Alan Thomas and Uni Sprengleng were my aunt and uncle, he a Yale architectural student who went to war right after Pearl Harbor, and she a German-born American violinist who, as a teenage music student studying in Germany in 1939, was placed under house arrest by the Nazis when the war broke out. Sprengleng survived the fire-bombing of Hamburg, a night of pulling her tenement neighbors from the flames, and eventually found her way back to America and on to studies at Juilliard. Thomas returned from the conflict changed, and abandoned his studies as an architect to follow his dream as a musician, also arriving at Juilliard. The two met when he became her accompanist for violin recitals, and they shortly decided to make their duet permanent. Perhaps because of the fraught times in which they met, the two lived life to the fullest, playing and teaching music, summering in a New Hampshire cottage next to a waterfall, traveling the world, and owning only fine things.
Alan Thomas and Uni Sprengleng drove BMWs.
My introduction to the marque happened one rainy night when, for reasons I have forgotten, I was tasked with delivering their 1974 BMW 3.0S from the DC suburbs to Philadelphia, where their son, my cousin Tim, was to do maintenance; Tim was an accomplished mechanic who was dabbling in college at the time, and just as cool a kid as I’d expect my aunt and uncle to have. My driving experiences up to that point had involved a lugubrious progression of Plymouth Valiants and Ford Pintos owned by my parents, and the majestic BMW sedan was a revelation. From the seats that felt strangely hard to my American posterior to the sharp steering to the uncanny suspension, everything about the car felt connected—not only to the road, but to me.
It was dawn.
My first BMW was a 1974 2002, finished in faded Inka orange with a moldy interior courtesy of a leaky sunroof. I bought it from a young stockbroker who wanted something that spoke more eloquently of his success. As he handed over the title and the keys, he told me that he had lost a baggie of a certain stimulant somewhere in the interior, and to keep my eye out for it, and to please “enjoy.”
Those were the ’80s.
My wife-to-be decreed that the car would be named Genevieve, and so she was. Genny had started out in Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, before being relocated to St. Louis. Seven salty seasons had their way with her nethers, and rust bloomed from her fenders and the lower corners of her doors. She required a quart of oil every other gas stop, promptly converting it to another layer of sheen across her square rump. Her differential, which had made worrying grinding noises on the test drive, soon broke, the likely victim of burnouts performed by the stimulant-fueled stockbroker. She was everything, both good and bad, that a broke, BMW-besotted college kid like me could expect. I loved her.
On a trip home from St. Louis to D.C. for Christmas break, along the mountainous Pennsylvania Turnpike, Genny’s clutch began to slip, requiring a cautious throttle foot and considerable pre-planning to maintain momentum on the inclines. When we hit snow and slush after dark, Genny’s transitorily functioning windshield wipers began to falter, and her windshield-washer system revealed itself to be inoperable. At one point on a long downhill stretch, I became unable to see anything through the frozen snot and was forced to open the window and hang my head out in the freezing wind, picking my way among the tractor trailers, finally finding a friendly shoulder wide enough to afford refuge. I spent the rest of the night huddled in my coat, Genny rocking side to side on her suspension as the big rigs blasted by mere feet from her doors, showering her in slush. Morning dawned cold but clear, and we continued, the smell of a clutch dying a tortured death wafting through the cabin.In addition to installing a new clutch, I “rebuilt” Genny’s engine in my parents’ carport during that break, placing the car up on jack stands, removing the head, and then, with the block remaining in the car, pulling all her guts out save the crank and mains. I cleaned everything up, and after balancing atop the shock towers and honing the cylinders, I popped the pistons back down their bores and knitted everything back up from below. When she fired right up, belching a plume of break-in oil, I felt that combined sensation of anxiety, relief, and pride that accompanies the first light-off of anything I have ever worked on.
Genny got me back to school and was there when I proposed to the woman who had named her. At the end of the next summer, she carried us on to our honeymoon through New England, but not until after several late nights trying to fix everything that I figured could go wrong. Genny got a new gas tank, fuel pump, and even a new K-frame—the one on the car appeared to have hit something very hard and suffered a nasty crack.
I stopped short of replacing the radiator, since I was tired (or lazy), and hated few things more than draining engine coolant. On the first full day of our marriage, Genny began to overheat as we waited in a long line at a toll booth on the Connecticut Turnpike. My new bride, unfazed, gamely helped me push her along, a positive omen at the first of many automotive miscues, adventures, and heartbreaks that we would experience over the next forty years.
A couple of months later, I traded Genny in for a Mazda RX-7, my very first new car—a move I almost instantly regretted. But the hook had been set, and the buzzy, gutless RX was gone in less than a year, failing to measure up to whatever it was that made me love Genny.
My uncle, Alan Thomas, and my aunt, Uni Sprengleng, as well as my cousin Tim, are all gone now— memories like Genny. I’d love to have them all back again.—Terry Thomas, Puget Sound Chapter
[Photos courtesy Terry Thomas, Gary Protto, BMW AG.]