhaust fasteners, difficult-to-reach bell-housing bolts, and the weight of the transmission.
While I have certainly been known to make irrational passion purchases, I really try to be resolutely rational about these things, and will often document my thought process, because writing it out helps me think it through. I laid it out like this:
- If I buy Zelda and am going to keep it, I’ll need to do the clutch—and with that, the other needed repairs, and the car’s general rattiness, there will be very little upside if I sell it.
- But if I’m not going to keep it, I shouldn’t be buying it outright; I should help Kim sell it and split the money instead.
- So it comes down to:
- How badly I want the fun little car to remain in our orbit (“The Cult Of Zelda” and all that) versus
- How much I want to continue to enable the possibility of buying some other bargain roadster (e.g., Boxster, R129 500SL, MR2 Spyder, another Alfa, etc.)
- Really, how can I not buy it back? Worse comes to worst, if I find something else, I sell Zelda and make financial amends with Kim.
With that, I prepared to present Kim with three alternatives:
- She pays me the $440 she owes me for the parts I bought to fix the damage from the median strike, and she does whatever she wants with the car. Although it needed a clutch and further accident repair, it is now drivable, and thus has value. If she wanted or needed the money, this was probably the best time to bail out of it. I’d get nothing, but that was fine; she’s a dear friend and it’s not like I’d worked on the car for free to put money in a “guilt her into selling me back Zelda cheap” account.
- I sell the car for her, I get reimbursed for my sunk costs, and we split the remainder.
- I buy the car back. I’d need to garage it, register it, insure it, and fix it, so there would be real costs that capped the car’s value to me. Plus, there were the “opportunity costs” of buying Zelda instead of something else that might come my way.
So what was its value to me? About a thousand bucks. I’d already sunk in $440, so I’d forgive that and give her another $500 to buy the car outright. And if I wound up needing to sell the car quickly for some reason, we’d do a prorated profit-sharing, where if I sold it immediately, we’d split it less expenses, but her share would fall to zero after a year.
The next day I walked around the corner to Kim’s, and was surprised to find Zelda sitting uncovered. “In all that crazy rain and wind yesterday,” she said, “the cover blew out from under the ratchet straps. Tyler had to chase it down the street.” Then Kim showed me that she’d found that the seal for the third brake light on the trunk lid had detached itself, providing a path for water to come into the trunk. It underscored for both of us the fact that the car couldn’t stay where it was over the winter without damage.
I asked, “Okay, you ready to talk?” She sighed. I ran down the three options, and she immediately chose the third. I walked back home, grabbed $500 left over from a guitar that I’d recently sold, and handed it to Kim. She handed me the title.
“You can still borrow it like you used to,” I offered.
“I’m so happy,” she said. “She needs to come back to you.”
And with that, all the uncertainty of the previous two months fell away. I’d just bought back a car that I, my wife, my sister, and a number of close friends loved, for a thousand bucks. And the Cult of Zelda and the work the car needed notwithstanding, what were the odds that I’d find a rust-free, running, driving Boxster, MR2 Spyder, or R129 500SL for a thousand bucks? Zero. This made sense.
I drove Zelda the 500 feet and three right turns back into my house. During the short drive, the clutch-release bearing squealed, but it wasn’t that bad. I was about to pull the Lotus out of the garage and back Zelda in and onto the mid-rise lift, but it was about 50 degrees out, which of course made me wonder if I should eke a few days of top-down driving out of the car before laying it up for the winter.
I mashed the clutch pedal back in, preparing to take the car for a longer change-my-mind spin, and this time the release bearing sounded more like a chainsaw: decision made—into the garage and onto the lift she went. She’d been there a few weeks before when I replaced the bent lower control arms, but this time it felt different.
She was mine again. She was home.
The next day I began the transmission removal. One of my Hack Mechanic Tips For Sane Living is, on a big project, to do one thing a day. You can obviously do more, but when you get overwhelmed, you often wind up doing less—meaning nothing. The trick to this is that time will pass anyway, so it might as well pass with small amounts of progress, the cumulative effect of which can be substantial.
I decided that my first one-thing-per-day would be removal of the exhaust nuts. However, I viscerally recalled the event ten years ago when, while doing the same job on my M coupe and trying to remove the nuts holding the headpipes to the exhaust manifolds, I pushed too hard on too long a breaker bar, and rather than hearing the nuts break loose, felt that sickening feeling of the breaker bar giving way without CRACK! or screeeee, indicating that the stud was snapping. That, however, was before I’d become a convert to the use of heat and beeswax as pre-emptive measures for fasteners which, if they snap or strip, will put you in a world of hurt.
I was pleased find that the exhaust configuration on the Z3 is different from that in the M coupe, with the nuts and studs much lower and much easier to reach. But the nuts looked just as rusty, so I dragged out my oxyacetylene torch, but was surprised to find that the oxygen cylinder was empty. Rather than deal with getting the tank refilled, I used my small MAPP-gas torch. MAPP gas isn’t going to melt or cut like oxyacetylene is, but unlike propane, it is perfectly capable of heating fasteners cherry-red, which is what you want.
Unfortunately, about 30 seconds into heating the first nut, the MAPP gas ran out.
So I hopped into Lolita (the Lotus) and ran down to the hardware store for a MAPP gas cylinder. About an hour and three heat-wax cycles later, I was through with giving Zelda her Brazilian, and had backed the four nuts off their studs without breaking or stripping any of them.
Then, while I was still sitting under Zelda’s nose, having completed my one thing per day, with my butt still sitting on the garage floor, I spun around and prepared to get up—and found myself face-to-face with Lolita. Something about the car looking at me at eye level like an eager puppy cracked me up, and, alone in the garage, I burst out laughing.
So: The garage space hadn’t even been empty for 24 hours before I felt compelled to make choices that not only filled it back up, but cemented it shut. Zelda is not only back, but she’s in the primo project space, and with the clutch replacement underway, I’m committed; that space is now not only occupied, there’s effectively a three-month lease signed on it.
And now, as I submit this, the first major snowstorm of the season is forecast to move in tomorrow, with the prediction just upgraded from a simple Nor’easter to a “bomb cyclone” whose snowfall could be measured in feet. My decision just three days ago to buy back Zelda was in no way driven by a desire to beat the weather (which at that point was only forecast as simple cold), get the car somewhere safe, and give me a winter project. It just happened that way.
Just lucky, I guess.—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 of this and his other books can be ordered directly from Rob here.