It’s been said that, as far as a balance between a low-stress trip and fodder for interesting articles, the perfect road trip is one in which anything that goes wrong can be repaired safely and quickly. I know; I’m the one who said it.
A great example was when I drove Louie, my ’72 2002tii, the Ran When Parked car, to the “2002 Icon” exhibit at the BMW CCA Foundation a few years ago. Not far from our destination, it began running rough. It turned out that one of the Bakelite spark plug ends had self-destructed. Fortunately, I had a spare; I was down for perhaps a total of fifteen minutes.
Of course, on the drive home at the end of the exhibit, Louie’s cracked head yawned open and began dumping oil on the exhaust manifold, risking a fire. I fixed it with J-B Weld and not only made it home, but drove it for the next three years that way. While this was certainly content-worthy, the balance was tipped way too far in the content-generation direction.
With that in mind, I have to report that Louie’s and my drive to MidAmerica 02Fest in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, (where I am now) was barely article-worthy—at least that’s how it was if you feel that a road-trip article that doesn’t feature the Hack Versus the Machine, with blood being drawn during the match, is a yawn-fest.
In my defense, I think that I’ve earned a trip that’s long on the “living the dream” part and short on “how’s he going to get himself out of this one?” part. So sue me.
Let me back up a step. Last week my wife and I were out in Santa Fe visiting our middle son. It was wonderful, but that trip had to be slotted in such that I returned last Tuesday night and had to leave early Wednesday morning for MidAmerica 02Fest. This meant that all preparation to the car had to be completed in advance, including the trunk being packed with tools and parts.
Fortunately, these are tasks that can be reduced to a series of boxes you can check off, so Wednesday morning I threw my suitcase, backpack, cell phone, and a few road snacks in the car, backed it out of the driveway, and headed off into a cloudy dawn to begin the two-day 1,500-mile trek to MidAmerica 02Fest.
The MidAmerica caravan was initially slated to be the usual repeat offenders with whom I run to the Vintage: Andrew Wilson, Jose Rosario, and Bob Sawtelle. Wilson peeled off to do a leisurely four-day drive down from Maine and connect with Mike Self’s caravan out of Dayton, and Rosario unfortunately had to cancel, so it was just Sawtelle and I. We rendezvoused at the Charleton Service Plaza on the Mass Pike at 6:30 a.m.
I’d forgotten that Sawtelle’s ride is a green (Jade) big-bumpered 02. Between that car and Louie (Agave), they were a damn cute pair, sort of like Barbie and her little sister, Skipper. Off they/we went for the first of two 750-mile legs, with the night’s destination being Columbus, Ohio.
The immediate issue, surprisingly, was cold. When I left my house, I’d put on the raincoat that I’d thrown into the car. I thought that before I headed off after meeting Sawtelle, I’d also put on the Polartec bunting that I’d packed in my suitcase, but when I opened the case, it wasn’t there; I realized that I’d left it home.
I turned the heat on high, but the fan output while I was driving was surprisingly anemic; it occurred to me that the blower fan might not be turning on.
When we made our first fuel stop, I tested the fan with the ignition on but the engine off so I could hear it, and sure enough, I got nothing. Since I’d rebuilt Louie’s heater box a few years ago and used a new fan, I thought that it must be something simple. When I checked the fuse box, I had to laugh: The fuse for the blower fan was missing.
I tried to rewind my memory, and realized that it was likely that, when I installed a/c in Louie last summer, I wired it to the fuse next to the one for the fan—the one for the rear window defroster, figuring that it and a/c would never be used at the same time. The existing fuse for it had probably blown, and I probably just temporarily borrowed the blower-fan fuse “for now.” I moved the fuse back one slot, the blower fan sprang to life, and heat was restored to Louie.
Even with heat, however, the cold continued for nearly the entire drive. There were even a few micro-squalls of snow and sleet, but we pounded out the 750-ish miles without incident, taking I-90 to I-84 to Scranton, then connecting to I-80.
The memory I have from my last trip to MidAmerica O2Fest eight years ago of folks knowing how to haul tuchus once I hit I-80 was accurate: We nailed and wailed. Sawtelle said, “Man, you drove it like you stole it,” but after all, if the trucks are going 80 mph and Waze shows clear sailing, if you’re not going to put the pedal down now, when are you going to?
From there, I-76 out of Akron dropped us down to Columbus, and we arrived at the night’s hotel at about 7:00 p.m.
There were only two mechanical issues, neither of which required repair during the drive. The first was that Louie’s steering was a little darty. For a number of years, I’ve been doing my own alignments, most recently with a trammel bar. I typically set the front toe to about 1/8″ toe-in, then tweak it until it feels right, which typically involves some extra toe-in. Due to my tight travel schedule, I’d done the first part (setting it to spec), but bailed on the tweaking, and forgot about it. I made a mental note to pull the toe in a bit in the morning.
The only other surprise was that when I checked the oil at a filling stop, it was down by over a quart. I don’t recall Louie consuming that much oil during any other road trip. I wondered if I hadn’t fully topped it up when I changed the oil after rebuilding the head. I topped it up and checked it at every fill thereafter. It didn’t change much.
One of the fun things about road-tripping a 2002 is the attention the car gets. BMW reportedly sold about 90,000 2002s in the United States, enough to burn them into people’s memories. So those who knew the cars back when they were new have those old neurons fire when they see them.
But even folks who have no idea what a 2002 is react to them. And there was something about the pairing of Sawtelle’s car and mine—one big-bumpered square-taillight car and one small-bumpered round-taillight car, both green—doing the Barbie and Skipper thing that generated comments wherever we went.
The next morning was cold as well, so I bailed on readjusting the toe. Under skies that could’ve gone either way, we had a quick breakfast at a Waffle House near the hotel, then hit the road.
The second day also began quite cold, but warmed up a bit. We had some excitement as we drove through St. Louis; due to traffic, Sawtelle and I were about a hundred feet apart, and for some reason, at one Interstate split, our two copies of Waze sent us two different, uh, ways. A phone call, Sawtelle slowing down, and me speeding up eventually reunited us.
I had utterly forgotten that while you’re still on I-44, you pass the Uranus Fudge Factory sign (yes, you read it right) on old Route 66, until Paul Wegweiser reminded me. You have to hand it to the owners for going all-in (heh) on the Uranus puns. Highway signs touted “The best fudge comes from Uranus,” “We love to pack your fudge,” “There’s plenty of parking in Uranus,” etc.
I also had forgotten what a lovely drive it is once you get off I-44 and head toward Branson, with the road rolling beautifully over the Ozarks. Unfortunately, with two hours and 45 minutes of driving time left, we hit some pretty heavy rain. We drove through it for what felt like two hours (it was actually much less), and when we emerged, we still had two hours and fifteen minutes left to go. After ten solid hours on the road, this felt like a gut punch.
Then, as we took Route 86, Route 23, and other small roads—wow! What is in the water in northern Arkansas that breeds generations of civil engineers who know how to design and install these flawlessly-banked marvels? Sawtelle and I both wore Cheshire-cat grins as we stopped and pumped gas before doing the last mile to the hotel.
And there we were, among the 02 throngs.
So yeah: no hairy roadside repairs, no J-B Welding cylinder heads, just two long day’s drives, and two drivers glad to be here with these remarkable little cars. Boring for you, but a little slice of heaven for me.
Of course, I still have to get back home.—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.