I bought a new tow vehicle / stuff hauler, but haven’t done anything BMW-specific with it yet, so today we’re going to set the wayback machine to that brief but formative period  40+ years ago during which Maire Anne and I lived in Austin and relive the first three 2002s I owned. I’ve told some of these stories here over the years, but together, along with the backstory of the Hampshire College student who lived with us when I was in junior high school and drove me all over Amherst in a ’71 2002, they comprise ground zero of my Hack Mechanic existence.

In late 1981, the young researcher for whom Maire Anne worked at Harvard got tired of them stringing him along without offering him tenure, so he accepted an offer from the University of Texas at Austin that included more money and more research space for his herpetological laboratory (reproductive research with lizards and snakes). Maire Anne ran his lab, and made the decision to go with with him. This was the kind of make-it-or-break-it point that many relationships reach (to be clear, I’m talking about Maire Anne and me, not her and the researcher), and I was smart enough to pass the test—I quit my software engineering job (which, not entirely coincidentally, was working for that now-a-business-owner Hampshire student), ripped up my Massachusetts roots, and moved with Maire Anne down to Austin. Our personal effects got thrown into the giant moving van along with everything from the lab relocation, but we needed to get ourselves down there, so on New Years Day 1982, we piled into Maire Anne’s rotted 1971 VW Bus and headed for Austin.

January 1st, 1982. The journey south begins.

When we got to Austin, we stayed with the researcher for a few days, then found a triplex apartment at 101 West 35th St, about a mile from the university. It was an odd L-shaped place, with two apartments on West 35th and the third on Speedway. Once I found a new software engineering job and things stabilized, I began looking for my first 2002. I found it for $800—a ’71 that was equal parts Colorado (pale orange) paint, bondo, and rust, and missing most of its trim. The car ran, but had a really loud transmission whine. I checked the transmission fluid and found that it was completely empty. I filled it, drove the car, and the whine was gone. Booya! It still had the obligatory second-gear synchro crunch, but I didn’t care. How lucky can a first-time 2002 owner be? I thought, man, I am all over this transmission problem! Just out of fluid! Who’s the 2002 man? This guy!

Totally not kidding about the proportions of paint, bondo, and rust on 2002 numero uno.

In the morning, I discovered a huge puddle of transmission fluid spreading under the car. Of course I did—fluid doesn’t evaporate from a sealed transmission. If it’s empty, it’s because it leaked out, ergo there’s a leak. On inspection, I found that the transmission end cover was cracked. No problem, I thought—I’ll just pull the transmission and replace the end cover. How hard could it be? Well, if you’ve ever had to open up a Getrag transmission, you learn that the innards are actually suspended from that cover. Really, the transmission case is the “cover.” So to replace that cracked end cover, you have to go through most of the steps involved in rebuilding the transmission.

So, I’m not kidding when I say that my first repair on a BMW was rebuilding the transmission in a 2002.

I bought the Haynes manual and tried to follow the steps, but right off the bat I learned that a special tool was needed to pull the input bearing out of the case where the input shaft goes through it. This made me look for an independent BMW repair shop that might have the tool, which lead me to Phoenix Motor Works (PMW—get it?) in south Austin, and its owner Terry Sayther, who is still my dear friend. Terry not only pulled the bearing for me, but tolerated me when I read that other special tools were needed and decided that the reasonable thing to do was load the disassembled transmission in Maire Anne’s VW bus, park it outside Phoenix, and run in and ask to borrow tools. Terry and I laughed about this a number of years ago over breakfast at MidAmerica 02Fest. I said “Why I thought this was a reasonable thing to do is beyond me, but, hey, youth. I’m surprised you didn’t laugh in my face.” Terry said “Actually, I was very impressed with you. You were in totally over your head, but you had absolutely no fear. And you got it done.”

I got the new cover on, replaced the balky synchro while I was in there, reassembled the transmission, reinstalled it in the car, and went for my first real drive. The combination of the smooth gearbox, the brand-new Pirelli P3 tires, and the ADS 200 speakers blasting out the Psychedelic Furs’ “The Ghost In You” as I tore though the twisties in the hill country north of Austin burned the event into my brain. My first nail-and-wail in my first 2002 is still my top blissed-out automotive memory. Other than private time with my wife, honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a moment I was so completely in, a moment of utter satisfaction where I felt that I lacked nothing and my life could not possibly be any better.

The car was looking pretty good by the time I sold it.

I sorted out the car, got an $800 bondo-and-bake body-and-paint job at Biebrick’s in south Austin, and was pretty happy with things. And then came the next life-changing event: I found a Malaga (maroon) ’73 2002, and it had air conditioning, which made Maire Anne very happy (this was, after all, Texas). There were a number of caveats, though, the big one being that the car hadn’t been driven in years, was dead, and wouldn’t crank even when I put my fully-charged battery in it, indicating that the starter motor was likely toast. The owner’s house was at the top of a hill, and I convinced him to let me try rolling it down the driveway and pop-start it (turning on the ignition and letting out the clutch with the car in gear to spin the engine). Unfortunately the car didn’t start, so now his dead car was at the bottom of the driveway. He was not pleased. I bought it anyway, had it towed to the apartment, threw a starter motor and a new set of plugs in it, and it fired right up. Not long after, I sold the Colorado 2002. This was the kick-off of the whole buy-THIS-one-fix-it-buy-THAT-one-sell-THIS-one sequence that continues to this day.

Maire Anne looking very adorable on the newly-acquired 2002. You can see the oil stains that had begun to accumulate in the street in front of the apartment.

Shortly after I’d gotten the Malaga 02 running, Maire Anne and I were scheduled to go on a big hiking vacation in the Weminuche Wilderness in southwestern Colorado (that’s the state, not the color). The trip was big not only in its ten-day length, but also in terms of life events, as I was planning on asking Maire Anne to marry me when we crested the Continental Divide. We took her ’69 VW Westfalia camper (the ’71 bus we’d moved down in had frame rot, so I found a ’69 camper with a blown engine and swapped engines). Unfortunately, about an hour out, the camper began running badly. We dejectedly limped it home and considered our options.

“Can we take the new 2002?” Maire Anne asked.

“That’d be risky,” I said. “It burns oil. It’s got no spare. The giubo is making noise. A million little things.”

So I bought a case of Castrol and a can of Fix-O-Flat, and we headed out in the morning. We made it to Santa Fe the first night, and Durango the second. Whenever I got on the gas too hard, I could hear the cracked giubo whumping against the underside of the transmission tunnel. It really was risky, and for the life if me I can’t explain why I didn’t simply replace the giubo before we left; it’s not difficult to do. It may just have been a question of time and exhaustion. I probably brought a spare with me, along with a floor jack and jack stands. But we made it to Colorado and back without incident, and returned as an engaged couple, with Maire Anne draping her lovely hand on the 2002’s dashboard and proudly displaying my grandmother’s diamond ring. For decades, whenever people would ask what’s so good about 2002s, I’d tell this story and say “That’s what’s so good about 2002s.”

The Malaga 02 and proper sun protection at the trail head.

When we got back to Austin, well-baked from the ten-day hike, the long drive, and the still-formidable September heat, I began working on the Malaga car’s air conditioning. A colleague of mine, an older man I worked with named Tom (he was probably 50, but I was a kid so he seemed ancient), was a first-rate shade tree mechanic with a deep and practical knowledge of a/c. He gave me my first exposure to diagnosis with a manifold gauge set. The bad news was that the expansion valve was clogged, which is still my least favorite a/c repair on a vintage BMW—the evaporator assembly has to come out from under the dash and be opened up. I sourced the valve (Terry Sayther to the rescue again), replaced it and the receiver-drier as Tom recommended, then took the car back to him for evacuation and recharge. This was the a/c procedure I used for the next 20 years—have someone else do the diagnosis, replace whatever parts I was told were necessary, and take it back in for pump-down and charging—until I began doing it all myself in the mid 2000s.

The Malaga car was burning a lot of oil, so at some point I dove in, yanked the engine in the apartment’s little carport, and began my first 2002 engine rebuild, hot-rodding it with 9.5:1 pistons and a Schrick 292 cam.

My first BMW engine pull.

The third 2002 of merit was a surprising keeper. With our wedding was planned for the end of August 1984 in Boston, we decided to move back to dig in near our family rather than begin married life far away in Austin. I sought out a ’74-’76 big-bumpered 2002 that would stand a chance in the bumper-car demolition derby that is Boston traffic, and for a good price found a rust-free ’75 with a/c and paint that looked like it had cement mixed into it. I know—these days it’s almost unfathomable that someone would intentionally ditch a decent round tail light car in favor of a big-bumpered squarie, but it made sense at the time, and the value schism between round and square tail light cars wasn’t really a thing yet. In fact, all factors being equal, the square tail light cars may have been worth more at that time simply because they were newer. I named the ’75 “Bertha,” as with those big bumpers, it was anything but dainty. As I was finishing the rebuild of engine from the Malaga car, I pulled the engine out of Bertha, dropped it in the Malaga car, sold the car, and when the rebuild was done, dropped the new hot motor in Bertha.

When we began the trek back to Boston in early August of  ’84, we had three vehicles—me driving the U-Haul truck with our belongings in it, Bertha behind it on a tow dolly, and Maire Anne in her Westfalia camper. Ironically, the only one of the three cars with air conditioning was Bertha (the one being towed). Add it to the long list things that make me shrug and say “well, it made sense at the time.”

We got married on August 31st, 1984, and drove away from our wedding in Bertha, which our friends had dutifully covered in shaving cream and tied cans to the bumper.

Bertha the wedding chariot.

I daily-drove Bertha for several years until the rust began to threaten it, then turned it into a drivers school car with an even hotter engine and a stiff suspension. As I wrote about in Resurrecting BerthaI sold the car to my friend Alex in 1988, it was stolen twice and recovered twice but came back in need of engine work, and was rolled into a garage in 1992 and sat there for 26 years until I bought it back in 2018, revived it, and drove it to the Vintage the following year. I still own it. I never would’ve predicted that of all the cars I owned, I’d have the longest (though discontinuous) relationship with this one, but you only drive off from your wedding in one car.

Bertha before and after its rejuvenation.

Considering the explosive growth that Austin has experienced over the decades, I’d assumed that the unremarkable little triplex had long ago have been torn down to build some McMansion or condo complex, but due to the wonders of Google Maps, I can see that the place is still there and looks just like it did then, down to the a/c units hanging out of every window. Surprisingly, the oil stains in front of the house appear to have faded, but four decades is a long time. I guess time really does heal all wounds, even those soaked into asphalt.


In addition to the wonders of Google Maps, we also have the wonders of Zillow. 42 years ago a friend took this photo of me rebuilding the engine to Maire Anne’s Volkswagen on the apartment’s kitchen floor.

What, didn’t EVERYONE marry the girl who didn’t balk at you rebuilding her engine on the kitchen floor?

I found the property on Zillow, and it looked like the kitchen configuration hadn’t changed. I showed the photo to my ever-observant wife. She burst out laughing. “Look at it closely,” she said. “All they did was paint the cabinets white! Even the handles are still the same!” (Well, they did replace the linoleum floor.)

That’s some first-rate cost-effective refinishing right there.

So here’s to 101 West 35th St in Austin. A total of six vintage BMWs passed through that property during our two-and-a-half year stint there— four 2002s, two 1600s, and a 2000C. The amount of work that got done in that carport, that driveway, that street, and yes that kitchen, was insane. It paved the way for the sustained activity in my mother’s house in Brighton over the next eight years, and the work here in Newton for the next 32. I’ll keep the light burning as long as I can. Well, as long as there’s an oil-soaked rag within reach that I can set on fire.

Rob Siegel


Rob’s newest 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.



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