Last week I committed to taking Rene, my treasured and babied ’73 3.0CSi, on a 400-mile two-day mini road trip. The plan was to leave early Saturday morning and shoot out to Vintage at Saratoga, stay there Saturday night, then zip an hour east to Manchester, Vermont, the next day, where a friend of mine had a gig and had asked me to sit in with his band. I packed Rene’s trunk with my road tool box, a few spares, two guitars, and my amplifier, and at 6:30 a.m. on Saturday morning, we hit the road.
As I said last week, I’m hypersensitive about exposing Rene to rain, due to both the rust-prone nature of the E9 (as Nor’East 02’er organizer Scott Sislane once legendarily quipped, “Aren’t the E9’s inner fenders made from confectioner’s sugar?”) as well as the fact that my car has a few small exposed scrapes. You’d think that on a short two-day drive, you’d be able to see a weather report with hard, clear blue skies, or at least have an unambiguous binary rain/no rain forecast, so you could decide what to do accordingly, but the fates don’t always cooperate. Running a weather app on the three locations of Newton, Saratoga Springs, and Manchester indicated cloudy conditions with a chance of rain on both Saturday and Sunday for all three. On Friday, I’d tweaked a few steering and alignment issues on the car and test-driven it, and the car practically strained at the reins to be taken on a road trip, so I bet on clear skies, and on Saturday morning, off we went.
If this was a bet, it seemed that I was dealt a weak hand.
Right off the bat, when I rolled the car out of the garage Saturday morning, the streets were damp from overnight rain. All I could do was hope that with the light and heat of morning, they’d dry. But instead, when I got on the Mass Pike and headed west, all the light of morning did was illuminate the ominous storm clouds I was driving directly toward. As I passed under them (“into them” is more appropriate), I toggled my phone from Waze to the weather app. I was glad that it showed an overcast forecast with a chance of rain but no actual rain—but the moisture from the low clouds began streaking off my Rain-Xed windshield.
As I passed the Natick service plaza on the Mass Pike (about ten miles from my house), the weather looked like it was getting worse, not better. I resolved that if I had to actually turn on my wipers, I’d turn around and head home.
A few miles later, I turned on the wipers. I kept going.
It was like this on and off for about 30 more miles, then gradually tipped toward dry—that is, until the climb into the Berkshires put me up in the clouds. As I came through Becket, crested the 1,724-foot point on Pike (the highest point on I-90 east of South Dakota), and began to roll down the other side, I encountered the precipitation that was being squeezed out of the east-moving clouds by the mountains. The sky began spitting big, fat raindrops that noisily smacked into the notoriously thin sheet metal on the E9’s roof.
I could hear Rene scream like Bennie the Cab in Who Framed Roger Rabbit when he slid into the dip that dissolves cartoons.
Fortunately, the Automotive Powers That Be must’ve smiled on me and Rene, because the spitting never erupted into a full-blown downpour, and the cacophonous little cloudburst probably lasted only about 90 seconds. The skies and the roads rapidly dried out as we dropped down into Lenox, and the rest of the drive out I-90 to I-87 north through Albany and up to Saratoga Springs was fine. It wasn’t a picture-perfect New England autumn day, but neither Rene nor I cared; we were both thrilled for the dry roads that let her stretch her legs up to 85 mph.
I rolled into the parking lot of the Saratoga Springs Auto Museum at about 9:15 a.m. and found Vintage at Saratoga already well under way.
This was the tenth Vintage at Saratoga, the annual event for BMWs built during 1999 and earlier. It’s similar to the Vintage in Asheville in that it’s not a judged event—there are no awards or trophies—so it’s a low-key chance to ogle cool cars, hang out, and reconnect with friends. In addition, it’s a fundraiser: Profits are donated to the BMW CCA Foundation’s Street Survival program. And if you tire of looking at all the fine vintage examples of our marque, you can wander into the museum and check out their current exhibit. This year it was “Rennsport: The Complete Collection”—fourteen Porsche 911 RS cars, which certainly weren’t tough on the eyes.
Like many events during the pandemic, Vintage at Saratoga had been cancelled for 2020, rescheduled for 2021, then postponed from its regular July date to October 8–10. I missed the Friday components of the event, which included a tour of enthusiast Jim Taylor’s car collection and the kick-off dinner at the Parting Glass, but I was thrilled to be there for the main Saturday gathering. Event organizers Frank and Denise Greppo and Scott and Beverly Stowell weren’t sure what to expect, but on game day, there were 171 registered cars, making this the largest VAS to date. And $5,000 was raised and donated to the Street Survival program.
Vintage-BMW-wise, there was a lot to look at. Ten E9s were present, making Rene feel in very good company. If you wanted to look at 2002s, you had 33 to ogle. If there was a belle-of-the-ball award, it probably would’ve gone to Axel Coelln’s gorgeous 1967 1600GT.
It wouldn’t be a vintage BMW event if I didn’t get asked to troubleshoot someone’s car. This time the patient was an Inka 2002 Baur owned by Bob Wolfson. Wolfson described the car’s problem as an inability to maintain idle. I started the car and found that, sure enough, it died instantly if you took your foot off the gas.
I confidently explained that screwing in the idle speed screw on the Weber 32/36 would solve the problem. I did that, and was stunned when it made no difference, even when I cranked it in to the point where the coils on the screw’s little spring were stacked. Then I noticed that the car had an idle-plunger solenoid on the right side of the Weber; these are usually only used if a car diesels (runs on) after you shut off the ignition—they shut off the flow of fuel when the ignition is switched off. If thiswasn’t working correctly, it would explain the car’s problem.
I tested that the solenoid was getting voltage, and I could hear it click, but the clicking was softer than I expected. I unscrewed it and pulled it apart and blew out the jet, but that made no difference. I verified spark on all four cylinders, checked the plugs, and made sure that there wasn’t a vacuum leak from the brake-booster hose, but I couldn’t fix the failure-to-idle problem. (After Wolfson got home and had his mechanic look at the car, he messaged me saying that the problem was the idle plunger; the problem went away when it was replaced.)
Part of Rene’s appeal is that her Signal Red paint is a base-coat/clear-coat finish, and when the sun hits it, it pops like it’s lit from underneath. Unfortunately, the broken-cloudy weather persisted throughout the day, so the car never sat in hard, direct sun and thus never really got her best pose in. Still, she looked great among her nine E9 sisters, and I felt privileged being the guy who gets to take her out.
The most resonant, unexpected, and poignant part of the weekend came next. The last time I was at Vintage at Saratoga, I’d seen Ken and Elaine (two old and very dear friends of my parents), who live in Saratoga Springs. When the Saturday event was over, I had time to kill before dinner, so I thought I’d drop in on them. I couldn’t find their contact info in my phone, so I Googled their names to find their phone number and address.
To my dismay, when I searched on my phone, what popped up was Ken’s obituary, and reading it, I learned that he’d passed just three weeks before. I felt like I’d been gut-punched. I found the address and drove over to their house, but I wasn’t even sure if Elaine still lived there. She did, and we had a wonderful and very meaningful 90-minute visit. As the Buddhist proverb says, “The trouble is, you think you have time.”
In the morning, I headed east out of Saratoga Springs to Manchester, Vermont. Since there’s no Interstate connecting the two, the drive was all back roads. You’d think that this would be a delight, but it caused several of the steering issues I described last week to return to the forefront. Steeply crowned roads with uneven surfaces definitely rubbed Rene the wrong way, requiring a firm hand on the wheel and frequent correction. In addition, somewhere along the trip, one of the car’s front wheels must’ve thrown a balancing weight, because there was a strong wheel shimmy at 45 mph. Fortunately, this abated completely at highway velocity, but together with the steering issues, it made the run on local roads somewhat less than blissful. I added wheel balancing to the post-trip punch list.
As I said last week, I had booked what appeared to be the last hotel room available in Saratoga Springs, at the Paradise Resort Motel and Cabins. From the photos, it looked a bit sketchy, but the cabins out back where I had my room were clean, if not straight out of the 1950s.
The gig that my friend had asked me to sit in on was at Orvis, the fly-fishing-oriented sporting-goods store just outside of downtown Manchester. They’d set up a tent for us right out front. I parked the E9 where it minimized how far I had to carry my equipment, and disgorged the gear from the car’s trunk.
I had an experience of worlds colliding as I played music while seeing the my lovely red E9 and watching the amount of attention it generated as people walked past it.
Then, as we were playing, something funny happened. I saw a beautiful red big-bumpered 2002 drive into the parking lot, and thought, What are the odds? Then a lovely blue small-bumpered square-taillight 02 pulled in. My first thought was, “That looks just like Scott Sislane’s car,” but then I realized that of course it was Scott’s car. He and fellow Nor’East 02’er Gary Hamilton and their wives, all of whom I’d just seen the previous day at Saratoga, had driven east on their way home (sort of) to catch part of my set. Thanks, folks!
So: 400 miles in my favorite car. Precipitation so light that it almost couldn’t even be called rain. A great car show. An excellent drive, the only mechanical issues being a thrown wheel weight and vague steering on crowned roads. A meaningful visit with a dear old family friend. All that and playing rock and roll outside? Best weekend ever.
Rene and I should step out more often.—Rob Siegel
(Next year, Vintage at Saratoga will be held during the weekend of October 7–9)