I’ve long said that car-buying, at least for me, is best characterized as a crime of opportunity; I never decide, “I am going to buy X,” then go forth in search ofthe finest example of X and buy it. Rather, I look locally for the affordable example of X that’s close enough to me that I can look at it with my own eyes and drag its sorry ass back to my house with my own truck. And if the universe somehow conspires to drop X into my lap without it even being advertised anywhere, thus obviating the need to drop everything and beat everyone else to it, well, who am I to complain?
Such was the case last week.
My good friend Alex—to whom I sold my ’75 former track-rat 200, Bertha, in 1988, then bought it back a few years ago—told me that a friend of his, Seth, had a 2002 that he wanted to sell, and that he’d put me in touch with him. It turned out that I’d met Seth years ago when he was part of a construction crew working on my mother’s house. He even asked if I still had all those BMW parts under her front porch!
The car, Seth said, was a ’76 2002, a former California car that had been in New England for about six years. The car had seen rust-repair work and was repainted. At that time, the beltline trim was removed, giving it a shaved “California look.” It had not been garaged during its stay in this part of the country, but it hadn’t been on the road during the winter. Other than some of the filled holes for the removed molding clips starting to show, Seth said, the car looked good, except for the fact that it had been sitting outside and hadn’t moved in nine months, so it was pretty dirty.
He explained that the battery had died last summer. He took it out of the car to replace it, and someone walked off with it—surprising for the safe, leafy Boston suburb of Brookline. But before that, he said, the car ran beautifully. It was registered and insured, but not currently inspected.
I asked Seth if he was looking for help in valuing the car, or advice on how much work to put into it before advertising it, or for someone to actually do that work—or if he simply wanted to sell it as-is. “Sell it,” was his instant reply. He said that he and his wife were breaking ground on a major construction project on their property, and the car needed to be gone by May 1. He named a number that was drop-everything attractive if his verbal thumbnail sketch of the car was accurate. He gave me the address, and I promised to be back in touch quickly.
I punched the address into Google Maps, switched to Street View, moved up and down the block and rotated the image, and there it was. Obviously, the level of detail is coarse, but what I saw was a red big-bumpered square-taillight 02 with a roof rack, an unfortunate aftermarket sunroof, a nice-looking steering wheel, and finned alloy wheels that were almost certainly off an E21 320i (and often incorrectly referred to as Alpinas).
Really, with the combination of the low asking price, the car being just eight miles from my house, and the fact that it wasn’t advertised anywhere, there was zero chance of me not looking at it; it was merely a question of when. The only issue was that the weather had been rainy, and the car looked like it was parked on dirt, so jacking it up to look under it would be at best messy and at worst dangerous. It would certainly involve a Tyvek suit, and it might well need metal plates for the floor jack and jack stands.
The next morning, when my wife Maire Anne came down for breakfast, I explained all of this, but the way that it came out was, “I’d go see it now, but it’s raining.”
She practically laughed in my face. “Man,” she said, “you’ve gotten soft!”
Dissed by my own wife. Nice.
I checked the weather, saw that it was forecast to clear around noon, and made an appointment with Seth to see the car at 2:00 p.m. Soft? Heh—just practical. The car wasn’t advertised anywhere. There was no need to lie in mud when I didn’t need to.
I loaded a battery, a can of starting fluid, and the appropriate assortment of tools, including the floor jack, stands, and metal plates, into the trunk of the E39 and quickly arrived at a two-family house in Brookline not far from Beacon Street. The car kind of glowered at me like an abandoned puppy. With all the grime from sitting, it looked like hell.
As I walked around and grokked the car, the wheels caught my eye. Channeling my best inner Obiwan Kenobe, I thought, “That’s no 320i alloy.”
As I walked toward the wheels, I saw Alpina center caps, and when I looked closely, I saw the ALPINA stamping in the bolt circle. The wheels appeared to be genuine 13×6″ Alpina open lugs, worth a good portion of the asking price of the car.
Okay, Rob, focus.
My usual routine is to walk around a car, get the scent on me, and see if the car speaks to me or wants a hard pass. If it warrants further investigation, then it’s time to skooch down and look for rust. Despite the filthy paint, this car had a certain appealing vibe. I particularly liked what appeared to be a vintage CARTER sticker on the rear bumper. However, I noticed that although Seth had said that the car was registered, the tag on the plate said “21.”
Of course, there was the matter of that unfortunate aftermarket sunroof.
I donned the ceremonial Tyvek suit and did the crawl-around. Other than two rust blisters at the rear of the right rocker and some softness at the bottom of the right front fender, the exterior of the car seemed remarkably solid.
Although I’d brought the floor jack, stands, and metal plates, I didn’t like the softness of the ground or its slight slope, so I did as much underbody inspection as I could, both visually as well as running my hands on the inside of the frame rails to check for inward-facing rust holes, without raising the car. There seemed to be a lot of undercoating, consistent with Seth’s saying that the car had had rust-repair work, but I didn’t see any rust perforations.
Next, the interior. Like the car’s exterior, it was filthy, but it showed a lot of promise. It did have an odd home-built console with wooden sides that held speakers, a Behr a/c faceplate that held a CD player where the vent originally was (and no Behr evaporator assembly behind it), but that was offset by the fact that the seats were in excellent condition, the door panels weren’t cut for speaker holes, there were sisal mats on the floor, and it had a cool Momo wheel. It did, however, smell strongly of dampness.
However, if you look behind the passenger seat in the photo above, you can see trouble: There was almost two inches of standing water, likely caused by a leak from the Unfortunate Aftermarket Sunroof of Ill Repute.
Okay, then, let’s see if the “Ran great nine months ago” claim holds as much water as the rear floor. If the car had sat for five years, I’d be changing the oil and draining the tank of old gas before attempting a restart, but nine months of sitting really isn’t that long.
I shed a tear when I saw that the paint had originally been Sienabraun Metallic, a color that I love.
I put the car in neutral and spun the fan by hand to make sure that the engine turned freely, removed the gas cap and smelled the fuel filler neck to verify that the gas hadn’t turned to varnish, checked the oil to make sure it wasn’t black and scary-looking, dropped in the spare battery I’d brought, disconnected the coil, spun the engine a bit to pump oil through it, pulled off the air cleaner, opened the butterfly on the Weber and gave it a blast of starting fluid, and, well, vroom. The car settled into a reassuring idle, and I saw neither smoke in the exhaust nor oil or air bubbles in the radiator.
Well, that was easy.
Seth had said that I could drive the car if I wanted, but with the expired registration tag and inspection sticker, I didn’t want to take the risk. Besides, it really didn’t matter: I’d already made my decision. But just for completion, I got in, mashed the clutch, put it into gear, and verified that the car moved. It could be driven onto the street and onto a trailer or a rollback tow truck. That was all I really needed to know.
My mind raced ahead. I began to wonder if this might be the perfect 2002 for an M20 engine-swap project. After all, for that swap, you don’t want the car to be too ratty, because it’s just not worth the effort, but if a car is too nice, you don’t want to cut it up.
I went inside to talk with Seth. I’ve long felt that these sorts of discussions are best when both parties are brutally honest. He said that he was unaware of the water on the floor; that must’ve accumulated over the winter. I told him that if he cleaned up the car, dealt with the water and the wet smell, put a fresh battery in it, and resolved the registration and inspection-tag issues to make it legally drivable, it was probably worth two or three times what he was asking (especially with those Alpinas on it)—but if he was offering it to me for X, as he did over the phone, I had X in my pocket.
His wordless response was to slide the key across the table to me.
When Seth’s wife—whom I’d also met years ago—came home, I had the same conversation with her. She concurred with Seth that selling the car quickly and painlessly without having to go through Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace hell—and having it go to me—was the right thing to do. We passed papers (both of their names were on the title). They reiterated that the May 1 date was a hard deadline, as backhoes and bulldozers would be descending on their property, but I was free to leave the car there until then. I said that I had some travel coming up (a vacation to Santa Fe with Maire Anne to see our middle son, followed by the drive to MidAmerica 02Fest in Arkansas), so I’d likely get the car out within the next few days. They said that they’d leave the plates and insurance on it if I wanted to drive it home under their umbrella. I asked for a day or two to think about it.
Seth then walked me to the car, verified there was nothing inside he wanted, and said one final thing: “Oh, its name is Raspberry.”
I had an instant déjà vu to the purchase of the 49,000-mile 2002 I bought in Bridgehampton from its original owner a few years back. When that sale was complete, she told me the car’s name was Baby. I laughed and told her, “Yeah, I’m not going to call it that.” (I named that car Hampton.) Similarly, I nodded to Seth, but thought to myself, “I am never going to call this car Raspberry.”
It’s clear what its name is. It’s printed right on the back bumper. Next week, I really do get Carter.—Rob Siegel