The Vintage at Saratoga event hosted by BMW CCA’s Patroon Chapter has the dual-pronged advantage of being a wonderful event and being in my part of the world. It’s only about 200 miles from Boston—a straight shot out the Mass Pike, then north on I-87 through Albany. Door to door, I’m there in three hours. It’s even close enough that my wife, Maire Anne, whose idea of hell is the endless forced march in a vintage car I perform in order to pound out big distances, has accompanied me—twice. We’ve left Boston late Friday afternoon, caught the dinner in Saratoga Springs that opens the event, stayed over Friday and Saturday, and driven home via the smaller more scenic Route 2, stopping at every antique store and yard sale along the way. It’s a good combination for a happy marriage.
However, I haven’t been nearly as regular an attendee at Vintage at Saratoga as I’ve been with the Vintage in farther-flung Asheville. The main reason has been Saratoga’s regular July slot, which for many years,, conflicted with my regular vacation time in Nantucket.
Of course, my Nantucket years ended in 2016, so after that, I really have no excuse.
In 2020, Vintage at Saratoga was cancelled due to the pandemic, and similar concerns pushed a 2021 postponement until Columbus Day weekend. The rescheduled October 9 date kind of snuck up on me; it seemed that I’d just gotten back from the Vintage in Asheville and was still feeling burned out and in catch-up mode from the week I’d been away when folks began asking me if I was going to Saratoga.
And then something surprising happened. My friend Jon, a guy I was in a band with for decades, asked me if I wanted to join his band for a gig in his home town of Manchester, Vermont, because their regular second guitarist was unavailable. (You may recall that a few weeks ago I drove Sharkie up to see Jon and his wife in Manchester.)
The gig date was the day after Saratoga.
I looked at the map, realized that it’s only about an hour-and-fifteen-minute drive from Saratoga Springs to Manchester, and began to scheme about linking the two events together. Of course, with the date of the event being Columbus Day Weekend, and with the trees starting to burst with color, by the time I called, the two hotels that offered special rates for Vintage at Saratoga had long since sold out, not only of rooms at the event rate, but of any rooms. Every other hotel in Saratoga Springs appeared to be sold out as well.
I looked in Manchester, figuring that I could just drive there and stay there Saturday night (the guest room at Jon’s house was already spoken for), but with it being Indigenous People’s Weekend in Vermont, there didn’t appear to be an open hotel room in the entire southern part of the state.
The hotel-room situation dovetailed with the question of which vintage BMW was best not only for eight hours and 400 miles of driving, but also for transporting two guitars and an amp, plus a reasonable retinue of road-trip tools and spares.
I wrote decades ago that one of the great things about 2002s is that you can easily stack four guitar cases on the back seat. That, combined with the Tom Petty lyric “We could buy a ’62 Cadillac/put a Fender amplifier in the back/drive straight to the heart of America/turn it up to ten and let that sucker blast” made me want to lay the guitar cases on the back seat of Louie, my patina-laden ’72 2002tii, stand my guitar amp on them, see if I could power the amp with an inverter, and hook my phone to it.
But really, my heart badly wanted to take my E9 coupe, the ’73 3.0CSi that I’ve now owned for 35 years. She had an outer body restoration in 1988, she’s still as elegant and sexy as Rene Russo, but she’s starting to show some wrinkles around her eyes.
Readers are probably tired of hearing me say how, since driving the E9 through 500 miles of drenching rain on the way to the Vintage in 2013, I’m now afraid to road-trip the car if I can’t see a clear end-to-end weather forecast, but that’s the way it is. Part of this is the E9’s legendary capacity to rust if you so much as look at it with a moist thought in your mind, but in addition, the car has accumulated a few chips and scrapes down to bare metal that are beginning to rust.
In addition, when the new windshield was installed 33 years ago, the upper left corner never sealed properly. (This was after the guy who painted the car cracked the original windshield trying to get it aligned and sealed, so no, he didn’t shove the brand-new replacement glass too hard.) The visible gap has always been troubling, and is an additional thing on the side of “don’t even think about driving this car in the rain.”
I know, I know: I need to get these things addressed before the rust bomb explodes. That’s been my plan for years. But it’s difficult to find anyone to do this kind of touch-up work. High-end shops that deal with E9s want you to open your checkbook, do it once, do it all, do it right, yadda yadda yadda, and if I take that approach, there’s no way I’ll emerge paying less than five figures, and I’m just not going to do that. So I’ve done nothing. Well, that is, except keep the car dry, which, with an E9, is definitely not nothing.
The drive to Saratoga, even with a detour to Manchester, Vermont, is not the 2,000-mile six-day run down to the Vintage and back; it’s just an overnight. You’d think there would be a clear, unambiguous, binary rain-versus-no-rain forecast. Unfortunately, as I write this, both the forecast and the skies look a bit gray. Saturday—the day I need to depart at 6:00 a.m. from Newton—looks good, but Sunday—the day I need to shoot over the mountains to Manchester, play music for three hours, and then head back home—is iffy.
The last time I had this quandary with Vintage at Saratoga (wanting to go, wanting to take the E9, but seeing rain in the forecast), I took the Bavaria, which is really the perfect compromise car. I could still do that….
But the Bav is out in Fitchburg.
Now, I’ve long said that cars should be active participants in these matters. So on Thursday, I consulted Rene: I took her for a spin—a bit of local driving, then a few exits up I-95 and back.
It was not good.
My E9’s steering has been a weak spot for as long as I’ve owned the car. It’s never felt right, and I’ve never really put the time into a concerted effort to get to the bottom of it. The steering is essentially play-free, with the ball joints, tie rods, center track rod, and idler arm bushings replaced in recent memory, and the car was aligned back in, well, probably longer ago than I think—but the power steering has always felt wonky, making it so the car never feels like it has either the deft response of a non-power-assisted 2002 or the uniformly easy response of the Bavaria which shares its power-steering components.
To my surprise, on the short test drive, all of these issues were far worse than I remembered. I could practically feel the power steering engage and disengage whenever I turned the wheel. And the car felt darty, as if the front wheels were toed out. Taking an entrance ramp at a moderate speed, I could hear the tires starting to squeal—a near-certain sign that the alignment is substantially off. And when driving slowly and rocking the steering wheel side-to-side, I could hear and feel play in the steering column.
Well, then, let’s have a look, shall we?
I put the car up on the mid-rise lift, grabbed the wheels at three and nine o’clock, and didn’t feel any play. I inspected the rubber boots of the ball-in-socket components, and everything looked fine. I did, however, see a surprising amount of degradation in the rubber bushing where the left control arm is through-bolted to the subframe, although the nut and bolt were tight and I didn’t feel any play when I shoved things around. Unfortunately, there wasn’t really anything I could do about it in the short term.
The other thing I saw was that the inside edge of the right front tire was slightly more worn than the rest of the tire. It wasn’t badly scalloped, but a tread depth measurement showed that the innermost tread groove had 5/32″ of depth, whereas the rest of the tire had 7/32″ or 8/32″. I swapped right front and right rear wheels to see if this would change the car’s steering characteristics.
Next, I opened the power-steering reservoir and watched the fluid while the engine was running. I was surprised that I didn’t see more motion in the fluid, and wondered if something was restricting the flow. I remembered that there is a cylindrical filter in these reservoirs, but I didn’t see one. I called my friend Paul Wegweiser, and he reminded me that the strange hard-as-bone filter is actually underneath a tray at the bottom of the reservoir, and that you have to remove a little circular clip to pull the tray off. I recalled doing this on one of the cars years back, possibly the Bavaria, and finding a filter that looked like a shattered piece of a femur lying on an examination table after it’d been buried for 30 years and then exhumed from a serial killer’s back yard on one of the CSI crime shows (CSI, heh.), but when I siphoned the E9’s reservoir and pulled things apart, the filter looked fine. Perplexed, I reseated the filter, reassembled the reservoir, and refilled it with ATF.
I then took the car down off the lift and drove it forward in the garage to check the alignment. As I did so, I heard the unmistakable sound of rubber scraping against metal. I stopped and looked at the right front tire, and saw that it was sticking farther out from under the fender well than the left front.
Then I laughed out loud.
I have staggered tires on the E9’s sixteen-inch Alpina wheels (225/50-16 on the rear, 205/55-16 on the front). I very carefully backed the car back onto the lift and returned the wheels and their tires where they belonged.
As I wrote about here, I do my own alignments using a pointer bar (also called a trammel bar). I took measurements behind and in front of the E9’s front tires, and they showed that there was a whopping 3/8″ of toe-out. Whoa! No wonder the thing felt darty!
I doubt that the toe-out was created by the worn trailing-arm bushing, but whatever the cause, it needed to be corrected. I loosened the adjusters on the tie rods, did the trial-and-error to determine which way I needed to turn them to have the desired effect (People say, “Just look at the threads.” You look at the threads; if you can tell left-hand from right-hand threads while lying at a strange angle under a car, your eyesight and/or your glasses prescription are better than mine), then set the toe-in as close to zero as I could get it.
The main remaining issue was the clunk I heard and felt in the steering column. I realized that it was coming from the steering wheel itself. I started to pull the wheel off, and was surprised to find that the nut holding it to the column was slightly loose against the warp washer beneath it. I snugged the nut down, but immediately found that when the nut was fully seated, it made the steering hub rub slightly against the upper and lower trim covers behind it. This was undoubtedly why I’d left it less than fully tight, although I have no recollection of doing so.
I pulled the wheel off, found a spacer that I could use (an old crush washer from an oil-drain plug), slid it onto the top of the column behind the wheel, and tightened things up. Both the clunk and the scraping sound were gone.
And with those things repaired, I took Rene for another test drive. The difference was dramatic: She no longer pulled or darted. Even the feeling of the power steering sometimes engaging and sometimes not was gone. Whether this had to do with my reseating the filter, or whether the car just needed to be driven more, I don’t know. But she very clearly announced, “Take me to Saratoga Springs, you fool!”
I then spent a few hours addressing small things. The cigarette- lighter socket was intermittent, making it so my phone wouldn’t charge reliably. Reseating the connector solved it. The windshield-washer pump was also intermittent; it turned out to be the pump motor. I dug through my box of washer reservoirs and pumps, this time gleefully tossing out the pumps that tested dead and the reservoirs that were clearly cracked, and replaced the bad pump.
Not wanting to drive three hours back from Saratoga and then another three hours up to Manchester the following morning, I then did one more search for hotel rooms, and found one at the Paradise Resort Motel and Cabins in Saratoga. From the photos, it looks perilously close to a Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap location rather than the classy accommodations a woman like Rene deserves, but when passion is involved, compromises are sometimes in order. And despite Maire Anne’s previously coming to Saratoga twice, this time she has other commitments. So yeah, it’s just me and Rene. I’d say it’s every man’s fantasy (well, maybe every 63-year-old man’s fantasy), but really, I’d rather have my wife along.
All that was left was the packing. The E9 may be a larger car than a 2002, but its back seat with its two contoured butt recesses is far less accommodating for a pair of guitars in hard-shell cases than that of an 02. Plus, there was the question about what to do with the instruments if I wind up going to dinner on Saturday night after the Saratoga event and before I made my way to the hotel. To make everything fit in the trunk, I took the guitars out of their hard-shell cases and put them in soft gig bags. I also figured that the distances are short enough that even if the car dies, a flatbed home is do-able at reasonable cost, so I packed a minimum of tools—just the single road-tool box, no floor jack or jack stands. And just one small box of spares, mainly a fuel pump, a distributor cap and rotor, and the C-shaped hose at the top of the M30 engine, since if one of them goes, it’s usually that one (my heater hose adventure with Sharkie notwithstanding).
I never get tired of this view of the car—or, really, any view.
So, by the time you read this, Rene and I will be off; wish us luck and clear skies. Maybe if every vintage-BMW enthusiast thinks dry thoughts, we can affect the weather. But even if the car sees a bit of rain, I think it’ll still be worth it. Rene hasn’t been out much in years. She really deserves to strut her stuff at Vintage at Saratoga.—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.