I ended last week’s piece by saying. “If I still had the stones I had five years ago, I’d put a few hundred local miles on Carter, then pack it with parts and tools and road-trip it down to the Vintage in Asheville this coming weekend. Right now, however, I’m still suffering fatigue and back pain from the 3,100-mile trip to MidAmerica 02Fest in Arkansas a few weeks ago. So a trip to the Vintage in any car is up in the air.”
I’ll ruin the suspense and say that I’m writing this from a hotel room at the Vintage. I did not drive Carter, as that was a joke and not a real possibility, but I did drive my precious 1973 E9 3.0CSi (aka Rene). And explaining the significance of that requires me to wind the tape back to 2010.
Despite owning Rene since 1986 and painting the car in 1988, replacing the engine in 1990, installing air conditioning in 1999, and installing L-Jetronic injection in 2001, I’d never road-tripped it. Although E9s are notoriously rust-prone, her wallflower status had nothing to do with my wanting to hoard her rust-free condition like virginity or Kruggerands. It was because I had no interest in car shows, which I equated with “concours events involving strange men wearing white coats and wielding Q-Tips.”
But then I began reading about what was then called Vintage at the Vineyard in Winston-Salem, and liking what I heard about the event’s “a gathering, not a car show” vibe.
I joke that the trigger event of my attending my first Vintage was lucking out on a set of Alpina sixteen-inch open-lug wheels, but it’s true. I then bought a set of Goodrich G-Force tires in staggered sizes (225/50-16 rears, 205/55-16 fronts), cut a coil off the springs to settle the suspension down and reduce the amount of exposed wheel well, and had Mario Langston at VSR1 roll the front fender lips for clearance. With my favorite girl now wearing pretty new shoes, we stepped out at Vintage at the Vineyard.
I enjoyed the 2010 event so much that I returned with the E9 in 2011. I missed it in 2012 due to a kidney stone, but was back the next year. Unfortunately, this was what I’ve come to call “The Great Drenching Event of 2013,” during which I hit torrential rain for most of the 800-mile drive down. Since Vintage 2013 was the book-release event for my first book, Memoirs of a Hack Mechanic, I couldn’t simply get a hotel and wait the rain out for a day; I had to keep driving. And if the rain wasn’t enough, a chain and a clevis pin fell off a truck in front of me and blasted their way through the car’s front grille, shattering it and imbedding itself in the a/c condenser.
The rust-prone car was so wet that it made me feel like I’d blown a lifetime of moisture exposure in one day. Going forward, I felt honor-bound to keep the car dry.
It’s not that I made a decision never to road-trip the car again, but I felt skittish about driving it to an event if I couldn’t see a clear end-to-end weather forecast, and you can never be guaranteed the forecast will hold for a week-long trip.
I didn’t know it at the time, but 2013 would be Rene’s last trip to the Vintage. I tempted the weather gods on a multi-day trip to a car show in Virginia in 2017, but after that, the car was used very little.
When I took Rene on a short trip to Vintage at Saratoga in 2021, it was clear, as I wrote in several Bimmerlife pieces, that the car had developed a jittery steering issue, making it feel very wander-y on crowned roads. At first I suspected the power-steering pump, and disconnected it by removing the belt, which required first removing the a/c compressor belt, since that’s the outermost one, but that made no difference.
I found that the right front tire had excessive wear on the inside edge, which led me to discover that the right wheel had more negative camber than the left one. I bought a set of K-Mac adjustable camber bushings, but installing them requires removing the front strut assemblies, and if I was going to do that, I wanted to get rid of my home-cut springs and install a proper set of Carl Nelson E9 lowering springs. Unfortunately, these springs are out of stock. So I did nothing with any of it—not the tires, not the bushings, not the springs.
I did, however, do an unexpected bit of refreshing of the E9’s interior. For as much of the car’s 36 years with me as I can remember, it’s worn a Fusina (Momo-like) steering wheel. I’ve never liked it. At 350 mm (about 13.5 inches), it was too small, the rim felt too thick, and its black color wasn’t terribly interesting. Last month, when I bought Carter, the ’76 2002, I couldn’t help but covet Carter’s 380-mm Momo wheel with brushed-aluminum spokes and a thinner rim.
Unfortunately, E9s and 2002s have the circular horn contact in different places. Fortunately, I was able to drill and tap a few holes in the Momo’s hub and mount the circular horn contact on it.
As soon as I put the wheel into Rene, I loved it. I’d expected the brushed-aluminum spokes to pick up the long linear piece of brushed aluminum trim that runs at the bottom of the dash, and it did, but it also picked up the brushed aluminum on the shift surround and the silver centers of the knobs.
So, just like twelve years ago when Rene suddenly had new Alpina shoes, was her new Momo bracelet enough for me to think about taking her out and showing her off? Maybe. I began to think about taking the car out of my imposed dry hibernation and driving her to Vintage 2022.
Unfortunately, after returning from the 3,123-mile round trip to MidAmerica 02Fest, I was so burned out and road-fatigued that the last thing I wanted to do was get into another car and pound out more big miles, and I had only ten days to do whatever prep work I was going to do to Rene. I had until the morning of my Thursday-night hotel reservation to cancel it, so I figured I’d keep my options open, but I wasn’t preparing Rene, so the decision was pretty much making itself: I wasn’t going.
The asteroid impact that changed that was one I did not see coming. It was a text from our own Jackie Jouret: “Rob, are you coming to the CCA Foundation on Friday [the opening of their M Car exhibit]? Would you like to do a scheduled book signing with me?”
This is not the kind of thing that’s easy to say no to. I told Jackie that I’d make a final decision and let her know later in the day.
The thing that floated up as the gating factor was the E9’s tires, since it was still wearing the G-Forces I’d had installed on the Alpinas in 2010. There was a funny context to this. When I was at MidAmerica 02Fest just a few weeks ago, during a Q&A session, the oft-quoted tire lifetime metrics of five years, seven years, and ten years were thrown around (you know, if you don’t change your tires after five years and easily have the money to do so, you’re an idiot; if you don’t change your tires after seven years and could find the money to do so, you’re an idiot; and regardless of your wealth, if you don’t change your tires after ten years, you’re really an idiot). I intentionally threw a bomb and said, “I’m sorry, but there are a lot of shades of gray in this. There’s a big difference between what tires are appropriate for a high-performance driving event versus a highway drive. I’ve never had a tire failure on a non-cracked non-dry-rotted tire on a car that’s been stored indoors, and I don’t think that it’s negligent to do a highway drive on tires even older than ten years if the rubber is supple and there’s zero dry rot and cracks.” I think I even said that my E9 had twelve-year-old tires on it, but they were in great condition, and I had no qualms about driving the car to the Vintage in a few weeks. I was, not surprisingly, the minority opinion, with folks telling stories of tire failure, and me saying that you could look on Amazon on reviews of any tire you chose and find someone who had a tire failure.
But then someone asked me two astute questions. “Will you drive fast on the highway?”
“If you consider the high side of traffic speed fast. Maybe 75 to 80.”
“Will you drive enthusiastically and corner hard?”
I had to think about that one. I pictured the hillclimbs, descents, and the big sweeping turns along the spectacular drive along I-26 as it heads over the mountains and into Asheville, as well as the mega-twisty drive from Asheville up to the Hot Springs event site, and realized that even though it wasn’t a high-performance driving event, I’d be fooling myself if I thought there wouldn’t be some level of tossing the car around.
So, suddenly, in my mind, my attending the Vintage was coupled with my driving the E9, and that hinged on replacing the tires.
It was Monday morning. I’d need to leave Wednesday morning. It was tight, but not impossible. I know a fellow who owns one of those mobile tire vans with mounting-and-balancing equipment inside. I texted him and asked him if, hypothetically, I scored a set of tires for the E9, he could mount and balance them on Tuesday. He said that he could be there Tuesday morning.
I then looked on the Tire Rack’s website for tires in the 225/50-16 and 205/55-16 sizes. There were several affordable choices that showed as in-stock at the Windsor Connecticut warehouse. I called the Tire Rack just to be certain. In a few minutes, I had a set of Riken Raptors on order, scheduled the in-driveway mounting and balancing for the next morning, and shot down to Windsor to pick them up. I put the E9 up on my mid-rise lift and pulled the wheels off to be ready. The following morning, the tires were swapped in my driveway.
The last potential stumbling block was weather. I checked the forecast from Boston down to Asheville, and it looked quite promising. And I realized something: If it rained, I could just pull off and wait it out, and if I couldn’t wait it out, I’d get a hotel room. This was just a book-signing, not a crucial book-release event. If I was delayed a day or missed it entirely due to weather, it wasn’t a big deal.
Well, all right, then. I texted Jackie and confirmed that I was going.
I had only Tuesday to do whatever prep to Rene I was going to do. With the car still on my lift, I crawled under it. The only alarming thing I saw was that the muffler had several small perforations, as well as a larger area that looked like it was ready to blow out.
I wondered how long the exhaust had been on the car. Then I remembered that Rene, incredibly, was still wearing the Prima Flow exhaust and HeaderCraft headers that I’d bought shortly after I purchased the car. Later that evening, out of curiosity, I looked in the car’s folder for the receipt. These days, with all the cars and repairs, I’m terrible about this kind of organization, but I used to be meticulous about it. Sure enough, there was the slip: I’d bought it all from Roundel advertiser Performance Automotive in Glastonbury. So I’d gotten 35-1/2 years out of the exhaust. I laughed at the line that said, “Keep receipt for warrantee coverage.”
I tend to think of Rene as a well-sorted car, and in many ways she is, but much of that work is decades in the rear-view mirror. None of the fuel or cooling hoses were pillowy soft or rock-hard. I did, though, wince when I found cheap hardware-store hose clamps everywhere. I thought about methodically replacing them all with proper non-slotted nut-driver clamps, but elected instead to just throw a bag of clamps in the trunk.
When I’m road-tripping Louie the 2002tii, I have a full box of road spares that includes nearly every coolant hose as well as a water pump and a full set of ignition spares. If I had such a box for Rene, I couldn’t find it in the garage.
Part of the retrofit of the L-Jetronic injection off an E12 528i included the E12’s electronic ignition system. These are incredibly robust no-points no-condenser system, but they’re larger and more complex than the little Pertronix module that you’d use now, and have a unique distributor as well as several components affixed to the inner fender. I remembered that I’d always meant to accumulate a full set of spares (or a spare conventional distributor with points and condenser) but never had. I would’ve sworn I had a spare water pump, but I couldn’t find it, only the obscure one for the Bavaria which is still wearing its original fan clutch (the one in Rene was converted to the modern E28-style with the spin-on viscous fan clutch and is thus more readily available). I did find a cap and rotor and a few other small items, and threw the meager set of spares in the trunk.
I didn’t recall what state I’d left the car’s a/c in, so I switched it on in my driveway. The first thing I noticed was that I could hear the squirrel cages of the evaporator fan rubbing against the inside of the case. Then I remembered: I’d had the whole evaporator out of the car a few years ago, rebuilt it (again), and despite testing it on the benchtop before installation, heard the motor scraping. I sighed and left it alone, hoping that eventually the plastic would self-clearance.
But more important, the a/c didn’t get cold—not even a little. Damn, I thought, not another refrigerant leak! Maybe I’d get lucky and find that the compressor wire was dislodged. I peered under the hood to see if the compressor hub was turning, but between the sun and shadow, I couldn’t tell. I skooched under the nose of the car and laughed out loud when I saw that the compressor belt was missing. I’d never reinstalled it after removing it to pull of the power-steering belt last year. I found where I’d hung it on the wall, installed it, and had working a/c again.
Normally, prior to a trip to the Vintage, I’d adjust the valves and change the oil, but I was running out of clock. The valves didn’t sound loud, and the oil looked clean, so I let it be. It was by far the least preparation I’ve ever done for a 2000-mile road trip.
I did buy a case of extra-strength 5-Hour Energy, as the fatigue I’d felt on the return trip from MidAmerica 02Fest had not left me. I laughed at how perfectly the box fit on the E9’s parcel shelf.
On Thursday morning, I met my traveling companion, Jose Rosario, and three others at the Charleton Service Plaza on the Mass Pike. Rene, with her new freshly balanced tires, felt like she was running on glass. The wandery steering feel was much less than it had been, making me think that part of what I’d been feeling was the worn inside edge of the right tire from the unequal camber.
The first day was cool. I ran with the windows cracked, then down, and didn’t need to turn on the a/c at all. More important, Rene seemed happy to be out in the world again, and seamlessly ingested the miles. She’s a 3.CSi, which means that she came with a 3.25 rear end. Coupled with the five-speed that I installed along with the engine swap in the late ’80s, at 75 mph the engine is only spinning about 2,800 rpm, so it’s a much less buzzy ride than Louie the 2002tii was all the way to and from MidAmerica. Add the new steering wheel, and all was well with my world.
The five of us ran together as far as southern Pennsylvania, then split into two groups, as Jose and I didn’t want to break for lunch and instead wanted to get further before calling it a night. We made it to Staunton, Virginia, which left Ashville a mere five hours away.
The next morning at breakfast, Jose said that he had a terrible left-front-wheel vibration, and surmised that the shop that had installed his new tires must’ve put the wheels back in the wrong place (you always want to put the straightest wheels on the front and relegate the bent ones to the back). I said that I’d brought a floor jack and jack stands and would be happy to swap them. Unfortunately, when I pulled the jack from the trunk, I realized that I’d left the handle at home, and on this floor jack, twisting the jack handle locks and releases the release valve. Fortunately, Jose had a breaker bar and a pipe that we pressed into service as a handle, and I was able to reach the linkage to the release valve with needle-nose Vise Grips, and I swapped his wheels.
Thursday’s drive was hot from the get-go, so the coupe’s a/c immediately went on and stayed on. Despite everything I’ve done over the decades with the air conditioning in this car, its output isn’t great, since it’s limited by the heat streaming in through the greenhouse of window glass and the evaporator’s anemic blower fan. I keep meaning to jury-rig some sort of auxiliary fan to push more air through the system. But as long as the outside temperature doesn’t go much over 90, once it’s been cranking for a while, it works well enough to be useful.
As we exited I-81 onto I-26 and headed over the mountains into Asheville, and I allowed the car to build up quite a bit of speed through the sweepers, I had to admit that I was driving, um, enthusiastically, and I was very glad for the new tires.
When I pulled into the parking lot of the Clarion, the event hotel since the Vintage moved to Asheville from Winston-Salem in 2016, I had an odd feeling. I had been here before—every year the Vintage has been held here—but I realized that Rene, my favorite car, the jewel in the crown of my not-a-collection—had not. It had been nine years since the Great Drenching Event of 2013. There’s no wrong or right answer to how much exposure to give a car that you treasure. I joke that if, when I die, there’s a single rust spot on the car the size of a dime, I will have gotten it right.
So, after nine years, I road-tripped my favorite car, nothing broke, the a/c worked, and it didn’t rain. What more could a guy ask for?
Of course, I still need to make it 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.