It’s no surprise that in the summer, I tend to favor cars that are air-conditioned. As a result, the non-air-conditioned Lotus and Hampton, the 49,000-mile 2002, tend to sit in the summer (well, Hampton tends to sit in just about any season). In addition, the Z3 saw almost no use after June; anyone who owns a convertible knows that their prime seasons are spring and fall. But now that both summer and the trip to the Vintage are past, I felt the need to shuffle the cars and line things up for autumn.
These days, “shuffle the cars” isn’t just an automotive catch phrase; a lot of literal automotive shuffling goes along here at the House Of Hack. The purchase of the mouse-infested truck (which is still a bit smellier than I’d like; I need to do another round of treating and rinsing the heater box to knock down the smell when I turn on the heat) filled most of the unused space in my driveway. In addition, I’m helping a friend sell a 2007 Mustang, so that’s here as well, creating the unprecedented number of eight cars occupying the driveway and garage. It’s common for me to need to move three or four cars in order to get to the one I need at any given time.
Which brings us to Zelda, my Boston Green Z3.
You may recall that I sold Zelda to my friend and neighbor Kim about three years ago, after there was an incident with the car while it was stored in one of the rented garages in Fitchburg. The roof there was leaking, and without realizing it, I’d stashed Zelda away in the garage bay that was the wettest. When I retrieved the car maybe six weeks later, I found that mold and mildew had exploded inside the car. Although the offending spores all wiped off the vinyl seats and the hard surfaces with Clorox wipes, I felt terrible.
Kim wanted to buy the car, so I decided that maybe it was time, especially if she had a place to put it. She finagled garage space for it from a neighbor, so I sold it to her. She owned the car for two years. Then, about a year ago, her son had a brain fart and put the car up on a median strip, bending the lower control arms and wheels and shattering the front bumper cover (the air dam), but miraculously sparing the sheet metal. I bought the car back and fixed the accident damage (except for the bumper cover, which is still held together with packing tape pending my finding a replacement for it).
Of course, having sold the Z3 because I didn’t have room for it, it wasn’t as if that room magically appeared when I bought it back. Last winter, I helped my friend Mike sell his ’73 2002tii on Bring a Trailer in exchange for two over-the-winter spaces in his Garage Mahal, so my 3.0CSi and my clown shoe safely rode out the winter there. That took pressure off my space situation, which allowed the Z3 to occupy the prime space on the mid-rise lift in the garage while I replaced the clutch.
I registered and insured the car and drove it around last spring, but as summer approached, I wanted to get both the E9 and the clown shoe back from Mike’s (actually, it was l’affaire Magnus Walker that forced me to retrieve them), which caused the space issues to boil over again. I bought a high-quality CoverCraft cover for the Z3, then basically left the car in the driveway to fend for itself. It was far less than an optimal situation, but it was the best I could do. But when I did occasionally move the car, I was quite pleased with how well the cover appeared to be working: I found neither water nor mildew. Gee, I thought, this waterproof yet breathable thing is more than just advertising pablum.
As summer progressed, however, the combination of the work on the mouse-infested truck and some long-delayed maintenance on the Winnebago Rialta in support of a few short stress-busting trips that my wife and I took to the Cape and to Vermont literally pushed the Z3 to the back of the queue. I moved the car to the very end of the long driveway, left the cover on it, and hoped for the best.
This week, with fall causing temperatures to drop and leaves to pop with color, I yearned to drive the Z3 and get that never-overrated top-down experience. I moved the Mustang, the truck, and the Rialta out onto the street, and pulled the cover off Zelda. This is what I found.
I was both bummed and puzzled, since I’d been in and out of the car earlier in the summer and never saw this sort of a mildew bloom. I realized that the difference probably was that the end of the driveway, where the car had been sitting covered for at least a month, doesn’t get much, if any, sun.
As was the case three years prior, the mold cleaned off easily enough with Clorox wipes. I left the car open as often as possible to let sunlight and fresh air do their thing.
With the mildew beaten back for now, the next task was to get Zelda inspected. After I’d bought back, registered, and insured the car, I continued driving it on Kim’s old inspection sticker, but that expired at the end of August. I knew that there were several inspection issues left over from its curb strike last year; one was that the wires for the small directional bulb and lens located on the side of the right fender had been torn out. I did a quick repair with a pair of butt-splice connectors, knowing that if I ever really put the nose of the car back together correctly (new bumper cover and inner-fender liners), I’d do a better, more weather-proof job, but this was good enough for now.
Next was the addressing the fact that the brake lights weren’t working. This stumped me for a bit, but I eventually realized that it was a consequence of a kluge I’d done to bypass the SRS warning light. A jumper wire that I’d installed on the plug to the brake-light switch on the brake pedal had popped out. I reseated the wire, the brake lights came on, the SRS light remained out, and I was ready to get the car inspected.
With the thirteen cars split between Newton and Fitchburg, and with registration renewals and their yearly stickers sometimes arriving and having no place to go, I’m in the habit of checking that the tags on the plates are current and that the front plate is actually on the car (I’ll sometimes take the front plate off the vintage cars when I go to events, but it’s required for inspection). So I was wasn’t terribly alarmed to find that the tag on the Z3’s plate was expired.
During the pandemic, I’ve had a few instances where either I lost the new sticker or the registry never sent me one. The registry is actually pretty good about giving you an up-to-date sticker, as long as you can prove that the car is still registered. So I opened the glovebox and looked at the registration. It expired in 2020.
No way, I thought, I know the registration is valid. I’d been driving this car. I must have an up-to-date registration in the house.
Or the garage.
Or the basement.
But I couldn’t find one.
Okay, no problem: I’ll just pay online for a duplicate registration. It’s $25, but if I need it, I need it. I photographed the plate to make sure that I had it right, went inside, entered the plate number into the Massachusetts registry site to apply for a duplicate, and it said:
My first thought was what the autopilot said in the movie WALL-E when it saw the plant: “Not possible.” I went back and looked at the registration in the glovebox again. I blinked with a sense of unreality. The registration was Kim’s—and it matched the plates on the car.
Again, not possible. Again, I was driving this car earlier in the summer. I might have taken those kinds of chances when I was a young, foolish, non-home-owning pup, but I had zero doubt that this car was registered and insured.
I tried to rewind the events in my mind. I remembered the sequence: I replaced the car’s bent lower control arms and drove the car briefly to prove to both myself and Kim that the damage was contained, then officially bought the car back from her. I then laid the car up on my mid-rise lift for several months over the winter and replaced the clutch (the throwout bearing had disintegrated, making any clutch action sound like a chainsaw). I called Hagerty to insure the car, then went to the registry with the paperwork they sent. I had specific memories of this because I made an appointment with the registry, and I went in person during the lockdown instead of doing it by mail because I wanted to plead my case that I’d owned the car before and thus didn’t have to pay sales tax again. (They denied me, but when I looked at the receipt after I left, I realized that the woman at the registry must’ve taken pity on me, because instead of assessing me the sales tax on the low NADA book value of the car, as is the policy, she taxed me on the much lower price that I’d actually bought the car back for, which is unheard of these days.)
Because of all this, I had zero question that I’d registered and titled the car and got new plates. Zero. Zee-eee-are-oh.
Okay then, Mister Certain: Where the hell were they?
I thought, Well, let’s start with the title. I would’ve put that in the car’s folder, as I do with every title for every car. I pulled out the Z3 folder. I did not find the title there (I’m still looking for it), but I did find the plates and the registration.
So yes, I had registered the car, but while it was laid up on the lift over the winter while I did the clutch, I must have put the plates and registration in the folder so that I wouldn’t, you know, lose them. And then I forgot all about it. I never put the plates on the car or the registration in the glovebox. After the clutch was done and the weather warmed up, I just drove the car. Apparently, all that time I’d been driving around on Kim’s expired plates. We’re talking months.
If you want a little laugh, look again at the photo of the car under the cover. Holy crap. And I was worried about the expired inspection sticker!
With the car properly plated and all the lights working, the final issue was the cracked front bumper cover. Zelda’s paint is actually in pretty good condition, and when the sun hits it, it’s a pretty car, marred only by the bumper cover that had clearly taken a beating, been repaired with Bondo, and repainted even before the curb strike incident; it was ultimately cajoled by me into hanging together with Gorilla Glue and packing tape. Massachusetts inspection laws are tough, to the point where a crack-through in an air dam that causes part of it to visually hang can be grounds for failure. As I wrote here back in the spring, I’d bought an aftermarket front bumper cover on Amazon for $180 shipped, but when it arrived, I found that it was so flimsy that they’d literally folded it in thirds to get it to fit in the box. I returned it.
My friend Luther Brefo in Virginia had been telling me for months that he had a purple bumper cover in very good condition that I could have for a song, but an OEM fiberglass bumper cover like that won’t fold in thirds like the garbage I bought on Amazon. It has to be shipped as freight, and the cost was a deal-breaker. Then, as I was heading home from the Vintage, I realized that I’d be passing within ten miles of Luther, and I contacted him and arranged to grab the bumper cover. We shoehorned it into my 635CSi.
Unfortunately, when I got it home, I realized that Luther and I hadn’t talked about which model Z3 the bumper cover was from, and which it was going onto. It turns out that it was off a four-cylinder car. I believe that it’ll fit my ’99 Z3 2.3i, but the main opening is visibly smaller than it is on the six-cylinder cars like mine.
I decided to try to see if the car would pass inspection as-is. If it wouldn’t, then I’d install the purple bumper cover, maybe even leaving it unpainted. (As my friend Clint Carroll said, “You’d get a nice Mardi Gras effect with the green and purple. Maybe people will throw beads at you.”).
But it passed. So I’m all set for fall.
With the Z3 all set, I ran the 635CSi out to Fitchburg and swapped it for the Lotus, which has been sitting out there since June. I now have Zelda, the Lotus, the 3.0CSi, and Louie the ’72 tii here at the house. I think that it’s a fine tasting rack for autumn.
But I’m wondering if the registration mystery was Zelda’s way of messing with me for ignoring her to the point of letting her mildew in my driveway. It’s long been said that British cars can sense infidelity. At first I thought that that was wildly inapplicable, since Zelda’s a staid German Mädchen, but then I remembered that she, like all Z3s, was built at the BMW plant in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Her lineage may be German, but really, she’s a southern girl. So now this all makes perfect sense.—Rob Siegel
Rob’s new book, The Best of The Hack Mechanic, is available here on Amazon, as are his seven other books. Signed copies can be ordered directly from Rob here.